Posts Tagged ‘Sam Presti’

Rolling Thunder thrive without Harden

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew discusses Kevin Durant’s streak of 25-point scoring games

It wasn’t so long ago when the citizens of a certain city in Texas were ready to vote Sam Presti as 2013 Man of the Year for the trade that sent James Harden to Houston.

The wise-cracking line was that if the Rockets eventually won an NBA championship, the OKC general manager would be first in line to get a ring.

And by the way, did he derail the hopes of the Thunder winning a title of their own?

Now, 17 months later, while the Rockets would probably still be willing to save him a seat in a victory parade, Presti’s move does not quite seem to be his folly.

After all, it was OKC that snapped San Antonio’s 19-game win streak — completing a 4-0 season sweep of the Spurs — and now bring the NBA’s second best record into the Toyota Center tonight to face Harden and the Rockets (9:30 ET, ESPN).

The plain and simple truth is that Presti’s decision to trade away Harden was all about money, something he never made a secret of. After having given new contracts to the cornerstone duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, along with a four-year extension for Serge Ibaka, there was simply no way small-market OKC could “max out” on Harden.

We can debate all through the night whether Presti might have been better served by keeping his Big Three together for one last run before he would have had to deal Harden. But Westbrook’s knee injury in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs last season likely dashed championship dreams in any case.

Presti’s challenge after the Harden deal was done was to fill in the hole in the lineup and keep the Thunder moving forward.

Enter Reggie Jackson.

The immediate return for Harden from Houston was Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. Martin capably filled in capably off the bench in Harden’s old role last season before jumping to Minnesota. Lamb held down that spot in the rotation through the first 60 games of this season before giving way to free-agent small forward Caron Butler, who was signed last month.

However, the added bonus in the equation is Jackson. He was drafted in the first round in 2011, but was mostly stuck behind the young backcourt trio of Westbrook, Harden and defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha. But since the Harden deal, he has gotten an opportunity to play. He’s performed well, with his first opportunity coming in the 2013 playoffs after Westbrook’s injury. This season, he’s averaging 13.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.9 rpg and 1.1 spg. No one is putting him close to a level with Harden, but then neither is his $2.3 million salary, which helps make the rest of the OKC operation work.

As for Lamb, he’s seen his playing time cut over the last month because Butler can also hit the 3-pointer and adds size and rebounding on the wing. Still, the 21-year-old has upside that fits the Thunder blueprint going forward.

Presti also counted heavily on Ibaka, giving him an additional $48 million and expecting him to play up to that good faith. A year ago, it appeared to be a bad gamble — to many, OKC was choosing Ibaka over Harden. But this season he’s averaging career bests of 15.1 ppg and 8.7 rpg. While his blocked shots are down slightly (2.6 bpg, 3.0 bpg in 2012-13), the truth is Ibaka has concentrated less on trying to swat everything. As a result, he’s become a more consistent, more effective rim-protector and all-around better player.

Ultimately it was a choice between paying Ibaka or Harden. The Thunder might have correctly decided that, at some point on any championship contender, defense has to matter. They were, after all, exposed by the Heat in the 2012 Finals.

The Thunder’s banner still has to be carried by Durant and and a healthy Westbrook in order to win a championship.

Yet they also have an offense that is rated seventh and a defense rated fifth in the league. They are more balanced, and likely even better, overall.

While Presti can perhaps count on the eternal gratitude of every Rockets fan and maybe even that seat on their bandwagon, the fact is he did what he had to do to keep the Thunder on track.

Jump ball!!!: the Phil Jackson debate

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to make the transition from great coach to great GM and does Phil Jackson have it?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The debate will rage on for years, long after the results are in and a legitimate case can be made one way or the other about the job Phil Jackson will do as the boss of the New York Knicks.

The initial surge from the hire has subsided, just a bit, and as the Knicks’ last-gasp effort to unseat the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference plays out, it’s a good time to restart this conversation.

Plenty of experts have weighed in, most of them no more qualified to dish on the prospect of Front Office Phil than they claim Jackson is for a job in the front office after making his championship bones (11 times as a coach and twice as a player) on the other side of the line.

My colleague and Hang Time California bureau chief Scott Howard Cooper, born and raised in Los Angeles and as knowledgeable about the Lakers and their lore as anyone in the business, lit the flame this time, questioning Phil’s credentials (it’s blasphemy, and will get you banned from Original Tommy’s Hamburgers for life all over the Southland SHC!).

I had to come to the defense of the Zen master, anyone who has been the common thread in as many championship situations as he has shouldn’t really need defending … but I had to go there in Jump Ball!!!  …

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 3:00 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: JUMP BALL !!!

I get why Knicks fans and players are excited: because they need any reason to be excited. But all the organization did by hiring Phil Jackson was win the press conference. James Dolan did something popular for a change and brought in a superstar. But Phil is a coaching superstar, not a front-office success. He has a lot to prove to earn this attention in the new job.

On Mar 28, 2014, at 1:48 PM, Smith, Sekou

You get Knicks fans, huh? They’ll boo you at the Garden for even suggesting something like that. The Phil factor is much like the Bill Parcells factor was in the NFL, his mere presence alone signals bigger things to come for whatever franchise he is working with. Seriously, ask folks in Dallas and New England. The Knicks need someone who can be held accountable for the big picture vision of the franchise. It doesn’t take a genius to come up with a plan … but if you can get one, why not?

