What the Thunder should do when the lockout ends

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Oklahoma City is out latest stop on our “what your team needs to do when the lockout ends” tour. To see the teams already covered (we’re working our way through the Western Conference right now) click here.

Last season in Oklahoma City: We saw growth. The young Thunder team took the steps forward we all expected (there were some fools who expected a massive leap to the title, but teams grow more slowly than that). They won 55 games, up from 50. They reached the Western Conference finals for the first time (after being knocked out in the first round the year before). They traded for Kendrick Perkins, which was a great move (Dallas was just a bad matchup). OKC made strides, the season was what it should have been.

Since we last saw the Thunder: They made a sweet move in the draft, promising early to Reggie Jackson, the point guard out of Boston College. A lot of teams loved him as a sleeper, but with the early promise he stopped working out for teams and fell all the way to the Thunder at No. 24. That may mean Eric Maynor is on his way out.

Aside that, the roster remains stable.

When the lockout ends, the Thunder need to… Lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal, then pray for more growth from a young team, growth that could have them taking the next step or two. Well, there are a couple more things, but those are the big ones.

When the lockout ends GM Sam Presti should show up on the doorstep of Russell Westbrook and offer him whatever the new max extension to his rookie deal will be — they have to keep this guy. He is part of the core, of the future in OKC. He is one of the best young point guards in the game – he can play at both ends of the floor, gives you 21.9 points per game and 8.2 assists (with a better than 2-1 turnover ratio). And he will be just 23 next season — his game is still maturing.

Westbrook took a lot of heat during the playoffs for taking shots away from and not playing well with Durant. There was a little truth to that, although we saw flashes of brilliance, too (like Game 7 against Memphis). There were ludicrous calls to trade him because he didn’t defer enough to the league’s leading scorer. Royce Young of the brilliant Daily Thunder blog has words for you if you think Westbrook and Durant need to start playing well together.

They already do.  They didn’t win 55 games and come within two fourth quarters of the NBA Finals by playing bad together. Do they need to improve? Definitely. Good thing they’re both just 22 years old.

There’s not a lot else for the Thunder to do, their roster is pretty set. Mr. pro-am. er, Kevin Durant got his extension last summer. Perkins got an extension (and they will need him going forward, they need him in the middle to rebound and protect the rim with Serge Ibaka). They made a qualifying offer and still need to figure out things with Daequan Cook, but the roster is pretty much set.

Still there are things that need to be done to take the next step, and the Daily Thunder’s Young has ideas.

1) Scott Brooks needs to figure out if James Harden is going to start or not. The Thunder drafted Reggie Jackson to potentially fill Harden’s scoring punch role off the bench and it’s pretty much universally agreed upon that Harden should start over Thabo Sefolosha. But Brooks is stubborn and likes to stick with what works, so it’ll be a decision.

And 2), Get Perk healthy. Perkins himself said he was only about 60 percent during the playoffs. He was overweight, out of shape and his knees were a little heavy on him. He’s committed to a pretty tough offseason conditioning plan — one that may or may not include getting in bar fights — and he’s said he wants to get back down to a playing weight of around 250. This is the Perk that Oklahoma City is hoping for. Not the one that lumbered around in the postseason like he was Greg Oden’s overweight brother.

Bottom line is that the Thunder don’t need to do much when the lockout ends — they will come in as more experienced title contenders next season. If the lockout drags on and the 2012 season looks like the 1999 season — 50 games crammed into too few days and then the playoffs — young and talented teams where their leg will bounce back quickly have a big advantage. And that would be the Thunder.

Their time is coming soon, fans just need to be a little more patient.

Ryan Saunders reportedly likely to stay on as Minnesota head coach

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When Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said this a few weeks back, it was pretty clear interim coach Ryan Saunders was probably staying on after the season and getting the job full time.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]. It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start. I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”<

Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler sabotaged the team’s season early on in a push to get out of town, a move that came with a high price coach/GM Tom Thibodeau. Remember Thibodeau wanted to speed up the winning and to get Butler traded Zach LaVine and just drafted Lauri Markkanen, but when Butler didn’t work out in Minny Thibs was doomed.

If you want more evidence that Saunders is staying on, there is this reporting from the well-connected Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Saunders, who turns 33 in April, is known to have a strong relationship with the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played some of the best basketball of his career since the departures of Butler and Thibodeau.

The growing expectation around the league is that the credit Saunders will get for his impact on and the buy-in from Towns will more than offset ownership’s disappointment about returning to the draft lottery.

Towns is the franchise cornerstone, one of the top centers and top 10-12 players in the league, if Saunders can get the most out of him — and so far he has — then that is a good reason to keep him around.

