Posts Tagged ‘Scott Brooks’

Westbrook out at least month after surgery on broken hand


VIDEO: Who steps up now for Thunder?

The clock of healing and recovery from major injury starts the moment the surgery ends, but as expected in Russell Westbrook‘s return from a broken right hand, the clock really is a calendar. The Oklahoma City point guard will be out at least one month after suffering a fractured metacarpal bone in his right hand.

Westbrook, 25, underwent surgery Saturday morning on the fracture he suffered in the second quarter of the Thunder’s loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles. The team said he would be reevaluated in four weeks, by which time he will have missed at least 15 games.

Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com offered an update on Westbrook’s condition and on the many injuries that have hammered the Thunder in the early NBA season:

Westbrook is the latest victim of an injury bug that that has come through and decimated Oklahoma City’s roster. Kevin Durant, Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Mitch McGary and Grant Jerrett are all out with injuries. Jackson was expected to rejoin the lineup as early as Saturday against Denver in the Thunder’s home opener, but he said at the team’s shootaround Saturday morning that he is not 100 percent and doesn’t expect to play against the Nuggets.

If Jackson does not play, the Thunder would be left with only eight healthy players. Only one, veteran Sebastian Telfair, is a point guard.

“This is the time when we stick together, especially with the guys that we have out,” Telfair said. “It’s no way to replace them guys.”

Due to the rash of injuries, however, the Thunder will soon be eligible to exceed the maximum of 15 players on its roster should the league grant Oklahoma City a hardship exception. It’s an exception that allows teams with at least four injured players who will be sidelined for at least two weeks to add an additional player. For a team to qualify for the exception, all four players must miss at least three consecutive games while sitting out those two weeks.

The Thunder will meet the criteria following the Nuggets game, as Durant, McGary, Morrow and Jerrett all will miss their third straight game while nursing long term injuries. Westbrook’s fluke injury from Thursday night will soon give the Thunder a chance to apply for a second exception once he misses three consecutive games.

“It’s unfortunate the way it is right now, but that’s the way it is,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We have to figure out how we can improve and get better from all of our experiences. And this is going to be a tough one, but the good teams, good players bounce back through adversity.”

Five questions for OKC after Durant’s surgery


VIDEO: Coach Scott Brooks describes how the loss of Durant impacts the Thunder

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin Durant had surgery on his fractured right foot on Thursday, the team announced. He will be evaluated in six weeks. By then, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be 16 games into a most unusual season.

Durant’s injury obviously will have wide-ranging effects, from whom coach Scott Brooks will start at small forward, which could determine who then starts at the vacant shooting guard spot, to which players with previously limited roles are in line for significantly more playing time.

Durant last season averaged 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists and led the Thunder in 3-point shooting percentage. He won the MVP. So there’s plenty of making-up to do.

Here’s five questions the Thunder face with their regular-season opener 13 days away:

1. Who will replace Durant in the starting lineup?

Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are the two main candidates. Lamb, the 6-foot-5 wing, is also a candidate to start at shooting guard, although Brooks seems feel most comfortable with the second-year, defensive-minded shooting guard Andre Roberson. Roberson has started all three preseason games, and if he maintains the starting spot — which he manned last season when Russell Westbrook was out and Reggie Jackson took over point guard — that would allow Lamb to start at small forward. Jones is a 6-11 forward and a rare Thunder first-round pick who has yet to earn much beyond spot work in his first two seasons. His shooting range is improving and he’s athletic, but he’d have to prove he can guard NBA wings. The bigger issue with Jones here is he’s not much of an offensive threat, or at least we can’t claim that he is or could be because we just haven’t seen much of him. Without Durant and with Roberson at shooting guard, the Thunder will desperately need scoring threats around Westbrook. That would seem to give the edge to Lamb, an inconsistent shooter to be sure, but a player the Thunder hopes can become a valued slasher and 3-point shooter. His long, lanky frame can also be beneficial on the defensive end.

2. Since OKC needs scoring threats in the starting lineup, what does that mean at center?

Brooks is an extremely loyal coach and he loves to stick with his guys through thick and thin. That is obviously the case with center Kendrick Perkins. For everything you might think Kendrick can’t do — or no longer does well — Brooks will give you two things he loves about him. But Perkins’ starting days should be coming to an end. Even before Durant’s injury, Brooks claimed the starting position was up for grabs. Well, second-year center Steven Adams is grabbing it. He’s been excellent through three preseason games, averaging 18.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in 23.7 minutes. Those are numbers Perkins couldn’t touch even during his heyday in Boston. Not that Stevens could sustain such lofty production, but he continues to show he has great hands to catch-and-finish, he’s developed a nice rapport with Westbrook and he’s not afraid of physical play. Perkins has been out since the start of training camp with a quad injury, which makes only more sense for him to come off the bench as he rounds back into shape. Get ready Thunder fans who’ve been clamoring for Perkins to sit, Adams is making it possible for you to get your wish.

3. How will this affect Russell Westbrook?

Twitter is full of smarty-pants suggesting that Durant’s absence is the point guard’s green light to jack up 40 shot a night. Maybe in his dreams, Westbrook sees himself running circles through defenses like stationary pylons, dunking at the rim, slapping his imaginary guns into his imaginary holster after splashing endless 3s and draining his trademark high-rising free-throw jumper at will as teammates stand and golf-clap his virtuosity. Back in reality, Westbrook just might surprise the masses who doubt he can be a team player. But that’s been the goal even before Durant’s injury. The Thunder, like most teams, want to move the ball, get more players involved, be more, well, Spurs-like. At the start of training camp, Westbrook addressed the topic and even said: “There should be something that you see new from us.” Maybe it was just talk, but Westbrook seems sincere when he talks about getting everybody involved. Maybe Tuesday’s preseason win against Memphis, the first game without Durant, was a preview. Westbrook played 26 minutes and scored 14 points with 12 assists. He took just 10 shots and OKC scored 117 points in a 10-point win. If this is the model for how Westbrook will approach the season, the Thunder could well be a better team when Durant returns.