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 5:43 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Would you like a straw or will you drink the Kool-Aid straight from the jug? His mere presence doesn’t signal anything other than the Knicks willing to spend a lot of money. “Bigger things to come” is a slogan, not based in fact. Phil is a brilliant basketball mind. I think, if anything, he is underrated as a coach. I am a fan. But they did not hire coach Phil Jackson. They put someone in charge of basketball operations who has not worked in a front office. And if it’s such a thin line from one job to the other, let’s see how people react when New York names R.C. Buford or Sam Presti or Masai Ujiri head coach. There will obviously be others handling the day-to-day work while Phil handles the big picture and deals in final rulings. But the Knicks are a tangled mess, from salary cap to the roster itself, and he has to get a lot of things right before the Knicks can say they’re at bigger things.

On Mar 28, 2014, at 2:56 PM, Smith, Sekou

Actually, I prefer one of those fancy Camelbak adult sippy cup/water bottles when drinking my Kool-Aid, Scott. You know how I do it. Seriously, though, you are selling Phil short and the job of a general manager in this league way long. I won’t run down the list of knuckle-draggers who have been general managers in this league the past 40 years or so, but there haven’t been a ton of Hall of Famers to speak of in that regard. And to suggest that anyone’s success in the NBA isn’t rooted in equal parts blind luck and superior personnel is a farce. You can’t mention R.C. Buford or Sam Presti without also mentioning Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant, the cornerstone/Hall of Fame(caliber in Durant’s case) talents that their organizations are built around. I’m not saying those guys aren’t good at what they do. I’m just saying their jobs are much more manageable because of the personnel in place. Presti was no one’s genius before Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden came into their own. And he’d be the first one to shoot down that label. Phil deserves some time and the benefit of anyone’s doubt right now based on his Lord of the Rings status alone.


VIDEO: WRick Fox discusses the nuances of Phil Jackson’s system and how it will work in New York

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 6:10 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Then let’s do it this way: What has Phil done to win you over? Are you basing his success as a GM on what he did as a coach? (And, again, I’m the last guy who sells him short. I’m the one who said he was underrated as a coach. He is an all-timer. But that’s a different job.)

On Mar 28, 2014, at 4:37 PM, Smith, Sekou

Seriously! We’re haggling over Phil’s credentials to do a job that has been bequeathed to the children of owners, former agents, guys who have graduated from the video room and folks whose credentials pale in comparison to what the Zen master has accomplished in his storied career. Coach or GM, it doesn’t make much difference to me when we’re talking about management style. Phil’s style has produced unmatched success everywhere he’s been. So he didn’t take the GM training course. Folks have to get over that and let’s see what he can do.

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Saturday, March 29, 2014 1:08 AM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

So your argument that Phil Jackson is a good hire is centered on “There have been plenty of bad hires before”? And we’re not haggling. We’re having a discussion in the loftiest of all debate societies: the sports media.

On Mar 29, 2014, at 12:06 AM, Smith, Sekou <Sekou.Smith@turner.com> wrote:

Don’t put words in my mouth … er, on my email, or whatever. What I’m saying is this, for you or anyone else to doubt Phil Jackson’s ability to do this job is shortsighted. You clearly have not embraced the Zen! I’m simply a believer in the power of experience. And no one interested in running a franchise has more championship experience than PJax!

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Saturday, March 29, 2014 4:19 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Experience is great. And Larry Bird successfully made the transition to head of basketball operations without previously working in a front office, so it can be done. But Larry Legend had two advantages. He was very familiar with the personnel after coaching the Pacers. And, Indiana was a good team. Bird had to make adjustments to a stable situation. Jackson doesn’t need to make adjustments. He needs to marshal an overhaul. The Knicks are a mess of salaries and personnel. He will be relying heavily on others for scouting and for cap management. I don’t think I’m being shortsighted. I’m being practical. Phil was a winner like few others, but that was Zen and this is now. He has to prove he can deliver in a new job. Don’t swoon over a GM because of his coaching record.

From: Smith, Sekou
Sent: Sunday, March 29, 2014 6:51 PM
To: Scott Howard-Cooper
Subject: RE: JUMP BALL !!!

You’re making this about all of these other guys and not about Phil. Does he have to prove himself as a GM? Sure. Just as all of those other guys did. But you’re acting like all of the work he’s done in the game hasn’t prepared him for this next step and I think that’s ridiculous. I’m not saying Phil is perfect and can wave his magic Zen wand and fix all of the problems facing the Knicks. But whatever issues arise, they won’t be foreign to Phil. He’s worked in championship situations and has the benefit of that vast experience to use in his new role with the Knicks. Don’t knock a guy as a GM before we give him some time to dig in on the job.

From: Scott Howard-Cooper

Date: March 29, 2014 at 11:35:28 PM EDT
To: Sekou SMITH
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

I hope he does well. I just think it’s fair to be skeptical. If he proves it, if he delivers big results, great. But let’s let him prove it.

