NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Thunder_crowd.jpgLast season: 50-32, which tied them three ways for the sixth seed, but due to tiebreakers they got the eighth spot — and the Lakers in the first round. The athleticism of the Thunder pushed it six games, but you have to learn to win in the NBA and the Thunder are still learning.

Head Coach: Scott Brooks, who has formed a real connection with his young team.

Key Departures: None (because as much as you consider Etan Thomas “key” I do not)

Key Additions:
They locked up Kevin Durant for five years at the max. Put the meaningless comparisons to LeBron’s summer aside and realize that this was one of the biggest moves of the entire summer. Maybe the biggest.

Also, brought in were Daequan Cook, Mo Peterson and draft pick Cole Aldrich. So basically not a lot in terms if key minutes. Maybe the best pickup was a swap to get a future Clipper first rounder (if it’s lottery protected they should see it around 2020).

Best case scenario: They take the next step forward, get home court in the first round (at least) and win a series or two in the playoffs. A Western Conference finals series against the Lakers is the ultimate dream.

For that to happen: Kevin Durant has to continue to be THE Kevin Durant, they have to play better team defense, they have to continue to see growth and improvement out of their young core, and they have to stay healthy.

Yes, you can say “they have to stay healthy” about all 30 teams, but what went largely unnoticed last year was the Thunder were one of the healthiest teams in the league. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and Thabo Sefolosha all played 82 games. James Harden and Nenad Krstic missed just six games each. Nick Collison missed seven, Serge Ibaka nine. Basically, none of the Thunder core had a serious injury last season. That is rare in the NBA (just ask the other young power in the West up in Portland).

As for Durant, if you watched him in the FIBA World Championships this summer you have no doubt he will be THE Kevin Durant again. That may have less to do with scoring more or being a much better player — he is already getting mentioned in the Kobe/LeBron sentences — than it is about public perception. Durant is exploding on the scene, moving from the guy all the basketball fans rave about to a guy the average fan tunes in to watch.

I’ve written this story before but I’ll do it one more time for our many new readers: At a late-season Clippers/Thunder matchup last season I was seated next to a couple of advanced scouts, both whose teams had upcoming games against the Thunder. Three times during that game Durant did something that left these two guys — whose job it is to watch and break down games for a living — looking at each other and just shaking their head. At one point one said, “How the (expletive) are we supposed to stop that?” If you can do that to the most jaded, you are special.

What really matters for the Thunder is continued improvement and defense.

The Thunder were ninth in defensive efficiency in the league last season, not bad but something they can improve on. That starts with Ibaka — he has become the team’s go-to shot blocker and they need someone to protect the rim (every team needs that in today’s NBA). Cole Aldrich may also help in that role, but he is more of a project than a guy playing huge, key minutes this season. Ibaka comes off the bench and may not supplant Krstic as the starter, but look for him to close out more games when the Thunder need defensive stops.

Also, as the season wore on the Thunder’s defense seemed to improve, they seemed to better use their athleticism to disrupt, create turnovers then turn that into easy (sometimes spectacular) points going the other direction.

The other big question is: Can Westbrook and Green and Ibaka and James Harden and the rest of the core all continue to take steps forward. Last season all showed dramatic improvement in their games, fueling the Thunder. If you project them on that same arc, they become a force

Westbrook has become elite in dishing out assists, but can he cut his turnover rate (16.6) down this season. More importantly, can he become more of a scoring threat. Yes, that is an odd thing to say about a guy who put up 16.1 points per game, but he was not efficient where it matters — he shot just 22 percent on threes and finished just 52.7 percent of his shots at the rim (that’s layups, dunks and the like). Those are both very low numbers. Westbrook can get in the lane seemingly at will, but he has to finish better in there to take the next step forward. His quickness also affords him open threes, he has to hit more.

You can say the same kinds of things up and down the Thunder roster. Everyone has things they need to improve on if this team is to continue its assent.

More likely the Thunder will: Be close to last year’s Thunder. Understand that not taking a step back — not having a big sophomore slump — really would be s sign of improvement. But to expect everyone to stay healthy all season and for all the players to keep improving at an exponential rate may be asking too much. Some will improve, some will stay flat, and GM Sam Presti will have a better idea what tweaks need to be made.

What really matters more than anything is that the professionalism and intensity that characterized the young Thunder locker room remains. That is what ultimately will take them where they want to go.

