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Failed promise of the Thunder

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After Oklahoma City reached the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden set expectations.

“A dynasty is being built here,” Harden said.

It sure appeared to be trending that way.

The 2010 Thunder were the youngest playoff team in NBA history. In fact, they were so young, they kept the same core, and the 2011 Thunder became the second-youngest playoff team in NBA history. The 2012 Thunder were the youngest NBA Finals team in decades.

Oklahoma City was loaded with talent. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden were future MVPs. Serge Ibaka became a near star.

The Thunder were a nova.

But like all stars, their enormous and powerful fire eventually burned out.

Oklahoma City closed a chapter by agreeing yesterday to trade Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. The Thunder have now completely turned over their roster since the 2012 Finals, leaving Harden’s proclamation unfulfilled.

Harden was the first to go. When he didn’t agree to a contract extension, Oklahoma City traded him to Houston in 2012. Durant left for the Warriors in 2016. Ibaka got traded to the Magic the same summer. Now, Westbrook exits.

After ascending so far so quickly, the Thunder not winning a title with any of those players is a historic disappointment.

Oklahoma City’s average age (weighted by postseason playing time) was 22.9 in 2011 and 23.8 in 2011. It was still just 25.7 in 2012, when the Thunder lost to the Heat in the NBA Finals.

Just four teams since the NBA-ABA merger have reached the Finals while so young. The other three eventually won a title.

The youngest NBA Finals teams since the merger:

  • 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder: 25.7
  • 1986 Houston Rockets: 25.4
  • 1977 Portland Trail Blazers: 24.2
  • 1977 Philadelphia 76ers: 25.5

The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers won the championship that year.

The 1977 runner-up 76ers had Julius Erving, who was in his first NBA season. He helped Philadelphia return to the Finals in 1980 (loss), 1982 (loss) and 1983 (win).

In an incredible example of the staying power of a young NBA Finals team, the Rockets lost momentum after the 1986 Finals. In the next seven years, they had four first-round exits and two second-round exits and once missed the playoffs entirely. But because Hakeem Olajuwon was just 23 in 1986, he remained a superstar long enough to lead Houston to titles in 1994 and 1995.

It seemed the Thunder might have similar staying power.

Oklahoma City re-tooled around Durant and Westbrook after trading Harden. That edition of the team peaked with a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals.

Then, the Thunder built around Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Then, Westbrook and George without Anthony. Those teams fizzled with first-round losses. Oklahoma City trading George to the Clippers ended that plan.

Now, dealing Westbrook closes an entire era.

The Thunder accomplished plenty in this period. Only the Spurs have a better regular-season winning percentage in the last 10 years. Oklahoma City reached four straight Western Conference finals. When healthy, the Thunder were a mainstay that deep into the playoffs.

But they never won even a single title, a blemish that would’ve once seemed so unlikely.

Nets fined $25K for injury-reporting violation

Brooklyn Nets
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Earlier this season, Kyrie Irving missed several weeks with a shoulder injury. Throughout the absence, the Nets provided few details and no clear timeline. Eventually, a report said Irving could miss 2-3 additional weeks with bursitis. The Nets denied it. Later, Irving confirmed he had bursitis then returned nearly three weeks after the report.

Finally, Brooklyn caught the league’s ire.

NBA release:

The NBA today announced that the Brooklyn Nets have been fined $25,000 for failing to comply with league policies governing injury reporting.

It’s unclear what specifically caused this violation. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Jamal Crawford and Rodions Kurucs have all appeared on the Nets’ injury report during the resumption. As 19-point underdog, Brooklyn pulled a historic upset of the Bucks. Remember, public injury disclosures are primarily about preserving gambling integrity.

For the NBA not to reveal even basic details while fining the Nets for their lack of transparency is ironic. It’s also ironic this fine comes amid a restart that featured the NBA being highly secretive about player heath.

The Clippers got fined $50,000 earlier this season for saying Kawhi Leonard was healthy. What did Brooklyn do that was less egregious but still worth of a fine?

