Oklahoma City Thunder forward Durant reacts during NBA Global Game against Fenerbahce Ulker in Istanbul

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.

Drake to introduce players for All-Star Game Sunday

Drake stands in front of Canada's bench before the Celebrity Game, part of NBA basketball's All-Star weekend, in Toronto on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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You knew Canadian hip-hop star Drake was going to be involved directly in the All-Star Game in a way more than just having his back-and-gold OVO owl gear sold at the Air Canada Centre. Now we know how.

Drake will introduce the NBA All-Star players Sunday.

Drake has experience with this, he has introduced the Raptors — for whom he is a “global ambassador” — before.

This works for me. However, just to be clear, Drake is going to be introducing the players and Sting will headline the halftime show Sunday. Because nothing says NBA and millennials like “Fields of Gold.”

LeBron James says he’s undecided on 2016 Rio Olympics

US forward LeBron James celebrates after
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TORONTO — LeBron James has played in three Olympics, won two gold medals (and a bronze), and has done his duty representing his country internationally.

But it’s why he might skip this summer’s Rio Olympics that turned heads in the last couple days — he is reportedly pissed that Kobe Bryant will not be making his farewell with another gold on the international stage.

As you might expect, LeBron was asked about that during All-Star media day Friday in Toronto. Also, as you might expect, he dodged the question, saying he doesn’t know what he’s going to do this summer.

“Well, for me, I haven’t quite decided if I’m on the fence of going or not,” LeBron said. “But I’ve always loved representing my country. I’ve been playing in the Olympic games since 2004. So, no, I haven’t made a decision yet.”

My guess is LeBron’s body would love him to take the summer off — he’s played in five straight Finals with an Olympics in that mix — but his brand managers (and Nike) would love to see him play.

With him, the USA will win a gold medal. Without him, the USA will win the gold medal. The Americans are clear and away the best team in the world and only they can beat themselves. LeBron’s leadership can help make sure that happens, but it’s not required.

In the end, LeBron needs to do what’s required to bring a championship “to the ‘Land.” The playoffs, and how he feels after them, will likely determine where LeBron is in early August more than anything else.

Jerry Colangelo: Don’t be surprised if Sixers add more voices, experience to front office

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 7: Jerry Colangelo (R) is introduced as special advisor to managing general partner and chairman of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers by general manager Sam Hinkie (L) and owner Joshua Harris (M) on December 7, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — Everyone wants to be like the Golden State Warriors. Jerry Colangelo, the Chairman of Basketball Operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, wants his Sixers to be more like the Warriors, too.

Not on the court in style of play (although he’d like all those wins). He means in the front office.

The Warriors front office is a place where a diversity of opinions — from the legendary Jerry West to assistant GM Kirk Lacob, through the analytics team, and on down the line — debate everything with each other and GM Bob Myers. Every idea is welcome, but you need to defend it. Out of those sometimes fierce debates has come an NBA championship roster.

That’s what Colangelo wants to bring to Philadelphia.

“(Golden State) proves the point,” Colangelo said after a ceremony the naming of the Hall of Fame Finalists Friday in Toronto. “If you have the right mix of people you can have a collaborative effort because people respect one another, and usually that comes from people who have had experience, who’ve been around the track. You add all of that to the mix and it could work.”

The Sixers may be looking to add experience and voices, Colangelo admitted, while not saying specifically what that would mean for analytics-driven GM Sam Hinkie’s role.

I think that any time you have an opportunity to enhance your organization, and you bring people in to accomplish that, you consider it. Big time. You really do,” Colangelo said. “And I think in our case we have a very bright young guy in Sam Hinkie, who holds the title of president and GM, and in his space he’s really strong. One could build a case for saying you’d like to have more people added who have experience in other aspects of those jobs. That’s the kind of conversation that’s going on. 

“The first step was me being asked to come in, because of my experience, to maybe help and add to the mix. And the question you’re asking is, ‘is there a need or requirement for someone else?’ Maybe. Probably. That’s all being discussed….

“I’m just saying adding people to the front office. And that’s not demeaning who we have. You want to be strong. If your goal is you want to be in the Finals… you have to take all the steps required to become that. I’d like to hear people say ‘they’ve got the strongest front office in the league.’ That’s a goal. That’s an objective. So it’s going to require more people to make that happen. That’s all.”

This doesn’t mean the Sixers will completely abandon Hinkie’s draft-for-the-future plan — they likely will have three, maybe four, first round picks this season, and multiple ones next season as well. The Sixers aren’t going to just trade those away to become average. That’s not smart. But they have already shown how some experienced, veteran players on the court — Ish Smith, in particular – can lead to significant improvement.

The goal is to do the same with their front office.

That style of management — listening to a diversity of opinions and voices — can certainly work, not just in basketball but in any business. However, at the end of the day, someone has coalesced those voices and have the hammer to make a decision based on those debates.

“If there’s a pecking order, it’s going to start with ownership and it’s going to funnel down,” Colangelo said.

The question is who Sixers owner Joshua Harris gives the hammer to? Colangelo seems to have it now.

Bottom line is expect more changes in the Sixers front office.

“I don’t think we’re where we might be six months from now. I don’t know,” Colangelo said.

C.J. McCollum to replace Chris Bosh in three-point contest

PORTLAND, OR - FEBRUARY 10:  C.J. McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots against Jason Terry #31 of the Houston Rockets on February 10, 2016 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
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TORONTO — Portland’s C.J. McCollum was joking with the media Friday when asked who he thought would win the All-Star Saturday three-point contest.

“Not me, since I wasn’t selected for it… I’m really disappointed right now,” McCollum said, then started laughing.

Now McCollum can pick himself — he’s in the competition.

Miami’s Chris Bosh has pulled out of Sunday’s All-Star Game and Saturday’s three-point contest due to a strained calf muscle. Al Horford of Atlanta will replace him in the main event Sunday.

McCollum is in for the three-point contest (he was already in town to compete in the skills competition that evening). McCollum is shooting 39.2 percent from threes this season and has made 125 of them, ninth-most in the league.

But he knows he’s in for stiff competition in the three-point contest with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick and a host of other sharpshooters.

“No, it’s a tough field,” McCollum said  “You look at JJ [Redick], you look at Steph, two really good shooters. [Redick] jumps really high. I don’t know if he’s going to change his shot. Steph [Curry] has a shot he can use and a quick release. Who else is in it? Bosh, [Khris] Middleton, [James] Harden, Klay [Thompson]. Klay has a good jumper. I think him, Middleton, those guys that don’t jump as high they have a good advantage.”