Prediction: 50 wins, which if it gets them anyone but the Lakers in the first round will lead to a first round upset and a trip deeper into the playoffs. You have to learn how to win at the NBA level and the Thunder are learning that. It may be another year or two before those lessons really bear fruit, but they are being learned. Durant is taking them to heart, you can be sure.

Anthony Davis doing it all for Pelicans

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DETROIT – Anthony Davis repeatedly entered and exited the visitors’ locker room after the Pelicans win over the Pistons on Sunday. At a time most players go from their locker to the shower and back then leave, Davis was busy. He visited with people in the hall. He breezed back by his locker then left to attend to other matters. He returned again and, before showering, turned to the assembled media.

“Y’all need me?” Davis asked.

Davis is used to getting pulled in every direction and still being needed even more.

The superstar is having another MVP-ballot-caliber season. Yet, New Orleans is just 15-15, 11th in the Western Conference.

It’s for a lack of effort by Davis. He has expanded his game offensively. Playing center regularly, his defensive responsibilities are as great as ever. And he leads the NBA with 37.0 minutes per game.

“You don’t have Secretariat run half the race then step out because it might be too far,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “No. You’ve got a great player, you use him the best you can.”

New Orleans has little choice but to lean heavily on Davis. With him on the floor vs. off, the Pelicans score 9.7 more points and allow 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions.

Put another way: New Orleans plays like a 59-win team with Davis and a 20-win team without him.

Here are the leaders in win-rate difference with off-court on the left, on-court on the right and difference between (minimum: 300 minutes):

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It helps Davis plays a large majority of minutes with Jrue Holiday, who actually rates better by this metric. But Davis is clearly driving New Orleans’ success.

Not only does Davis lead the NBA in real plus-minus (+7.11), he does so with an unparalleled two-way efficiency. Nobody nears his combination of offensive (+3.73) and defensive (+3.38) real plus-minus.

Here’s every NBA player by offensive and defensive real plus-minus with the positive outliers’ photos:

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Davis is producing in all his usual ways – 28.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. But he’s also averaging 4.7 assists per game, more than double his previous career high.

The Pelicans increased their pace and passing last year, and the system did wonders for setting up Davis. But they lost key component Rajon Rondo in free agency last summer, and replacement starting point guard Elfrid Payton has missed most of this season due to injury.

So, Davis has stepped up.

He’s done it while continuing to protect the ball, an overlooked but important aspect of his game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1, impressive for a big.

Davis faces frequent double-teams and generates many of his assists by passing out of those:

After scoring so well in transition for so long, Davis is now taking advantage of his speed by playmaking in the open court:

Davis has also become adept at flipping short passes to a teammate then walking into a screen ball screen. That threat has sparked more creative options with Davis’ improved distributing abilities:

Davis’ teammates appear invigorated to receive his passes.

They run the court with him on fastbreaks. They cut actively. They re-position themselves around the 3-point arc to create passing angles.

With Davis attracting so much defensive attention, openings abound.

“He just finds me, and it’s an easy look,” said Nikola Mirotic, who’s shooting 70% on 2-pointers and 52% on 3-pointers off passes from Davis.

Davis keeps putting more on his plate. He said he has to play nearly perfectly for the Pelicans to win, and he hasn’t shrunk from that responsibility. In fact, he keeps raising his personal standard.

New Orleans is trying to keep up. The Pelicans are reportedly one of the most active buyers on the trade market, but they lack trade chips beyond their draft picks. Davis is propping up a mediocre supporting cast.

Of course, Davis will be eligible for a super-max extension – which projects to be worth about $240 million over five years – this offseason. That will be the moment of truth for his future in New Orleans.

Most players so good on teams so bad would have left already.

But Davis – for now, at least – is still with the Pelicans, still doing everything he can to carry them.

“Being the guy on the team, the leader, franchise player you say,” Davis said, “the team asks a lot of me. So, anything less than what they expect, it’s on me.

“Anybody who wants to be that great player, it comes with the territory.”

Jimmy Butler may miss 76ers-Pacers

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Coming off just their second home loss of the season, a 127-124 defeat to the visiting Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers now have to deal with the freight train that is the Indiana Pacers at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Wells Fargo Center.

Indiana has won five straight, including a 16-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, the team’s seventh win in nine games. The Pacers have crept up to within a half-game of Philadelphia in the standings at 18-10 (the Sixers are 19-10) by relying on one of the deepest offenses in the league.

