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.

Report: Warriors center Anderson Varejao likely out for Olympics

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 31: Dan Clark #13 of Great Britain shoots over Anderson Varejao #11 of Brazil in the Men's Basketball Preliminary Round match between Great Britain and Brazil on Day 4 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Basketball Arena on July 31, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Warriors center Anderson Varejao left his native Brazil to have his back examined in the United States before the Rio Olympics.

The prognosis doesn’t sound good.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

That’s a bummer for Varejao, who was clearly looking forward to playing in his home Olympics. At least Brazil still has plenty of talent — including Nene, Leandro Barbosa, Raul Neto and Marcelo Huertas — to compete for a medal.

The Warriors certainly hope Varejao heals in time for the season. They might have to depend on him to back up Zaza Pachulia if rookie Damian Jones isn’t ready and they want to limit the pounding Draymond Green takes at center.

Rudy Gay: Kings aren’t handling trade rumors right way

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 03:  Rudy Gay #8 of the Sacramento Kings during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 3, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Rudy Gay has come up again and again in trade rumors.

The Kings forward doesn’t seem thrilled with that.

Gay, in a Q&A with Blake Ellington of Sactown Royalty:

You mentioned people are wondering if you are going to be here next season. I imagine you are like most of the guys in the league and try not to pay attention to that stuff, but do you pay attention to trade rumors and does it bother you?

I mean it’s been pretty loud as of late so it’s hard not to pay attention to it. I think it just goes to, I don’t know, I think there’s always ways to do things and in this situation I don’t think it’s going about the right way. No matter what your intentions to do with your players, I would think the first thing you want to do is make sure people are happy with what you are doing. That hasn’t been the case.

So you haven’t had much communication with the franchise as far as your future?

No, I haven’t. I’ve had communication, but not the kind of communication that I would say I like.

If you had your ideal communication situation, what would you like to hear from the franchise?

You don’t want to hear things on the internet, on Twitter. You would like to hear it from out of the horse’s mouth. Just be upfront with people, that’s all you have to do.

Toward the end of the last couple of seasons you have made it clear you don’t think the franchise has a direction. I assume you still feel that way. What do you think the direction of the team is right now?

I have no idea. I suit up and give it my all. That’s all I can do in this situation, that’s all you can do. Go out there and play as much as you can. Obviously, we don’t have anything to really build on. We have a new coach. I think that’s the only thing we can really build on. New coach and seeing how it plays out.

Remember, this is only Gay’s side of the story. The Kings might have a different point of view.

But after repeatedly putting players in unfavorable positions, Sacramento probably doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Beyond communication issues, the Kings are likely having a tough time dealing Gay. He’s owed $13,333,333 this season and has a $14,263,566 player option for 2017-18. That’s not egregious, but it’s also not great value for someone who perpetually produces short of his athletic capabilities. Gay having Achilles surgery this offseason — revealed in the same interview — doesn’t help. He’ll turn 30 next month.

Sacramento, trying to win a reasonable amount as it opens a new arena, probably isn’t ready just to dump Gay and turn the small forward position over to Omri Casspi and Matt Barnes. Even if he’s just an average player, Gay can still help.

This is clearly an imperfect partnership between Gay and the Kings. But both sides might have to endure a little longer.

Sacramento — if nothing else, for the sake of its own reputation — should probably do more so Gay doesn’t feel like staying is such a burden.

Hornets sign undrafted Virginia center Mike Tobey

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 27:  Mike Tobey #10 of the Virginia Cavaliers celebrates in the second half against the Syracuse Orange during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional Final at United Center on March 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The Hornets are plenty deep at center with Cody Zeller, Roy Hibbert, Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky.

Just in case…

Hornets release:

Charlotte Hornets General Manager Rich Cho announced today that the team has signed center Mike Tobey.

Tobey went undrafted after four seasons at Virginia then played well for the Hornets’ summer-league team. He’s a good offensive rebounder, and he has some touch with the ball. But his lack of length and athleticism really limit him.

There’s an outside chance Tobey competes with Aaron Harrison, whose salary is unguaranteed, for Charlotte’s final regular-season roster spot. Tobey’s standing and the Hornets’ center depth will work against him.

Most likely, this is just a way for Charlotte to stock its new D-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm. The Hornets can waive Tobey after training camp and assign his D-League rights to the Swarm. A partial guarantee on his NBA contract would probably entice him to join the D-League rather than play overseas.

Ex-Wizard Glen Rice Jr. charged with felony robbery, aggravated battery and possession of marijuana

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 02: Glen Rice Jr. #14 of the Washington Wizards looks to pass while being guarded by Solomon Jones #22 and E'Twaun Moore #55 of the Orlando Magic during the second half at Verizon Center on December 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. 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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Glen Rice Jr. — the No. 35 pick in the 2013 NBA draft — continues his fall.

He spent a couple years with the Wizards, got waived and then was shot and arrested in a single incident.

Now, he faces more charges.

TMZ:

the 25-year-old was arrested for robbery Monday morning in Georgia … less than a year after he was shot in a bizarre gunfight at T.I.’s restaurant.

Here’s what we know … Rice was booked at 6:37 AM this morning for felony robbery, aggravated battery and possession of marijuana. He has since been released from custody.