Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Warriors vs. Thunder: Pre-game view

vs.

Golden State Warriors (10-23) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (THREE AND FREAKING TWENTY NINE)
Wednesday, December 31

Ford Center

Oklahoma City, OK

7:00 CST


TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD 722)

Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM)


View from the other side: Golden State of Mind

More than anything, tonight is about overcoming a mental block. The Warriors aren't necessarily more talented than Oklahoma City, but OKC can't seem to shake that its supposed to lose. And the Thunder plays like it. It's obvious; especially in the fourth quarter. If the Thunder's winning late, they played scared. If they're trailing, they play careless.

Golden State has been decent at home (6-7) but awful on the road (4-16). The last time OKC and Golden State locked up, all signs pointed to a Thunder victory until the ball was actually tipped. Golden State was playing without any of its most major stars and with guys that have seen the court as much as Mo Sene and they still beat OKC by 10 and led virtually the entire game. The only good thing to come from that pathetic night was Kevin Durant's 41 and the light show he put on in the final two minutes. But that game was easily the most frustrating of the year.

You'd think the Thunder would come out and look to get revenge. You'd think. But sometimes I wonder if they've accepted the fact that they stink and are just waiting for April 15 -- the last day of the season. So you have to toss all expectations out the window. If this group had finished and won a few games they should have (Memphis, Atlanta, LA Clippers, Minnesota), I'd be calling victory tonight. But since that just hasn't happened, I'm trying to picture 3-30 and convince myself it isn't at bad as it looks.

I really don't know why you want a team to win other than to just give you reason to care. As everybody says, you can't crown a winner before the game starts. Who knows what can happen? But in OKC's case, most times, we all know what will happen before the tip. And so does the team. And that's the problem. One team doesn't expect to win. The other thinks, "We better not effing lose to those jokes." That makes for one squad trying harder than they should against a 3-29 team and the other creating new ways to lose.

This isn't one of those, play-tough-hang-in-there-stay-close-and-give-yourself-a-chance games. It should be (but won't be) the type of game you win. The Warriors stink on the road, play bad defense and are really, really average. But I thought the same thing in Washington last week. And the same thing against the Clippers. And the same thing against the Grizzlies. And the same thing... you get the point.

It would be really nice to have Nenad Krstic tonight because, well, OKC needs everything it can get. But he won't be in uniform as he waits on his work visa to get finalized. That sucks. Let's just hope Kevin Durant follows up on Ziller's prediction and goes for 50. KD played poorly against Phoenix and typically he follows a bad one with a really, really good one. And if Russell Westbrook can do half of what he did against the Suns and Jeff Green chips in another solid performance, the Thunder could have a fighting chance. Look at me, I sound like Dan Shaughnessy with all these "ifs". But it is the truth -- OKC just can't seem to get all three clicking together. In the Thunder's three wins Durant, Green and Westbrook have combined for 58 percent of OKC's points. Sure, there has been losses where all three played well, but OKC has to have everybody clicking in order to win. And the those three are the most important parts.

I'm trying to go into this game with no expectations, or in other words, with the full expectation of a loss. But for some reason this one has the feeling of the Raptors game a little. Except that Golden State hasn't gotten a coach fired and completely quit on the new guy. But a below average team that's bad on the road is coming in and the Thunder's just due. They are. But again, no expectations other than the obvious ones, but I have that sneaking suspicion OKC could surprise. (Translation: I'd love to make a win prediction for the Thunder but I obviously realize how futile and borderline psycho that is, so in order to not sound like a loon, I'm pulling a Lee Corso and tossing out a butt-covering "Closer than the experts think" call so I can kind of get the best of both worlds.)

Wednesday Bolts - 12.31.08

  • Rob Mahoney on the Krstic signing: "Pretty sweet pick-up for the Thunder, though. The team has been ridiculously competitive this season in relation to their laughable record; it seems as though every time I tune in or check a mid-game box score, they're nursing a tiny lead or facing a manageable deficit. The issue isn't one of effort, and you'd know as much if you watch the Thunder regularly (the few, the proud). There just isn't enough talent on the roster for the bunch to be a good team, and Krstic certainly helps there. Dude can play, though he's certainly not without his flaws. His presence suddenly makes Chris Wilcox and Joe Smith's expiring deals just that much more expendable, and one can only hope that OKC will get back prospects or picks in return."
  • Russell Westbrook is No. 3 in ESPN's Rookie Award Watch: "His confidence is growing and, with the season not even halfway complete, don't be surprised if he makes a serious push to join Rose and Mayo in the conversation for top rookie honors. Of course he needs to improve on his shooting percentage and cut down on his turnovers, but he has been a much better player in December than he was in November and he is only going to keep improving."
  • Nope, no Krstic tonight: The Thunder signed Krstic to a three-year, $15.6 million deal that launches a new chapter in his NBA career. Krstic will not be in uniform tonight against Golden State and cannot suit up until the final paperwork is completed on his work visa.
  • Teammates on Krstic: "Smith said that opponents will respect Krstic’s midrange jump shot to the point where it should open up driving lanes for his teammates. “It also helps with (having) another outlet on the perimeter whenever they do get caught in traffic,” Smith said. Simply having another able-bodied big man who has shown a knack for scoring should benefit everyone. But let’s make one thing clear: the Thunder didn’t bring Krstic here to resuscitate the franchise or save the season. He is a piece to the puzzle, albeit one who is expected to make significant contributions."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What impact will Nenad Krstic actually have?

Now that it's official -- Nenad Krstic will become a member of the Thunder -- what can OKC fans expect? Will he equate to more wins? Or will it be more of the same?

First instinct says he has to make the team better. Otherwise, 1) Why would Sam Presti spend $15 million on him? and 2) He's definitely better than what the Thunder has already.

There's really one major question lingering on Krstic -- is his knee healthy and will he play like his old self? If he is, this could be pretty big. This team needs obvious help and Krstic fills one of the positions OKC needs the most help -- the low post. It seems the Thunder are functioning decently at three positions -- point guard, small forward and power forward. They aren't awesome at those spots, but they're good enough to win some games. And the best part is those three are young. But at center and shooting guard, OKC's getting next to nothing.

At center, OKC is getting about 16 points per game, 13.5 rebounds per game and a PER of 14.5. In other words, not very good. In 26 games before his knee injury, Krstic was averaging 16.4 ppg and 6.8 rpg. He's not a great rebounder, but he is what OKC needs -- a good scorer. He's a perfect pick and pop guy to work with Westbrook and he's also a nice post player that can score on the blocks. I feel alright (and by "alright," I mean "better") about a lineup that has:

PG Westbrook
SG Dead Body
SF Kevin Durant
PF Jeff Green
C Nenad Krstic

My feeling is that if OKC is a current "F," Krstic will take it to a "D". After watching this group play 32 games and see them win three, if nothing would have been done, I'm thinking the Thunder would win about 11-14 games. If that. But with a healthy Krstic, the Thunder could potentially push that number 15-20. One reason being because he could give a mental boost to the team. Right now, nothing feels right and losing appears to be the only option on a night-to-night basis. Adding a potential star to the fold could help the team break from this loser mentality and kind of give OKC a fresh start.

Now the obvious question remains what will happen to the roster now that Krstic is a part of it. This gives OKC three seven-footers (now that Steven Hill has been waived) -- 14 feet of it being pretty crappy. But there's an abundance in the blocks for the Thunder -- Joe Smith, Nick Collison, Chris Wilcox, Johan Petro, Krstic, Robert Swift, Mo Sene and even the injured D.J. White. Somebody has got to go. Maybe two of 'em. Maybe three.

