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.

Joel Embiid says Michael Jordan isn’t the GOAT (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid is a big man like we haven’t seen in some time. He’s both an interior force and a range shooter, and is one of the more talented 7-footers in recent NBA memory.

So it makes sense that the Philadelphia 76ers star leans toward former big men when it comes to discussing the greatest players in league history. While most are obsessed with the back-and-forth between Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Embiid told Jason Concepcion of the Ringer this week that he didn’t think either were the best player ever.

To Embiid, Wilt Chamberlain is the true GOAT.

Via Twitter:

“He’s not the GOAT. To me, you got Wilt Chamberlain. I mean he has all the records. They’re never gonna be beaten. I don’t see anybody getting 100 points in a game. That’s it, he’s the GOAT.”

Chamberlain doesn’t seem to be brought up in the GOAT conversation much anymore, but his prowess was legendary and it’s mistaken to say that he only played against smaller, less athletic white players.

It’s sort of cool that Embiid decided to choose a different player as is greatest of all time. Whether or not that’s true — or whether Embiid truly believes in his choice — is another thing altogether.

LeBron James confirmed ‘Space Jam 2’ begins filming this summer (VIDEO)

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I’m not sure how excited I am to watch “Space Jam 2”. I think LeBron James is a slightly better actor than Michael Jordan, and the original “Space Jam” was nothing to shake a stick at. I’m the perfect age for Space Jam to have meant something to me, but having watched the film as an adult I can tell you it’s largely underwhelming.

Still, Space Jam 2 is set to film this summer and we finally have a confirmation of that fact from LeBron himself.

Speaking at All-Star Weekend, James told a crowd in Charlotte that they are indeed going to film once the season is over.

Via Twitter:

I think filmmaking has evolved, particularly animated filmmaking in the wake of things like Toy Story, Shrek, and other big franchises. There is no doubt that Space Jam 2 will be a better movie than the original. The director of the film certainly thinks so.

Kids will love it, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that James want to get involved in when he moved to the Los Angeles Lakers this summer.

I’m sure that basketball Twitter will have a steady stream of opinions when it comes out in theaters. Maybe I will catch it when it’s on at Netflix a month later.

Report: Celtics aren’t long-term destination for Anthony Davis

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Anthony Davis recently made mention that all 29 NBA teams other than the New Orleans Pelicans are on his list to land when he becomes trade eligible again this summer. Teams like the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Los Angeles Clippers will vie for his services with the best packages they have the to offer.

But which of these teams will be long-term solutions for Davis, whose current contract runs out in the summer of 2020?

That is likely to be where the conversation around Davis shifts as we move into the spring. In fact, according to Shams Charania, at least one interested team isn’t on Davis’ radar long term.

Via Twitter:

Davis and agent Rich Paul severely overplayed their hand when it came to negotiating a trade request with the Pelicans as they tried to steer Davis to the Lakers before the deadline.

New Orleans remains firmly in control of Davis and any offers for him, although it’s possible the player could retain some additional influence by making it known that he would not re-sign anywhere outside of his preferred destinations. According to Charania, that’s the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, and Bucks.

Still, a player’s status as a potential risk in free agency is affected by how good he is and how close to a championship the receiving team thinks they are. We saw a Toronto Raptors take a chance with Kawhi Leonard, who could very well leave this summer.

Might a team trade for Davis without the guarantee that he could leave in 2020? That seems possible, and I wouldn’t rule out anything wild happening in trade market come summer.

Pat Riley on LeBron leaving Miami: ‘I saw a dynasty fly out the window’ (VIDEO)

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LeBron James spent just four years with the Miami Heat, grabbing two championships with pals Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. LeBron then left South Beach to bring a title to his native Ohio with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James is now part of the Los Angeles Lakers, an organization that Miami Heat president Pat Riley is innately familiar with (Riley was on the coaching staff of the Lakers from 1979-90). Riley was famously upset when he took the podium in the summer of 2014 after James had informed him that he was not going to come back to Miami.

We are approaching the half-decade mark from that interaction, and Riley appears to have cooled off a little bit.

Speaking with ESPN’s Dan LeBatard, Riley said that he felt disappointed because of how long a tenure that Heat team could have had.

Via Twitter:

I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that Miami you would have been a “10-year team”. Chris Bosh last played in February of 2016, and Wade hasn’t been a starter-level player for some time.

Still, it’s true that if LeBron would have stayed in South Beach that the Heat would be a perennial Eastern Conference Finals team and perhaps a real dynastic challenger to the Golden State Warriors.