4. What about Reggie Jackson? He says he badly wants to start. What does this do for that cause?

Not much. Brooks has already declared Westbrook as the best point guard in the NBA, so he’s probably not going to then move Westbrook to shooting guard to allow Jackson to start at the point. As for Jackson starting at shooting guard, it makes OKC small in the backcourt and Jackson’s playmaking and scoring punch is too valuable off the bench. But surely Jackson sees the bigger picture. He’s eligible for an extension at the end of the month, which might not happen (and it’s probably beneficial for his value not to sign an extension), and would make him a restricted free agent next summer. Even coming off the bench, Jackson is going to play starters minutes and finish games. Without Durant he instantly becomes a top scoring option, so he could set himself up for a big scoring season, which will only inflate his value next summer. If Jackson decides to mope about not starting over a less accomplished player such as Roberson or Jones, or even Lamb, the Thunder will have trouble. But Jackson has never shown to be that type of player.

5. Is there a wild card on the Thunder roster?

His name is Anthony Morrow. As Brooks mentioned at the start of training camp, the team actually has a player with a higher 3-point percentage than Durant. The Thunder could have used him last season, but better late than never. Morrow has never been able to stick with any one team during his career, but the Thunder offers a unique situation where he really can solely focus on shooting 3s (and mix in a little defense). With Durant out, defenses will focus on Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka, who has become one of the best mid-range, pick-and-pop shooters in the league, and if Morrow can knock down 3s at his career rate of 42.8 percent, he could certainly see more minutes than his career average of 23.7, at least until Durant returns. Through three preseason games, Morrow is averaging 16.7 points and is 8-for-14 from beyond the arc. He’s also managed to get to the free-throw line, making all 14 of his attempts. Morrow’s accuracy could be the single most effective weapon in replacing Durant’s scoring.

Jackson’s dreams await with patience

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

reggie-jackson

Reggie Jackson averaged 13.1 points and 4.1 assists last season in 28.5 minutes. (NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Reggie Jackson didn’t start the Oklahoma City Thunder’s preseason opener Wednesday night at Denver, and that’s not likely to change regardless of how many impassioned pleas he makes.

“I want it. I feel strong about it. I want to be the starter,” Jackson said a couple of weeks ago during Media Day, delivering a rambling and emotional speech that spilled over the 10 minutes allotted for each player. “What I have always grown up just believing, I want a majority of my time to be spent playing against other starters. I want to play against the best, I want to play against Chris Paul, I want to play against Kyrie Irving, I want to be mentioned on the highest of levels.”

It’s certainly admirable. It’s just not practical. Three-time All-Star Russell Westbrook is the Thunder’s starting point guard, and coach Scott Brooks just anointed him best in the business.

But that’s not the point here. Oklahoma City has a starting job open at shooting guard, not point guard. Jackson, a quick, 6-foot-3 point guard, filled the 2-guard spot well several times during the second round and the West finals when Brooks benched longtime starter Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha moved on to Atlanta and OKC will replace him in-house. Just not with Jackson.

The overriding issue is — and this should make Jackson feel all warm and fuzzy — he’s too valuable right where he is. It’s more ideal for OKC to fill in the starting 2-guard spot (second-year player Andre Roberson, a defensive-minded two-guard with little offensive upside, and erratic Jeremy Lamb, a natural for the position as a lanky 6-foot-5 shooter if he can ever harness consistency, are the top options) than to replace Jackson’s critical production off the bench.

It’s unfortunate really. Here’s a young player so determined to make a name for himself but is convinced being a reserve is taking a back seat. Brooks and others try to tell him it’s more impressive to be a “finisher,” which he is, that he’ll log as many minutes as a sub and he’ll play many, many minutes alongside Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

The decision to not start Jackson isn’t a personal one, or one made because there’s somebody better to do it. As shown above, there’s not. Keeping Jackson on the bench is purely strategic. OKC needs his aggression, penetration and scoring to lead the second unit. As they realized last season, the Thunder bench is compromised without him.

“For some people [starting is] important. To others it’s not,” Jackson said. “It’s very prideful for me. I feel like I’m very talented. I feel like I can lead a team. That’s just how I’ve been raised and that’s just how I’ve always felt. I want to be the guy in charge. I want to be the guy leading the team, the head of the snake.”

Again, admirable, but not realistic. Intertwined in all this is Jackson’s eligibility for an extension by the end of the month as he enters his fourth season. If one doesn’t get done he’ll enter next summer as a restricted free agent, which seems the likely path, where other teams can set his value.

Comparisons have been made to James Harden‘s situation a couple of years ago when OKC stunned everybody and traded him to Houston before the start of the 2012-13 season. But lets not confuse Jackson for Harden, a No. 3 overall pick and an emerging star when he was dealt. Jackson, the 24th pick, barely got off the bench as a rookie. He averaged 14.2 minutes the next season before being thrust into the starting lineup in the first round of the playoffs after Westbrook injured his knee. He started 36 games last season when Westbrook was out and staked himself as key contributor. His 32 points in 37 brilliant minutes off the bench in Game 4 at Memphis, all but saved an embarrassing first-round exit.