Krstic will be formally introduced to the media today at 4 p.m. And he will likely be formally introduced to some of the worst basketball he's ever seen Wednesday night. But he's a good player and he fills a gaping hole for OKC. This is a big step in a 10,000 mile walk. But I see it as a pretty good one. And an absolutely necessary one.

Some highlights of OKC's new big man:

Tuesday Bolts - 12.30.08

  • Help has officially arrived; Krstic will join the Thunder: "The New Jersey Nets have declined to match Oklahoma City's offer sheet to former first-round pick Nenad Krstic. The decision Tuesday gives the Thunder another 7-footer as they continue to look for a reliable center. Krstic was playing in Russia when the Thunder extended an offer sheet to him last week. The Nets had a week to match it but passed."
  • Bright Side of the Sun said last night's Thunder reminded them of someone: "The Suns seemed to be sleepwalking in the first quarter, this could be due to the days off or underestimating the opponent. The defense was really bad (to say the least) and it seemed that The Thunder were scoring at will. They looked like the old Suns, running, cutting to the basket and getting highlight dunks and assists that will surely be on the top ten tonight. To make things even worse, just into 9 minutes of the first quarter Nash got hurt on a beautiful pick and roll play with Amundson who finished an AND1 play. Nash signaled coach Porter to get him out of the game and never came back. It was later reported that Nash had back spasms."
  • Ziller says at least you're not a Bobcats fan: "When you think of utter hopelessness in the NBA today, Oklahoma City surely comes to mind. The team's record is horrific. I mean, maybe the Detroit Lions have softened the string of utter failure to our cynical eyes. But three wins, 29 losses ... that will almost always be hilarious to the neutral party. Whether justice to the jilted, brown grass to the fellow sufferer or simple joke, the Thunder have become a complete laughingstock. You feel silly for even looking for the bright side. But you can't tell me there isn't hope there. The truly bad in the NBA can offer one concession to fans: hope for a better tomorrow. In this league, that is fulfilled by youth. Oklahoma City has loads of youth: Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook ... all kids, and all starters right now. OKC owns roughly two dozen draft picks to spend the next two Junes. Take away Joe Smith and Earl Watson, and you've basically got a college team. This is where we turn to our main subject, a bad team without much hope, by my count the Bleakest Team in the NBA: the Charlotte Bobcats."
  • Another Serge Ibaka update: In December, he's averaging 13 minutes per game, 5.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, and is shooting 57 percent from the field.
  • A mock draft from Bleacher Report has Oklahoma City picking you-know-where and taking you-know-who: "Clearly the supreme talent in this class, the sophomore 6-foot-9 forward has gotten off to a ridiculous start this year for the unbeaten Sooners. His superior athleticism gives him a huge advantage crashing the boards, and his offensive game is explosive and already highly-polished. Unlike Michael Beasley before him, his work ethic and killer instinct are unquestioned and he appears willing to do anything to get the win. Unfortunately for him, it's looking like he'll have to stay in Oklahoma and play for the OKC Durants. Quite frankly, this team needs anything it can get. They wouldn't be doing too shabbily to snag Griffin, though."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Phoenix burns Oklahoma City a second time

A fast start, a slow finish. Oklahoma City scored as many points in the fourth quarter (15) as Russell Westbrook did in the first. Kevin Durant shot horribly (5-17). The Thunder rebounded terribly (37-28 in favor of Phoenix). And OKC shot poorly from the line (67 percent). All in all, it added up to just what we expected - another loss.

I wish I could figure out why only two parts of the three part group of Westbrook, Jeff Green and Durant seem to click on a night-to-night basis. Tonight Westbrook was fantastic scoring the ball, netting a career-high 31 on 12-16 shooting with 3-4 from downtown. He also dished five assists, but turned it over six times. Green had 22 and 11 and played a whopping 45 minutes. He did a yeoman's job on Amare Stoudemire, holding him to just 14 points and kept him in foul trouble all night. But Durant. He did have 18 points - most of it coming from the line - but shot just 5-17 from the floor and 0-5 from three. As much praise as he's received from his three-point shooting this month lately, he's gone 2-15 from moneyland the past three games. It doesn't seem like he's taking those threes in rhythm anymore and looks like he's forcing some. I'm not complaining about the guy because everybody deserves an off night, especially after his recent 10 game tear. It's just extremely clear that in order for OKC to actually win, all three parts have to be clicking because the supporting cast isn't going to get the job done.

But there was a huge moment in tonight's game - for the first time in a while, Earl Watson impressed me. Not his overall game because per usual, he had little impact on the game, but his over-the-shoulder, no-look to Robert Swift was really sweet. Other than that, he just frustrated me.

It's clear how weak the Thunder are in the post. Swift got the start, but Shaq just dominated. It appeared as if he could score every possession. He had 28 and 12, but was just dominant in the paint. The Thunder hung tough and led for a about two thirds of the game, but once Phoenix took a 7-10 point lead, it just felt like OKC was hanging on by a thread. At any moment it felt like the Suns could blow this thing open. Of course, a lot of the reason why it never happened was because Steve Nash headed to the locker room early in the first half with back spasms.

It all started to really fall apart late in the third when Phoenix got in the bonus with about five minutes left in the period. But then the Thunder got the bonus too. Which made for a painful final four minutes as basically the teams would play 15 seconds, a whistle would blow and somebody would shoot two freebies. Start the clock and repeat.

The Suns have become a pretty good looking half court team and they run pretty clean sets. Most of it goes through Stoudemire and Shaq, but why wouldn't it? They've got good three-point guys and they've got a good slasher/jump shooter (Jason Richardson). They could be a lot tougher down the road than people are giving them credit for. They're 17-12 and while the Thunder played them tough, the second half never felt to be in doubt. The Suns had control and OKC was scrambling to stay close. Phoenix could probably use another body or two off the bench, especially in the post (Joe Smith could flourish there picking and popping all night long).

Kyle Weaver got quite a bit of burn again and he was relatively productive. But you can see that the NBA game is a little overwhelming for him. At one point he fouled Shaq and gave him an and-one and Scott Brooks called him over and wrapped his arms around Weaver and said, "Wrap him up." Weaver nodded with the kind of look that said, "I think I know I was supposed to do that, but it never occurred to me to actually do it." Maybe he's getting more floor time because Sam Presti is trying to see if he can serve as a decent back-up point guard in order to move Watson. The trade rumors are blowing like the wind in OKC and some moves are likely coming.

I've said it before but I'm sure every OKC feels it every night - we all know what the outcome will likely be each night, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating to watch. If you could really go back and flip about four or five plays in the Thunder's favor, these games might go their way. But that really sums up the difference between good, average and bad teams. The toss up plays never go in the Thunder's favor and as a result, we're looking at a 3-29 record. (Sigh.) It's bad to be that bad, but at least the team is competitive on a nightly basis.

A day off and then back to the Ford to play 9-23 Golden State Wednesday night. I'm not saying anything about it being winnable. Nope. Not gonna say it.

Suns vs. Thunder: Pre-game view

vs.

Phoenix Suns (16-12) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (3-28)
Monday, December 29

Ford Center

Oklahoma City, OK
7:00 CST


TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD 722)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM)


View from the other side: Bright Side of the Sun (And be sure to check out the podcast at the bottom at Joe from Thunderguru talks with Phoenix Stan)

We all remember what happened the first time the two teams met. Phoenix was playing without the extremely large cactus and the Suns were flatter than a three week old Coke. That was the second game under Scott Brooks and the Thunder played with the kind of moxie and determination that was strangely missing for the first month before it. The Suns outscored the Thunder 29-17 in the final 12 and ultimately won by a digit, 99-98.

So what happened in that first meeting? How'd the Thunder take Phoenix to the brink?

