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.

One last look back: Best dunks of All-Star Weekend (VIDEO)

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Defense? That’s one thing that rarely makes an appearance All-Star weekend.

Combine that with the game’s best athletes and what you get are three days of insane dunks.

The NBA put this together, the best dunks of All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Enjoy.

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: ‘Recruiting process is really going alright…I’m trying’

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LeBron James went out of his way to say he was not recruiting guys on his free-agent heavy All-Star Team.

Bradley Beal had no such hesitation, he tried to recruit guys, as he told Chase Huges of NBC Sports Washington.

“The recruiting process is really going alright. It’s going alright. I’m trying,” Beal said. “This is new for me. I’m definitely getting some ears and seeing what guys are looking for.”

Beal was too smart to name names — that would have brought a fine from the league — but he said some guys asked if he was happy where he was, while other guys he talked to about the possibilities in Washington.

The problem is while the Wizards will have some cap space after trading Otto Porter and Markieff Morris (and assuming they don’t pick up the option on Jabari Parker) but they will be nowhere near the max cap space needed to land the elite free agents at the All-Star Game (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, etc.). Even the second-tier All-Star free agents such as Khris Middleton will get max offers. Same with players who just missed the game, such as Tobias Harris.

If the Wizards renounce free agents they can get to $9 million in cap space, stretch and waive Ian Mahinmi and they can get to $18 million. That’s the top end. Meaning the Wizards will have room to make moves for good rotation players, but with John Wall‘s supermax extension kicking in at $38 million next season flexibility is limited. Genuine upgrades will be hard to come by.

Predicting what Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld will do next summer is a fool’s errand, but Beal is doing his part to try and bring more talent into Washington.

Kevin Garnett says 2000 Olympic team had $1 million bounty to dunk on Yao Ming

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Team USA earned a Gold Medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, led by Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, and Alonzo Mourning. Lithuania made the Americans work that year, losing by just nine in pool play then by two points in the semi-finals.

That’s not what anyone remembers from those Olympics, they remember Vince Carter doing this to 7-footer Fredric Weiss of France.

Recently Garnett sat down with Dwyane Wade for an interview (which airs on NBA TV today) and he told a fantastic story about that dunk. (Hat tip to Yahoo Sports)

Everything just paused. First of all, people didn’t know, we had a bounty out on Yao Ming. The whole USA team had a bet. We had a million dollar bet on who was going to be the first person to dunk on Yao Ming. None of us did. We all tried to dunk on Yao, but he would block it or we would miss. So, the first thing I thought of when I saw Vince dunk over Frederic was oh s***, you won the million dollars. But then I realized it obviously wasn’t Yao. I pushed Vince, and if you look at the clip, he almost punches me in the face by accident. But my first thought was, oh s***, you won, you got the million.

KG has the best stories.

MSG denies rumor James Dolan looking to sell Knicks

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Rumors that James Dolan is considering selling the Knicks — which elicits a “Hallelujah” chorus from Knicks fans — have been cropping up for a couple of years now. There were rumors he wanted to spin off the Knicks and Rangers into their own company to be sold. That’s just one, there are others — he confirmed he got a feeler $5 billion, but never a firm offer, for the Knicks — and each time he has shot them down.

This is no different.

On his latest Podcast, the Ringer’s Bill Simmons said he had heard that Dolan wanted to focus more on concerts/in-game experiences in Madison Square Garden and that the Knicks were “available.”

The Madison Square Garden Company released this statement (hat tip New York Daily News).

“The story is 100% false. There has been nothing. No discussions. No plans to have discussions – nothing.”

That’s pretty unequivocal.

While Dolan may entertain the idea on some level of selling the Knicks, until he takes concrete steps to do so — not rumors, but actual, documented moves — I’m not buying it. He’s sitting on a gold mine that keeps going up in value, despite how he manages it, so why sell now? Knicks fans that buy this rumor will likely end up like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.