A more accurate comparison is Eric Bledsoe, the 18th pick in 2010 (actually drafted by the Thunder and traded to the Clippers) who spent three seasons backing up CP3. He got his break last season after being traded to Phoenix. He played great in a two point-guard backcourt with Goran Dragic and the Suns made fast strides. Although Bledsoe missed half the season with a knee injury, he cashed in as a restricted free agent with the Suns — albeit rather contentiously — on a five-year, $70 million contract.

Jackson won’t get that chance to start, but what he has that Bledsoe did not is the opportunity to win a championship. If he does that, or even gets close, while being perceived as a selfless, super sixth man, all of Jackson’s boyhood dreams will be in front of him starting next summer.

Just not likely with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Blogtable: Finding Westbrook’s place

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Kobe’s production | Westbrook’s place | Knicks in the playoffs



VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook remain one of the most formidable 1-2 punches in the league.

> Scott Brooks says Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the NBA. We’re wondering if Westbrook should play 2 guard instead. What’s your thinking?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If Scott Brooks, former professional point guard by trade, considers Russell Westbrook to be a point guard, that’s good enough for me. What’s in a name, The Bard asked. That which we call a Rose (Derrick) by any other name would smell as sweet (if healthy). Same goes for Westbrook. No need to get hung up on position designation. The key is for Westbrook to complement Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka in the Thunder lineup and for Brooks to build his backcourt to complement his irrepressibly athletic ball dominator. Time to move on from the John Stockton archetype, at least in this guy’s case.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: With all of the great point guards currently in the NBA, who is the best is a classic barstool question that can have many different and valid answers. Russell Westbrook, with all of his flaws, is the correct one on any given night. No, he’ll never be linked with John Stockton as a classic set-up man or Chris Paul as an overall floor general, but the Thunder have been one of the league’s elite teams with him at the point. It seems to me that if you moved him to the 2 spot, you’d actually be turning him loose to shoot even more and eliminating a raw, physical mismatch that he has over most other point guards. I’m also wondering why anyone wants to change one of the two main cogs on a Thunder team that has a .688 winning percentage over the past five seasons?

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Why would you play the, ahem, best point guard in the league at shooting guard? No. I’m leaving Westbrook right where he is. Westbrook is an All-Star, the guy does things no one else can do. OK, so some of what he does also makes you want to pull your hair out. He mentioned Monday that incorporating more player and ball movement into the offense is a high priority and suggested we might see something new from the Thunder in that regard. So we’ll see. But starting Reggie Jackson at the point and Westbrook at the 2 doesn’t make this team better. Westbrook averaged 21.8 ppg and 6.9 apg after all those surgeries last year. In the playoffs he averaged 26.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.3 rpg. Anyone else does that and we’re calling him the best point guard in the league.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: His career best for 3-point percentage is 33 percent and he’s been better than 44 percent overall twice in six seasons. So there’s that. Plus, he is uniquely effective because he is a PG with superior athleticism and better size than most on the other side of the matchup. Move Westbrook to the other backcourt spot and suddenly the Thunder have a small backdoor, a shooting guard who can’t spot up and concerns about not maximizing your second-best player. The only reason it should be discussed is if OKC wants to play Westbrook and Reggie Jackson. Otherwise, no go.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: He’s certainly the most talented point guard in the league and one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players, period. Westbrook without the ball in his hands is not the same Westbrook. There are possessions — sometimes when the game is on the line — when he needs to be more of a true point guard, but if you live by the Russ, you have to sometimes die by the Russ. It’s not like you can flip a switch in his head.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Of course, Scott Brooks is campaigning for Russ Westbrook, as any coach worth his whistle should. And he can make a great argument for the force of nature that Westbrook has become, warts and all. He doesn’t own the No. 1 spot on my list. That spot still belongs to Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers. But Westbrook is easily in my top five. My bigger issue is  with this mysterious “we” who are contemplating whether or not Westbrook should play the 2? That’s like playing a high-risk, high-reward dual threat NFL quarterback at wide receiver. Makes no sense to me!

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Russell Westbrook might be the most *talented* point guard in the NBA. I mean, his athleticism at the position is really unparalleled, both in the NBA today and historically. His combination of size and speed and explosiveness render him almost unstoppable in the open court. But that incredible package of skills also seems to dazzle Westbrook at times, and he doesn’t fully know how to consistently utilize those gifts in such a way as to lead the Thunder to titles. Westbrook is an amazing talent, but that doesn’t make him the best point guard in the NBA. Because that person’s name is Chris Paul.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: I think Westbrook stays where he is. Look at Kevin Durant’s numbers — the current league MVP has four scoring titles, with Westbrook playing point-guard. Also, consider this, Westbrook averaged 8.1 apg in the 2014 postseason, only behind Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, both of whose teams did not proceed beyond the second round. How much better can Westbrook or anyone else at point-guard do? Moreover, with Westbrook playing the 2-spot, how often is he going to get the ball, with Durant definitely being OKC’s number one offensive option. OKC’s problems against the NBA’s best remains an overdependence on Durant and Westbrook for their scoring. They need to address that rather than tinker with Westbrook’s position.

Adriano Albuquerque, NBA Brasil: When it comes to ranking point guards, Chris Paul is 1A and Russell is 1B in my book. I think playing him at the 2 is nonsense. Even if you add a another point guard, that’s just gonna cut into the touches and times he and Durant get to bring the ball upcourt. I do like two point guard sets and think Russ could excel in them, but only if you don’t have a point-forward type player like KD. Free Westbrook!

Marcelo Nogueira, NBA Argentina: These days there’s not a huge difference between a point guard and a shooting guard. It depends on the opponent and certain moments during the game, but Russell can play either position.

