Posts Tagged ‘Sam Presti’

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.

Never Too Soon For Snap Judgments


VIDEO: Sixers begin season with strong start

 

So what if we’ll have to skip the clocks ahead again before we even finish the long grind of the regular season? Does it really matter that it will take more than seven months for somebody to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy? It’s never too soon to leap to conclusions about what we know — or think we know — one week into the 2013-14 regular season.

Heat – Nobody this side of Miley Cyrus gets more scrutiny, criticism and hyperventilating overreaction than the two-time defending champs. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade already have to talk over the alarm bells, trying to put out the fires of two losses in their first three games. They still have the best player in the game, still have a more than capable No. 2 man if he stays healthy and still will be the team to beat when the playoffs begin in April. That won’t stop the sky from falling on nearly a weekly basis. But you still want to pick them for next June.

Clippers – So much for the closing down of Lob City by the new mayor Doc Rivers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are still running free and easy with the top-rated offense in the league (119.5), but we’re going to have to see more out of DeAndre Jordan and that unicorn defense before we consider the Clips to be true playoff contenders in the West.

Derrick Rose — The Bulls’ star will be right behind the Heat with the Chicken Little crowd that will fret and worry and complain with every missed shot and turnover. He’ll have the most scrutinized repaired leg in the league until Kobe Bryant returns. The good news is that Rose hasn’t shown any ill effects from the knee surgery and it’s only a matter of time until he regains the stroke and the confidence that make him an MVP candidate and Chicago a threat to push Miami and Indiana in the playoffs.

Advantage Howard – The 2-2 Lakers might be saying they’re having fun without the 6-foot-11 distraction, but Dwight Howard is healthy and living up to all expectations in Houston as both an inside force (15 rebounds per game) and solid veteran presence in the Rockets locker room. No longer suffering from back and shoulder problems, Howard is playing joyfully and stress-free for the first time in three seasons. He’s been accepting of instruction from coach Kevin McHale, willing to move out to guard power forwards as part of the twin towers tandem experiment with Omer Asik, and has the Rockets on track to their stated goal of getting home-court advantage in the West playoffs, at the very least.

Lakers – If they were in a swimming pool, the Lakers would be wearing an orange life jacket and just trying to bob their heads above the water line. It’s a two-part season that’s B.K. and A.K. — Before Kobe and After Kobe – and things just don’t look good for the long haul with Steve Nash struggling badly and a bench that provides as much real support as a, well, bench.

Sixers – Other than LeBron and Wade declaring that they were taking the season off to visit an ashram to find inner peace, could there have been a more shocking start to the season than a 3-0 start in always sunny Philadelphia? Michael Carter-Williams, Eastern Conference Player of the Week, is the real deal. But the Warriors proved Monday that the Sixers will eventually settle down to their real level in the Andrew Wiggins Derby, especially after GM Sam Hinkie possibly parlays the quick starts by Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and maybe Thaddeus Young into deals for more draft picks.

Thunder – OK, everybody kicks five bucks into the pot and the winner is the person who picks the exact time — day, hour, minute and seconds — when some knucklehead rips Russell Westbrook for being the kind of bad/selfish teammate that will never help Kevin Durant win a championship. The truth is, since GM Sam Presti’s benevolent giveaway of James Harden to Houston, Westbrook is Durant’s only chance of getting back to The Finals. No more Memphis getting past half a Thunder team. No more avoiding the toughest challenge in the West, Spurs. Yes, Durant is OKC’s best player. But Westbrook, healthy and with a chip on his shoulder, is the hard edge on the court.

Wizards – How many times can we wait on the revamped Wizards to have that bust-out season that propels them back into the playoff picture in the East? John Wall is fine, Trevor Ariza is averaging a double-double, they have a healthy center in Marcin Gortat and yet Washington is still 0-3 with a defense that is simply dreadful. Coach Randy Wittman still leads the race for first coach fired.

Warriors – They’re like the magician that has your eyes glued to his pretty assistant in the skimpy outfit that is their high octane, high scoring offense, while coach Mark Jackson’s team really wants to pull rabbits out of their hats with a defense that will get in your face and get after it. Andre Iguodala couldn’t have been a better fit if he’d been sewn into the lineup by a British tailor.

Love Is All You Need – Well, it would certainly help to have Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and the rest of the star-crossed Timberwolves remain ambulatory through the 82-game schedule. But if there were a Comeback Player of the Year Award for the first week of the season, it would have to go to Kevin Love, who’s been nothing short of a beast scoring and rebounding. This is why it was never rash to envision the Timberwolves Western Conference playoffs the past two seasons. If Love stays healthy, they make it even in a crowded race.