From: Smith, Sekou
Sent: Sunday, March 30, 2014 7:38 AM
To: Scott Howard-Cooper
Subject: RE: JUMP BALL !!!

I knew I’d get you to come around to my side. And I agree, it’s fair to be skeptical. Just as it’s fair to assume, based on his lengthy history, to give Phil the benefit of the doubt we might not give someone else who doesn’t own more championship rings than fingers!


VIDEO: Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas talks Phil, the Knicks and the fit

Buyout Business: Where They Fit Best




VIDEO: Caron Butler lights it up off the bench for the Bucks, where will he do it next?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Last week’s NBA trade deadline was just Phase 1 of the late-season player grab for contenders looking to upgrade in certain areas and give themselves a push in the right direction with the playoffs on the horizon.

Phase 2 is the buyout market, when teams lock up veteran help at an area of need when teams start purging their rosters of players that were moved last week or veterans on lottery-bound teams in search of work with a contender. And that means we switch our focus from superstars who were rumored to be traded (yes, you Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol) to those players who were actually moved or probably should have been (guys like Danny Granger and Caron Butler, headliners in the buyout market).

Now it’s just a matter of matching the right player with the right team …

DANNY GRANGER TO THE … LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

The Pacers didn’t have any use for Granger with a younger and much cheaper option available in Evan Turner, but plenty of other teams are interested in adding him to their mix for the remainder of the season and playoffs. He reportedly spoke, via phone, with five different teams Thursday, per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports. Granger explored the possibilities with the Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls. A free agent-to-be this summer, Granger knows that the work he does between now and June, should it last that long, is as a temp. He’ll have time to find the long-term fit in the summer, which takes some of the pressure off right now.

ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelbourne has more on why Granger picked the Clippers:

Former All-Star forward Danny Granger has decided to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.

The San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks all made a run at Granger, but ultimately he chose the Clippers late Thursday night because they offered him the best opportunity to play meaningful minutes for a contender.

Granger hopes to play Saturday when the Clippers host the Pelicans, a source said.

By signing with the Clippers, he will become the second veteran player coach and senior vice president of player personnel Doc Rivers has recruited to the team in a week. Last week Rivers outrecruited several other teams to sign forward Glen Davis, after he was bought out by the Orlando Magic. Davis played for Rivers in Boston, where they won the 2008 NBA championship and lost in the 2010 Finals.

The Clippers traded Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison last week to create roster spots to pursue players such as Granger and Davis, who were likely to be bought out. They also backed out of late trade discussions with the New York Knicks for injured swingman Iman Shumpert and guard Raymond Felton. Both decisions look prescient a week later.

The unique thing for Granger is he’s going to get work with the Clippers the same way he would have gotten it with the Pacers, off the bench as a veteran scorer-for-hire. Granger coming off of that Clippers’ bench alongside Jamal Crawford and others is a dangerous proposition for the opposition. And if J.J. Redick‘s injury issues linger, Granger could always work as a starter alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, giving Rivers a boost no one saw for the Clippers before Granger was sent to Philadelphia at the final hour of last week’s trade deadline.

***

CARON BUTLER TO THE … OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

The race for Butler’s services has turned into a battle between two teams that could very well end up battling for the ultimate prize this season. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, are the leaders for Butler. They both have a need for a quality veteran to help work on the perimeter. Butler’s career began in Miami and he has institutional knowledge of how to operate in the Heat’s system. He could slide right into the mix with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and crew and fit in well. But the chance for more meaningful minutes might actually come with the Thunder, where Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could use another wise vet with a championship ring (Butler won his with Dallas) to help with some of the heavy lifting.

Butler was not on the active roster when the Mavericks won that title in 2011 (and the Mavericks went through both the Thunder and Heat to snag the Larry O’Brien trophy that year). Butler would bring some balance to the Thunder’s attack and his ability to defend on the perimeter would also take some pressure off of Durant, depending on the matchup, in critical situations. He’s a good fit in both place but needed more in Oklahoma City.

***



VIDEO: Jimmer Fredette works his magic against the Knicks

JIMMER FREDETTE TO THE … CHICAGO BULLS

The rumblings of a Fredette move to the Bulls started early Thursday, courtesy of a report from ESPN’s Marc Stein. It would be an odd marriage considering the Bulls’ defensive-minded focus and Fredette’s allergy to anything defensive during his time with the Sacramento Kings. But if Fredette wants to continue his playing career in the NBA and not abroad, proving himself as a contributor and key component for a rugged playoff outfit coached by Tom Thibodeau would do wonders for his cause.

The Bulls need the scoring help, particularly on the perimeter and from a shooter with Jimmer’s range. And he’ll get a chance to learn the fine art of true team defense playing for a coach and a team, led by All-Star center and defensive backbone Joakim Noah, that could very well save the No. 10 pick from the 2011 Draft.

***

METTA WORLD PEACE TO THE … SAN ANTONIO SPURS

World Peace has nine NBA lives. Who’d have thunk it a decade ago when his career was hanging in the balance? This is admittedly more of a guilty pleasure exercise for us than it is a necessity for the Spurs, but the potential World Peace and Gregg Popovich chemistry experiment is one that would keep social scientists up at night trying to figure out how it works. Metta proved during his run with the Lakers that he was capable of folding himself into the fabric of a championship outfit. He could do it again with the Spurs and Pop, who has made an art form of integrating veteran role players into the right spot in the rotation.