Ball movement high on Westbrook’s list

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the Thunder’s media day

OKLAHOMA CITY – Visions of Pau Gasol, back to the basket, effortlessly tossing passes to cutters and slashers and 3-point shooters as if directing a choreographed ballet certainly danced through the minds of the Thunder, whose ambitions to increase ball movement in their potent, but heavily star-driven offense seem to have only intensified.

“Well, yeah, we had obviously a chance,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Monday of OKC’s summer dalliance with Gasol, a terrific low-post passer who chose to leave the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls. “One thing I look at is I love the team I have. I wished him the best. I had a great meeting with him. But it’s not something I even think about now.”

Brooks does love his team, and he’ll never miss an opportunity to let everybody know it. In fact on Monday he announced, without provocation, that Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the game.

And Westbrook promptly agreed.

“I feel like I’m the best player on the floor every time I step on the floor. That’s just my mindset,” Westbrook said during an exceedingly short and curt media session, perhaps the most telling sign that he’s back to 100 percent from the knee injury that robbed him of the 2013 playoffs and half of last season. “It’s not just this year, not just last year. It’s just how I think when I get on the basketball floor.”

If that’s the case then the Thunder’s desire to move the ball around more, to involve more players not named Westbrook, Kevin Durant or pick-and-pop maestro Serge Ibaka should not be the excruciating exercise it has been, particularly during out-of-timeout or late-game situations when execution is paramount.

But this is also a tricky area because Brooks must also allow his two supremely gifted stars to exploit their own unique skills to create for themselves and score. An over-reliance, however, can lead to over-dribbling, teammates standing around and ultimately either Westbrook or Durant forcing low-percentage attempts late in the shot clock. Memphis, a quality defensive team, has flustered Durant and the Thunder in each of the last two postseasons, winning in five games in 2013 without Westbrook, and forcing a seven-game series last year.

When Westbrook was sidelined during the 2013 playoffs, he watched the games from the suite level and said it helped him see the game differently. He vowed to return a smarter player. He missed half of the regular season and then was sensational in the postseason, averaging 26.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.3 rpg. But he also attempted nearly 21 shots a game and made only 42 percent overall and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

This summer the Thunder added 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow, the type of consistently lethal perimeter shooter they’ve lacked, and emerging second-year center Steven Adams has shown the ability to catch-and-finish in the paint. Westbrook said moving the ball isn’t just more talk, even suggesting we will take notice.

“I think that’s key. Moving the ball is definitely a big part of our improvement as a team,” Westbrook said. “It’s something that we made a conscious effort to be able to go into this year trying to do. There should be something that you see new from us.”

The Thunder have incrementally increased their assist totals over the last three years. In 2011-12, they ranked last in the league in assist ratio (14.7), the number of assists a team averages per 100 possessions. That also happened to the be the lone season OKC advanced to the NBA Finals. That season it also had Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, another rare player capable of getting to the rim almost at will.

The trade of Harden to Houston just prior to the 2012-13 season naturally forced changes that seemed unnatural for a team that had grown together the previous three seasons. In 2012-13, OKC ranked 23rd (16.7) and last year they ranked 15th, although their assist ratio didn’t change (Westbrook’s absence obviously also has to be figured into that). For reference, the Spurs led the league at 19.2 assists per 100 possessions.

“We know what it takes to win games. We know what it takes to get to the top, but we don’t know what it feels like to win a championship,” Westbrook said. “There’s steps we have to make as a unit, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to make those.”

Thunder happy to have fresh KD


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook talk about coming into the season well-rested

OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant turned 26 on Monday. Not exactly old age, but he’s also no longer the kid leader of the 25-and-under Oklahoma City Thunder fun bunch climbing the rungs of the NBA ladder.

He is on the climb to 30 now and things have become a bit more serious as titles have become more elusive. Human frailty has twice sabotaged potential championship runs in successive seasons and Durant’s upcoming eighth season in the league — and who knows, perhaps his penultimate season in OKC — presents another excellent opportunity to finish first. So with age comes a sharpened perspective, a narrowing of time and thus, a wisdom to make different decisions than one might have made previously.

Durant made one such decision in early August and not everybody appreciated it. After committing to play for Team USA and participating in its July training camp in Las Vegas, Durant exited it conflicted. He wanted to uphold his commitment, but his fatigued body was pushing him the other way and his head was telling him training camps would open two short weeks after the six-week World Cup odyssey with Team USA.

“He had actually texted me before he actually made it public that he was going to take a step back from it,” Thunder teammate Kendrick Perkins, a Durant confidant, said Monday. “He asked me what I thought about it. I said it’s what’s best for you. KD did a lot. He carried the load when Russell [Westbrook] was out, he was averaging a lot of minutes, played a lot of time on the court. Going through the season he kept it going to win his MVP and he played at a high level. And we’ve been playing damn near to June every year since I’ve been here. So it’s well-deserved.”

Durant’s decision to leave Team USA three weeks before the start of the FIBA World Cup in Spain came as a surprise to everybody, including chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski. Durant had made a well-intentioned commitment to play even when many of the NBA’s other superstars had not. The 2010 world championship MVP and 2012 Olympic gold medalist put his employer and Thunder teammates ahead of country this one time. He’s been clear he plans to play for Team USA in Brazil 1n 2016.

Yet when Durant offered a well-reasoned explanation for leaving the team on short notice, some called him a quitter, suggested he was being selfish during a summer in which he reaped millions in endorsement deals and said he unfairly left the team in a lurch. The next day, Rudy Gay happily accepted an invitation to replace Durant and the U.S. cruised undefeated to another gold medal, without even having to face Durant’s Thunder teammate Serge Ibaka and might Spain, thought to be Team USA’s toughest foe.  The Americans won their semifinal and championship games by a combined 65 points.