Nets – While losing two of their first three was seen as a sign of the apocalypse in Miami, that trendy, high-priced collection of talent in Brooklyn might be the real candidate for being oversold as championship contenders, a win over the Heat notwithstanding. It still remains to be seen if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can continue to produce like their old selves as they become older selves. In the end, it will all come down to whether Deron Williams can get himself back among the elite level of point guards. So far, the shot just isn’t falling.

Knicks – Like the buzz over Gangnam Style and Zero Dark Thirty, Carmelo Anthony and his friends are just so last year. In fact, since their blazing start out of the gate in 2012-13, the Knicks have been positively mediocre and there is no indication that things will change soon. They were laughably “all-in” for a championship run last season, came up way short and now the brightest news is Melo saying he’d like to retire as a Knick. Perfect. Looks like a lot of them already have.

Anthony Davis – The No. 1 pick from the 2012 draft has positively exploded with his growth in the league, almost doubling his scoring from 13.5 to 23.7 ppg, bumping rebounds up from 8.2 to 12.3 and blocks from 1.8 to 4.0. This the Davis who had everyone drooling over his potential at Kentucky and makes the Pelicans a fun stop when flipping channels on League Pass. Now, if only coach Monty Williams could find a way to put some zip into an offense that is only mediocre because they play at such a horridly slow pace in an up-tempo league.

Pacers — Let the Nets spend all the money, the Knicks suck up all the oxygen with talk of Melo’s free agent destination and the Bulls ride the frenzy around every peak and valley in Rose’s return. Meanwhile in the heartland, Paul George keeps getting better, Lance Stephenson keeps learning about consistency, coach Frank Vogel keeps cranking up the intensity on the league’s best defense and the Pacers happily keep playing in the shadows as the real top threat to Miami in the East.

 


VIDEO: The Beat crew talks about Westbrook’s swift return

Durant Has Earned The Right To Make His Own Free-Agency Decision




VIDEO: Durant burns Nuggets for 36 points in preseason

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The drum beat has already begun for Kevin Durant.

The endless line of questioning, the non-stop speculation and the outright rumors (and lies) about what he’s going to do as a free agent three summers from now is officially a part of our daily NBA conversation. I hate it for Durant and I hate for his Oklahoma City Thunder, whose organic quest for a championship has been one of the better storylines the league has seen in recent seasons.

“Small-market superstars dig in and battle the big-city superstars for supremacy.” It had the makings of great drama from the very start … Durant and Russell Westbrook — and James Harden and even Jeff Green at one time — joining forces in OKC to challenge the establishment.

But like all good things, the reality and the bottom-line nature of the business threatens to derail it completely. ESPN’s Jalen Rose has already fired the first shot, predicting that Rose will bolt for Houston and a seat alongside Harden and Dwight Howard on a championship quest those two stars are just starting.

“I think that after he plays out the couple years on his contract that he goes to Houston to play with Dwight Howard and James Harden,” Rose said in this clip on Grantland.com’s video YouTube channel.

That’s a bold statement indeed, and based on the recent history of stars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Howard, one that should not be dismissed. The reality for all of these stars is that they will be faced with a similar stay-or-go dilemma at some point in their careers. And the entire drama will be played out in public, with a huge assist from social media.

I’m not nearly as convinced as Rose is about Durant bolting. Durant’s response to Rose’s claim in an interview with the Oklahoman‘s Darnell Mayberry should calm any immediate fears:

Q: Did you hear what Jalen Rose said about the Houston thing?
A: Yep.

Do you have any thoughts on that?
Nah, I’m here for the Thunder (laughs). I mean, that’s all I can say. I’m not thinking far down the line at all. It’s about today. Today we got better against the Chicago Bulls. I can’t tell the future. I can’t speak on that. That’s his opinion. I’m just going to keep playing for the Thunder. I love playing here.

People probably will continue to say that for the next three years.
Unfortunately.

How do you deal with that?
I mean, just let them know I’m not thinking that far down the line, I guess. I mean, I love my teammates. I love where I live. I love playing for this organization. So I’m just taking it a day at a time.

But whatever the three-time scoring champ decides to do, whatever choice he makes in free agency in the summer of 2016, he will have earned the right to make a decision of his own. He’s given the Thunder everything a city and its fan base could ever dream of, short of that Larry O’Brien trophy he is still pursuing.

If Durant decides in two years that he’d rather chase it elsewhere, so be it.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti lives with that reality daily. He knows that there are no guarantees in free agency, not even with a transcendent talent like Durant, whose loyalty to the Thunder has never wavered.

The doesn’t meant these next two seasons won’t be an absolute nightmare for Presti and his crew. That speculation that drives the day for so many will be magnified behind the walls of the Thunder’s headquarters. The way LeBron left Cleveland, Carmelo left Denver and Dwight left Orlando has forced every team to take stock of their situations a bit differently.