- The Suns shot 53.4 percent from the field. OKC shot 41.9.
- Phoenix hit four more threes than OKC (nine to five).

Judging by those two stats, you'd think the Suns ran away with it by 12 or something. But the Thunder paid attention to detail. OKC shot 24 free throws to Phoenix's 16. And the best part? The Thunder actually hit 21 of those. OKC turned the ball over three fewer times than the Suns. OKC outrebounded Phoenix 40-34, including a whopping 15 offensive boards. The Thunder had 13 steals and outran Phoenix, scoring 17 fast break points to the Suns' 15.

But remember, that all happened without Shaq.

I think what Phoenix Stan had to say in his pregame at Bright Side is interesting: "The real reason [the Thunder] only have 3 wins is that after a horrible start under the oppressive thumb of P.J. Carlisimoso they earned themselves such a reputation that teams are now afraid to lose to them ... Imagine losing to the Thunder. Even if you are fairly crappy team yourself you might just earn a shoe thrown at your coach by a member of the local media during the post game press conference."

That's a different theory on why the team is 3-28. I think there's definitely some truth to that, but I think it's more that the team is too young, too thin and too clueless to figure out how to win.

So the Suns surely don't want to lose this one. They're still stinging from that Christmas Day loss to the hated Spurs and tonight will likely be a chance to get out some frustration. But then again, at some point OKC surely has to surprise somebody. It happens all the time, in every sport. A team that has no business winning gets it done out of nowhere. Maybe tonight. Probably not, but maybe. That's why they'll go ahead and play it and that's why we'll all be watching.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

State of the World

Pretty soon, some pretty major changes will be happening to The Thunderworld and I thought I'd clue everyone in before they actually happen. I'm not going to say exactly what, but I'm pretty excited about it and look forward to where this little hobby can go from here. I started this blog five months ago mainly because I didn't like the name "Thunder" and I wanted to tell someone. But the right people have read what I wrote, liked it and have extended a wonderful opportunity for that will give the blog lots of exposure and visibility.

The Thunderworld will almost certainly be moving to a dot com and will also likely be changing its name (you see, someone already scooped up www.thethunderworld.com and www.thunderworld.com and plus, I've never really liked this blog's name, but just picked something because I couldn't make up my mind). I'll be joining something a little bigger and better and I'm extremely pumped about the opportunity a few of wonderfully talented and brilliant basketball minds are giving me.

Also changing will be the institution of a comment policy. I know that will deeply sadden some of you, but I think we can all agree this has gotten completely out of hand. Quite frankly, some of the comments are embarrassing. I know that behind the shield of anonymity and the Internet we can all say what we want and not be held accountable, but it has crossed the line and crossed it long ago. I don't know if some think they are being funny or if they're hurting my feelings or both, but enough is enough. This blog isn't about you and giving you a platform to embarrass and shame your fanbase and awesome city. I'm sorry that this whole thing happened the way it did. I've said it multiple times that I hate the way OKC got a team. But I don't know what you expect me to do - ignore it? Teams move and always have. It sucks for one city and is great for another. You think people in Brooklyn didn't hurt when the Dodgers packed up and left? The people in Baltimore still grieve over losing the Colts. I thought there were going to be riots in Cleveland when the Browns bolted for Baltimore. But the people moved on and time healed the wounds. Instead of throwing salt on it, let's do our best to move on. Lord knows I've tried.

I just figured with the "new beginning" it would be a fine time to address it in one swoop. I actually want to talk about it more later (because I don't think Seattle people have gotten a proper reaction from Oklahoma), and I know former Sonics' fans have reason to be upset, but this isn't the place to express that. If you think I stink and don't know anything, don't read it. I don't have a problem with that. It's not that the comments have "gotten to me" or driven me to tears each night, but it's just beyond ridiculous. I honestly can't believe what some of you will write. And if you're wondering, the reason I pretty much ignore it is because it really doesn't bother me. Why do I care if some person that I've never met or ever spoken to hates me for completely unfounded reasons because a group of owners took a BASKETBALL TEAM and moved them to my city? For all I know you're some acne ridden 15-year-old that feels tough by writing tasteless jokes about my mother on the Internet. And if you're not and are actually some 30-year-old with a wife and two kids, that's way, way sadder. You don't bother me, you don't hurt my feelings. You just make your anonymous self, your city and your fanbase look really, really tired and moronic.

I understand you're upset and I don't blame you. You will get a new team back one day but trolling this blog won't bring one. And it's not going to make the Thunder run off either. Find a new hobby. I don't care if my comments go from 30 to one. It's not about you anyway - it's about Oklahoma City basketball. And if just one person wants to talk it, that's fine. I really don't know how you can feel good about yourself saying some of the most extreme, crude, vulgar, insensitive things and think you're doing your former fanbase good. I feel awful thinking that some 10-year-old kid has come here to read about his favorite basketball team and has had to read some of that junk. It makes me really regret not taking care of it earlier. But I thought maybe I'd give an "airing of grievances" period and it would stop. But you guys are persistent - maybe if you'd have supported your basketball team the way you troll this blog they'd still be there. Low blow? Probably. But it felt good, especially after some of the total crap you wrote about my wonderful mother.

Another thing that's cool is that a new voice will likely be joining the fold. One tremendously insightful and talented writer is joining forces with me and I'm definitely on the look out for more. The whole blog is for fans - the fan voice is important. In the future, it's going to be highly encouraged for anyone and everyone to write and be heard from. If you spent two hours at work looking up stats and have a new take on Kevin Durant's eFG%, write up 300 words and share it. I don't have to be the only guy writing stuff about the Thunder. If you have something to say, by all means, say it. It doesn't have to be all sugar and roses and I definitely don't have to agree with it. Everyone has a voice and this should be a place to get it out there. (And the best part is, with where the blog is going, what you write could get TONS of exposure and a lot of people could see it.)

So in the near future, look out for the changes and if you're a dedicated following of The Thunderworld, make sure to be ready to switch over to where I go. And if you have any good names for a Thunder blog, I'm all ears. I've already rejected "Thunder Mifflin," "Thunder Down Under," "Thunder Siege," and "Six Feet Thunder," so don't bother with those.

If you have questions, concerns, suggestions or comments about the upcoming changes, or just want to tell me I suck, feel free to email me.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Well, that was a step backward

It's not the horribly disappointing loss that was happening earlier in the year where the team was just flat and unprepared. But it's pretty much just as bad.

For all the "this team is getting better" momentum Oklahoma City spent the last week and a half building, this was a major step in the wrong direction. Granted, it was a road game coming off a killer loss the night before, but that's no excuse. You were playing a 4-23 team without two of its biggest stars (Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas).

The Thunder were in it until another dreadful fourth doomed them (outscored 28-19). OKC turned the ball over 19 times but here's the stat of the game: Washington took 100 shots; OKC took 77. For all you math studs that's 23 extra times the Wizards had a chance to throw the ball at the hoop. That's where the game was lost, plain and simple. It was a game of runs in the second half with Washington going on a 7-0 spurt, then OKC coming back with an 8-0 then Washington countering with another 7-0 and then a 10-0 by the Thunder. But in the end a 12-0 run by the Wiz at the start of the fourth created separation and made OKC play catchup the rest of the way.

Kevin Durant made it seven in a row over 25 and 10 over 20 and even grabbed 11 boards, but Russell Westbrook was again relatively ineffective, scoring just 10 and turning the ball over five times. Four of the last five games Westbrook has turned the ball over five times. That's a little frustrating. He's still a rookie and he's still learning a new position and honestly, I'm thrilled with his progress thus far. I don't think many thought he'd be as good as he's been this early, but he's just a little inconsistent.

