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.

Dirk Nowitzki on Mavericks sexual harassment allegations: “It’s very disappointing. It’s heartbreaking.”

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Dirk Nowitzki is the face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise, the best player in Dallas history, the future Hall of Famer who led them to a title.

Nowitzki was not named in the bombshell story detailing sexual harassment in the Mavericks’ workplace, nor were any of the players, coaching staff, or basketball operations people. It was all on the business side of the house. That doesn’t mean Nowitzki wasn’t going to be asked about it, as was done by Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

“It’s tough,” Nowitzki said after the team practiced at USC in advance of a Friday game against the Lakers. “It’s very disappointing. It’s heartbreaking. I’m glad it’s all coming out. I was disgusted when I read the article, obviously, as everybody was. I was shocked about some of the stuff.”

“So really, really disappointed that our franchise, that my franchise, that stuff like that was going on,” Nowitzki said. “It’s very sad and disappointing. But I think [Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban] is trying to step up and lead this franchise to the right direction, and that is hiring investigators, finding out all the little details that we have to know as a franchise what really was going on. I think Mark is going to step up here …

“As a franchise, obviously, we feel bad for the victims and for what happened to some of these ladies. Like I said, it’s truly, truly disgusting. Our thoughts and prayers are definitely with some of these victims.”

That’s exactly what Nowitzki (and the other players) should say. We are all disgusted having read what was going on, and clearly since the misconduct started with a former CEO it sets a tone for the organization that this is acceptable. It is not.

There would be no reason that Nowitzki and other players would have or should have had any idea what was going on over on the business side of the Mavericks organization. Mark Cuban on the other hand… there are still questions to answer, even if he is saying and doing the right things now.

LeBron James on 1-16 playoff seeding: ‘Let’s not get too crazy’

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The NBA’s first newly formatted All-Star game went well (especially for LeBron James). It’ll probably go even better next year when the All-Star draft is televised.

Adam Silver also discussed breaking from another tradition – playoffs divided by conference. The NBA commissioner said 1-16 seeding has gotten “serious attention” from the league office.

LeBron, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“I would disagree with that,” James said Wednesday afternoon following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first practice since the break. “I think our league has been built the right way as far as when it comes to the postseason.”

“It’s cool to mess around with the All-Star Game, we proved you can do that, but let’s not get too crazy about the playoffs. You have Eastern Conference and you have Western Conference. You have Eastern Conference champions, you have guys from the Eastern Conference that win the big dance and sometimes you have it from the West as well.”

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, usually traversing an easier road to the NBA Finals than the Western Conference champion. With the West projecting to remain better for the foreseeable future, does this hint LeBron plans to stay East and wants to keep his advantage? Remaining with the Cavaliers seems slightly more likely now, though maybe LeBron will leave for the 76ers or some other Eastern Conference team. I doubt he knows yet, but I also think he cares about his conference-title streak for legacy reasons – to the point it could affect his free agency. So, this could be preemptive lobbying.

In the past, LeBron has had Silver’s ear. But Silver specifically said in Los Angeles he wasn’t concerned with the tradition issues LeBron raises.

I’m not either.

The NBA has always split the postseason by East and West, but teams have been too fluid between the conferences to feel beholden to the current setup. Current Eastern Conference teams Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic have all been in the Western Conference while in their current locations. And vice versa with the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs. (The New Orleans Hornets were in the Eastern Conference before they became the Pelicans and surrendered their history to Charlotte, and the Pelicans are now in the West.)

To Silver, the obstacle is travel. Concern is frequently raised about the possible effects of cross-coast playoff series.

I’m more concerned about the regular season.

Right now, teams play 52 intra-conference and 30 inter-conference. To most logically implement 1-16 seeding, the NBA would have to balance the regular-season schedule. That not only means more travel, it means more awkward start times due to time-zone difference. East Coast fans don’t want to stay up until 10 p.m. to watch their favorite team tip off during Western Conference road trips. West Coast fans don’t want to rush home from work or school to see their favorite team tip off at 4 p.m. during Eastern Conference road trips.

And then there’s the biggest and maybe only real issue: It’s virtually impossible to see enough Eastern Conference owners, who benefit from the current format, voting to change it.

Victor Oladipo’s practice dunk better than anything he – or maybe anyone – did in dunk contest (video)

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Victor Oladipo has grown into far more than just a dunker.

In fact, in Saturday’s dunk contest, he didn’t look like a dunker at all.

The Pacers star missed all three attempts of his first dunk, and a Black Panther mask was by far the biggest draw of his second. Oladipo was eliminated after the first round.

Maybe Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the only eliminated dunker who left something in his bag. This Oladipo dunk – 180 degrees, throwing ball off the backboard with his left hand while in mid-air, dunking with his right hand – while preparing in Los Angeles was awesome.

Larry Nance Jr. had the contest’s best dunk. This would have rivaled it.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson hospitalized with flu symptoms

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson has been hospitalized with flu symptoms.

A statement released Wednesday by the NFL and NBA clubs says their 90-year-old owner is resting comfortably at Ochsner Medical Center, a hospital which also serves as a major sponsor and which owns naming rights to the teams’ training headquarters.

Benson has owned the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and bought the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012.

In recent years, Benson has overhauled his estate plan so that his third wife, Gayle, would be first in line to inherit control of the two major professional franchises.