If only they had KD.

“I think it was more so that I didn’t want to be in full-season mode in August or July,” Durant said during the Thunder’s media day on Monday when asked about his decision not to play. “I just wanted that time to just free my body and my mind of it all and just go out there and workout and work on my game and just enjoy the rest of the summer. Because I know how long the season is, and I just wanted to be fully prepared for that.”

Durant has led the Thunder to at least the Western Conference finals in three of the last four years. No player logged more minutes than he did last season and his workload over the last five seasons is beyond reproach.

“I’d rather have a guy tell the powers-to-be, ‘you know what, I can’t give you my 100 precent effort both mentally and physically,’ because if you don’t you’re not going to help your team,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “I have a lot of respect for Kevin stepping up. That was not an easy decision, but he stepped up and said, ‘I wasn’t mentally and physically ready to compete with the 12 guys we had.’ He played a lot of basketball. He’s entitled to have a summer off, right?”

Westbrook also pulled out of Team USA to properly rest a right knee that had been operated on three times in the span of eight months and sidelined him for half of last season. Both players had as restful a summer as they’ve had in years. Ibaka is back at full strength from the calf injury that forced him out of the first two games of the West finals against the Spurs. There is a lot of optimism entering camp that OKC is equipped to get back to the NBA Finals.

“I was glad to see him make a decision he felt like he needed to do,” said Nick Collison, Durant’s teammate since his rookie season in Seattle. “He felt that he needed to step away and I was glad he was able to make that decision because I know that was a tough decision. So, yeah, for our team, for us, I think it’s a positive that those guys [Durant and Westbrook] are coming in fresh.”

First Team: KD evokes MJ in MVP season

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Kevin Durant took his otherworldly scoring abilities to another level in his 2013-14 MVP campaign.

Kevin Durant took his otherworldly scoring abilities to another level in his 2013-14 MVP campaign.

There’s a sense Kevin Durant still hasn’t peeked at his peak. His length is unfair. His angel-hair pasta build is a rebellion against the MUSCLEWATCH movement that dominates the NBA. Myth has him closer to being 7-foot than his listed 6-foot-9. All of this leads to a virtually unblockable shot (don’t tell James Johnson!) that allows him to get a clean look whenever he wants.

The results:

1) NBA MVP
2) Five All-NBA first teams
3) Four scoring titles
4) All-Star MVP
5) Olympic gold medal
6) A host of honors too long to list here

Yet Durant is far from a finished product. There’s that untapped post game that Charles Barkley keeps hammering about. Can he win seven more scoring titles to surpass MJ? Could Durant, who turns 26 next week, snatch the top scoring spot from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by the time it’s all said and done?

Last season, he dropped at least 25 points in 41 straight games to top His Airness’ modern-day record (only Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain have more). The night his streak was “broken,” he scored 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting in 31 minutes, then went on to rip off another eight straight at the 25-point level. He hit that mark in 63 out of his final 65 games.

In addition to scoring and playing more minutes than anybody else, he dealt a career-high 5.5 dimes per contest. He even tied for the league lead in technical fouls (16). The only thing Durant was missing last season was a nickname that stuck.

Here are his top games last season:

Jan.17, 2014 — Striking Down The Warriors

The Line: 54 points on 19-for-28 shooting

The Quote:He’s a special talent, a superstar basketball player, an all-time great.” — Warriors head coach Mark Jackson


VIDEO: Kevin Durant carves Warriors up for career-high 54 points

As he did for most of the season, Durant was playing without Russell Westbrook this night, giving him carte blanche with the rock. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green did what they could, but the easy truth about basketball is this: Great offense trumps great defense every time. On this night, Durant put it all together for a career night.

Jan. 21, 2014 — Extinguishing The Blazers

The Line: 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting, 6 3s

The Quote: “The way he was playing, he probably could have scored on Jesus.” – Trail Blazers guard Mo Williams


VIDEO: Durant goes for 46 points in lighting up the Blazers

The eighth night of The Streak was Fan Night on NBA TV. KD had his 25 by the end of the third quarter, but his team nursed a two-point lead going into the fourth. Without Westbrook and a tough Portland team promising to make matters difficult, his plate was full.

So Durant ate. First off a deadly mid-range game, then with a 3-point light show at the end, including a coup de grace over Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.

Jan. 27, 2014 — Just Another Night

The Line: 41 points on 15-for-25 shooting, 3 blocks

The Quote: “He’s going to be an MVP candidate until he decides to retire.” – Thunder head coach Scott Brooks


VIDEO: Kevin Durant clips Hawks with game-winner to cap 41-point night

With no Westbrook again, Durant donned the hero cape. On the defining play of the game, the double team came from the left. Durant started right. Three hard dribbles later, with three Hawks in the vicinity, he confirmed another moment in a season full of them. Another game winner, another vicious January performance. Just another night, his 10th straight reaching 30 points.

Durant used January to make volume efficiency his M.O. For the month, he put up 36 points on 55 percent shooting, 44 percent beyond the arc. That. Is. Insane.

Feb. 13, 2014 — Rally On The Road

The Line: 43 points on 14-for-33 shooting, 19 in fourth quarter, 7 assists

The Quote: “He is one of the best I have seen in terms of really just playing through anything and everything.” – Thunder guard Derek Fisher


VIDEO: Kevin Durant ends first half with 43-point performance in L.A.

Durant’s final game before the All-Star break didn’t start auspiciously. He clanked his first eight treyballs and his team fought uphill all game. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Thunder were down 13 to a Lakers team that had lost its previous six home games.