I do like Kyle Weaver getting Damien Wilkins' minutes because we all know Wilkins was bringing basically nothing when he was on the floor. Weaver is a rookie and he deserves some play. He'll never be a star but he could make a good role player. And at 3-28, why not give him some burn?

An aside: I listened to the first half of the game on the radio tonight driving back from dinner celebrating my dad's birthday. I've listened to Matt Pinto here and there throughout the year when I was late to get home or something, but this is the first time I've listened for an extended period. While he's not bad, he's not really good. He does an excellent, excellent job of describing the action and putting pictures in your head. He has great energy and keeps listening on the radio feel interesting. But he's too dramatic and too wordy. He seems a little too in love with alliteration. Like he'll say stuff like, "Chris Wilcox scoops and swoops to the hoop for a rim-rocking, razzle-dazzle dunk!" Or, "Kevin Durant picks, probes and punches his way into the paint and kicks to Jeff Green for a CHA-CHING! Thunder moneyball!" It's just over-the-top. One thing that would help would be a color man to give a different voice and perspective on the game so you're not hearing Matt Pinto for two straight hours. At timeouts I wonder if he has to towel off and drink some Starbucks Tazo tea to keep his vocal chords from melting. I'm okay with his work, I just think he needs to gear down a bit on his own razzle-dazzle.

A frustrating night to watch the Thunder drop another one that they had a real chance at winning. We've all come to expect it and it shouldn't be surprising, but it's frustrating nonetheless. It's tough to win when you're getting steady production from one guy (Durant) while two others trade nights (Westbrook and Jeff Green) and the rest don't give you much on a nightly basis.

The Thunder returns home for a rematch against Phoenix Monday night. The first time the two met, the Shaq-less Suns took a 99-98 thriller from OKC.

So close, yet soooooo close

As one commenter said, the Thunder were only down two at half and he expected them to lose by 8-12 points in the end. That's what I thought. That's what everybody thought. Especially against a good Pistons squad, in their building nonetheless.

And at a few points, it looked like it was happening. Oklahoma City was down by 14 and appeared to be fading, but an 11-0 run pulled the Thunder to within three. While that run was great and all, the following few minutes showed just how far this team has come. In the past, the valiant comeback attempts came up short and by "short," I mean well short. But OKC fought and scrapped and scraped and with Joe Smith's 21-footer, the game was tied at 88-88 with under 20 seconds left.

But then Allen Iverson did what he was supposed to. He challenged Russell Westbrook and hit an impossible leaning jumper with 0.02 seconds left. But again, OKC wasn't throwing it in yet. A lob to Jeff Green was executed perfectly, well, except for Green actually putting the ball in the hoop. But still, the play was ran just how Scott Brooks wanted, but it's kind of hard to place the ball when you only have time to put a pinky on it.

Once again, all you have to do to find out why the Thunder came up short is look at the details. Free throw shooting once again failed them. 63 percent from the line just isn't going to cut it. The hidden points that you missed out on just because of a lack of concentration or whatever the reason, can't be excused.

While Kevin Durant was once again good, the 1-6 from three concerns me a tad. He's been shooting the three-ball so well lately (over 50 percent this month), I fear he's going to have a lapse and get carried away with the moneyball and start chucking like he did the first half of his rookie season. But I think he's come a long way in that. For the most part, the six shots were good looks that just didn't go in. He didn't force it and was still 9-19 from the field. But Durant has been scary good lately - his 26 Friday night made it nine straight outings with over 20 points and six with 25 or more. I'm excited with where his game is going.

And Russell Westbrook should pick up a few slam dunk votes tonight with his two ridunkulous (see what I did there?) rim-rockers. That second one with the little cross and dive into the lane was a thing of beauty until he cocked and assaulted the iron. Very awesome. Brian Davis sounded like threw up on the microphone as he stammered to get the superlatives out after it.



But honestly, outside of the poor foul shooting, I don't see how anyone could complain or bash after this one. Seems to me this is one of those, snap your fingers and say "shucks" type of games. Even if OKC was 20-9 instead of 3-26 coming in, losing to a top five time in the East in their gym on a last-second shot is nothing to be ashamed of. The idea is, in two years when this group has completely matured, these type of games will have been integral in getting the Thunder to the point of being a winning ball club.

Next up is a winnable one in Washington against the 4-23 Wizards. These kind of games concern me because 1) Nothing is a gimme for this group and 2) I hate expecting a 3-27 team to win, because that typically leads to disappointment. But that's what will be the case Saturday night in Washington. If this so-called improvement is really happening, then the team should go out and win one against a sub-par opponent. But again, three and twenty-seven. There's no "should's" involved with the Thunder except "should lose."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thunder at Pistons: Pre-gamer

vs.

Oklahoma City Thunder (3-27) vs. Detroit Pistons (15-11)
Friday, December 26
The Palace of Auburn Hills
Detroit, Michigan
7:00 CST

TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM)

The one area OKC really has an advantage tonight? The glass. The Pistons are 25th in the league in rebounding averaging just 39.8 a game. The Thunder on the other hand have been rebounding extremely well lately, outrebounding seven of their last eight opponents, averaging 45.3 boards during that stretch. Jeff Green has been rebounding much better (and he should be), snatching 24 boards the past two games. Chris Wilcox had a season-high 12 against Atlanta. Even Kevin Durant has been hitting the glass a little better lately.

But other than that, what hope is there for tonight? Though the Pistons are an average 11-11 since trading for Allen Iverson, they still are one of the top five or six teams in the East. Rodney Stuckey had a career high 40 against Chicago the other night, Tayshaun Prince will give KD major problems tonight and Rasheed Wallace is a matchup nightmare.

Like I mentioned the Hawks preview, somehow I'm kind of getting excited about this team again, though it's still 3-26. It's awesome watching Durant operate at such an efficient level (25.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 51.1 percent from three in December), and Russell Westbrook is continuing to mature and improve. I'm still not totally sure if Jeff Green is "getting it" because he's still relatively inconsistent. And even the Nenad Krstic signing has injected a little life because help in on the way and it's pretty good help. The win against Toronto helped get people off OKC's back with the whole "worst team ever" talk and highlighted the improvement under Scott Brooks.

All that aside, we all know how tonight will turn out. The Thunder is likely looking at 3-27 and that's just not good for the first 30 games of a season. But each game I don't have the complete and total "no chance" feeling like I did a month ago. Granted, it's only like a one percent chance feeling, but I'm saying there's a chance.

Vote for Russell!

Not only has Russell Westbrook's stock soared over the past few weeks, as evidenced by his rise in NBA.com's rookie rankings (he's up to No. 3), but now he's got a chance to show his unreal athleticism on the big stage: The Sprite Slam Dunk Competition.

But in order to get there, Westbrook needs your vote. It him, Rudy Fernandez of Portland or Joe Alexander from Milwaukee.

I don't think there's any question that Russell can electrify and dazzle. Vote for him.



A couple more examples of why he clearly deserves your vote:



Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas from The Thunderworld

Have a wonderful Eve with your families and an even better Christmas Day.

Thunder rolled again

What is there to say? Everything went as planned. The Thunder hung tough for virtually the whole game, but inconsistent jump shooting and extremely poor execution of course doomed them in the end. A stale stretch in the second quarter and a bad fourth quarter basically summed up the Thunder's 99-88 loss in Atlanta tonight.

OKC shot terribly (37 percent) all night long and the worst part is, it didn't really adjust. The Thunder weren't hitting shots but instead of changing it up and driving to the hoop or trying to get to the line, OKC kept hoisting the jumpers. And they kept not falling. I think the poster-boy for this season is Earl Watson. Unbelievable underachieving, awful jump shooting and pathetic decision making. If there's one thing that makes me want to put my face in boiling water it's Earl Watson dribbling up the floor, taking one step inside the three-point line and hoisting a 20-foot jump shot with 18 on the shot clock. And lucky for me, he did it multiple times tonight.

