ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: The Thunder finished the regular season with a record of 60-22, which was good for the number one playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Thanks to the unfortunate knee injury that occurred in Game 2 of the team’s first round playoff series against the Rockets, however, OKC quite literally limped to the finish line, and was overmatched by a Memphis Grizzlies team in the second round that took care of them easily in five games.

Signature highlight from last season: The play that was most impactful was, of course, Westbrook’s injury in the playoffs. But let’s keep it positive here, and with too many ridiculous Kevin Durant highlights to choose from, let’s go with this explosive dunk from Westbrook on the break that he threw down over Golden State’s Stephen Curry.

Key player changes: OKC didn’t make any additions that would lead you to believe the roster this year is better than it was a season ago, and lost it’s only reliable scorer from the bench unit in free agency.

  • IN: Rookies Steven Adams (drafted with the 10th overall pick) and Andre Roberson (drafted with the 26th overall pick by Minnesota, then dealt to OKC on draft night) are the only new faces with guaranteed contracts in place for the coming season.
  • OUT: Kevin Martin was allowed to leave in free agency, and although he got more from the Timberwolves than he would have been worth to the Thunder (especially when retaining him would’ve meant entering luxury tax territory), his loss will be noticed, especially in the early part of the season. Ronnie Brewer was a midseason acquisition, but he didn’t have much impact and ended up signing with the Rockets this summer.

Keys to the Thunder’s season:

1) The health of Russell Westbrook: We know Westbrook is going to miss at least the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season following an additional knee surgery that took place just recently. What we don’t know is how long it’ll be before he returns to form as one of the most dynamic and explosive players in the game today.

The timeline of Westbrook’s ascent back to the player he once was is going to make all the difference in how the Thunder’s regular season plays out. The team is obviously looking at playing deep into the postseason, after finishing with 60 wins last year and making it to the Finals in the season before that. But in the midst of a crowded Western Conference stacked with at least six powerful teams, finishing lower in the standings will make the desired playoff results that much more difficult to achieve.

2) The development of the bench: OKC traded away James Harden before the beginning of last season, and while history is not going to look kindly on the deal from the Thunder’s perspective, at least they got a semi-serviceable scorer in Kevin Martin in return who could fill that role off the bench. With Martin now gone in free agency (and with no one added to replace him), the Thunder are going to need to get production from the reserve unit somewhere if they’re going to be able to compete with the league’s elite teams.

The hope is that Reggie Jackson, who saw heavy minutes during the playoffs and performed better than expected, can continue to develop into a reliable contributor that he’s already shown signs of proving to be. But it would be nice if Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins or one of the freshly-drafted rookies could contribute as well, and there’s just no guarantee that they’ll come along as quickly as the Thunder need them to in order to remove some of the burden from the starters’ shoulders.

3) Kevin Durant, MVP? This could be the year that Kevin Durant unseats LeBron James as league MVP, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost on the list could be voter fatigue — we all know that James is considered to be the game’s best player, but if the Heat coast a little during the regular season and Durant is forced to put up ridiculous numbers to keep his team in the hunt while Westbrook is out, it would be easy to see him quickly becoming the favorite to take home the award if those making the call are looking to give it to someone besides James.

Durant is capable of dominating offensively, and will be expected to do so with his All-Star teammate sidelined. He could take on an even bigger role as the season progresses depending on Westbrook’s recovery and whether or not he gets much help from his teammates. If he puts up MVP-caliber numbers, there’s no reason the Thunder can’t be right where they need to be by the time the season concludes, despite all of the apparent challenges.

Why you should watch the Thunder: Durant and Westbrook are arguably two of the league’s top-five players. Beyond that, the intrigue with this Thunder team runs deep. Can Durant carry them to a high place in the regular season standings, or will the team collapse under heavy expectations, and due to Westbrook’s injury and the lack of a capable bench? There’s drama here, and that’s exciting.

Prediction: 53-29, good for a top-five finish in the West. Durant will need to come through with that MVP season for the Thunder to be in the championship conversation, especially in a deeper-than-usual Western Conference. While he’s certainly capable of that, the questions surrounding Westbrook and the reserve unit are too plentiful for the team to warrant anything more than a forecast of a similar outcome as it experienced a season ago — a second round playoff loss.

