Five Things We Learned in NBA Sunday: Thunder don’t look like playoff team yet

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If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while taking your deceased parent to the bank to make cash withdrawals….

1) Oklahoma City does not look like a playoff team yet. They have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back healthy, plus both are playing at an elite level. Yet they have lost two in a row (including Sunday to Cleveland), are 5-5 in their last 10, and now have fallen back to .500 again. Sunday on national television it looked like the Cavaliers are finally getting it together — LeBron James is explosive and the Cavs are defending better — while the Thunder… we’re still waiting. Their defense isn’t sharp, although it’s not terrible. The offense on the other hand… They shot just 39.4 percent as a team Sunday and key guys were not efficient (Westbrook was 7-of-26, Dion Waiters 5-of-15). In their last 10 games they have the 21st ranked offense in the league. Despite those two studs. You can say there is half a season to get it together before the playoffs, but they have to make the playoffs. They are three games back of the Suns and not making up ground of late. OKC needs to find it’s groove sooner rather than later.

That said, Kevin Durant can still do this:

2) New Orleans doesn’t know it can’t make the playoffs, only two games out. This is like when his trainer Duke leans into Apollo Creed in Rocky and said “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!” We did it in the paragraph above — assumed that if anyone is going to catch the Phoenix Suns for the last playoff spot in the West, it’s the Thunder. Why not the Pelicans? They beat the Mavericks on Sunday, their third straight win, and they are now just two games back of the Suns (who lost to the Clippers). The Pelicans are in front of the inconsistent Thunder. New Orleans has the superstar in Anthony Davis and he played like it Sunday (28 points, 10 boards) but they also got 24 points out of Tyreke Evans (who will have the ball in his hands a lot until Jrue Holiday returns) and 18 from Ryan Anderson. If I had to bet I’d still put my money on OKC to finish ahead of Phoenix and New Orleans, but we shouldn’t be counting the Pelicans out of this race.

3) Hassan Whiteside is not another Miami fad. Miami fans have been hyped on Whiteside since he came to South Beach and started putting up numbers — he has a PER of 26, which is normally the kind of thing that gets one mentioned for the All-Star Team. He has been a defensive force and very efficient on the offensive end, shooting 68.4 percent. But would it last? It looks like he is not another Miami fad gone in a week. Sunday Whiteside had his coming out party on national television with 14 points, 13 rebounds and a Heat record 12 blocks. His energy and athleticism have been something they needed and he can get some easy looks as the defense focuses on Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. The Heat have found something here.

4) Monta Ellis and D.J. Augustin did their best (but it wasn’t enough). Two of the best performances of Sunday night came in a losing effort. One was from Dallas’ should-be-but-will-not-be All Star Monta Ellis who had 36 points on 27 shots and was at his best when attacking the rim or shooting threes from the left side of the court. He gave the Mavs a chance in their loss. (Sorry Mavericks fans, he’s been fantastic but in the deep West he just can’t make the All-Star cut. Nowitzki is on the outside looking in, too. Just can’t see a Mav on the team.)

D.J. Augustin got thrust into the Pistons’ starting lineup due to the Brandon Jennings injury, and he put up 35 points on 20 shots in Detroit’s loss to Toronto. He was 5-of-9 from three and 7-of-9 when he attacked and got inside eight feet of the rim. Augustin also dished out eight assists. He played well opposite Kyle Lowry, but it wasn’t enough.

5) Kyle Lowry pulled off the old fake timeout trick. We see this about once a season, this time it was Lowry’s turn to break it out.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr: Klay Thompson unlikely to play this season

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Warriors general manager Bob Myers and Klay Thompson himself both said Thompson would be out until at least the the All-Star break.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr is putting an even longer timeline on Thompson’s recovery from a torn ACL.

Kerr, via Logan Murdock of NBC Sports:

“It’s unlikely that he’s going to play this year,” Steve Kerr recently told NBC Sports Bay Area in an exclusive interview that will air at 1 p.m. PT Tuesday in “NBA Season Tip-Off,” only on the MyTeams app. “So we have to understand that.”

