Though it may seem like forever ago, it has only been nine years since the Oklahoma City Thunder were playing in the NBA Finals. The young quartet of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka was unable to stop the Miami HEAT’s “Big Three,” as the team captured their first of two consecutive titles.
After four trips to the Western Conference Finals in the last decade, the Thunder now are in the midst of their first true rebuild since their time in Oklahoma City began. General manager Sam Presti has been a very busy man over the past few seasons. In fact, there were five players from the All-Star game this season that once played for the Thunder.
Plenty of high-caliber players have come and gone through Oklahoma, including Durant, Harden, Westbrook, Ibaka, Steven Adams, Reggie Jackson, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Dennis Schroder, Chris Paul and George Hill. Al Horford will soon be added to this laundry list of names.
Horford plans to remain w/ OKC teammates and train at the team’s facility. After season, Horford will have 2 years, $53M left on deal and Sam Presti has pledged to work w/ Horford and his agent Jason Glushon on finding a destination that fits better with this stage of his career. https://t.co/TjNoJ4w2zE
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 27, 2021
Though many of those were brief stops, it has paid off for the franchise in terms of acquiring young talent like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and, of course, plenty of future draft compensation.
After a couple of moves before last week’s trade deadline, the Thunder now project to have 34 draft picks over the next seven years. That is 17 first round picks and 17 second round picks, with a few swap options along the way as well.
The Thunder currently have 13 players on their roster with less than three full years of NBA experience. Oklahoma City will certainly not use every one of these 34 picks on players. This is where they will need to remain patient as they construct their roster over the coming years.
The most coveted asset that any franchise can possess is future draft picks. When these teams are bad, their own picks become even more valuable. Teams will come calling when it is time for them to rebuild and/or reload their rosters. This is the key to Oklahoma City’s future.
Two critical areas for small-market teams are player development and their ability to make smart draft decisions. The Thunder have demonstrated the ability to be exceptional at both. Darius Bazley, Luguentz Dort, Ty Jerome, Theo Maledon, Isaiah Roby, Moses Brown and Kenrich Williams have all impressed this season, while the continued growth of Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort will be instrumental going forward.
In terms of financial flexibility, the Thunder are in an excellent position, too, due largely to their creativity. The work of their front office has been nothing short of magnificent.
The Thunder now have the below big trade exceptions available:
💰$7.37M (Oubre Jr.)
The original Gallinari $19.5M exception was used to acquire Meyers Leonard allowing OKC to create a new $12.8M TE.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) March 17, 2021
The Thunder are in a good position in terms of player contracts as well. Aside from Horford, they do not have a player on their roster making more than $7 million this season. Darius Miller and Justin Jackson are the only other two players making more than Gilgeous-Alexander’s $4.1 million salary. They have even more money coming off their books next season and still have Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort and Brown under contract.
Oklahoma City’s draft history should provide their fan base with confidence as they proceed to rebuild. Dating back to their days in Seattle, this franchise has hit on the draft seemingly every year. In addition to Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden, they have done well with first-round selections.
These picks have not all been the same caliber as those MVP-level players but guys like Adams, Jackson and Cameron Payne were solid contributors. Though the players were traded, their last two first-round picks of Brandon Clarke and Immanuel Quickley look promising as well.
The Thunder have made the playoffs every year since 2009 with the exception of the 2014-15 season. There won’t be any postseason play for them this year but they have not embraced any form of tanking.
Despite the lack of elite talent on their roster, the Thunder still own a better record than seven other teams. Mark Daigneault may be the least recognizable coach in the league, but he has done an outstanding job with this young group. They have proven to be one of the better defensive teams as the players have bought into the system.
Oklahoma City’s situation is similar to a few other teams in recent years. The Memphis Grizzlies continue to improve each season with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr leading their young core. They have hit on those same two key areas; drafting and player development. De’Anthony Melton, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson and Clarke have all contributed to their growth as an organization.
The Atlanta Hawks are another young team on the rise but are a little further ahead thanks to some recent trades and free-agent signings. Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter have all blossomed alongside the veteran players added to the roster. These guys benefited from the guidance of Vince Carter in his final two seasons in Atlanta. Oklahoma City now hopes that Horford may be able to provide the same thing to their young nucleus.
Philadelphia took a much different approach when they coined their “trust the process” phrase. Tanking is no longer viewed as a path to rebuild, due to several changes that the league has made. The New Orleans Pelicans and Charlotte Hornets have also taken different angles to rebuilding their respective teams.
There is no standard way of rebuilding that is set in stone for every franchise to follow. Because of their assets and youth, the Thunder have the luxury of being patient throughout the entire process.
Over the next several years, Oklahoma City will focus on the draft and explore the idea of taking on reclamation projects similar to what the Brooklyn Nets have done. When the time is right, they will be able to cash in some of their remaining assets to acquire even more talent to put them back into contention.
This is Presti’s 15th season as general manager of the organization. He has garnered a wealth of compliments and praise for his collection of assets in recent years. While it is well deserved, the expectations are that he will be able to turn this into premier talent.
It is a tall order for anyone, but the Thunder can sleep easy at night knowing that they have the right man for the job.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – April 16
With under 20 games to go in the regular season, the Rookie of the Year race is becoming clearer. Tristan Tucker breaks down the ladder’s changes over the past two weeks.