Russell Westbrook did what rookies tend to do: He reverted back and played like he did at the beginning of the season. But as we all know and as we've all said (numerous times), that's the growing pains of a 20-year-old point guard. He wasn't good tonight, but that doesn't mean he won't be good next time out.

And I guess Scott Brooks' text messages are working. Jeff Green poured in another strong effort on the glass, grabbing 14 boards. Kevin Durant continues to play efficient basketball. Seems like every box score lately is looking about the same for him (in a good way): 28 points, 10-19 from the floor, 2-3 from three, six rebounds. He's doing his part. Over the past eight games, he's averaging almost 28 a game. And he's just 20. I can't wait to see where's he at in three months, much less three years. He's getting better daily.

Atlanta is a top five team in the East and OKC is a bottom two team in the league. It turned out like it should - especially with the game being in Atlanta. Against contenders, this is what Thunder fans have to hope for - staying close and not getting embarrassed. So by all accords tonight, mission accomplished.

Oklahoma City gets a few days off and then returns to action Friday against the Pistons.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thunder at Hawks: Preview

vs.

Oklahoma City Thunder (3-25) vs. Atlanta Hawks (17-10)
Tuesday, December 23
Philips Arena
Atlanta, Georgia
6:00 CST

TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD 722)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM)

The last time these two got together, Oklahoma City led an undefeated Atlanta squad for about 40 minutes and then a late 18-5 run doomed the Thunder as the Hawks won 89-85.

When the Hawks are focused and are playing hard, they're good. Like good as in they can play and win with anyone. But they are also the type of team that can potentially come out flat, overlook an opponent and lose. And that's precisely what OKC fans are hoping for tonight. A lackluster effort from Atlanta enabling the Thunder to stay close for four quarters and maybe squeak one out.

One thing about Atlanta though, is they're good at home. Like 11-2 good. They've played very solid defense this year and when they're hitting from three, they're nearly unstoppable. And they do it even better at home.

It's a weird feeling to be a Thunder fan right now. Somehow, someway, my excitement for the team is beginning to catch a second wind. The expectations are gone and the team's playing so much better. The wins really haven't come as a result, but knowing the team will likely be competitive each night makes losing constantly a little bit easier to take. The Thunder's average margin of defeat has fallen from 13.0 points over their first 16 games to 4.4 in the last 12, but they're still 2-10 in that span. We knew the team would be bad, but watching it steadily improve and get to the point where it can compete each night is fun. And knowing help is on the way in Nenad Krstic, it's really fun to watch the building blocks come in to place and see a team built from the ground up.

No expectations tonight, except to be competitive. Hang tough, give yourself a chance. I know some readers and like to poke fun at "improving yet losing." But with any team, what are you supposed to take out of a game? If the Team A doesn't have near the talent, the ability or the intangibles of Team B, what are you to hope for if you're a fan of A? Is it realistic to hope for wins against superior opponents and be pissed if you lose? Or do you stay realistic and hope the team plays as well as it can and stays competitive and if it wins, then that's just a bonus? Because that's the mindset of Thunder fans. Play hard, play well and just hang tough. At this point, that's all we can ask for.

Tuesday Bolts - 12.23.08

  • A must-read - Tom Ziller wrote yesterday on Fanhouse, "You can't accuse the Thunder of giving up," which is exactly what Thunderfans have been preaching : "With an awful team to call my own, don't ask why I have spent the past week catching every Oklahoma City Thunder game I could on League Pass. Something about Kevin Durant continues to thrill, and Russell Westbrook's new cult status as Rondo-on-a-bad-team coupled with Jeff Green's eternal Pippen mimicking make the team an interesting watch ... But the fantastic thing -- the factor which kept OKC in closer proximity than most far superior Cleveland opponents -- is that the young Thunder players never quit. Durant, Westbrook and Green have a tremendous chemistry on the court. Obviously, it rarely registers in the win column and often not even in the box score. But that's a youth and talent issue ... But the shimmer of hope, a fistful of spirit remain, with every Westbrook assist and Green three and Durant dunk. In a few years, opponents will long for 2008, when OKC represented an easy mark. This team, meek as it seems, travels on the path toward respectability. Patience will be required, but almost certainly rewarded."
  • Shoals of FreeDarko thinks the Thunder are totally cool even though they lose: "First off, Ziller has suggested that Thunder/Grizz is the new Bobcats/Hawks, and I'm inclined to agree. I feel like a turncoat for saying this, but as Dr. LIC noted a few weeks back, the Thunder are rad and lose a ton of games. Perfect! And they're about the most god-foresaken outpost of NBA basketball available. The game with Cleveland yesterday was bound to end as it did, but certainly felt like a battle. Westbrook's the wild card, Durant the edgy craftsman, Jeff Green has become Jeff Green. Combine those with a high pick, and Presti might not built another Spurs, but a team with serious mind control powers. Now let's see what he does with a coach, or when Ibaka comes over."
  • And it keeps getting better; Chris Mannix of SI.com has OKC all the way up to No. 27: "Looking to fill their need for an inside scoring threat, the Thunder are preparing a three-year offer to Nets restricted free agent Nenad Krstic, who is poised to return to the NBA after starting the season in Russia. If the Nets decline to match the offer for their former starting center, Krstic would join with Kevin Durant, Jeff Green to give the Thunder the makings of a decent frontcourt."
  • Randy Hill of Fox Sports looks at excellence vs. futility: "Riding while strapped to the top of another runaway train are the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose recent victory uprising puts them at a righteous three triumphs through 27 games. With their success window still looking as vast as a dollhouse peephole, interim coach Scott Brooks and his plucky Thunder are on a quest to avoid 70 defeats. Are they capable of discovering victory in at least 10 more scheduled dates? Just feeling the need to raise this question suggests the potential for doom. Anyway, with the Cs and Thunder as co-stars, we've been challenged to answer the following question: if these teams are riding separate trains and allowed to go speeding off in opposite directions, which team will reach 70 first?"
  • OKC is gaining a bit of respect, despite still actually being 3-25: "On Sunday night in the Sooner State, the Cavaliers topped the Thunder for the second time this season, although this was definitely not the same OK City team they thumped by 35 three weeks ago ... 'With this atmosphere, I really have to pat my guys on the back,” praised Coach Mike Brown. “It’s the third game of the trip and I thought our guys stayed focused with this crowd here in Oklahoma City. They hung in there and won the game in the fourth, which is what you have to do sometimes on the road.'"

