ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 NBA Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: Russell Westbrook was out and Kevin Durant stepped up with (or if you prefer, finally showed off) the well rounded, complete game we’ve always expected of him. He earned the league MVP with his carrying of the Thunder to 59 wins. OKC was again strong on both ends, seventh in the league in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating. Reggie Jackson stepped up as Thabo Sefolosha faded, and Serge Ibaka took another step forward with his game. With Westbrook back to his terrorizing form the Thunder entered the playoffs as title contenders but again they were undone by injury, a calf strain to Ibaka. The Thunder again made it to the conference finals but with Ibaka missing a couple games they could not overcome the eventual champion Spurs.

Signature highlight from last season: It’s almost impossible to chose, this team has so many. I think the best one was Russell Westbrook’s overtime corner three to beat the Warriors:

But if you prefer a Kevin Durant game winner, here he goes basically one-on-five to beat the Hawks:

Offseason moves: For a years now, coach Scott Brooks stuck with certain guys no matter what logic or eyeballs dictated, but a couple of those fallbacks are now gone. Thabo Sefolosha (a regular starter) was allowed to walk in free agency after a down year, while Derek Fisher retired and will coach the Knicks.Last year’s free agent pickup Caron Butler left as well. Oh, and they traded Hasheem Thabeet.

In their place they picked up Anthony Morrow as a free agent as well as Sebastian Telfair, plus they drafted Mitch McGary.

Keys to the Thunder season

Just stay healthy. Of course this is true of every contender, but two years ago it was Westbrook’s knee that ended their real playoff hopes. Last season Ibaka suffered a grade two calf strain in the playoffs that kept him out for a couple weeks, including the start of the series against the powerhouse Spurs. We don’t know how that series turns out if Ibaka’s healthy, but we know if this team can’t keep its big three healthy they can’t get back to the Finals. Not in this loaded Western Conference.

Is there enough around Durat/Westbrook/Ibaka? This is ultimately the question. They have a championship caliber core, but since the James Harden trade they have not been able to get back to the Finals (in part due to that health issue). The question is do they have the right role players in the right system to lift this team up to the Finals and to win a ring?

If the answer is going to be yes, it has to start with Reggie Jackson, who by the end of the playoffs last year had taken Sefolosha’s starting job and this season. He is going to get a lot of time paired with Westbrook in the backcourt and he brings a more dynamic offensive game with him to that role. He can make the Thunder offense that much more dangerous — and it doesn’t hurt this is a contract year for him (he’s a restricted free agent next summer if a contract extension is not reached by Oct. 31).

Another key role player is Steven Adams, who hopefully will supplant Kendrick Perkins this season (Perkins is another one of Brooks’ crutch guys). Adams brings toughness and defense, but more importantly a little better offense than Perkins. Defenses ignore Perkins (the Thunder try to get him going every game by giving him a couple early touches in the post) but Adams is a rim runner and more athletic, a guy defenses have to keep an eye on.

Finally, the Thunder need growth from Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III, they will need to play larger roles. Anthony Morrow needs to space the floor. If they can get something from the rookie McGary and the veteran Telfair all the better.

The pieces seem to be there, can Brooks put them in a less-predictable offense that makes the Thunder harder to defend? If so there is no limit to where the Thunder can finish this season.

How do the Thunder deal with Durant’s constant free agency questions? In every city — and especially in Washington, Los Angeles and New York — Kevin Durant is going to get questions about his 2016 free agency. Then reporters will ask the other Thunder players about Kevin Durant’s free agency in two years. Every answer will pretty much get national play. It’s a potential distraction and something the Thunder need to learn to deal with because it is not going away. (Durant doesn’t know what he’s going to do in two summers yet anyway, but staying with the Thunder is still the smartest bet.)

Why you should watch: Have you ever seen Durant and Westbrook play? Go look at the highlights above. This is as entertaining a team as there is in the league, with two of the game’s most dynamic stars leading them. Plus you should watch just to see what Russell Westbrook wears to the arena on any given night.

Prediction: 61-21, which will have them as one of the top two seeds in the West, maybe the top seed. Kevin Durant likely will pick up another MVP award (LeBron now has some real help around him and with that his numbers are likely drop a little, then guys like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will split the Clipper vote). But what really matters to him and the franchise is getting a ring. If they are relatively healthy, and if the role players have stepped up, the Thunder have a very real shot at that title. They are legit title contenders, the only real problem they face is that there are a couple others of those in the West.

If the Thunder don’t get back to the Finals, Scott Brooks could be the next change the Thunder seriously consider.

