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.

Three questions the Minnesota Timberwolves must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
31-51, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: A whole lot. Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford are the notable additions from this summer. It was a disappointing end to Ricky Rubio‘s tenure with the franchise, but the swap for the No. 7 pick in the draft to the Bulls brought over one of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s favorite former players from Chicago. Add on Gibson, Teague, and a still-able-to-score Crawford and the Wolves roster looks markedly better than it has in years past.

THREE QUESTIONS THE TIMBERWOLVES MUST ANSWER:

1) What will the play look like between Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins? Wiggins played 93% of his minutes at SF in his first year under Thibodeau last season. Meanwhile, Butler played most of his minutes under Thibodeau as a shooting guard. That means the two will be on the floor together, and it will be interesting to see how they play off of each other. Wiggins clearly made a move to try to be a better 3-point shooter last season, and if that continues there could be a real benefit as Butler works as the second ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

That of course is the hope, but as we’ve seen in other circumstances — Al-Farouq Aminu in Portland — when the 3-point shooting of players strongly rises and then dips again they can become a liability. It’s easy to imagine Wiggins clogging the interior of the arc when Butler has the ball and vice versa, with some serious kinks to potentially work out.

2) What exactly are they going to do with Jamal Crawford? Thibodeau typically hasn’t had players like Crawford during his tenure as a head coach, save for perhaps Nate Robinson in 2012-13 with Chicago. Crawford has 17 years of experience in this league, and although he has slowed down a little bit, he is still an excellent ball handler and streaky scorer.

Crawford should fit that bench scorer role for Minny, and even if Thibodeau does play his starters a thousand minutes a game you can be sure that they will still need the veteran presence of Crawford. The year that Robinson played for Thibodeau he shot 40% from three-point range, and perhaps that could be the role that Crawford slots into here. If there is one offseason acquisition that doesn’t quite fit in for the Timberwolves, Crawford does seem to be it. He has a real potential to get lost in the mix. That, or it could go the other direction and they might need to rely on him as a ball handler off the bench more than they would like. I can see both happening.

3) Can they find a groove to keep their head above water in the playoff race in the Western Conference? Set aside the reigning NBA champions in the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference is still an absolute meatgrinder. So many big name free agents either were traded to or signed with teams out West. Paul Millsap, Brook Lopez, Paul George, Chris Paul to the Rockets, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Thabo Sefolosha are all on the list outside of the guys already mentioned in Minnesota.

The NBA League Pass fan has high expectations of the Timberwolves for the upcoming season, especially after adding an MVP candidate like Butler. However, with so many new players in the Western Conference I think we will still have some of the same questions we have had in years prior about the Timberwolves. That is, what is their development path and how soon should we expect their dominance?

Building a super team doesn’t necessarily mean immediate contention — we know that by now. Yes, having players who have played under Thibodeau before might help this team get through some of their growing pains quicker as the year starts. But there also seems to be a huge potential for a slow start out of the Timberwolves and if that happens it could take some of the wind out of their sails as they try to make up for it going into the All-Star break.

Make no bones about it, Minnesota is likely a playoff team out West. That should feel like a win for Timberwolves fans — because it is. However, I think it’ll take some time for them to jell, and if that’s the case they might end up toward the bottom of the seeding with an uphill battle in April.

Jimmer Fredette has signature shoe line in China, and they are outstanding

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Jimmer Fredette was the leading scorer in China last season, averaging 37.6 points a night and dropping 73 in one game. He’s big time.

And big time guys get their own shoe lines.

Jimmer got a signature shoe line teaming up with 361 shoes out of China, as ESPN’s Nick DePaula reports.

I’d wear a pair of those on the court. I have no idea what the price point is (they are not on the 361 website yet), but those could sell.

Is Jimmer going to be the new Stephon Marbury of China?

Reports: Lakers to sign Andrew Bogut to one-year deal

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Brook Lopez will start at center for the Lakers. Behind him, they have a couple young players they want to groom, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant.

Those youngsters just got bumped a notch down the ladder — Andrew Bogut is about to become a Laker. Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the news, and other reports have confirmed it.

Lakers’ coach Luke Walton coached Bogut at Golden State, and that connection helped get him to Los Angeles when Boston, Minnesota, and Cleveland were also trying to land his services. Bogut gets the system Walton wants to run and wants to be part of this new Lakers team.

The question with Bogut is always health. He can be a solid defensive big in the paint and is a good passer, but last season he broke his tibia in his first game with the Cavaliers, the latest in a long line of health concerns. Bogut’s doctors have cleared him to play.

The Lakers also add a solid veteran presence to help mentor those young bigs (although if Bogut is taking minutes from them it seems counterproductive). Bogut can show Zubac and Bryant the art of setting the best illegal screens in the league (he’s a master, Lonzo Ball will love him). We’ll see how many minutes Bogut gets when it matters.

This one-year deal gives the Lakers another potential trade chip and does not mess with their cap space next summer, when they want to clear out room and go after two max free agents (which will mean dumping the contract of Luol Deng, likely with Julius Randle or someone as a sweetener, to get the space). For Bogut, stay healthy and play well and he might come back on a minimum contract to a stacked Lakers team next season.

Report: Grizzlies to sign Ivan Rabb, adds to already crowded roster

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The Memphis Grizzlies have 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster already — and that’s not counting a deal for JaMychal Green and the non-guaranteed deal for Mario Chalmers.

Which makes this signing interesting, via Marc Spears of ESPN.

The Grizzlies and second-round pick Ivan Rabb are close to agreeing terms on a three-year contract, a source told The Undefeated.

Two years of that are rumored to be guaranteed. If so, that leads to questions about who gets cut from the roster and paid anyway? Or, are the Grizzlies setting themselves up for a trade during camp? Also, Mario Chalmers is going to have to show enough skill for another team to grab him.

Rabb is a 6’10” guy with potential but a lot of development to do. He may be more of a four than a small ball five, but he needs time on the court to find out and show off his game. He didn’t get a lot of that time to show what he can do in Summer League due to a sprained ankle. He should get run in Grizzlies camp, where there are going to be some interesting roster battles.