Monday, December 22, 2008

A couple quick thoughts from last night's game against Cleveland

Yesterday included a rather large family gathering from my father's side for Christmas so a game recap was a little difficult to get to. The holiday season can kind of have that affect on a blog. I watched it this afternoon via DVR and here's a few quick thoughts:
  • Considering how the first matchup went, this was a pretty good improvement. The two teams swapped leads for about two and half quarters, but in the end the Cavs won because they are just simply better - which is what should happen. But the effort of the Thunder shouldn't be overlooked because it's obvious OKC has a little something going. It's playing better and playing smarter. For one team being 3-24 and the other being 22-4 coming in, the game sure didn't play out that way.
  • I love the way Russell Westbrook is playing right now. He's still attacking the rim but he's doing it in moderation and doing it smarter. He isn't recklessly flying at the cup and challenging Ben Wallace repeatedly. Now he'll pull up for a little jumper and he's knocking it down at a pretty good clip. He had a nice 24 and 11 assist. He did turn it over five times, but I can live with that as long he's getting better - he's got the ball in his hands a lot more now so more turnovers will happen but he's also making a lot of good things happen too. The comparison to Rajon Rondo was amped up a lot before the season and right now, he's really looking a lot like Rondo offensively. Westbrook can get into the lane with ease, but now he's making solid decisions once he gets there instead of chucking an errant shot with defenders in his face or leaving his feet with nowhere to go. (See: the nice dish to Nick Collison for a flush. Very nice play.)
  • Jeff Green's game is how he needs to focus on playing for the rest of his career. He had 16 points, 10 rebounds and took (for the most part) smart shots. He played solid defense and did a nice job helping.
  • Kevin Durant is taking a lot more threes under Scott Brooks than he was under P.J. but he's also shooting the ball so much better from there. Almost every three Durant takes is in total rhythm and comes on a kick out of from dribble penetration. He went 2-3 from downtown Sunday night and if he continues to get good looks on threes and doesn't get carried away trying to take them, he could be absolutely unguardable in a few years. Besides getting a little stronger on driving, I'd love to see KD add a nice fadeaway post up jumper. He used that shot quite a bit in college but he doesn't seem to go to it as much in the NBA. With his length, that shot could be unstoppable.
  • You have to love that OKC outrebounded Cleveland 41-32. For a team without a true center or dominant big man playing against a team that has one of the premier rebounders in the league (Ben Wallace) and a really solid center (Zydrunas Ilgauskas), it was nice to see that kind of effort on the glass.
  • LeBron James is so bloody good. People forget he's 23 years old. Some guys haven't even arrived in the league at that age. Think about what he will look like or might have accomplished at 29. Scary.
It's another loss and it doesn't look any better on the right side of the column, but playing extremely well and hanging in against one of the elite teams in the league shows how far OKC has come from the totally and completely inept team it once was.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Well how do you like that - OKC shocks the world and beats Toronto

Thank you Nick Collison. What an awesome, gutsy hustle play to give Oklahoma City its first win at home in 47 days. That play really summed up why the Thunder came out 91-83 winners over a fast imploding Toronto squad.

For 48 minutes, the Thunder simply outworked the Raptors. Loose balls, charges, steals, everything - were going OKC's way. The effort was obvious from the tip and part of that reason was a shakeup in the starting five. Finally, Scott Brooks got Damien Wilkins out of the first five. Playing with him out there for the first eight minutes of a game was like having a dead body being drug around. I was actually planning on doing some research to find out if Wilkins was maybe the most unproductive starter in league history. Also, maybe the Johan Petro experiment is wrapping up. Collison finally got the start at the five and while the group was small, they were also quick, much more energetic and way better defensively.

You look at the box and its got all the symptoms for another Thunder loss. Eleven missed free throws, 18 turnovers, 3-13 from downtown and just 44 percent from the field. But the biggest thing is the Raptors shot a miserable 36 percent from the floor and OKC outrebounded them 54-48. Chris Bosh was held to a 6-18 night and Russell Westbrook played excellent defense on Jose Calderon. Coming in, both teams were giving up over 100 a game, but tonight either both teams played good defense or both teams played bad offense. I think it was a bit of a combination. The Thunder rotated extremely well, the intensity was very high and OKC doubled Bosh some, but Collison and Wilcox really did a nice job one-on-one.

Oh and look out world, because Russell Westbrook's jumper is coming along. He's getting more and more confident pulling up and he's not forcing it to the rim all the time. He went for 19 on 7-12 shooting with eight assists. At times, he really looks unguardable. Kevin Durant didn't shoot the ball all that well, but still managed 24 and eight boards, but nailed a monster trey with about three minutes left (How about his posterization of Jermaine O'Neal; that was awesome). And Desmond Mason was huge - seven points and 10 rebounds, but his energy and intensity really carried the team tonight. Really, it was just a total team effort - Joe Smith was great, Jeff Green played well even though he was saddled with foul trouble and Wilcox had good minutes.

Rumor has it Bosh refused to speak with the media after the game and got into a small tussle with a PR guy. I guess that kind of stuff happens when you lose to a 2-24 team. But I think the Raps are about one more bad loss away from totally blowing up. They were 8-9 under Sam Mitchell and since he was burned, they're 2-7, including a loss to the Thunder. And more than anything, they lost because it just looked like they had given up and got out-hustled. Ouch.

Look, I know OKC is 3-24. It's not good. At all. No matter how you try and mix it. But that's sure better than 2-25 - one game better in fact. And with the way the Ford Center responded after the win, that little 91-83 win meant quite a bit. My wife, who has no interest in the team whatsoever except for cringing every time she hears "Thunder" because the name bothers her so much, was on her feet urging the team on late. She was joined by 19,000 other people that were begging this team to finally win one in front of them. There's a reason OKC got tagged for having such great fans. Tonight was a good example of it.

While some of it was half joking, half relief and all happiness, fans were high-fiving, yelling in the streets and honking car horns around the Ford. I know that sounds pretty stupid, but this city is dying, and I mean dying, to embrace this team and make them its own. And tonight was a step towards that. One guy behind me was talking to his friend and said, "You would have thought we just won the NBA title or something. But hey, I'll take it. This feels good - just don't remind me of our record." This group has played better under Scott Brooks and has been in every game except one with him at the helm. Tonight, instead of the traditional folding down the stretch, the Thunder rose up and got it done.

When the Raps cut the 10 point lead to to three for most of the fourth and then finally tied it, everybody in the building had the "Here we go again" feeling. But instead of locking up and kicking the ball away and failing to get rebounds and giving up easy buckets and missing bunnies in the lane and giving away possessions, the Thunder actually did all of the above. It started with Durant hitting that huge three to break a 76 -76 tie. But it was highlighted by Nick Collison's hustle play - going to the floor against Bosh and wrestling the ball away. But instead of getting a jump ball, Collison kept working and kicked it out. The ball swung around to Westbrook who drove and banked in a jumper to put OKC up by four, 85-81, and basically put win No. 3 in the bag for the Thunder. This may be a little ridiculous to say, but when you've only won three games, big moments are few and far between, but Collison's play is probably the play of the season so far for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City gets a day off before King James and the Cavs come to town Sunday night. Last time the two squads matched up, Cleveland walloped the Thunder by 35.

Raptors vs. Thunder: Pre-game view

vs.

Toronto Raptors (10-15) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (2-24)

Friday, December 19

Ford Center

Oklahoma City, OK

7:00 CST TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD 722)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM)

Can Nenad play tonight? No? Oh, well then nevermind - I thought the might be hope for tonight. Not much chance the Thunder can hang with Toronto's front line of Chris Bosh, Jermaine O'Neal and Andrea Bargnani. Bosh is going to be a near impossible matchup for Jeff Green. Green can stretch Bosh a little on the outside, but Bosh will likely be able to abuse Green in the post.

The Raptors come to Oklahoma City having lost eight of their last 10. Of course, the Thunder has lost their last 22 of 23. And it seems like any time a skidding team comes to OKC, it's kind of "Get back on track night." So that will likely be the case.

The Raps are pretty poor defensively so tonight's game could be a but of a high scoring affair. I'm really looking forward to the Russell Westbrook - Jose Calderon matchup. These are the type of opposing guards Russell was drafted to lock down on. The Raptors entire offense really relies on Calderon. He has to cut and slash into the defense and distribute because the Raptors really don't have guys that create on their own. Anthony Parker is a nice player but he's not great at getting his own shot. Jason Kapono is a straight up spot up shooter. Jamario Moon is a straight up athletic freak, but he's not a good shooter. So if Westbrook can limit Calerdon a little, it may make it tough for Toronto's line of bigs to get their points.

