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.

LaVar Ball on Luke Walton: “They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son.”

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Luke Walton is trying to create a professional environment around his young Lakers’ core. One where they expect the players to put in extra work without being told they have to, one where the coaches guide the development, but it’s ultimately the player in charge of his own course. Basically, Walton is treating his young players like adults and is asking them to respond to it like professional adults. It’s what he’s seen Steve Kerr do in Golden State and it works. It’s how Gregg Popovich has created a dynasty in San Antonio.

LaVar Ball sees the world very differently. He’s old school, from the “do as I say” mold.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that after the Lakers’ ugly loss last Friday to the Suns, the Lakers media spoke to LaVar Ball about his son’s play and Ball took a shot at the Lakers’ coach. Here are the quotes, via Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report.

“They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son. I know how to coach him,” LaVar Ball said. “I tell him to go get the victory. Stop messing around.”

Does he have a problem with coach Luke Walton?

“No, I have a problem with losing,” Ball responded.

I have multiple thoughts here, which means bullet points.

• I am breaking my own rule with this post, which is “don’t cover LaVar Ball, he’s just meaningless click bait.” I debated the point, but I think there is a legitimate basketball reason to cover this post (keep reading).

• Things Luke Walton cares more about than what LaVar Ball thinks of his coaching style: How much extra guacamole costs at Chipotle; if Netflix has “Golden Girls” to stream; what shoes Lakers’ sideline reporter Mike Trudell is wearing during postgame interviews; which Van Halen album “Dance the Night Away” is on; which show won the 1974 Tony for Best Musical.

Lonzo Ball‘s struggles with his shot this season — 31.3 percent overall, and he is struggling from three and around the rim — are well documented. It’s clear he is in his own head about it at this point. What can keep him there longer is conflicting advice from his father and his coach. So far, Lonzo seems to be siding with the coaching staff, for example, he credited assistant coach Brian Shaw for telling him to rebound more aggressively, then push the ball himself. LaVar will want to take credit for that, too. Lonzo needs to listen to his coaches, take his father’s advice for what it’s worth, and find his path.

• LaVar is lucky that the level-headed, mature-for-his-age, hard-working Lonzo was his oldest son. Just from what I see on the outside, not sure either of the other two Ball children could have handled this scrutiny nearly as well.

• Luke Walton is working to create something sustainable with the Lakers, they are not going to let anything (or anyone) bump them off that path.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down rookie class’s start to NBA season

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Markelle Fultz has barely seen the court. Lonzo Ball has had a couple of triple-doubles but his shot is way off, and he’s drawing extra scrutiny thanks to his father. Right now, Danny Ainge looks like the smartest guy in the room trading down and walking away with Jayson Tatum. Some of the best players out of this draft early — Kyle Kuzma, Donovan Mitchell — were drafted well down the board.

It’s been a draft class with real highs, some ugly lows, some polarizing figures — and Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it down.

They go through all the guys taken in the lottery and discuss what they have seen, then talk about some of the guys outside the draft who have had strong seasons so far.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Interviewer: LeBron James wasn’t dissing Kyrie Irving

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LeBron James on Isaiah Thomas, via Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

“It’s been a while since I’ve had that clear-cut guy who can get guys involved but also score at the same time,” James told B/R Mag.

That looked like a shot at Kyrie Irving. But with more context, it clearly wasn’t.

Beck:

It seems LeBron was saying it’s been a while that he’s had “that clear-cut guy who can get guys involved but also score at the same time.” If he was slighting Kyrie Irving, LeBron was also slighting Dwyane Wade – and I doubt LeBron would do that.

LeBron and Kyrie probably aren’t above taking subtle shots at each other. But this seems like a case of Beck, after hearing LeBron’s words aloud and in context, not realizing how a trimmed version would read as text. It’s unfortunate that people initially got the wrong impression, but good on Beck for clearing it up.

Missouri: Potential No. 1 pick Michael Porter Jr. likely out for rest of season

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Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. – maybe the top contender to supplant European guard Luka Doncic as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft – had his campaign undercut after it barely began.

Missouri Basketball:

Michael Porter, Jr. will undergo surgery on Tuesday, Nov. 21, in Dallas, Texas. The procedure, a microdiscectomy of the L3 and L4 spinal discs, has a projected recovery time of three-four months and will likely cause him to miss the remainder of the season. Michael is expected to make a complete recovery

With that timeline, it’s possible Porter returns late in Missouri’s NBA season. But as an elite draft prospect stuck in a cartel system that caps his compensation well below market value, he should probably be cautious.

Porter will likely still go high in the draft – if his medicals check out. This is is a serious injury, and teams will be wary off long-term effects.

But he’s a top talent, and the forward shouldn’t slip far. In fact, in a strange way, this injury could even help him. There were questions about Porter’s ability to handle physicality and tight spaces when the game slows down, challenges he would have met frequently in college basketball. Now, scouts can’t pick apart those aspects of his game. Logically or not, NBA teams tend to favor the unknown in the draft, and Porter is on his way to being one of the biggest mysteries near the top of the 2018 draft.