LeBron James says Lakers have off-court issues, out vs. Rockets (groin)

Lakers star LeBron James
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The Lakers’ offense has stumbled so far in the bubble.

Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

LeBron gave a weird answer about this. He agreed that he and the Lakers were looking for a rhythm on offense. And then he said: “It’s just some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor.”

Mike Trudell of the Lakers:

Was LeBron referring to his groin injury? I wouldn’t call that an off-court issue, but maybe he would.

LeBron knows how to work the media. This subtle comment will draw attention and sets up LeBron to look better if he leads the Lakers through this mysterious issue.

Without more context, it’s easy for imaginations to wander – especially about a team with Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith. The Lakers could be facing a major hurdle. Or a minor nuisance. Who knows? But the unknown is scary.

It’ll be difficult to detect the Lakers’ progress during remaining seeding games. The Lakers have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and without a home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, there’s no reason to chase the NBA’s best overall record. That’s why LeBron missing tonight’s game against the Rockets could be mostly precautionary.

76ers: Ben Simmons suffered subluxation of knee cap, considering treatment options

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Ben Simmons injured his knee during the 76ers’ win over the Wizards yesterday.

The diagnosis is in, and the prognosis sounds worrisome.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

How quickly will Simmons recover? Once he recovers, will he face elevated risk of re-injury?

These questions now haunt Simmons and Philadelphia.

Simmons is a young star who’ll begin a max contract extension next season. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons opened Philadelphia’s championship window, and now rain is drizzling through. Philadelphia can’t reach it ceiling without Simmons healthy and providing value.

Even more modest goals in a disjointed season will be more difficult to reach.

The 76ers were just adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward. Now, they must again re-configure their plan – maybe for a significant chunk of the remainder of the season.

Even more burden falls onto Embiid, who has been shouldering so much with this mismatched roster. Simmons plays across the positional spectrum, so any number of 76ers could fill in while he’s out. Many of those lesser players will complement Embiid more smoothly than Simmons did. But the talent deficit without Simmons can’t be offset.

That’s the scary issue for now – and maybe a while.

Kelly Loeffler calls WNBA players supporting her opponent for senate ‘out of control cancel culture’

Sue Bird wears shirt supporting Raphael Warnock in senate race against Kelly Loeffler
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WNBA players and Kelly Loeffler hit a stalemate.

Players want to oust Loeffler as Atlanta Dream co-owner because Loeffler – a Republican U.S. Senator from Georgia – holds political stances they disagree with and is advocating against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler said she won’t sell, and the league won’t force her out.

So, players have turned to Loeffler’s senate race, wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in support of Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock.

Holly Rowe of ESPN:

Loeffler statement:

ATLANTA—Today, political outsider and conservative businesswoman Kelly Loeffler issued the following statement in response to WNBA players wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” t-shirts. The shirts endorse Kelly’s Democrat opponent, Raphael Warnock, following her criticism of the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter political organization.

“This is just more proof that the out of control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them. It’s clear that the league is more concerned with playing politics than basketball, and I stand by what I wrote in June:

“We come together around sports, but promoting a political agenda divides us rather than unites us. The lives of every African American matter, and there’s no place for racism in our country. But I oppose the BLM political organization due to its radical ideas and Marxist foundations, which include defunding the police and eroding the nuclear family. On the other hand, our flag represents our values of freedom and equality for all. If we can’t unite behind our flag, much less the national anthem during this struggle, then what keeps us together? It’s sad to see that there’s more interest in tearing our country apart than in solutions that bring us together. I’ll continue to defend American values and our flag, because this is not a game – it’s the future of our country. “

“Cancel culture” is a vague term with shifting definitions. But people supporting voting for one political candidate over another? That comes nowhere near any reasonable definition of cancel culture.

WNBA players are not just basketball players. They’re human beings with varied interests – including politics. That should come perfectly naturally to a self-described “political outsider” who’s a sitting senator and running for re-election. If it’s reasonable for Loeffler to be interested in politics (it is), it reasonable for WNBA players to be interested in politics.

As far as Loeffler restating her previous points, she remains errant.