Seemingly every contender on both sides of the conference divide need help at the three, so Metta could see the interest in his services pick up when Granger and Butler make their decisions. He’s not necessarily a great fit in Miami or with the Clippers, but he’d be an intriguing fit with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the Spurs.


VIDEO: Danny Granger shows that he still has some bounce left in those legs

OKC’s Westbrook Gets Green Light


VIDEO: The Game Time crew hears from OKC coach Scott Brooks on Russell Westbrook’s imminent return

OKLAHOMA CITY – The wait is over. Russell Westbrook is ready to play tonight against the Miami Heat.

The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard last played on Christmas Day when he dropped a triple-double on the New York Knicks. Two days later, he underwent a third surgery on his right knee due to recurring swelling.

General manager Sam Presti said Westbrook’s re-integration will include “building his minutes over time.” They’ll keep an eye on him to see his availability in back-to-back games. The Thunder’s next back-to-back games come March 16 and 17, at home against Dallas and the next night in Chicago.

“We are all very excited to have Russell back,” Presti said in a statement. “He has worked extremely hard throughout his rehabilitation, and his addition will allow us to build on the progress we have made in his absence. As Russell integrates back into the team we are going to manage the transition by building his minutes over time and will evaluate his availability in back-to-back situations. These steps are an effort to control the areas of his return to play where feasible, given the reduced practice and conditioning time during the regular season. Our goal is to create the best foundation for Russell and the team as we head into the postseason.”

The Thunder (43-12) lead the Western Conference and went 20-7 during Westbrook’s absence.

Westbrook, averaging 21.3 points, 7.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds a game in 25 games this season, had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee that occurred during the first round of the playoffs last season. A second surgery was needed prior to training camp. He returned three games into the season, but returned to the operating table once again in late December.

Oklahoma City is 21-4 this season with Westbrook in the lineup.

Trust Binds Brooks, Young Stars To OKC


VIDEO: Take a closer look at Scott Brooks’ coaching style and strategy

OKLAHOMA CITY – Scott Brooks does a bad job of bragging. As he continued to redirect credit for Oklahoma City’s ongoing success to a meticulous organizational structure and its young stars, the Thunder’s coach, self-deprecating to a fault, spotted Wilson Taylor in the distance.

Taylor is the club’s 30-year-old manager of team operations. The morning shootaround had ended moments earlier and Taylor was busily attending to some normally behind-the-scenes tasks at the other end of the team’s sprawling, immaculately lit training facility eight miles north of downtown. Like Brooks and multiple members of OKC’s staff — general manager Sam Presti, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, roster rock Nick Collison – Taylor’s been with the team since it opened shop here in the summer of 2008.

“People don’t talk about this, but Sam has done a great job hiring, not necessarily me, but everybody in this building,” Brooks said in an interview last week with NBA.com. “You talk to Wilson right there, he understands that his job is to get our players better. And we all have the same mentality, from our therapists, from our sports scientists, from our trainers, from our equipment managers; we all understand our job is to get our players better, and I take pride in all those guys.”

Still, Brooks, 48, is the coach. And he’s overseeing one of the most unique and potentially historic team-building processes in the modern, free-agent-frenzied NBA. From the start of his career, Brooks has been coaching a rising icon (Durant), a perennial all-NBA player (Westbrook) and a roster that boasts, even after Jeff Green and James Harden‘s departures 20 months apart, seven homegrown players and six who are 25 or younger.

In the last four seasons, the Thunder have challenged the Lakers in the first round, made the West finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012 before last season’s hope got short-circuited in the West semis after a Westbrook knee injury.

Now here they are again.

The bedrock for all this success lies deeper than shrewd drafting. It lies with the bond Brooks forged early on with his two divergent stars. That put the youthful crew on a developmental fast track and put OKC on the map.

On Sunday, Brooks will coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans because his Thunder sit atop the heated Western Conference with 42 wins in 54 games. Holler if you called that following Westbrook’s third knee surgery the day after he dropped a Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.

The only team in the league to rank in the top five in offensive and defensive rating? The Thunder. They’ve popped East powerhouses Miami and Indiana by a combined 41 points.

This is arguably the deepest OKC squad ever and, assuming Westbrook resumes his season in the coming days, the Thunder are the favorite to win the West. (more…)

Cavs Mired In Self-Made Mess




VIDEO: Kyrie Irving sits down with TNT’s Craig Sager to talk all things Cavs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — This is what happens when you try to outsmart the system without the right parts, when you think you’ve come up with a formula for an equation that doesn’t actually have one.

All of the lottery picks, risky free agent acquisitions, financial flexibility, spread sheets and advanced statistical and analytical data on the planet won’t save a NBA executive or coach from that wicked reality when the bill is due.

Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant found out the hard way today when he was relieved of his duties and replaced, at least on an interim basis, by his former assistant and now “acting general manager” David Griffin. The Cavaliers are a mess, one of their own making, and Grant — despite keeping a low public profile by GM standards — found himself on the firing line, and rightfully so. Organizational and institutional arrogance will get you every time.