But ‘Mr. Unreliable’ took over, almost outscoring the Lakers by himself (19 to 21). He topped the 40-point mark for the eighth time, matching the previous season’s high set by Carmelo Anthony and Kobe. No better way to end the best first half of his career.

March 21, 2014 — Making Fossils Out Of Raptors

The Line: 51 points (38 in second half and two OTs), 12 rebounds, 7 assists

The Quote: “It looked good when it left my hands and God guided that thing in the basket. That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of.” — Durant


VIDEO:
Kevin Durant finishes off Raptors in 2OT with game-winner, 51 points

What does a man have to do to get a double team? No matter how many times Amir Johnson stood on an island guarding the best scorer in the league, help never came. But you know what? It probably wouldn’t have mattered. Forces of nature are inevitable.

Down eight points with 49 seconds left, the Thunder ended the game on a 9-0 run. Who was responsible for those final points? Do you even have to ask?

 

Blogtable: New coaches, hot seats

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Home sweet new home | Kobe and the Lakers | Is there a hot seat?


The pressure is on for coach Scott Brooks (with Kevin Durant) to take OKC to the next level. (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

The pressure is on for coach Scott Brooks (with Kevin Durant) to take OKC to the next level. (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

> With so many new coaches — all but two teams have had at least one new coach in the last six years — is there anyone out there in danger of getting canned this season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: So you’re suggesting Scott Brooks suddenly has job security and is free from speculation about his continued employment? Well, that would be a first. Look, no coach is entirely safe once a team gets to the point of needing to do … “something.” If the roster and payroll are locked, people start to look to the sideline. Brooks and Kevin McHale both are working in environments of impatience, with the Thunder and the Rockets antsy for bigger prizes by now. Memphis’ Dave Joerger already was out of his job once — on the brink of being hired by the Timberwolves — but he went back to what might not be the most stable gig under owner Robert Pera. And since no team is facing expectations more goosed than Washington, a slow or even middling start by the Wizards could have folks looking cross-eyed again at Randy Wittman.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: What if Jason Kidd quickly concludes that he doesn’t like it in Milwaukee and decides to stick a knife in the back of another coach for a different job? But seriously, this is the modern NBA, where patience and reason are always in short supply. Frank Vogel won’t get a totally free pass if he can’t at least keep the Pacers battling and competitive in the absence of Paul George. If New Orleans can stay healthy, Monty Williams will be under the gun to at least get the Pelicans back into the playoff race. And keep an eye on Kevin McHale, in the final year of his contract in Houston, with a Rockets team that now has fewer weapons.

Memphis' Dave Joerger (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Memphis’ Dave Joerger (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Not only are there so many first- and second-year coaches out there, but coaches like Washington’s Randy Wittman, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Portland’s Terry Stotts all signed extensions so they’re seemingly safe if their respective clubs were to take a step back. In the East, Indiana’s Frank Vogel certainly seems vulnerable after last season’s fade, but the loss of Lance Stephenson in free agency and Paul George to injury could alter thinking there. Orlando’s Jacque Vaughn will be working with an extraordinarily young team so not sure what can be expected there. In Milwaukee, I suppose Jason Kidd will determine his own fate. Out West, most everything is either well-established or brand new. But there are a couple situations to keep an eye on. Monty Williams’ future could get muddied if the Pelicans don’t rise up, assuming good health, and Sacramento could lose patience with second-year man Mike Malone if the Kings stumble early.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Bucks. Oh, you mean where the general manager fires the coach, not the other way around. Never mind. In that case, let’s see how new best buddies Dave Joerger and Robert Pera get along in Memphis if the losses start to fly. Maybe it doesn’t happen — the Grizzlies could be good. If not, though, how long before old tensions return?

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I wouldn’t put anyone’s job in danger in this space, but Scott Brooks, Kevin McHale and Monty Williams need to deliver better results this season. Brooks has done a great job in Oklahoma City, but this is now his seventh season and Sam Presti needs to decide if he’s the guy to get the Thunder over the hump. McHale lost some of his roster’s depth this summer, but needs to coax a top-10 defense out of a team that features Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard. And speaking of that end of the floor, Williams has a defensive rep and a beast of a franchise player, but New Orleans has ranked 28th and 25th defensively the last two seasons. With the development of Anthony Davis and the addition of Omer Asik, the Pelicans need to make a big leap on that end.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: After the way Larry Drew was treated in Milwaukee, anyone not named PopovichRivers, Spoelstra, Van Gundy or Saunders has to at least be on alert that a change could be made under extreme circumstances. Coaches no longer have to be concerned only with external expectations impacting their job security. These days the perception from within (Mark Jackson in Golden State) can get you whacked suddenly. That’s why both Randy Wittman in Washington and Monty Williams in New Orleans will operating under unique circumstances. Both teams will be expected to be considerably improved from last season, not only in the win-loss column, but in the larger context of the league hierarchy. Even with an extension signed, Wittman cannot afford for his team to take any steps back. The Pelicans will be led by one of the brightest young stars in the league in Anthony Davis and will expect to at least be a part of the Western Conference playoff picture, albeit at the bottom of that rugged top eight mix. If at any point it becomes clear that these guys cannot get their teams to the next stage of development, the coaching hot seat will have two prime candidates.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Even though so many coaches are still in that honeymoon period with their current teams, it seems like something crazy always happens. Who would have thought Jason Kidd would end up in Milwaukee, or that Dave Joerger would almost end up in Minnesota? Neither of those guys were fired, though, but I wouldn’t say the hot seat has completely cooled off. All it takes is for one owner to be unhappy with his team’s performance or placement in the conference — particularly in regard to wherever that owner believes they should be. I am not saying this will happen or should happen, but will ownership in Sacramento, where they are desperate to be competitive, be patient with Mike Malone? Will the Rockets continue to allow Kevin McHale to build what they’re working toward? I hope so. It would be nice, for a change, to have a season without any firings/hirings. I’m just saying, don’t bet on it.

