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NBA Saturday: Can Thunder Still Make Playoffs?

With Russell Westbrook back and Kevin Durant close to returning, can the Thunder make a postseason run?

Jesse Blancarte

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After missing 14 games because of a fractured right hand, Russell Westbrook returned to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup last night, sparking his team to a convincing 105-78 win over the struggling New York Knicks.  Westbrook was sensational, scoring 14 points in the first quarter, making 12-of-17 shots overall (including 3-4 from three-point range), while adding eight assists and seven rebounds in just 23 minutes of action.

Westbrook’s return is a significant boost for a struggling Thunder team that has been without its two superstars for the first time since this team was constructed.  Despite the best efforts of up-and-coming guard Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the team, the Thunder simply could not compete at a high level without Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

The good news for the Thunder is that, based on last night, Westbrook looks as explosive as ever.  More good news is that Kevin Durant has reportedly made significant process in his recovery from foot surgery and could rejoin the Thunder as soon as Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.  The bad news is that the Thunder went 5-12 through the first 17 games of the season and are currently ranked 13th in the Western Conference.  Thus, the question is with Westbrook and Durant (almost) back, can the Thunder make a run and jump back into the playoff race in the Western Conference?

The short answer is yes, but it won’t be easy.

Here is a list of the eighth seed records in the Western Conference over the last 10 seasons:

2013-14: 49-33
2012-13: 45-37
2011-12: 36-30*
2010-11: 46-36
2009-10: 50-32
2008-09: 48-34
2007-08: 50-32
2006-07: 42-40
2005-06: 44-38
2004-05: 45-37
*Note: This was the lockout shortened season where each team played 66 games instead of the standard 82.

As you can see, based on the last 10 seasons, the Thunder at a minimum need to win 42 games, but more likely will need to win closer to 46-48 games.  Yesterday, Kevin Pelton of ESPN (Insider) wrote that simulating the remainder of the season 1,000 times yields an average of 47.4 wins for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, which supports the idea that the Thunder will need to win somewhere between 46-48 games to make the postseason.  Unfortunately for the Thunder, this season’s crop of Western Conference teams is particularly talented, and, like last year, a team that wins as many as 48 games (like the Phoenix Suns last season) could be left out of the playoffs.  As it currently stands, there are 12 Western Conference teams that have legitimate playoff aspirations, with just the Lakers, Jazz and Timberwolves seemingly out of the mix at this point.

To win 48 games, the Thunder would need to go 43-22 (66.2 win percentage) the rest of the way.  Last season, Westbrook played in 46 regular season games as he struggled with a recurring knee injury, while Durant played in 81 games.  When Westbrook and Durant both played, the Thunder went 34-12 (73.9 win percentage).  Without Westbrook, the Thunder went 25-11 (69.4 win percentage).

Assuming that Durant returns on December 11 against the Cleveland Cavaliers (which is a conservative estimate based on the most recent reports), the Thunder will theoretically have 61 games with Westbrook and Durant available (of course both could miss additional time with recurring injuries, as we have seen with Derrick Rose this season).  At this point, the Thunder will likely have a record around 7-14 (assuming they go 2-2 against the Pelicans, 76ers, Pistons and Bucks before Durant hypothetically returns against the Cavaliers).  In an ideal scenario where the Thunder reintegrate Westbrook and Durant and neither player is substantially limited by their injuries, we could apply their 73.9 win percentage from the 46 games they played together last season, which would result in a 52-30 regular season record (continuing with the assumption that the Thunder are 7-14 when Durant hypothetically returns against the Cavaliers).  This record would almost assuredly qualify the Thunder for the playoffs.

However, this is a best case scenario in which we assume that both Westbrook and Durant don’t miss any more games and they perform at the level they did last season in the 46 games they played together.  The more likely scenario, however, is that Durant will play under a minutes restriction, he will be given nights off (like on the second night of back-to-back games), and both he and Westbrook will miss at least a few games for other reasons (though before Westbrook’s knee issues both he and Durant were remarkably durable and rarely missed any games).  In this less than perfect scenario, the Thunder will have to find a way to win without one or both of their superstars on some nights, which could be fatal since the margin for error is very slim at this point.

There are numerous variables to consider when trying to project whether or not the Thunder have a realistic shot at making a playoff run.  Some of those factors were mentioned above, and some that weren’t include, but are not limited to, how long it takes Durant and Westbrook to get into optimal game shape, whether other players will miss significant time because of injuries, whether the Thunder make a significant mid-season trade that substantially changes the dynamic of the team, and whether the other Western Conference playoff contenders exceed expectations and make it so that the eighth seed will need to win more than 50 games.

Considering all of this, the Thunder are going to need Westbrook and Durant to be at full strength very soon to keep the Thunder’s playoffs hopes alive.  If they can, the Thunder will become one of the most dangerous low-ranking playoff teams ever, and a nightmare match up for whichever top-seeded team goes up against them in the first round.  But as explained above, the Thunder cannot afford for their two superstars to miss many more games since they already dug themselves such a big hole in the first few weeks of the season.  Making the playoffs won’t be easy for the Thunder by any means, but it’s still possible.  And if Westbrook keeps playing like he did last night, making the playoffs for the Thunder may not be such a pipe-dream after all.

Sacramento Kings Protest Denied By Adam Silver

On November 13, the Memphis Grizzlies overcame a 26-point deficit and beat the Sacramento Kings at the buzzer with a Courtney Lee layup.  Lee’s game winning shot drew controversy, however, as the Kings believed that time expired before Lee got the shot off and that the officials misapplied NBA rules during the review process.  The Kings filed a petition with the league to review the play and determine whether Lee got his layup off before time expired.  On Friday, the NBA announced that the petition had been denied and the result of the game would not be changed.

Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports reports that there are at least a few Kings officials who are upset by Silver’s ruling.

“The referees had a duty to count frames on the replay and they didn’t,” one Kings source said.  “We felt and still feel strongly that there was significant error in this decision.”

Kings center Ryan Hollins, who guarded Vince Carter, who was inbounding the ball, claims that he tipped Carter’s pass, and thus the shot clock should have started much sooner than it did.

“I hit the ball,” Hollins told Yahoo Sports.  “No question about it. You see the trajectory.  You even see my reaction afterwards.  Even if you can’t conclude that I hit the ball, the shot still didn’t get off with the correct call.”

The referees ruled that Hollins did not touch the ball, and the league office determined there was not enough video evidence to overrule that determination.

With the ruling, the Kings record stays at 9-7, good for the ninth seed in the Western Conference.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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