Mike Brown still waiting on Tyronn Lue to pay up overdue bet

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Mike Brown is ready for Tyronn Lue to pay up on a nearly two-decade-old bet. Yep, Lue owes him $100 and Brown plans to accept it at long last – perhaps even during the NBA Finals when they see each other.

All this time Brown never wanted the money he earned by beating Lue in a shooting contest when the Cavaliers coach was an NBA newcomer, yet Golden State’s acting coach – who spent two stints leading Cleveland – joked how Lue can surely afford it these days.

“I’m glad he finally admitted that he owes me money because for many years he wouldn’t admit that he owed me money. He does owe me $100 and since he got his new deal hopefully he can afford to pay me now,” Brown said Saturday post-practice. “I asked him many time for it but he’s denied it. He’s denied that the game ever took place.”

Lue insists he has tried to pay up – time and time again, to no avail.

“Mike, I owe him $100 from when I was a rookie. That’s all I ever know about Mike,” Lue said Saturday. “I tried to pay him and he wouldn’t take the money so he says I always owe him. He’s always been a great guy.”

The 40-year-old Lue was rewarded with a contract extension after the Cavs’ championship run last June for the city’s first major sports title in 52 years. Cleveland overcame a 3-1 Finals deficit to the Warriors, and now the teams are preparing to face off for a third straight year.

“I think what it has to do with, it has to do with the fact he’s got a nice, long, fat contract with the Cavs and he realizes that he can finally afford to pay me the money that he owes me for the shooting game back in 2000 or whenever it was,” Brown said with a grin.

Brown acknowledged he cannot recall any other details such as how many shots each man made, saying: “I don’t even remember, that was back when I was in shape and a good shooter. He’d kill me now”

“Yeah, he was with the Spurs and I was with the Lakers and we had a little shooting contest and I lost,” Lue said. “He wouldn’t take the money so from now on 19 years in a row always says, `You owe me $100.’ He won’t take the money. Always been close to Mike and I like Mike a lot, respect him a lot.”

 

Bob Myers’ care for people goes long way as Warriors GM

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — When Bob Myers hosts a dinner party, he is the guy who once it’s all over has a pretty good read on the entire evening: who had a great time, who held something back, which couples are getting along, who might be dealing with a life challenge but chose to keep it private.

“All those things go through my mind, without me trying to. Some people, none of that goes through their mind,” Myers said. “They ate, and did what they did. I don’t know why those things are. I don’t know how you are. … We all have different intuitions and skills.”

Usually, he is spot on. And his instincts also carry over to the workplace.

The Golden State Warriors’ general manager has that same kind of feel for his entire operation – from those staffers behind the scenes, to the coaches, the MVPs and the role players, helping to forge a tight-knit team in its third straight NBA Finals.

“There’s a lot of things I have no clue on and then you bring people in to your blind spots and say, `Look, I’m not good at this, can you help me in this area?”‘ he said. “That’s also being self-aware. What does it mean? It just means we’re attentive to people. Everybody wants to feel appreciated. Everybody wants to know that they matter. We all matter in our own unique ways. So, does that help our team? I don’t know. It helps that we have really good players.”

Myers has found a balance being involved just enough in the day-to-day. Hands-on when needed while knowing when to back off.

One day, Myers stands in the middle of the center practice court meeting with Steve Kerr. He might be speaking to Andre Iguodala or Draymond Green. Another time, he leans against a back wall checking in with Mike Brown, who has been coaching the team during Kerr’s absence following a procedure to repair a spinal fluid leak stemming from complications after two back surgeries in 2015.

Myers does sit-ups on a stability ball while chatting up Stephen Curry, antsy for practice to wrap up so the GM can get to hooping himself.

That genuine care for the person and not just the basketball player that Myers shows in all he does went a long way in Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City last July to join the Warriors. Sure, a star-studded roster didn’t hurt either.

“He doesn’t walk around like he’s the leader. We know he makes the big decisions but we work together, all of us, him and Steve especially. If you see Bob walking with a group of Warriors employees, you wouldn’t know he’s Bob Myers, the president of the team. He just fits in with everybody,” Durant said. “We talk so much about great leaders being just ahead of the pack most of the time but sometimes that doesn’t have to be your personality. It could be encouraging, working with others, learning and listening. All those traits he has, and I think that’s why he’s ahead of the pack.