And there is no quick fix, no easy way out of this tire fire for the Cavaliers. There is only the painful and very public walking of the plank for Grant as Griffin, and whoever succeeds him, tries to salvage whatever they can from the wreckage that is the past four years and steer the franchise back onto solid ground.

You can’t blame All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving for being anxious about the direction of the franchise after yet another season goes sideways before Valentine’s Day. He’s not the one who chose Mike Brown, who had already been unceremoniously dumped in his previous stint with the franchise because he couldn’t get the franchise over the championship hump, to usher in the new era of Cavaliers’ basketball. He didn’t draft Dion Waiters or Anthony Bennett when everyone in the league would have gone elsewhere with those top picks. He didn’t sign Andrew Bynum or engineer any of the other moves that have come post-The Decision. Whether it was his call or not (most anyone with a lick of wisdom about this situation knows that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert‘s voice was heard on each and every decision), Grant owns all of those moves.

Trading for Luol Deng was a nice move, but it didn’t happen soon enough. It came after the air of inevitability about this particular Cavaliers team, a woeful 16-33 in a depressed Eastern Conference that they were expected to make a playoff statement in, was already established.

Gilbert made his intentions for the immediate future clear in a statement released by the team:

“This has been a very difficult period for the franchise. We have severely underperformed against expectations. Just as this is completely unacceptable to our loyal and passionate fan base, season ticket holders and corporate partners, it is also just as unacceptable to our ownership group. I can assure everyone who supports and cares about the Cleveland Cavaliers that we will continue to turn over every stone and explore every possible opportunity for improvement to shift the momentum of our franchise in the right direction. There is no one in our entire organization who is satisfied with our performance, and to say that we are disappointed is an understatement. We all know the great potential of our young talent, seasoned veterans, as well as our recent all-star addition. We believe a change in leadership was necessary to establish the best possible culture and environment for our entire team to flourish.

There is no move, nor any amount of capital investment, we will not make if we believe it will improve our chances of competing and winning in this league for both the short and long term. The fans of this great city have invested too much time, money and effort for the kind of product we have recently delivered to them. This must change,” concluded Gilbert.

This is the latest example of a franchise assuming that there is a template for the type of success enjoyed by the likes of the San Antonio Spurs translating to every other market. It takes stars, superstars usually, and just the right fit to launch an outfit from the lottery to the upper echelon of the league. The players come first, then the success. That’s the way it’s always been and always will be. Assuming that some set infrastructure is supposed to come first is where the Cavaliers went wrong.

They were spoiled during the LeBron James years. They foolishly assumed their fabric had as much to do with those teams making deep forays into the playoffs year after year as James did. Maybe they realize now that there is no chicken and egg debate here. You either grow your superstar and surround him with the right pieces to reach his potential or you make mistake after mistake — the Cavs, before and after Grant joined them (he was an assistant GM first) made plenty of those while LeBron was on his way up — and eventually watch things come apart at some point down the road.

James didn’t depart his native Northeast Ohio because he hated snow or tired of the comforts of home. He went to Miami to win and because the Heat, and Pat Riley, offered a surefire path to the one thing all of the all-time greats covet most, and that’s a Larry O’Brien trophy.

I knew where this thing was headed the moment Gilbert’s now infamous post-Decision promise that the Cavs would win a title before James and the Heat was unearthed to the public.

The risky move to sign Bynum over the summer, when the Cavs were one of a handful of teams with cap space and assets to make big moves, was one that alerted the players already on the roster that Grant and his staff were grasping for anything to make a splash.

It turns out that the Bynum signing was every bit the useless play I thought it was. All it did was increase the tension in an already fragile relationship between Irving and Waiters. The Cavaliers’ locker room culture wasn’t strong enough to absorb and force a cat with Bynum’s baggage to conform, the way he’ll have to in Indiana now if he wants to stick around with a contender for the remainder of this season.

Their Central Division rivals to the north in Indianapolis are a shining example of what the Cavaliers could have and should have been able to do during the time that has passed since LeBron’s departure. They took risks in drafts, free agency and trades and in hiring Frank Vogel as their coach to manage what has become one of the most complete and balanced rosters in the league.

It certainly helps to have Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard at the helm while going through the rebuilding process. But that’s still no excuse for the Cavaliers taking such a cavalier attitude towards conventional wisdom over the course of the past five or six seasons.

In a results-oriented business, the Grant-led Cavaliers simply never showed enough to warrant him making it to the final year of his contract. And now that same mess he inherited will be passed along to Griffin and whoever else follows. Whether or not Irving, Deng and any of the other players acquired on Grant’s watch will be around to see this thing to the finish is anyone’s guess.

But there are some certainties involved in this process, no matter how many perceived assets the person calling the shots is working with. You can go off on your own and decide to reinvent the game if you want, you can take players that don’t fit and squeeze with all your might to try to make it work. You can look past fresh new faces in the coaching ranks in an attempt to right a past wrong or what have you, but you can not and will not circumvent the system. It just doesn’t work.