Even though OKC is 2-24, one thing I'm growing more excited to watch every night is Kevin Durant. As everybody has witnessed under Scott Brooks, he's just so much more efficient and productive. He's not forcing anything, but just letting the game flow and makes scoring 25 looks easy. When Jeff Green scores 14, it seems like I notice and remember every bucket. When Durant scores 30, it seems like it came out of nowhere. It is really an enjoyable thing to watch a player that works within the flow of an offense and just scores because the game is coming to him - it's not nearly as fun watching a guy force the action.

I have a kind of good feeling about tonight's game for some unknown and totally unfounded reason. But when a team is 2-24 and has lost the last 11 at home, you kind of feel like, "This HAS to be the one." But then again, I've been feeling that way for two weeks. Maybe OKC can keep it close and just have a chance in the fourth. At this point, that's what Thunder fans have been resigned to hoping for.

ESPN's Chad Ford reports Nenad Krstic will return to the NBA and join the Thunder

From ESPN.com's Chad Ford: "Former New Jersey Nets big man Nenad Krstic followed Josh Childress' lead this summer and bolted the NBA for the riches of international basketball. Seven weeks into the season, Krstic is on the verge of coming back to the NBA. Two league sources told ESPN.com on Friday the Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed in principle to sign Krstic to a three-year offer sheet. The deal should be finalized on Monday, according to the sources.

Krstic is still a restricted free agent. The Nets would have seven days to match the deal once they receive the offer sheet. A league source in New Jersey said the chances of the Nets matching what is believed to be a three-year, $15 million offer are slim. The Nets like Krstic but are trying to clear cap space for the summer of 2010 ... A Thunder source said that the team has been in pursuit of Krstic for a while and considered making him an offer this summer. After watching him play in Russia, they believed he was finally healthy and would command a large salary next year. With nearly all of the team's mid-level exception available, they decided to cut off the competition and lock up Krstic now."

Krstic was having a breakout year in 2006 before an awful ACL injury sidelined him. In 26 games that year, he averaged 16.4 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game. He's just 25 years old and is a solid seven-footer that OKC desperately needs. It's hard to say if he's really a good solution to the current problem, but his presence sure won't hurt. Right now, OKC is getting little to no production from the frontcourt. Having Krstic should open up more mid-range looks for Kevin Durant and Jeff Green and give Russell Westbrook a reliable post-scorer to pass to on dribble drives.

If Krstic is completely healthy and can return to his 2006 form, this is a solid pickup. But if he's unproductive and not fully-recovered, this could be a major setback dishing out $15 million to someone that's going to give you as much production as the guys you've already got. This piles up more OKC big men, which suggests that someone out of Robert Swift, Johan Petro, Nick Collison or Chris Wilcox will likely be moved.

Friday Bolts - 12.19.08

  • HoopsWorld hands out quarter report cards: "Oklahoma City: On pace to win the fewest games (six) in the history of the NBA, the Thunder (2-24) has very little to be excited about just six weeks into their first season in Oklahoma City. Clearly in re-building mode, General Manager Sam Presti's squad is light years from contention in the Western Conference, despite a talented young trio of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. Grade: F"
  • Darnell Mayberry writes about Thunder improvement: "Look beyond the record, and the Thunder’s transformation can be seen on the practice court and in the locker room, in games and on the final stat sheets. The most glaring difference has been Oklahoma City’s improved offense."
  • The Sports Corner has Blake Griffin going No. 2 and OKC taking someone else: "Blake Griffin is more dominant, more experienced, and better scorer than Ricky Rubio is. I’ll get that out of the way. But the problem is, OKC doesn’t need another scorer. When Scott Brooks took the job nobody wanted, and made his first major move by putting Kevin Durant back tot he three spot where he belongs, Durant took off and is putting up some pretty good numbers. What the Thunder needs is a pure point guard that can get Durant the ball in tough spots. And in Oklahoma, Griffin would most likely be playing that three spot with the emergence of Robert Swift, and three other forwards above 6′10 on the team. With Swift, Durant, Westbrook at the two spot and Rubio (aka Spanish Steve Nash that is a better scorer) at the point, it’s actually looking like a respectable ball club. Although, it’s going to be very hard not to draft Griffin, born and raised in Oklahoma City."
  • Mike Baldwin writes about potential free agents: "Money won’t be the only factor. Bosh said playing for a playoff contender with a bright future will figure into his decision. Since he played at Dallas Lincoln High School, Thunder fans might like to think Bosh might be tempted to play in Oklahoma City, near his hometown. It’s doubtful the Thunder can sign Bosh, James, Dwyane Wade or Amare Stoudemire. But you never know. Presti is clearing about $40 million of cap space for the 2010-11 season. In line for another high draft pick next June, Oklahoma City should add another talented, young player to the foundation of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook. But to land a quality free agent, the Thunder might need to start winning to convince a player this is a team on the rise."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kevin Pelton on the education of Kid Delicious

I know this was included in today's Bolts, but this is just too good to not put a neon sign on. Pelton wrote and awesome feature about the evolution of Kevin Durant. Just read the whole thing. It's wonderful. Pelton says what we've all seen: Though P.J. Carlesimo and Scott Brooks both have the same 1-12 record, there's a ton of differences between the results of the two.

I've been talking about the improvement of the team, and while it hasn't done much in the win-loss area, the team has gotten better. It's undeniable. Pelton of Basketball Prospectus puts together some awesome numbers and breaks down the difference between the two coaches - most notably, the way the Thunder's stud has performed under the two.

Check this little diddy out:
Coach       Pace   OffRat   DefRat    Diff   ExpW
Carlesimo 94.6 93.4 107.7 -12.3 1.2
Brooks 91.0 106.8 116.4 - 7.5 3.3

"Despite the record, it's easy to see that Oklahoma City has played better with Brooks at the helm. Their point differential is still bad, but at least respectable. On average, a team with the Thunder's -7.5 differential under Brooks would have won about three out of 13 games. It's easy to see where those wins could have come; within Brooks' first week on the job, Oklahoma City had lost a pair of home games by a combined three points on last-second shots. The team is also competing on a nightly basis: only one of Brooks' 12 losses has come by more than 12 points."
So there's a few positives. I don't think it's outlandish to say that if Brooks were at the helm from the beginning of the season, OKC would have at least two to three more wins than it has now and a 6-18 record really wouldn't be out of the question. But as much as the offense and scoring has improved, the defense has regressed. But it's not all that bad of a tradeoff, considering where OKC was heading on the offensive end under Carlesimo.

"Under Carlesimo, the Thunder was threatening all sorts of league records for offensive futility. That has changed under Brooks, and impressively so. Actually, Oklahoma City's 106.8 Offensive Rating over the last 13 games is not far off of league average for the season (108.0). The Thunder has been far more potent at late. The tradeoff has come at the defensive end, where an OKC squad that was reasonably competent early in the season has been porous since the coaching change. No team is allowing more points per 100 possessions than the Brooks Thunder, though again the league-wide shift inflates the magnitude of the change."
Pelton has Durant's numbers under P.J. and under Brooks:

Coach        2P%    3P%    eFG%   TS%  Usage    2A%    3A%   FTA%    TO%
Carlesimo .447 .438 .462 .513 .294 .712 .055 .088 .145
Brooks .476 .500 .532 .592 .271 .613 .156 .124 .107
"Durant has improved virtually across the board. The most telling numbers might be the rightmost series, what I group as player tendencies--the percentage of possessions used on two-point and three-point attempts, free throws and turnovers. The two most efficient ways to score are on threes and at the free-throw line, and Durant has improved his sum of the two categories from 14.3 percent of his possessions under Carlesimo to 28.0 percent under Brooks. Quite simply, Durant is playing a different game. It's also a much better one, as reflected in the massive spikes in his effective field-goal percentage and his True Shooting Percentage. Durant has gone from a low-efficiency, volume shooter to the kind of lethal, highly-efficient scorer he was in his lone season at Texas. And he's done it while slashing his turnovers as well."
Pelton doesn't really buy into the whole, "Oh, well it's because KD moved to small forward" argument. He said after reviewing a Thunder game, he didn't really see any difference between the way Durant is being used between Carlesimo and Brooks. But he does see what I've said I see - improved spacing, freeing up KD's jumper and his driving ability.

