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.

Blazers C Meyers Leonard dunks on Celtics’ Mickey twice in five minutes (VIDEO)

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Portland Trail Blazers big man Meyers Leonard is an athletic young guy who has made a name for himself as a fade man off the pick-and-roll. But against the Boston Celtics on Saturday, Leonard decided to roll to the hoop instead, and it sort of worked out.

Unless you’re Jordan Mickey, in which case it didn’t.

The first poster dunk came during the final minute of the first quarter in Boston, where the Blazers were running a sideline out of bounds play.

Via Twitter:

The second came at 9:51 in the second quarter, with Leonard again rolling to the rack on a play with Allen Crabbe. Mickey again wound up as the help man, and again found himself on the wrong end of a highlight reel.

We’ll just forgive that off arm for now.

Jabari Parker held out of Bucks lineup vs. Heat for breaking team rule

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MIAMI (AP) Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker is out of the starting lineup for the first time this season Saturday night at Miami after breaking a team rule.

Parker will play coming off the bench, coach Jason Kidd said.

Kidd declined to elaborate on the move, which came after the Bucks held a long players-only meeting following a loss Friday at Orlando. The meeting got heated at times, and Parker said he wasn’t well received when he expressed his point of view.

Parker has scored at least 20 points in four consecutive games. He was replaced in the lineup by rookie Thon Maker, making his first career start.

Gregg Popovich on Trump: “Can’t believe anything that comes out of his mouth” (VIDEO)

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Today across the country many hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets as part of the Women’s March to protest Donald Trump, his misogyny as demonstrated in prior comments made about women, and policies he’s promised to put in place to weaken women’s health including defunding Planned Parenthood and gutting the Affordable Care Act. Gregg Popovich, no stranger to speaking his mind about Trump, was asked about the marches today and how he felt about the former reality TV star’s first hours in office.

Popovich responded for around four minutes, spanning a wide breadth of topics including Trump’s maturity level, respect for the presidential office, and Trump’s cabinet members waffling on implied meaning when he insulted a handicapped reporter in November of 2015.

Via Cleveland.com:

I wish that he was more — had the ability to be mature enough to do something that really is inclusive rather than just talking and saying ‘I’m going to include everybody.” He could talk to the groups that he disrespected and maligned during the primary and really make somebody believe it, but so far we’ve got a point where you really can’t believe anything that comes of his mouth.

Popovich also expressed his frustration with Trump’s insecurities, referencing his need to discuss the size of the inauguration crowd from Friday — reported widely by major news outlets in both text and video/photographic evidence — as far smaller than Barack Obama’s in 2009.

“I’d just feel better if somebody was in that position that showed the maturity, psychological, and emotional level of somebody that was his age,” said Popovich, adding, “It’s hard to be respectful of someone when we all have kids and we’re watching him be misogynistic and xenophobic and racist, and make fun of handicap people.”

It’s an interesting period in American history to be sure. Things are at such a fever pitch after Trump’s election that whether people like it or not — and no doubt many won’t like Popovich’s comments or this article about it — the lines between diversion and real life, including politics, has begun to blur.

It’s great to see that coaches and players in the NBA are able to speak their minds about topics openly like this, perhaps surprisingly so when you consider the amount of money involved for the league and teams.

If you’d like to read the full comments you can do so here:

Ricky Rubio will miss Nuggets game for personal reasons

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Ricky Rubio has left the Minnesota Timberwolves for personal reasons and will miss at least the next game on Sunday against Denver.

Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau says he expects Rubio to get back into town late Sunday and rejoin the team for practice on Monday.

Rubio did not play in the second half against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night because of tightness in his left hip. Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones filled in admirably, helping the Wolves defeat the Clippers, 104-101.

Rubio has been the subject of trade rumors for much of the season, with the belief that Thibodeau would prefer a point guard who shoots better from the perimeter. In his previous five full games, Rubio was averaging 13.2 points and 14.0 assists.