If you don’t believe it, ask Gregg Popovich how that all would have worked in San Antonio if he didn’t have Time Duncan to build around; or Sam Presti in Oklahoma City without Kevin Durant.

The superstar players come first, then the structure around them. And it all has to fit together.

Concern Abounds For Thunder As Westbrook Tries To Heal Up Again


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down the implication of Russell Westbrook’s knee injury

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Starting tonight in Oklahoma City (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV), the Thunder and Trail Blazers will play three times in a span of 43 days. Out of nowhere these two Northwest Division teams separated by 1,500 miles and 1.5 games are on the brink of a meaningful rivalry in a division too often devoid of such anticipated matchups.

Unfortunately much of the oomph vanished with Friday’s out-of-nowhere announcement from Oklahoma City that its All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook needed a third surgery on his right knee in eight months and will be out at least through the mid-February All-Star break.

The Blazers won the initial meeting, a 111-104 thriller in Portland on Dec. 4. The remainder of this regular-season series will be played with the Thunder down a superstar, potentially tipping the division title in favor of the talk-of-the-league Blazers, whose more immediate objective is preventing the season’s first two-game skid from becoming three.

OKC begins a 25-game gut-check march to the All-Star break tonight having won the first two games without Westbrook. Kevin Durant scored 34 and 33 points and the Thunder defense held Charlotte and Houston each to 86 points. The schedule is relatively favorable: 11 home games, 14 road; nine against teams currently .500 or better, 16 against teams below .500; 11 against the woeful East (exception being at Miami on Jan. 29); 14 against the West (including at Houston, at San Antonio and the three against Portland).

But that’s all the narrow focus. The wider scope is more concerning: What to make of Westbrook’s troublesome right knee upon his return? Will the league’s reigning iron man prior to the injury face chronic issues? Or has this simply been a bout of really bad luck and a short-term nuisance?

During a teleconference with reporters Friday, Thunder general manger Sam Presti called this latest setback “disappointing” and “unexpected.” He said expectations are for Westbrook again to quickly return to an elite level of play for the final stretch of the regular season. But Presti also acknowledged something new: “I think we have to understand that this is something that’s probably going to have to be managed.”

What “managed” means — a minutes restriction, taking games off — won’t be known until Westbrook comes back, and beyond.

The initial surgery in late April was clear-cut: repair a torn meniscus caused by the collision with Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series. As training camp neared, Westbrook’s return date wasn’t certain, but he was practicing with teammates and by all reports was looking terrific.

On media day, the day before training camp opened, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Westbrook was pain-free, but also delivered an ominous statement: There was unexplained swelling in the knee. Three days later, Westbrook had a second surgery. The arthroscopy revealed the swelling was caused by a “loose stitch.” Great news. Structurally, the knee was fine and the surgeons, a new team from the one that performed the initial operation — one, again, selected by Westbrook’s camp and not the Thunder — reported excellent progress in the ligament-healing process.

In fact, Westbrook obliterated the team’s timetable for his return by a month, missing just two games. He quickly played with such explosive force that the 25-year-old’s right knee seemed as good as new. The Thunder was rolling and Westbrook was cementing a certain fourth consecutive All-Star bid. The last two weeks might have been his best, averaging 21.7 ppg, 8.4 apg and 8.7 rpg.

On Christmas Day, Westbrook dazzled with a triple-double. On Friday, he was back on an operating table.

“Russell has been playing pain free, but recently had experienced increased swelling,” Presti said Friday. “After consultation and consideration by his surgeon in Los Angeles, a plan was established to monitor the swelling that included a series of scheduled MRIs. On the most recent MRI it was determined by the surgeon that there was an area of concern that had not previously existed, nor was detectable in the previous procedures, and it was necessary to evaluate Russell further. The consulting physician determined that arthroscopic surgery was necessary to address the swelling that was taking place.”

This time a loose stitch wasn’t the culprit. To be clear, this is not an alarming ACL or micro-fracture situation. The last two procedures were both arthroscopies, far less invasive than a full-blown operation. Westbrook had been playing pain-free despite the recent swelling, and for a player dependent on strength, speed and explosiveness, all traits seemed to be back in abundance.

That’s again the hope and belief. Cranky knees have drastically affected Dwyane Wade‘s ability to play effectively throughout an entire season and the Heat now closely monitor him. Wade, 31, has already sat out seven of Miami’s first 30 games to keep him fresh for the long haul. For Westbrook, with far less mileage on his body, to endure similar restraints would be a blow individually and obviously the for a Thunder team that had again looked like a worthy title contender.

“We know that Russell’s work ethic and commitment will help him return to the level of play that we have all come to appreciate,” Presti said.

Clearly a Wade-like situation at this point is not the expectation. Still, a second and third surgery were never the expectation either.


VIDEO: Scott Brooks talks with The Beat’s crew about his team’s play of late

Thunder Playing With Edge Few Can Match




VIDEO: Durant, Westbrook power Thunder past Hawks

ATLANTA – All of the wonder that used to accompany the Oklahoma City Thunder has been replaced with furrowed brows, shoulder shrugs and a wicked focus from the previously precious Western Conference party crashers.

