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NBA AM: Breaking Up The Thunder?

With the Thunder’s season over is it time to break up the team, or hold the line and wait for their window?… Saunders says Kevin Love is staying put, is he?

Steve Kyler



Hard To Stay Patient:  With the Oklahoma City Thunder failing to advance the NBA Finals, it’s not altogether surprising that the common belief among fans is that it is time for a change.

Is it?

The Thunder endured an interesting season filled with injuries to guard Russell Westbrook. They put arguably their youngest supporting cast on the floor in as many years and still came away with a 59-23 record and another appearance in the Western Conference Finals. Star forward Kevin Durant earned his first MVP award and from most accounts Westbrook evolved into a more balanced force, especially late in the postseason where his defense pulled out some close plays and won them some games.

There are a number of teams in the NBA would have loved to had the season the Thunder had, but because they are not in the Finals again, there are doubts. There are questions. There is a sense that this team can’t get over the hump.

Before we get into what’s likely to happen this summer, let’s get into what’s not likely to happen: the Thunder won’t panic. The Thunder won’t make some crazy break-up-the-team trade and they won’t break up their core. That’s not how General Manager Sam Presti works and that’s not what the Thunder are trying to build.

The other thing that’s unlikely to happen is the Thunder are not going to go crazy trying to “buy” a free agent solution. In the Presti-era the Thunder have traditionally not been big free agent players. They have opted to draft smart, develop their own assets, look at the trade market opportunistically and pay their own guys when it’s time and the pricing lines up with their expected roles and goals.

So what is likely to happen this summer?

The Thunder hold what is currently the 21st and 29th picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, based on their history of drafting best talent available, they will have some interesting options available to them towards the bottom of the first round. There is a strong chance the Thunder look for a backup point guard, mainly because current backup guard Reggie Jackson looks poised to be a starter next season with Westbrook and Jackson likely sliding to the off-guard position interchangeably.

There could be some solid point guards available at 21 such as Louisiana Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton or UCONN’s Shabazz Napier. At 29, the Thunder could look at add depth behind Serge Ibaka with a number of interesting Power Forward options available like French big man Clint Capela, Florida’s Patric Young, or Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes.

The Thunder have a few free agent situations, namely starting guard Thabo Sefolosha, who is finishing up his final contract year and will be an unrestricted free agent. Sefolosha earned $3.9 million this season and assuming his price tag stays in that sort of range he is not an expensive player to re-sign and is most likely back for continuity reasons. Ultimately he may lose minutes to guard Jeremy Lamb, which may have Sefolosha looking at other options.

Fans have been calling for the Thunder to use their Amnesty roster cut on Kendrick Perkins and his remaining $9.4 million contract year. The problem with using the Amnesty on Perkins is it really does nothing towards the salary cap other than reducing a possible tax burden. The Thunder are sitting on $67.5 million in expected salary commitments and are under the expected $73 million Luxury tax. Cutting Perkins clears a little bit of cap room, but as we covered above the Thunder historically have never been overly active buyer in free agency, so what’s really gained in cutting Perkins except paying him not to be on the roster? Roster space is not a problem, and Perkins has been a major influence on Kevin Durant and his growth as an all-around player. Perkins’ ending contract could be a very tradable asset, especially at the trade deadline and luxury tax is not an issue for the Thunder until then either, as tax is computed based on what’s on the roster at the end of the season, so Amnesty on Perkins achieves very little in the grand scheme.

The Thunder are not that far away from being a NBA Finals kind of team, in fact they are as close as anyone in the west and every year they get slightly better, especially when healthy.

It is easy to overlook how hard it is to get to the NBA Finals, the Michael Jordan era Bulls lost two consecutive Easter Conference Finals before securing their first title. That’s happened when Jordan was 28.

As good as LeBron James has been in his career he’s was 27 before landing his first championship. Hakeem Olajuwon was 31 before he got his first championship. Shaquille O’Neal was 28 before he got his first ring.