After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

Zion Williamson’s stepfather accused of taking $400,000 before Zion’s season at Duke

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The legal fight over NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s endorsement potential now includes an allegation that his family received $400,000 from a marketing agency before his lone season for Duke.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed a lawsuit last summer in a Florida state court, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. That came a week after Williamson filed his own lawsuit in a North Carolina federal court to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

In court filings Thursday in North Carolina, Ford’s attorneys included a sworn affidavit from a California man who said the head of a Canadian-based firm called Maximum Management Group (MMG) told him he paid Williamson’s family for his commitment to sign with MMG once he left Duke for the NBA.

The documents include a marketing agreement signed by Williamson with MMG from May 2019, a December 2019 “letter of declaration” signed by Williamson and his stepfather agreeing to pay $500,000 to MMG president Slavko Duric for “repayment of a loan” from October 2018, and a copy of Williamson’s South Carolina driver’s license — which listed Williamson’s height as “284” and his weight as “6′06.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Williamson attorney, Jeffrey S. Klein, said those documents were “fraudulent.”

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent – and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Klein said. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.

“This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

The affidavit is from Donald Kreiss, a self-described entrepreneur who worked with athletes and agents in marketing relationships. He had recently contacted Ford then provided the affidavit last week outlining interactions with MMG and Williamson’s family, according to one of the filings.

Ford’s attorneys have sought to focus on Williamson’s eligibility. His lawsuit stated that Prime Sports violated North Carolina’s sports agent law, both by failing to include disclaimers about the loss of eligibility when signing the contract and the fact neither Prime Sports nor Ford were registered with the state.

Ford’s attorneys have argued the Uniform Athlete Agents Act wouldn’t apply if Williamson was ineligible to play college basketball from the start.

Ford’s attorneys had sought to have last summer’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and New Orleans Pelicans rookie answer questions in Florida state court about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. They had also raised questions about housing for Williamson’s family during his Duke career in a separate filing in North Carolina.

A Florida appeals court last month granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn’t involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson’s eligibility previously and found no concerns.

Russell Westbrook, James Harden do not fly to Orlando with Rockets, will join team later

Russell Westbrook James Harden
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The Houston Rockets have landed in Orlando to be part of the NBA’s restart bubble.

Except for stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Neither was on the team’s charter flight from Houston, but both plan to join the team soon. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, with the story confirmed by others soon after.

Just-signed Luc Mbah a Moute and assistant coach John Lucas also did not fly with the team and will catch up soon, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Westbrook and Harden are not the only stars to delay their arrival in Orlando, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard did the same for personal reasons. The teams have agreed to this, but with limited practice time in the run-up to the eight seeding games, coaches want everyone in camp to work on rebuilding chemistry as fast as possible.

Coach Mike D’Antoni did fly with the team and was cleared to be in the bubble. D’Antoni, 69, was subject to extra consideration for entrance into the bubble by the NBA due to his age and the risk factors for people older than 65 with COVID-19.

The Rockets are one of the most interesting teams to watch in Orlando because of their all-in commitment to small ball — 6’5″ P.J. Tucker will play a lot of center. In the uncertain world of the NBA’s restart, that unconventional approach could get them upset wins. Or, they could get bounced early. There is no more high-variance team in Orlando than the Rockets.

Knicks’ coaching job frontrunner Tom Thibodeau interviews with team

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Tom Thibodeau has been considered the frontrunner for the Knicks coaching job since the day Leon Rose was hired as team president.

New York has done its due diligence talking to other candidates — Jason Kidd, Kenny Atkinson, Mike Woodson, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Will Hardy, Pat Delaney, Jamahl Mosley, Chris Fleming, and Knicks interim coach Mike Miller — but through it all Thibodeau remained the frontrunner, according to multiple sources around the league.

Thursday Thibodeau finally got his turn, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thibodeau wants to return to NBA coaching and his decades-long friendship with Rose appears to give him an inside track.

The big question becomes, is Thibodeau the right fit? Which leads to a couple of other questions: What style of team are the Knicks trying to build? And, how do they intend to build it?

Thibodeau has shown previously to be a win-now coach who leans on veterans and a short rotation. If New York is looking to draft and develop a core of young players that can be a long-lasting foundation for winning in the future, it’s fair to ask if Thibodeau the best coach for that task. Thibodeau says he has grown and will bring a broader perspective to his next job.

The Knicks have a couple of players that could be part of a long-term rebuild, but also feel they are well positioned to trade for a star if one becomes available. As the Lakers did, the Knicks are looking to stockpile good young players, try to win with them, but if the right trade comes along — Anthony Davis for the Lakers — they will send the youth out the door. All of this sounds good, but to make it work, the new coach needs to build a player-development program in New York, something that has never been a strong suit for the franchise.

Whichever way the rebuild goes, and whoever gets the Knicks job, there is a lot of work to do to build a winner.