“You have to look at it realistically,” the Warriors coach said. “I had an ACL [tear] in college, and I missed a whole season. Generally, an ACL for a basketball player is a full-year recovery, and if it’s a full year for Klay, that puts them out for the season.

“We’ve kind of left the door open in case the rehab goes perfectly and the doctors say he can go. But the reality is, on April 1, that’s the nine-month mark. … April versus nine months post-op for an ACL.

I don’t know when Thompson will return. Kerr doesn’t know when Thompson will return, though Kerr has for information than me. Each injury recovery is unique, and Thompson will heal in his own time.

Still, this is a FAR more reasonable expectation than most prognostications for Thompson. There was a lot of wishful thinking tied into the idea he’d return sooner, usually accompanied by a narrative about him sparking the Warriors to a deep playoff run with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. ACL tears nearly always sideline players longer than that.

Most teams also give high-end estimates for injury absences. That delays potentially distracting questions and makes the player look good if he returns sooner than the announced projection. Golden State might have learned its lesson after doing the opposite with Kevin Durant last postseason.

But this also sounds more realistic than anything previously coming from the Warriors about Thompson’s injury.

Western Conference, NBA Finals predictions: Is another title coming to Los Angeles?

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The NBA season tips-off tonight night, which leaves us time for one last thing:

Our Western Conference and NBA Finals predictions.

We’ve run through some postseason awards — MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year — and yesterday we laid out who we thought would win the East. Today we stick our neck out and make our predictions on how the Western Conference will shake out.

As a disclaimer, we get it: making NBA preseason awards predictions is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We’ll be wrong. But it’s fun, so the NBA staff here at NBC is making our picks.

THE WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin
1. Denver
2. Utah
3. L.A. Clippers
4. Houston
5. L.A.Lakers
6. Portland
7. Golden State
8. San Antonio
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.
NBA Finals: L.A. Clippers over Philadelphia

I’ve never gone into a season less confident in my predictions. For example, I think Dallas has a very good shot at the eight seed (maybe Sacramento, too), but I simply cannot pick against the Spurs. The order of these teams could easily shift, the West will be so close that just losing a star for a few weeks to a sprained ankle could dramatically change a team’s seeding. I’m comfortable that systems and continuity will keep Denver and Utah at the top of the regular season standings, but the playoffs will feel completely different. The Los Angeles teams are better built for the postseason than anyone else (although I think Utah has a chance to crash the party). I trust the depth and the wing defense of the Clippers more than the Lakers, so Doc Rivers will get back to playing in June. For the Finals, I’ll take the Clippers over the Sixers, but I don’t say that with a lot of confidence.

Dan Feldman:

1. Houston
2. Denver
3. L.A. Clippers
4. L.A. Lakers
5. Utah
6. Portland
7. Golden State
8. Dallas
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.
NBA Finals: L.A. Clippers over Milwaukee

There’s a rare divergence between teams prepared for the regular season and teams prepared for the playoffs, which makes this prediction difficult enough. Adding to the complications: The West is so deep, leaving few postseason locks. For some teams, a few moderate breaks in either direction could make the difference between making the Western Conference finals and missing the playoffs entirely.

The last playoff spot was an extremely tough call between the Mavericks and Spurs. The Kings weren’t that far behind, either. Kawhi Leonard just showed an ability to get through the regular season and bring elite production to a deep postseason run. LeBron James has done it the previous several years. That’s why the Clippers and Lakers get so much benefit of the doubt. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis is a better second star than the Clippers’ Paul George, but I have more trust in the Clippers’ depth — from the front office to the coaching staff to other players.

Dane Delgado:
Western Conference Finals: L.A. Clippers over L.A. Lakers.

