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.

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”

Report: Kawhi Leonard to return to San Antonio around exit interviews. Then…

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Nobody is sure how the Kawhi Leonard situation is going to play out with the Spurs. As is the nature of the NBA, the GMs of other teams are starting to circle the Spurs like vultures, on the chance that this time Gregg Popovich cannot smooth out the relationship with his star player and needs to trade him. Leonard spent the playoffs away from the team, working out and talking to doctors in New York while “his group” shielded him from attempts from San Antonio to reach out.

Now has come the time for the sides to talk, and that will happen soon reports Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.

What happens during and after that meeting is anyone’s guess.

The Spurs will only move Leonard as a last resort, and they have two things on their side. First, Gregg Popovich, who has maintained a healthy relationship with his star pupil through all of this. LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he wanted to be traded last summer, and over the course of some dinner meetings and self-reflection, Popovich was able to both keep Aldridge in the fold and put him in positions to be an All-NBA level player this season. The key is that both sides were willing to talk with an open mind, are Leonard and his advisors open to that?

Second, the Spurs have the ultimate hammer — the $219 million designated veteran extension (the contract James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed this year). Put that on the table and Leonard will sign it. The question is will the Spurs put it out there? Probably not if Leonard makes it clear he doesn’t want to be in San Antonio any longer. That’s when the trade talks start to gain traction.

But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Let the meetings play out first.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.