With under 20 games to go in the NBA season, each award’s frontrunners are coming into clearer focus. A two-man race is forming at the top of the rookie ladder, with Anthony Edwards and Tyrese Haliburton leading the charge. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the rookie race is shaking out mid-way through April.
1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 2)
Edwards is scorching hot and he’s bumped his scoring up to 18.1 points per game on the season. Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Edwards eliminated all concerns of a jump shot, something that’s coming more consistently to him.
In that period of time, Edwards is averaging 23.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.6 steals. The talented wing out of Georgia is shooting 36.2 percent from three and 44.4 percent overall, much improved from earlier in the season.
Anthony Edwards recorded his 11th 25-point game, passing Devin Booker for 5th-most by a teenager in NBA history.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 8, 2021
There are still some concerns, but Edwards has clearly made the Timberwolves a more competitive team as of late. With D’Angelo Russell back from injury, the Wolves will finally get a chance to see their young corps in action.
2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 1)
After Sacramento won seven of eight games, the team has dropped eight in a row and Haliburton moved back to the bench. During this stretch, Haliburton’s ultimately struggled with accuracy, though it hasn’t impacted his season averages.
Tyrese Haliburton. WHAT pic.twitter.com/LDJIClcix9
— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) April 9, 2021
For Haliburton, team success and overall impact on the floor is his strongest case for the Rookie of the Year award. However, now that the Wolves are much more competitive and the Kings are on the decline, Edwards is the frontrunner.
3. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 5)
With Ball and James Wiseman sidelined, Bey seems like a good bet to be the third in line for consideration for Rookie of the Year. Bey is rising up the historical ranks for rookie three-point shooters. Bey’s 38.6 percent clip from deep on over six attempts per game would rank as the best for a rookie ever.
Most threes per game by a rookie in NBA history:
2.4 — Donovan Mitchell
2.3 — Damian Lillard
2.3 — Luka Doncic
2.3 — Saddiq Bey
At 38.2%, Bey has the highest 3P% ever by a rookie with 6+ attempts per game. pic.twitter.com/lX68xtFs7E
— StatMuse (@statmuse) April 12, 2021
In the last two weeks, Bey’s averages have jumped to 15.6 points, 3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Meanwhile, his shooting is up to 47.5 percent from the floor and 42 percent from deep on even more attempts.
4. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 3)
In a season without many consistencies, Tate’s been a diamond in the rough. Tate can do a little bit of everything, boasting good hands, high efficiency, somewhat of a deep shot and a passing vision. In the last two weeks, Tate is averaging 12.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game while playing huge minutes.
If Houston holds onto its first-round pick this year, it’ll have an exciting young group to look forward to. Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. have also shined this year, while fellow rookie Kenyon Martin Jr. looks like a steady professional already.
5. Chuma Okeke, Orlando Magic (Previous: Not Ranked)
Okeke makes his debut on the rookie ladder, cracking the top five. Originally drafted in the 2019 draft, Okeke sat out for the year and didn’t sign his rookie contract until the 2020 offseason. Following Orlando’s firesale at the trade deadline, Okeke became a full-time starter and has shined.
Just Chuma Okeke doing beautiful things on both ends of the floor to bless your timeline❤️ pic.twitter.com/6cBdDyqY1I
— Davide Possagno (@DavePos5) April 11, 2021
As a full-time starter, Okeke is averaging 12.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1 block per game. While the Magic is spiraling, Okeke’s been a bright spot for a team looking for franchise cornerstones.
6. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous: NR)
Bane’s been a long-range sniper all season long but he’s upped the ante in recent weeks. Since the last ladder, Bane is shooting a whopping 45.9 percent from deep on just under five tries per game.
Bane fell all the way to the last pick of the first round in the 2020 NBA Draft, giving the Grizzlies an extremely experienced rookie for the second year in a row, joining Brandon Clarke in that regard. On the year, Bane is averaging 9.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game.
Honorable Mention: Malachi Flynn (Previous: NR)
In the last few weeks, while Kyle Lowry heals, Flynn has stepped in nicely. During the last two weeks, Flynn is averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2 steals per game. Furthermore, the 22-year-old is shooting 45.2 percent from deep on six attempts per game in that span.
Flynn’s development is extremely underrated, especially if Lowry departs in the offseason. If Flynn’s per-game numbers can be consistent, the league will be on notice.
LaMelo Ball’s injury is unfortunate for several reasons, but one of them is the fact that fans won’t get to see the fiery Rookie of the Year race near the top that could’ve been. However, fans can rest assured knowing that the NBA is in good hands. It’s especially reassuring to see so many great rookies emerge in a class that many presumed to be weaker than most.
Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to see how the race pans out and to see who is eventually crowned the rookie champ.
NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?
The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?
The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.
The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.
This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.
Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.
After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.
Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.
UPDATE: Victor Oladipo will not be accompanying the team on the west coast road trip and will be further evaluated.
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) April 9, 2021
Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.
After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.
After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.
The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.
The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.
The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.
One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.
It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.
Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.
Jayson Tatum said he’s been using an inhaler before games since testing positive for COVID-19. Said he’s still not quite back to 100 percent, but that he’s “close.” Tatum tested positive back in January.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 14, 2021
The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.
On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.
The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.
But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.
After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.
“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.
“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”
One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.
They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.
With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”
In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.
“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”
A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.
He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.
“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”