“That’s what drew me here.”

In a pre-playoff practice, the 42-year-old ex-sports agent and former player at UCLA stood holding a basketball while wearing sweats and no shoes – his typical, understated NBA executive style. He pulled on some bright blue high-tops and started stretching out his quadriceps for one of those regular staff pickup games he so enjoys because it allows him a break from being “leashed” to his smartphone.

Myers picks his moments, or, in some cases, Kerr assists. After Golden State fell behind 2-1 at Memphis in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the coach called Myers over afterward and sought his input, a gesture the GM appreciates to this day.

He respects his role and the specific jobs of everyone who works with him. He doesn’t look at it as if he is above the rest.

“The best thing we can do is be who we are, whatever that is,” Myers said. “We’re all drawn to authenticity. We like people who are real. Sometimes real people are flawed, we’re all flawed. I think we connect with people who are open, exposed, willing to admit things they’re good at, things they’re not good at, try to be humble, try to be collaborative.”

Golden State wound up coming back to beat the Grizzlies on the way to winning it all in `15 for the franchise’s first championship in 40 years. The Warriors squandered a 3-1 Finals lead last year to Cleveland to miss a repeat title. Then, Myers – with help from Curry, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Kerr – lured Durant away from the Thunder to make another deep run. An acquisition accomplished as a team, in Myers’ mind.

“He’s a listener and an observer and that’s what I love about him,” Kerr said. “He’s really, really bright and he understands people. The reason he understands people is because he watches and observes and doesn’t have to dominate the conversation.”

Myers might spend extra time watching the backups, who often stay late for extra scrimmaging to keep sharp.

He doesn’t interfere, yet they know he’s there.

“He’s got a really special quality of being here and then staying in the background at the same time,” Kerr said. “He gets it. I think that’s the way he approaches his life. He’s very modest and yet he’s very confident. He’s very knowledgeable and yet he listens. He’s never the know-it-all guy who has to show he’s the smartest in the room but he actually is the smartest in the room.”

When Myers moves about team headquarters in downtown Oakland he also blends right in with any group. That’s how easy he is to have around – and much like the scene at one of his dinner parties, he has a gauge on the vibe.

“He understands how important it is for him to be aware of everything that’s going on, how everybody’s feeling,” Curry said. “It’s a tough job, for sure, to have to balance, manage, all these different personalities and the ups and downs of the season. He’s bridged the gap between upstairs and downstairs. All that responsibility, it all pays out when we all succeed, and a lot of that goes to what Bob does on a day-to-day basis. … He finds a way to be personable, to be connected to every single person in our organization. And it’s very genuine. That goes a long way.”

 

Report: Warriors, Jerry West nearing deal to keep him with franchise

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The Warriors decision-making process as a franchise is one of inclusion: A lot of voices in the room, a lot of discussion from different points of view, all ultimately synthesized by GM Bob Myers.

One of the most trusted voices in that room belongs to NBA legend — as a player and a front office mind — Jerry West. He was one of the strong voices against trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love a few years back (in hindsight a move that was central to the kind of team the Warriors became). His deal as a consultant to ownership in Golden State is up after this season, and there were some rumors he could be leaving that role.

Doesn’t sound like it. Warriors’ co-owner Joe Lacob spoke to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News and made it sound like West will be around for a while.

There is a growing sense that West and the Warriors are headed toward agreeing to extend his relationship with the franchise–Lacob confirmed he and West have spoken about a new contract and have now paused the discussions until after the Finals–but nothing has been finalized….

His contract is up, as you know. We have met; we have discussed the future. And it’s really something that I’m sure at the end of the season we will return to and figure out what Jerry wants to do.

We want him back. We love him. He’s been a great contributor to the organization, someone I consider a personal friend as well. We would love him back (beyond this season), and we’ve made that known.

There had been some buzz about West returning to the Lakers, but with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka now firmly in charge there West’s return to the team where is jersey is in the rafters seems highly unlikely.

Sometime this summer, expect a quiet announcement from the Warriors that the deal got done and West is sticking around. For their management style, he is a great voice to have in the room.

Watch Michael Jordan’s best highlight from each of his playoff runs (video)

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I’ve become a sucker for this highlight format.