They still dance after dunks and holster their shooting hands after a 3-pointer every now and then. But the mood is much different. The fun and games are over for the Thunder. Last season’s playoff failures, piggybacked on the failure to capitalize on home-court advantage in The Finals in 2011, have hardened this group.

“They’re playing for respect,” is the way one keen observer put it to me in a hallway at Philips Arena late Tuesday night after the Thunder finished thumping a game Atlanta Hawks team. “They went from No. 1 [in the Western Conference] to the backburner after Russell [Westbrook] got hurt last year against Houston. They didn’t forget how that felt. And they are taking it out on people now.”

It shows, particularly in Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the catalysts for this Thunder team. They carry an edge that few teams in the league can match right now. It’s the same edge they played with on their way up, when they took their lumps in successive years trying to reach the top of the Western Conference.

There is a physical edge to this group that was not there previously, one that was on full display against a Hawks team that hasn’t been pushed around much by anyone this season.

Westbrook chased a triple-double (14 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds) on a night when he couldn’t make a shot early and finished 6-for-21 from the floor. Durant shredded the Hawks for his usual 30 points, but was just as lethal on the other end, finishing with 10 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal.

A much-improved Serge Ibaka added 19 points, 10 rebounds (his 10th double-double this season) and two swats, serving as a roadblock around the basket and neutralizing the Hawks’ Al Horford for most of the night.

During a late Hawks run, while both Durant and Westbrook were on the bench watching the reserves try to hold the lead, they were summoned back into the game. Durant swatted away shots on back-to-back possessions to help end whatever threat that was brewing from a Hawks team that dismantled the Los Angeles Clippers in Atlanta last week.

What Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan couldn’t do against a steady and disciplined Hawks team the Thunder did at will. They controlled the action and their stars were able to outwork their Hawks counterparts when it mattered most. The Thunder held the Hawks to just 36 percent shooting, an impressive feat for a team noted more for their explosive offensive abilities than for the intense defensive pressure.

“Any time you hold an NBA team in the thirties in shooting percentage,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, “you’re doing a good job defensively.”

Anytime you have talented players like Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and that bunch locked in and focused on both ends the way they are now, you can do what you want against just about anybody. The Thunder’s 11 wins in their last 12 games, including a pasting of the Indiana Pacers over the weekend, is proof.

The way they finished off the Hawks was just a subtle reminder to the rest of the league that they will not let up, no matter the time, place or circumstance. Before the Hawks trimmed that lead to 95-92 late in the fourth quarter, the Thunder had cranked things up and led by 13 with just under seven minutes to play.

“(The Hawks) revved up their intensity on the defensive end and when we went on that [fourth quarter] run we matched their intensity. We were able to take that punch and give a bigger punch back,” Durant said. “We played well defensively and took some good shots. We had the game up to 14 or 15 twice, and we let them back in the game. They are tough to guard. They have shooters, and they have guys who roll to the rim and finish, but we did a good job of covering everything. We just always tell each other ‘weather the storm,’ no matter what. If they close the lead or if we’re down 20, just weather the storm and keep working and keep pressing. We took it a possession at a time, and when they cut it to three, we were able to just settle down and get stops and make shots as well.”

They did whatever needed to be done. And they did it with an edge. It makes you wonder — who will match that this season?


VIDEO: OKC guard Jeremy Lamb talks about his play vs. Atlanta

OKC Back To Basics; Now West’s Best




VIDEO: The Thunder’s Sunday rout of the Pacers was a West over East statement game

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – As expected, it was all eyes on Kobe Bryant and his debut Sunday night in Los Angeles against the Toronto Raptors. When one of the game’s living legends makes his triumphant return from a devastating injury, no one can argue that it requires our undivided attention.

But the Lakers are not going to win a title this year. Two teams much more likely to be in that championship mix were busy trading blows Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma City; the Thunder and visiting Indiana Pacers, who were fresh off an impressive handling of the Spurs in San Antonio.

So perhaps it was more appropriate for us to focus our attention on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Paul George and David West and a couple of teams that will be playing in the postseason …

It’s become clear, as we near the quarter mark of the regular season, that the Thunder are no longer dragging around the memory of last season’s abrupt playoff exit (when Westbrook went down with a knee injury). In fact, they look like the best that the mighty Western Conference has to offer after their dismantling of a Pacers team that has been the East’s most consistent so far this season.

The Pacers’ vaunted defense was no match for a Thunder attack that comes in waves now, thanks to improved bench play from the likes of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and the venerable Derek Fisher.

The superstar matchup between Durant and George was a one-sided affair for much of the night, with Durant providing a steady force to George’s at-times spectacular, though sometimes spotty, performance.

“Anybody who’s guarding me,” Durant told reporters afterwards, “I take it personal.”

And the Pacers, as deep and balanced as they are, had absolutely no one in their traveling party capable of matching what Westbrook brought to the party.

“As good as I’ve ever seen him,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after Westbrook turned in a vintage Westbrook performance against his team.

“Best game of the season,” Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins said of Westbrook. “I ain’t just talking about his scoring or what he did close to a triple-double. I’m talking about he was all over the place, digging, getting back to his man, running people off the three, jumping in the passing lanes.”