When Sauders got the coaching job, Scott Layden took over as GM. His job is not as secure. There have been rumors about Taylor wanting to go big game hunting — specifically Chauncey Billups — but it seems the Timberwolves are likely to go another direction.

Calvin Booth, a Denver executive who the Nuggets hired away from the Timberwolves before the 2017-18 season, is increasingly mentioned as a strong candidate to replace Layden if Taylor does make a change.

Whoever gets the GM job, retooling the Timberwolves roster around Towns will now be difficult — Thibodeau showed no patience and now they are paying the price. Towns’ well-deserved max extension kicks in next season and that gives Minnesota two of max deals for young players — Andrew Wiggins is maxed out as well and an anchor on any rebuild (he has four years at the max after this season, good luck trading that). Don’t forget Gorgui Dieng will make $16.2 million next season. If Jeff Teague opts into his $19 million for next season, the Timberwolves will have very little room to maneuver and shore up the roster.

All of that will make Saunder’s job a real challenge.

Report: Knicks talked Kristaps Porzingis for De’Aaron Fox trade with Kings last draft

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The Knicks had made their minds up and were considering moving on from Kristaps Porzingis long before this trade deadline (when he was sent to Dallas), they were testing the waters all the way back to last June and the draft.

Last draft, the Sacramento Kings had a decision to make, too: How much did they believe in De'Aaron Fox? As a rookie, Fox had shown flashes and promise, but at No. 2 the Kings could pick Luka Doncic (or even Trae Young) and have gone in another direction.

That led to an interesting story from last June’s draft: The Knicks reached out to the Kings about a possible Porzingis for Fox swap, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN (in a fascinating piece on how this season changed things in Sacramento).

Sacramento moved up in the lottery again — to No. 2 — and faced a pivotal moment: the chance to reorient their team around Luka Doncic. Rivals sensed the dilemma and made offers for Fox — including a template from the New York Knicks centered around Kristaps Porzingis that would have required Sacramento to either send something beyond Fox or take unwanted Knicks salary (or both), sources say.

The Kings might have been able to leverage Doncic fever by trading down, but they wanted a guaranteed chance at Marvin Bagley III. The pick doubled as a vote of confidence in Fox. They didn’t need another ball handler. They wanted a springy big who could run with perhaps the league’s fastest player.

The Kings bet big on Fox. In the short term, that has worked out incredibly well for them, Fox made the kind of leap this season that will earn him a lot of Most Improved Player votes. He found his identity in pace and dragged the Kings with him to maybe the most surprising season of any team (and they were everyone’s league pass favorites). Bagley started to come on the second half of the season as he figured out how to fit his game in the NBA. How it works out long term for both teams remains to be seen, but the Kings have to feel good about how things look now.

Talks like this happen more than fans think — a lot of things are explored, very become trades. Kings fans should be glad this one didn’t.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic undergoes surgery to repair leg, full recovery expected. Eventually.

Associated Press
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As expected, Jusuf Nurkic underwent surgery on Tuesday repair the frightening leg injury he suffered on Monday night, a fractured left tibia and fibula that left his leg bending in a way that no leg should ever bend.

The good news is the surgery went as well as could be hoped, according to the team and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Even with a successful surgery, this is going to take a long time to come back from.

As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes noted, the only comparable injury like this in the NBA was Paul George‘s frightening leg injury with Team USA. George made a full recovery, but it was eight months before he got back on the court and much longer until he was comfortable enough to be the MVP candidate he is this season.

Nurkic had made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting. The advanced stats loved him — his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was serving as a playmaker on offense: When he’d set a high pick for Damian Lillard, teams would trap the guard, Lillard would pass to Nurkic, and the Bosnian had become a good passer or he just take it in and scores himself

All of that came after Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer.

His injury also devastates the Blazers heading into the postseason, where they could have been a tough matchup but have now lost a key piece of their puzzle.

 

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving to rest against Cavaliers, his former team

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving said returning to Cleveland tonight won’t mean anything to him.

He won’t even play.

The Celtics will rest rest the star against his old team, the Cavaliers.

Irving is averaging 23.8 points and the Celtics want to keep him as fresh as possible going into the postseason.

The Celtics have lost four straight and are fifth in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday night’s game in Cleveland.

Irving played his first six seasons with Cleveland. The six-time All-Star demanded a trade following the 2016-17 season and was dealt to Boston. He hasn’t played in Cleveland since the 2017-18 opener.

Celtics center Al Horford (sore left knee) and forward Jayson Tatum (back contusion) could return Tuesday. Coach Brad Stevens said both were “questionable to probable” at the team’s shootaround.