The Thunder’s core is still very young – Durant is 25, Westbrook is 25 – they still have plenty of time and growing to do before it’s fair to call this Thunder team anything more than it is, arguably the best young team in the NBA and when the window for teams like the San Antonio Spurs close the Thunder look poised to be there to fill that gap.

It’s not easy to be patient in sports, but the one thing the Thunder have proven is that they have a long-term plan, and just because they did not get it done this year does not mean they will break it apart. It means they will look to add a couple of more pieces around their stars and hope they all grow into the team they hope to be when their stars start to peak and their championship window comes open.

Hands Off Kevin Love:  So Minnesota big man Kevin Love decided to take a vacation. It’s the offseason and guys do that. The problem is Kevin decided to go to Boston and now all hell has broken loose on the rumor front.

Love wasn’t in Boston for any particular reason, he told people that asked that he simply wanted to experience the city and take in the sites. While Love has been to Boston many times as a player, he is usually there in the dead of winter and usually in the middle of some ungodly road trip.

This weekend Love took in a Red Sox game, hung out on some roof top bars and parties and had, from all accounts, a good time.

The problem with an unexpected Love sighting, is that its fueling the belief that Love wants to be a Celtic and that Boston is ready to trade for him.

While all of that might be true, Timberwolves president Flip Saunders didn’t care much for the story line or the assumption that Love was headed to Beantown as a player.

“The last I knew Kevin was under contract with us, and I expect him to be playing for us next year,” Saunders said to the Associated Press. “I don’t really dictate where guys go on vacation or what they do. They can go wherever they want to go.”

Saunders has heard all the rumors and of course he is fielding all the incoming calls, so he understands what is being talked about both within his team concept and outside of his control.

“I know there’s a feeding frenzy out there from a lot of teams,” Saunders said. “Unfortunately, they have no say. I plan on Kevin being here.”

The word in NBA circles is that Love’s agent is pushing hard for a trade for his client and has been trying to urge interested teams into making aggressive offers to the Timberwolves, trying to get something down around the NBA Draft so Love can focus his attentions on his new team.

Love has two more years left on his contract worth $15.7 million and $16.7 million respectively. Love’s final year is a player option and its believed that he’ll exercise that option in July of 2015, making him an unrestricted free agent.

That threat of opting out not only concerns the Timberwolves, but any team offering real assets for him in trade. There have been several teams that have made it clear they would welcome Love as is, but it’s unclear how much they’d really offer the Wolves without Love opting-in to that final contract year.

The Wolves’ stance privately lines up very much with what Saunders is saying publicly, that they expect Love to be with the Wolves next season. However, the belief away from the Wolves is that have yet to be offered something that makes them better in the long-term and until that happens they are planning for Love to be on the roster for training camp. Should the offers change, their stance may change but as of now they haven’t been offered anything they’d do.

As for Boston specifically, Saunders understands all too well the fan reaction to a player like Love being in town and in the news.

“They’re the same fans who thought they had Tim Duncan,” Saunders joked. “They still think they got Tim Duncan in the draft. I’m not really sure, but the last I looked he was playing for San Antonio.”

The Wolves have the 13th, 40th, 44th and 53rd picks in the 2014 NBA Draft and are aggressively looking at prospects and trade scenarios, so whether the Wolves trigger something around Love or not, its highly likely they are triggering something to combine some of those assets into two strong prospects for next season’s roster.

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.




Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race

Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.

Jesse Blancarte



When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.

More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.

Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.

Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.

He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”

Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.

“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”

Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.

“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”

Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.

“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”

Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).

The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.

When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.

“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.

He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”

There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.

“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”

Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.

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NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors

The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.

Moke Hamilton



The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.

Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.

Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.

Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.

Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.

Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.

Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.

The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.

There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.

At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.

We may be seeing that now.

En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have.  In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.

As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.

Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.

We’ll find out in short order.

* * * * * *

As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.

Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.

On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.

A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?

With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.

Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.

While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.

For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.

Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.

Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.

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NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode

With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.

Dennis Chambers



After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.

Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.

First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.

Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.

In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having  Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.

Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?

Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.

The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.

Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.

“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”

That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.

Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.

After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.

At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.

The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.

In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.

An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.

It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.

Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.

Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.

Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.

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