Credit Thunder coach Scott Brooks and general manager Sam Presti for resisting the urge to make changes and trusting in their own system. They believed in their youngsters and that they’d improve dramatically if they worked the way the organization demands. They went back to the basics that fueled their rise from a lottery outfit to a legitimate championship challenger.

Westbrook’s injury showed the Thunder just how delicate the balance is between a true contender and an aspiring one. Oklahoma City has lived on both sides of that line the past four years, finding out last season that without one of the franchise’s pillars, the Thunder were just as vulnerable as anyone else.

The Pacers would be wise to take note of that lesson. They are learning the ropes of life as a contender. For every stirring performance like the one they had in San Antonio, they’ll have to find the energy and effort needed to bounce back quickly for the next challenge.

The Thunder, as we saw Sunday, have done that and, in the process, have shown that being the best in the West is more than just a notion. It’s reality.

Be Careful If Underestimating Thunder


VIDEO: The Beat discusses the impact of Russell Westbrook’s return

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Because James Harden and Kevin Martin left Oklahoma City within a year means Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook somehow emerged weakened?

Write off the Thunder and the championship mettle of their unguardable duo at your own shortsightedness. Is there plenty to prove? Heck yes. And why shouldn’t there be? But as you close that window on a title run, watch those fingertips.

The most driven second fiddle in the league, Durant is again side-by-side with his thoroughbred point guard Westbrook, leaping and bounding and spitting fire since his return from a torn meniscus in his right knee. They could be about to go gangbusters on the Western Conference.

Midway into the second week of the season, bowed-up West contenders in L.A. and Houston have proven they’ve got work to do. Hell, Barkley’s already read Dwight’s Rockets and Doc’s Clippers their last rites on live TV. That leaves the immovable San Antonio Spurs, galloping Golden State and perhaps an undetermined dark horse to keep the Thunder from recapturing their 2012 glory.

Yet some are already writing harbinger headlines of Durant’s exit for the big city three summers removed — an eternity for team stability in today’s NBA. The truth is this Thunder team, with a core of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — could quietly be at their most complete since hitching up in OKC.

Even if the offense takes time to integrate new bench players (and it has yet to fire on all cylinders), defense separates the Thunder. Flash-quick and long, it still seems overlooked even though they’ve been among the most disruptive forces in basketball. Top three last season, OKC ranks fourth in the league in defensive rating (allowing 95.2 points per 100 possessions) and is allowing the seventh-lowest effective field goal percentage (46.2 percent, adjusted for made 3-pointers being more valuable than a 2-point shot). That’s with Westbrook missing the first two games.

With the trigger-switch Westbrook, key reserve guard Reggie Jackson just shakes his head at the possibilities.

“The pressure that we put on people with our defense can be hard to explain,” Jackson said prior to the season. “Russ, the way he jumps lanes, the way he’s so tenacious on defense; me, K.D., just the length of the team, it’s something scary.”

The perceived weakness is the bench the bearded Harden once ruled. His individual offensive versatility served the Thunder well, all the way to the 2012 Finals before he petered out in what would be the swan song for OKC’s Big Three. Martin, while erratic last season, was a proven veteran scorer. This season the Thunder brass is undeniably placing faith in newbies to fill out a bench unit still captained by ever-steady power forward/center Nick Collison.

But look what’s happening. Coach Scott Brooks is going deep, using 11 players for at least 13.0 mpg through the first four games. The combo-guard Jackson has started slowly, but is quick, fearless and opportunistic, a breakout candidate on a number of preseason prediction lists. Jeremy Lamb, the lanky 6-foot-5 second-year wing with so much outside pressure foisted upon his shoulders, has erased a shaky preseason by averaging 10.3 ppg in 18.8 mpg. His 38.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc has fueled games of 13 and 16 points.

Rookie center Steven Adams (4.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg in 17.5 mpg) could prove a hugely significant addition and a gift to Thunder fans low on patience with Kendrick Perkins. The armor-clad Stevens is just scratching the surface yet his all-business approach is already validating the front office’s expectations when they nabbed him with the No. 12 pick. Thunder fans initially raised a questioning eyebrow.

“I think we probably got the steal of the draft in my opinion,” said Perkins, the man Stevens will eventually replace. “A lot of people probably don’t know too much about him, but he can play.”

OKC’s forgotten 2012 first-round pick, 6-foot-11 forward Perry Jones III out of Baylor, is logging 13.0 mpg. Derek Fisher, the ultimate safety valve, can return to on-call status with Westbrook back.

Brooks will find out what works and what doesn’t, and will eventually tighten the rotation. But gaining experience now for young players will help later. There is skepticism, and demands for Thunder general manager Sam Presti to prove he’s still got it by making a trade for veteran know-how by the deadline. Give it some time and he might not have to. This club is poised to make a run this season, and positioned to keep Durant happy well into 2016.

“I like the progress of individuals, how everybody came back and made their games better,” Durant said on the eve of training camp. “I’m excited for the season. I’m excited for the opportunities our new guys are going to get. I’m excited for the opportunity I’m going to get as a leader, [to] step into a different phase as a leader, and just see what happens.”

It’s not a popular prediction at the moment, but who knows, a parade might happen.