Pelton wraps up with this:
"There's one final factor, one which should be disconcerting for the Thunder's opponents in the long term. Durant is still a babyfaced 20-year-old, and he's figuring out things all the time. The development of his game from where he was at the end of his rookie season was obvious against the Spurs. He has become much more accurate from the perimeter, most notably from three-point range. Because of his low percentage, Durant gradually phased the three out of his game near the end of last season, continuing that at the start of 2008-09. However, when Durant started making more of his infrequent attempts, he began ramping back up. Under Brooks, he has been hitting at an even 50 percent clip from long distance while making nearly two threes a game. A long 6'9" player who can gets shots off against any defender while hitting almost effortlessly from range? That's the Durant everyone envisioned coming out of the University of Texas, and slowly but surely--with the assistance of the Thunder's coaching change--we're starting to see it at the NBA level."
If that doesn't help sway you a little to the "optimist" category then there's not much hope for your sad self. I understand the reason to see the future being a tad dim, but there's a lot of upside for this group. And it all starts with Durant and so far, under Brooks, it's starting to look better.

Thursday Bolts - 12.18.08

  • According to HoopsWorld, OKC is listening to offers for its big men: "The Oklahoma City Thunder have big men to spare, and are rumored to be listening to offers for Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox, and maybe even Nick Collison. The problem there is that the last thing they need is another small forward." - With Joe Smith not playing Tuesday night simply because there just wasn't room for him on the floor, I'm thinking something is going to happen soon.
  • I love these House of Hoops ads by Foot Locker. Here's the Kevin Durant one:

  • Trying times for the young Thunder, writes Art Garcia: "The losses continue to mount and so does the frustration. On pace for the worst record in NBA history, with its head coach already fired, can anyone fault the Oklahoma City Thunder for sinking into the depths of basketball depression? Teams go through bad seasons. This is a disaster."
  • Russell Westbrook stays in David Thorpe's top 10 rookies: "Being a phenomenal athlete alone is not enough to be a great defensive player in this league. It takes an active mind and a willingness to study. Consider this action by Westbrook in Dallas: He was defending the weakside, with J.J. Barea in his corner and Devean George on the wing, both behind the 3-point line, while Erick Dampier had the ball in the high post. Westbrook cut off the simple pass to George, going for a steal, and left open the corner pass to Barea. Did he do the right thing, considering the corner 3 is the easiest shot worth 3 points (based on distance)? Barea was shooting 40.9 percent from 3 going into the game, while George was at 35 percent. But it would be a mistake to just look at those numbers in the scouting report. Barea was just 1-for-4 from that left corner, up to that point, and George was 1-for-3 from the wing. Small sample sizes, yes, but nothing alarming enough to convince Westbrook to stay with Barea. So the risk was worth it. And even though Westbrook did not get the steal, Barea did miss the shot."
  • Tom Ziller writes about Kevin Durant's silent breakthrough: "[Kevin] Pelton has all the numbers, and I encourage you to check them out. It's certainly a promising sign. From the cheap seats, Brooks' 1-12 record makes it seem like there's been no improvement. But quietly, Durant's becoming the player we'd dreamt of. And it's all because Brooks has put some other shooters on the floor with him."
  • The Lost Ogle's gives us Peace, Love and Thunderstanding, moral victory edition: "I took a week off from writing a formulaic Peace, Love and Thunderstanding column and instead let Patrick post fifteen ideas for improving the Thunder experience. While that article was well received, the real reason for the delay was hope that the team might give me something to write about if I gave them an extra week to do something. Since the last true P, L & T ran, would anyone like to guess how many times the Oklahoma City Thunder have won a game? Here’s a hint, there have been seven games since that point."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Forecasting the Thunder - well, that depends on how you want to look at it

At this point, if you're a Thunder fan you can look at the current state of affairs two ways - glass half full or glass half empty with a hole in the bottom and leaking fast.

If you're an optimist (like me):
A. This is a young team. The average age is 24.7 years old and the average age of the starting five is 22.4. It's centered around three young players where the oldest is 22. Give that nucleus time to develop and you've got a strong team.

B. Oklahoma City has multiple expiring contracts. So while this current team is a miserable 2-24, it isn't likely this same group will be back next year. And this offseason, there will be some major cap room to play with. After the season, the Thunder will only have about $20 million in committed salary.

C. Just because someone is bad one year doesn't mean they will be bad again next year. Look at the Heat from a year ago. They had 15 wins (15!) and now with a healthy team and Dwayne Wade back they already have 12. The Hornets had a measly 18 in 2004 before drafting Chris Paul and then won 36 and last year had the second best record in the West. The 1992-93 Mavericks, who challenged for the worst record ever, didn't stay that bad forever. They went 11-71 that year, then 13-69 and then 36-46. Now look at them. Sports work in cycles. While some are up and some are down. Then they swap.

D. Basketball is the easiest sport to turn around. It can literally take one player to fix a team. The 1996-97 Spurs are the example with Tim Duncan. Before taking Duncan No. 1, San Antonio went 20-62, but then after taking Duncan, the Spurs went 56-26. Whether it's Blake Griffin, Ricky Rubio or a good free agent, this can be flipped around really quickly.

E. Nobody thought this team was going to contend this year. Sam Presti (supposedly) has a plan and he's trying to build a contender from scratch. Maybe OKC is trying to follow the Spurs' model a little too closely. As mentioned, the 1996-97 Spurs went 20-62 with two different coaches. The first was Bob Hill (who has some ties to the Thunder franchise) who went 3-15 before being canned and replaced by then general manager Gregg Popovich - which was Pop's first head coaching experience; just like Scott Brooks. Who knows - this time next year we could be talking about playoff matchups and how amazing OKC's turnaround was and how incredible this city and its fans are. It could happen. You know, the Tampa Bay Rays did go to the World Series this year...

If you're a pessimist:
A. Look at the obvious 2-24 record. The 11 straight losses at home. The highest losing margin in the league. The same problems plaguing the team. The youth and inexperience. The frustrated coaches, players and fans. Lots of reason to be discouraged.

B. What if the young players don't pan out? What if Durant is just a 20 point a game guy that never has "star" power and never can take over a game? What if Jeff Green stays inconsistent and never does better than 14 a game? What if Russell Westbrook was the wrong choice and never understands how to control himself and how to take smart shots and make good decisions? What if OKC doesn't even get the No. 1 pick next year? Even if it does, what if that pick doesn't impact the team? Can OKC stand another horrible season like this?

C. Expiring contracts. What if the wrong moves are made again? The Thunder could end up with a new team but with new contracts and the same misery. If history is any indicator, there's really not much reason to trust management so far.

D. Some say no free agent will want to play in Oklahoma City. Some say no rookie will sign to play here. What if that's true? I don't think people have such short memories to remember how much everyone talked about how wonderful OKC was three years ago when the Hornets were around, but who knows?

E. The economy. A few of the Thunder's owners have taken some hits in the market and some wonder if they will have the money to dish out to prize free agents. Though Oklahoma City has been called "the most recession proof city in the United States" by Yahoo, that doesn't mean the PBC won't be cutting back as well.

So which group do you fall in? I'm definitely in the optimist group because this is the first year in a new city with a young team. A few changes, a wise draft pick, smart offseason moves and the evolution of the young trio and this team can be much better.