And unlike a hometown star like Chicago’s Derrick Rose, Durant’s roots in Oklahoma City don’t run deeper than the six seasons he’s spent with the franchise.

The Thunder also have to deal with the reality of their own situation. There have been some dents in the organization’s armor of late. When Westbrook suffered his knee injury during the 2013 playoffs, the entire world (and more importantly, the rest of the league) got a glimpse of just how vulnerable OKC can be when one of their big two is out.

That deep team that had home-court advantage in The Finals against the Heat two years ago is no more. They’re no longer viewed as that precious team on the rise. They are now a part of the very establishment they were challenging just three years ago.

The perception of what this team is and the reality of what this team is presents the dilemma for Durant that is no doubt coming. Fearless predictions or not, Durant will be a free agent in the foreseeable future. He and his representation, as well as the Thunder’s brain trust, need to be prepared to address it.

Whatever the final outcome, it is (and was) Durant’s decision to make. If he’s learned anything from his contemporaries and the way they handled their business, that should be at the forefront of his mind when we actually get closer to July of 2016. He has to own this decision!

Ibaka Beefs Up Pockets As Well As Game

 

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Serge Ibaka‘s four-year, $49.4 million extension kicks in this season just as James Harden digs into his five-year, $78.8 million free-agent contract.

The former Oklahoma City teammates will forever be linked. Ibaka is the Thunder’s shot-blocking frontcourt specimen, an emerging two-way force whose ascending trajectory seems as limitless as his team’s once did. Harden is the Houston Rockets’ uniquely gifted combo guard poised to be an All-Star for the next decade.

With paydays coming and the collective bargaining agreement tightening OKC’s purse strings to a hard-line course, general manager Sam Presti in August extended his big man, the less-expensive option, and in late October traded his sixth man.

How wise a strategy it was will be debated until the day the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-Ibaka trio hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy. If Harden, flanked now by Dwight Howard for the next four seasons, wins one first, well, the case will be slammed shut.

The immediacy isn’t lost on Ibaka, 24, who enters his fifth NBA season saddled with enormous responsibility. The backbone of the Thunder’s top-four defense must also step up as its third scorer, a task made even more essential early on as Westbrook’s recovery from two right knee surgeries is expected to drag four to six weeks into the season.

Three weeks, Ibaka said, is all the time he allowed to step away after last season’s playoff disappointment. Three weeks and he was back in the gym with an agenda to expand an offensive arsenal that last season introduced a dangerous mid-range, pick-and-pop jumper. It worked to increase his usage from 15.5 percent in 2011-12 to a career-high 18.0 percent last season, and raised his scoring average from 9.1 ppg to a career-best 13.2 ppg.

His usage should rise even higher and the Thunder will need his points to as well.

“I’m working on my game and creating my own shot,” Ibaka said. “That is something I’ve been doing all summer, so I hope it will pay off. … I’ve been working on putting the ball on the floor and post moves.”

To suggest an offense that has been nothing short of a juggernaut the past few seasons could struggle to score beyond its big two might seem odd. But those past teams included the dynamic Harden and last year featured Kevin Martin as the sixth man. As streaky as Martin was, he delivered 14 ppg and better than 42 percent shooting from beyond the arc, on top of Ibaka’s production.

Martin’s in Minnesota and OKC promoted from within, expecting second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb to join third-year speedster Reggie Jackson to fill some of the scoring void off the bench (Jackson will start at point guard until Westrbrook returns). Lamb has had a sluggish start to the preseason, only heightening concerns that OKC will field enough firepower around Westbrook and Durant.

If the chiseled, 245-pound Ibaka, the reigning two-time shot-block king, can establish himself as a presence around the offensive rim, it would give the nearly unguardable duo of Westbrook and Durant a previously unavailable option. The lack of a low-post game with Ibaka and the offensively limited Kendrick Perkins has long been a glaring void, and a constant criticism, of the OKC attack.

“You know,” Ibaka said, “I’m sure I will be better than last year because I put a lot of work in this summer.”

Ibaka will take home more than $10 million than he did last season, and he’ll be asked to earn it. His shot attempts jumped from 7.42 a game in 2011-12 to 9.73 last season. During the playoffs they spiked to 12.2 a game. In the nine playoff games without Westbrook he took 10 or more shots eight times and 12 or more in six games.

Through two preseason games without Westbrook, Ibaka is 5-for-8 from the floor for 15 points in 27 minutes, and 9-for-16 for 18 points in 36 minutes.

The latter stat line, which included 11 rebounds and three blocks, likely resides in the neighborhood that will define success over failure for this edition of the championship-or-bust Oklahoma City Thunder.

“That’s why this summer I decided to only take three weeks,” Ibaka said, “and go back to work on my game and try to get better for next season.”