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.

Serge Ibaka says he wants to stay with Magic forever, and they want him long-term

Serge Ibaka jokes around while posing for a photo holding a plastic Flamingo during Orlando Magic's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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The Magic took a major risk trading for Serge Ibaka, who’s heading into unrestricted free agency next summer. Rather than have Victor Oladipo (who’ll be a restricted free agent) and the No. 11 pick (who’s on a four-year contract), Orlando could come away empty-handed within a year if Ibaka leaves.

So far, everyone is saying the right things.

Ibaka, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“I’m looking to stay here to play forever — for [as] many, many years as possible,” Serge Ibaka said during the Magic’s media day.

“I’m not really worried about my contract year or my long-term,” Ibaka said.

“One of the things I learned playing on a good team is when the team wins, when you make the playoffs, everybody looks good. So that’s what will be my focus right now, because if we win and make the playoffs, everything will take care of itself.”

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, via Robbins:

“We certainly traded for Serge thinking long-term, and that’s our expectation,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said.

I’d be surprised if the Magic and Ibaka didn’t discuss the parameters of his next contract, with the Thunder’s permission, before making the trade. But the Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents any binding unofficial arrangements, so nothing is set in stone.

Ibaka is already talking about making the playoffs, and that would go a long way toward convincing him to stay in Orlando. But what if the Magic miss the postseason, a distinct possibility? How keen will Ibaka be on returning then?

He’ll have other suitors – unless he has a down year. Then, how badly will Orlando want him back?

That Ibaka and the Magic are entering the season with the stated intention of a long-term arrangement means something. But it means only so much.

Quote of the Day: Karl-Anthony Towns wants to learn how to be great

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns celebrates after hitting the game-winning shot in an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland, Ore., Saturday, April 9, 2016. The Timberwolves won 106-105. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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“There are so many talented players in the league. But only a few of them are remembered as being great — because they were willing to say they don’t know. And I’m willing to say that I don’t know everything. I do not know how it is to be a great player, to be a Hall of Famer. I want to learn.”

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (via Kyle Ratke on Twitter)

There were a lot of things to like about Towns’ rookie campaign — it was impressive enough to make him the clear Rookie of the Year — he averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, shot 54.2 percent from the floor, and had a PER of 22.3.

But if you talk to people around the league, what really impressed them was his work ethic and drive. He puts in the time, he’s driven, and he listens. There’s a reason Kevin Garnett took to him.

KAT is going to be great. No question.

Jamaal Wilkes auctions off Basketball Hall of Fame ring, nets $25,000

SPRINGFIELD, MA - SEPTEMBER 7:  Jamaal Wilkes speaks during the Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Symphony Hall on September 7, 2012 in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Jamaal Wilkes spent a brilliant basketball career always being overshadowed by an all-time great. At UCLA he won two titles and 88 straight games as part of John Wooden’s legacy on squads remembered as Bill Walton’s teams; in the NBA he won championships on teams led by Rick Berry first, then Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Look at it this way: when the Lakers clinched the NBA title in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, Wilkes had 37 points and 10 rebounds. But what do we remember from that game? Magic scoring 42 points with 15 rebounds and 7 assists as he played all five positions.

Wilkes finally was recognized for his greatness when he was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame back in 2012.

This week he put his Hall of Fame ring up for auction online via Nate Sanders and got $25,000 for it. From the official press release:

The 10k Jostens ring features a diamond set on a square red stone. “Basketball Hall of Fame” is engraved in the gold surrounding the stones. Wilkes’ name is engraved on one side above two basketball players in relief. The opposite side has the year “2012” engraved above the Hall of Fame’s official logo.

The ring comes with a letter of authenticity from Wilkes.

Wilkes had previously auctioned off his Hall of Fame trophy, too.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.