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.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.

Magic reveal orange uniforms

(Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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It’s already difficult enough to flip on an NBA game and quickly determine which team is which. The home team could be wearing any color, so the same is true of road teams. Each team has had so many alternate jerseys in recent years. It’s disorienting.

Now, the Magic – whose primary colors have always been and remain blue, black, white and gray – might be wearing orange?

At least Orlando, because of the fruit (and, I guess, if you want to stretch it, sunshine), has a real connection to orange. That’s why these are the “orange uniforms,” even though they’re mostly gray.

I just beg of the powers that be: Please don’t have the Magic wear these against the Suns. I’ll never figure out which team is which.