His own man, KD will make own decision

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Take a look at Kevin Durant and Team USA as they practice

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Here’s what we’ve learned about Kevin Durant through his first seven seasons in the league: He’s his own man, capable of independent thought and making intelligent, well-reasoned decisions.

He chose to sign a five-year extension in 2010 without demanding an option for an early out. To ensure maximum appeal as a corporate pitchman, he strategically didn’t tattoo areas of his body visible when in uniform. A few years ago a stunned public discovered that Durant’s uniform-covered torso resembles Allen Iverson.

He is the league’s reigning MVP coming off a grueling season in which he logged a league-high 3,121 regular-season minutes followed by a postseason-high 814 minutes (even though his Oklahoma City Thunder lost in six games in the Western Conference finals), yet he remained committed to Team USA, currently holding camp in Las Vegas. Remember, this squad will compete in the upcoming world championships in Spain (recast as the FIBA World Cup). This is not an Olympic year or even an Olympic-qualifying year. Durant doesn’t have to be here. He chose to be here.

And he’s a big story in Vegas. Everybody wants to know if, inspired by LeBron James‘ homecoming, he’ll leave the Thunder for his long-suffering hometown Washington Wizards in 2016 when he becomes a free agent.

In the NBA it’s never too early to spin theoretical free-agent story lines. Mostly because NBA front offices are actively planning for the Durant sweepstakes. Teams have to align contracts today to ensure available salary cap in two summers just to be in the chase. The NBA is a star-driven league and Durant (with potential 2015 free agent Kevin Love likely headed to Cleveland in a trade) is the next available fast track to contention.

And yes, the up-and-coming Wizards are preparing. Who wouldn’t love to add Durant to the promising backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal? Washington’s books are in line for summer ’16, and you might have heard they hired a new player development assistant, David Adkins. Adkins? He was an assistant at Durant’s alma mater Montrose Christian in Maryland, and is said to be close to Durant. The plot thickens.

Fine, but any insinuation that Northeast Ohio’s re-embracing of LeBron tugged Durant’s heartstrings toward D.C. is a reach. The Cavs drafted the locally loved Akron phenom out of high school. He elevated the hometown NBA franchise to a Finals appearance in 2007 and three years later stomped on the hearts of his faithful with the incredibly insensitive “Decision.” Four Finals runs and two championships with the Miami Heat later, LeBron, all grown up, decided it was time to mend fences. Great story.

It’s not Durant’s story. Durant did tell reporters Tuesday that he grew up taking the train to Georgetown games, although he left home to play college ball 1,300 miles away at Texas. He was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007 and the next season moved with the franchise to Oklahoma City, a close-knit town he’s professed his love for countless times, and as recently as his MVP speech for the ages.

The Thunder are perennial contenders. Durant holds close relationships with coach Scott Brooks, as well as teammates Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka and many others in the organization. Most of all, Durant willingly immersed himself in the community. When he won the MVP, the city declared him “OKC’s MVP.” The governor and state representatives attended the ceremony.

If he were to leave OKC, it’s not a stretch to suggest that community will be more devastated than D.C. will be elated. With Durant, 25, in a Thunder uniform, the championship window is open-ended.

But hey, a lot can happen in two years. The Thunder could win a championship. Or two. Or maybe they don’t and Durant’s patience runs thin, after all he’ll be nine years in by the summer of ’16. Maybe the Durant-Westbrook relationship sours. Maybe Brooks gets fired. Maybe Durant ultimately decides he wants to play for a billionaire owner more responsive to spending when the moment calls.

So maybe Durant does go home, even though the number of stars who have gone home pales to those who never do when given the chance. We’ve seen Durant don Washington NFL gear and — not sure if anybody’s pointed this out — he’s got a Washington Nationals logo tattooed above his belly button. Durant does love his D.C. sports.

So maybe he does go home. Or perhaps, as was speculated when Durant hired Jay-Z to represent him, he goes to the Knicks or Nets. They’ll all be in line (yep, even the Nets will be flush with cap space by then).

Yes, the script that has Durant riding a white horse into Washington, where the Wizards/Bullets haven’t won a title since a decade before Durant was born, is real. It could happen. Durant could also play 20 seasons in OKC.

“I’m going to do what’s best for me,” Durant told reporters in Vegas. “It’s hard to talk about that right now when I’ve got two years left in Oklahoma City. I’m just going to focus on that. I’m not going to make a decision based on what anybody else does.”

Durant might as well memorize those lines. He’ll need to cue them up over and over during these next two years.

But what we’ve learned of him over the last seven years is Kevin Durant is his own man.

Hot jersey, but LeBron needs a number

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – LeBron James‘ new Cleveland Cavaliers jersey is flying off the shelves.

Only that’s not completely accurate. For the time being, LeBron jerseys are still kind of on the tarmac, awaiting takeoff.

lebron6The NBA Store’s website and phone lines are ablaze with demand for LeBron goods. The NBA doesn’t release sales figures outside of its regularly scheduled reports, but a league source provided this glimpse into recent demand for all things LBJ: Since James announced his return to Cleveland on July 11, his Cavs replica jerseys (all three color versions: home, road and alternate) are the top three best-selling items on NBAStore.com. Eight of the top 10 items sold overall since then are LeBron Cavs items.

