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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

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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.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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