On Wednesday in the 113-97 win over the Bucks, Indiana had six players in double-figures (Milwaukee had four) and the Pacers’ reserves outscored the Bucks’ 34-25. Indiana’s backups also stifled a Milwaukee offense that shot 41 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, with Giannis Antetokounmpo finishing with just 12 points.

“That second unit is back intact and we want to continue to build off of what we are doing and establish ourselves as this team that keeps guys out of the paint and focuses on limiting rotations so that teams are trying to beat us over the top,” head coach Nate McMillan said. “That way we can stay at home with our man, box out and rebound.”

With Victor Oladipo back from a knee injury that sidelined him 11 games, Indiana is back at a full complement of players and climbing in the East.

“Guys stepped up and played huge,” Oladipo said after his first game back. “Myles (Turner), Thad (Young), D.C. (Darren Collison) hit big shots down the stretch. I’m just glad to be back to help.”

Oladipo’s return complicates things for the 76ers, who could be without star Jimmy Butler for the second straight game with a strained groin. Butler’s absence was missed against the Nets on Wednesday as Brooklyn shot 51 percent from the field, with Spencer Dinwiddie contributing a career-high 39 points off the bench.

“When you look at the bench scoring, we got hurt there tonight; I give their bench credit,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I give Brooklyn a lot of credit. I think that they are a good team to begin with. I do not feel like their record reflects how good they are, I especially know that no matter what their record said, we struggle with that type of team and we did tonight. It doesn’t discount for me that we do struggle with that type of team.”

Even with Joel Embiid‘s 17 rebounds to go along with 33 points, the Sixers still managed to just tie the Nets in boards at 41 while Brooklyn made it to the free-throw line for an absurd 43 attempts, making an even more impressive 37 of them.

“I think that some of it was bad defense, some of it was let down schematically, some of our good shooters still getting off shots, I think it’s a hybrid of them making some shots, us being a C- at times with our aggression and maybe a C schematically trying to execute a game with their individual players. I would put some blame proportionally all over the place.”

Lakers defend Rockets with hands behind their backs (video)

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James Harden made 18-of-19 free throws in the Rockets’ win over the Lakers last night.

Think that got to the Lakers? At times, they defended with their hands behind their backs.

LeBron James, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“Just trying to defend without fouling,” said James, who briefly locked his hands behind his body on a Rockets possession in the third quarter. “That’s a point of emphasis any time you play Houston. They got guys that can sell calls really good — Chris [Paul] and James [Harden] — so you got to try to keep your hands out of the cookie jar.”

This is what Harden – and, to a lesser extent, Paul – do. Harden is so good at drawing fouls. That’s a skill – one that pays off in numerous ways.

It generates efficient free throws. It puts opponents in foul trouble. And it irritates opponents.

The Lakers sabotaged themselves to prove a point. That’s how in their head Harden and the Rockets got.

Maybe it’ll pay off in the long run, with referees second-guessing fouls Harden draws. But last night, it just exposed the Lakers’ frustration.

Report: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looking for Lakers to trade him

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Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has come up in trade discussions with the Suns (for Trevor Ariza) and Rockets.

But this isn’t necessarily driven by Los Angeles, Phoenix or Houston.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

While sources confirmed that there have been discussions about trading Caldwell-Pope, the legwork is being done on Caldwell-Pope’s side to find him a better situation.

Caldwell-Pope is playing just 21.6 minutes per game, by far his fewest since his rookie year. Ostensibly, Caldwell-Pope – a 3-and-D shooting guard – would thrive with LeBron James. But Josh Hart has proven to be an even better match with LeBron and seized most minutes at shooting guard. This just might not be the optimal personality fit for Caldwell-Pope.

Because he’s one a one-year contract and would have Early Bird Rights afterward, Caldwell-Pope automatically gets the right to veto any trade (as he’d lose his Early Bird Rights with a new team). He also shares an agent, Rich Paul, with LeBron. So, Caldwell-Pope has a lot of power in this situation. The Lakers don’t have to trade him, but if they deal him, they must send him to a destination he prefers.

Caldwell-Pope is incentivized to accept a trade, though. If dealt tomorrow – the first day he can be traded – he’d earn a $1,189,831 trade bonus. That amount decreases $10,169 daily.

Caldwell-Pope’s $12 million salary is reasonable. He’s just 25 and has a skill set most teams crave. If he wants to leave Los Angeles, the Lakers should likely find a trade that works for everyone.