Everyone is picking the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference, and for good reason. This is not just a team that lumped together several superstars trying to make a playoff push. This time around, it’s a bit different. Los Angeles was already a solid team before both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George arrived and their most important players from last year — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley — are all back. Doc Rivers, whose reputation as a coach was in question heading into last season, has solidified is legacy simply by what he could squeeze out of this the Clippers team last season. If L.A. can make it to the Western Conference Finals this year, it would not surprise anyone. The real question will be health. Leonard has shown he is willing to battle through various ailments to perform on the highest stage, but George’s shoulders are a real concern. Still, if you were placing bets on the best team in the west, it makes sense to go with the team that’s been able to stay intact while at the same time adding to generational superstars. It may be a bridge too far to pick the Clippers to win the NBA championship in 2020, but it’d be a safe move at this juncture to slot them in as the West champs.

Michael Jordan says Stephen Curry is not a Hall of Famer, yet

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Three-time NBA Champion. Two-time MVP. Six-time All-NBA. Six-time All-Star. Scoring champion. And the best pure shooter the game has ever seen, a player whose style helped revolutionize the way the game is played. A player idolized and imitated by youth on blacktop courts around the globe.

Even if he quit the sport today and walked away, Stephen Curry is a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer…

Unless you ask Michael Jordan.

Jordan just did a few interviews around the opening of a medical clinic he paid for in Charlotte to help the underserved, and Hoops & Brews caught this gem in Jordan’s interview on NBC’s The Today Show (h/t Bleacher Report).

Yes, he is.

Technically Curry can’t be let into the club until five years after he retires, and at age 31 he’s got a few more good years in him — including this one, where he could have an MVP-level season. However, in practical terms, he is in. It’s not close. Done deal. Move along, nothing to see here.

It’s good the NBA games are starting because we need things to talk about other than this silliness.

 

Charlotte GM Mitch Kupchak: Hornets won’t build through free agency

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Mitch Kupchak doesn’t see the Charlotte Hornets being major players in free agency as they attempt to build a winning franchise in the post-Kemba Walker era – at least not right away.

Instead, the second-year general manager said Monday he anticipates the Hornets will construct the roster through draft picks and “savvy trades” during the season, while compiling as many assets as possible.

“We will not be an active player” in free agency, Kupchak said. “I think we can build a culture here and get enough assets and have a promising enough future and really attract the kind of free agent you want to spend that kind of money on – but I don’t think you can do it right now.”

So in the meantime, the Hornets will give young players like Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte Graham and even rookie PJ Washington extensive playing time this season as part of their No. 1 overall goal of player development after going 39-43 last season and losing Walker, a three-time All-Star, to the Boston Celtics.

Kupchak said that will take patience, but he and owner Michael Jordan and coach James Borrego are on the same page.

Kupchak said he won’t measure this season’s success in terms of wins and losses, but rather on how the team’s younger players continue to progress.

“Win or lose, I want our players to play with energy and our coaches to coach with energy,” Kupchak said. “As the season goes on I want to see improvement. That’s how I’m looking at the season.”

Kupchak said that concept may not be easy for Borrego.

“I am hoping he is better than he was last season,” Kupchak said with a grin. “At the beginning of the season last year he took each loss really, really hard. Hopefully this year he will be able to handle the losses a little bit better.”

Borrego has yet to name a starting lineup for Wednesday night’s home opener against the Chicago Bulls. Point guard Terry Rozier and center Cody Zeller are locks to start, but the combination of the other three remains a mystery.

That lineup could include Washington, who has impressed Kupchak with his 3-point shooting in the preseason since being selected No. 12 overall earlier this year.

Originally, the Hornets planned for the former Kentucky forward to split time between Charlotte’s G League team and the NBA to gain maximum playing experience. But Kupchak said Washington has been the team’s most impressive young player during the preseason and will likely remain in Charlotte, provided he’s seeing 15-plus minutes per game.

“He does have to play, and, based on his production of late, he will play,” Kupchak said. “… He has worked on his game and has turned himself into not only a big man that can be productive down in the paint, but in our game today he can also make 3s.”

Win or lose, Kupchak expects the Hornets to use a “fast-paced style of play.”