The store initially sold out of all LeBron jerseys, but it’s now restocked in just about every size. The problem: When shoppers buy their LeBron jerseys, they get this message in red type:

“This item will ship within 2-4 weeks after the player has officially signed his contract and is assigned a number by the NBA.”

Ah, yes. LeBron picked his city. But he has yet to pick a number.

Of course, the NBA won’t assign the King a jersey number, like he’s some 7-year-old at the YMCA.

COACH: “Here you go son, got No. 18 for you.”

LeBRON: Hmm … Got 23?

COACH: “I got 18. Youth medium.”

A week ago, James summoned the aid of his 13.75 million Twitter followers:

lebron23James wore 23 during his first seven seasons in Cleveland, the number he picked as a prodigy at Akron, Ohio’s Saint Mary’s-Saint Vincent’s in honor of his hero Michael Jordan. When James took his talents to South Beach in 2010, he ditched 23 for 6, the number he wore in the 2008 Olympics.

Neither number seems like a proper fit for The Return. His first number, 23, still invites all those insufferable comparisons to Jordan. And 6 would just feel weird in Cleveland after all that’s gone down since the original Decision. It should stay in Miami.

With James winding down a Nike-sponsored tour of China, maybe picking a number will soon become top priority. Right behind getting Kevin Love. (For the record, Love wears 42, in honor of the uniquely gifted former NBA star Connie Hawkins. In Cleveland, Nate Thurmond‘s 42 is retired in the rafters.)

All this number talk shouldn’t be shrugged off. A player’s number is a key part of his identity. It typically holds a special meaning.

So we’ve been busy mulling a third number for Phase Three of James’ career. We want his fans to get their jerseys sooner rather than later.

The old flip-flop

32: Obviously it’s the reverse of his original 23, which wasn’t an original at all. James wore No. 32 as a freshman in high school apparently because 23 was already taken by an older kid who didn’t quite yet recognize James as the King. There’s a larger hook here. The player James is most compared to stylistically is not Jordan but Magic Johnson. There’s been a lot of big names to wear 32, which might or might not motivate James to pick the number: Bill WaltonShaquille O’NealKevin McHaleKarl Malone, Julius Erving with the Virginia Squires and New York Nets and one of my personal favorites, Seattle’s “Downtown” Freddie Brown.

The old flip-a-roo

9: Flip the 6 and what do you get? Yep, 9. Makes sense. Plus, James already has done 9, so it makes even more sense. He wore the number for a season as an all-state receiver in high school before giving up football to focus on hoops. Last summer James purchased new Nike uniforms for his alma mater’s football team. For the arrival of the new gear, James actually showed up in full uniform, pads and all, and surprised the gathered crowd. The number he chose for his jersey? Yep, 9. There’s some standout players currently wearing 9; Tony Parker and Rajon Rondo. Old-time great Bob Pettit wore it, too.

Honoring the Big O

14: Forgive me for bringing up Mount Rushmore, but it was LeBron who started the whole thing when he said Oscar Robertson would be on his personal NBA Mount Rushmore (along with Magic, Michael and Larry Bird). LeBron’s game can also be favorably compared to Robertson, the original triple-double machine. Robertson wore 14 with the Cincinnati Royals for a decade. He averaged a triple-double in his second season and darn near did it three other times. Bob Cousy, Sam Perkins and LeBron’s Cavs teammate on the 2007 Finals team, Ira Newble, also wore No. 14. This would be an intriguing choice and would once again shine a worthy spotlight on the Big O’s amazing career.

1: When Cincinnati traded Robertson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson, the Big O traded in his 14 for 1. LeBron choosing 1 could have dual meaning, paying respect to Robertson while proclaiming to world, “I’m No. 1.” A lot of No. 1s have come and gone in the league, but the list is short in terms of all-time greats. Tiny Archibald wore it before he got to Boston, then there’s Tracy McGrady, Chauncey Billups and, of course, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks.

King Football

84: It seems every year we hear fantasy stories about LeBron joining an NFL team and instantly becoming an All-Pro receiver. Hey, at 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, who’s gonna get in his way? So why not buck traditional NBA numbers for a traditional NFL one? Since James was an All-State receiver in Ohio (we covered his No. 9 above) it makes sense that he pick a traditional NFL receiver’s number (between 80 and 89 and 10 and 19). My first inclination is to pick 88 because of LeBron’s love for the Dallas Cowboys and the lineage of players — Drew Pearson, Michael Irvin and now Dez Bryant — who made the number famous. Only three NBA players have ever worn 88 and one currently does: Portland forward Nicolas Batum. So, scratch that. If we narrow the numbers to tight ends, the position LeBron would likely play in the NFL, he’d probably choose between two Cowboys greats, No. 84 Jay Novacek and No. 82 Jason Witten. One has more titles than LeBron. Go with Novacek. Only one NBA player, Chris Webber, has ever worn 84 and for only one season (2007 with Detroit). No NBA player has ever put on 82 (according to basketball-reference.com).

Alternatives:

29: It’s the sum of LeBron’s first two numbers, and it’s a pretty rare one in the history of the NBA with Paul Silas being the most famous 29.

33: It’s just a great basketball number worn by such luminaries as Kareem Abdul-Jabber, Bird, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Scottie Pippen and the underappreciated Alvan Adams.

40: This comes with an eye toward some serious goal-setting, as in 40K, as in 40,000 career points. No player has ever reached it. Abdul-Jabbar remains the league’s all-time scoring leader with 38,387 points. James, 29, has scored 23,170 points in 11 seasons. It is doable.