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OKC Thunder Playing Impressive Defense

The Thunder are one of the best defensive teams this season. Can they keep playing at this high level?

Susan Bible

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are off to solid start this season with a 6-2 record. While Russell Westbrook, now the team’s sole superstar, has been brilliant as predicted (averaging 31.1 points, 9.5 assists and 8.3 rebounds), it’s the Thunder’s strong defense that deserves hefty praise for this winning record.

Defense was the Thunder’s calling card during the middle portion of Scott Brooks’ coaching tenure, as they ranked fourth in the league in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in 2012-13 and sixth in 2013-14. But in recent years, attention to that side of the ball had plummeted. In 2014-15, their Defensive Rating dropped to 16th and climbed to a 13th ranking last season. With defensive-minded Serge Ibaka traded to the Orlando Magic last summer, the surprising loss of much-improved defender Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors and consistent knocks on Westbrook for his lack of defensive prowess, there was little talk about the Thunder becoming a notable defensive unit again this soon.

However, this group seems to have other plans.

Now a team consisting of many players with considerable length, along with a clear, renewed devotion to playing defense, the Thunder currently rank fourth among all NBA teams in Defensive Rating.

“Everybody’s been pitching in, focusing in every night and defending,” Westbrook said. “Knowing the things we’re supposed to do, and we’ve been doing it.”

“We’ve been pleased with it,” adds veteran Nick Collison. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re following the game plan for the most part. We’re getting in the coverage in pick-and-rolls, we’re in the spots off the ball, we’re guarding the ball pretty well, so just a combination of guys doing their job over and over again.

“We can get better at it, but we’re pleased with how we’re doing so early in the year.”

A close look at certain players on the roster accounts for the defensive improvement. Center Steven Adams is developing into a stronger and stronger low-post defender with each passing season. Forward Andre Roberson is the very definition of a defensive stopper. He’s constantly in opponents’ faces. New Thunder player Victor Oladipo is that two-way guard the team has so needed. And despite those knocks, Westbrook, when locked in, does play very good defense.

Adams stands 7’0 with a wingspan of 7’4.5. Along with newcomers Joffrey Lauvergne at 6’11, Domantas Sabonis at 6’10, and 6’11 Enes Kanter – all between 20-25 years of age – this is a Thunder team packed with length, youth and athleticism.

Adams turned a lot of heads last year in the playoffs, averaging a near double-double (10.1 points, 9.5 rebounds) in 18 postseason games. As expected, he is only getting better, averaging 10.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 2.1 steals this season. He even leads the team in free throw percentage at 94.7 percent, Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares.

“I see a lot of growth,” Roberson said about his teammates. “A lot of carryover from last season’s playoffs. Guys know what it takes to play at that level and what it takes to be a great defensive team. We come in here every day working on it, trying to get better at it. Teach the other guys that just came in what we’re all about. We’re all in this together. We can’t do it without the other guy next to us. We need everybody.”

Roberson, now in his fourth year at Oklahoma City, has a 6’11 wingspan, which enables him to defend multiple positions. He embraces the challenge of guarding some of the best players in the league.  Recently, he expounded on his defensive preparation before taking the court on game night.

“I do a lot of scouting,” Roberson said. “Constantly go over who I’m guarding or multiple guys who I’m guarding, and what are their tendencies. I just replay it in my head… positions I’ll be in, whether it’s pick-and-roll or down screens. I run it through my mind, here and there, throughout the day.

“I try to pick out their plays. See what they’re trying to run, who they’re asking for. I look at who I’m guarding, shooter or not, (it) tells me how much I can help off. There’s a lot that goes into play. Try to be in the right position at all times.”

Roberson identified his keys to playing such successful defense.

“It’s a combination of everything,” he said. “Watching film, looking at the scouting sheet. Most of it’s all mental. I do all that, then I try to put myself in the game situation and my thought process is going through it out there. A lot of it comes from my teammates, them talking to me, us talking to them, talking to each other, being in the right position for each other.”

Both Adams and Roberson tend to visibly frustrate opponents they are guarding. They have a knack for getting under players’ skin while keeping their own emotions in check.

“Definitely, they get frustrated all the time if they’re not getting it,” said Roberson. “But you’ve just got to stay resilient, stay constant in whatever it is, staying on them, staying in the right coverage. A lot of that comes from our bigs and our wings in the help-position. We’ve got a lot of length, got a lot of athleticism, we’ve just to exploit it. Go out there and use what we have.”

While Thunder head coach Billy Donovan acknowledges the great defense his team is playing, he sees much improvement yet to be made. In fact, he calls it “a work in progress still.”

“There’s some things I like that we’re doing, but there’s still a lot areas I feel we need to improve,” Donovan said. “Our transition defense has been inconsistent, our defensive rebounding has been inconsistent. There’s been some games where we’ve kind of given up the middle of the floor a little bit too much, but I would say our pick-an-roll coverages continue to improve. It’s just a consistency point of view, trying to do it for longer stretches, having more stamina in doing it. I think our guys have done a good job defensively up until this point in time in terms of trying to put in a system in training camp and now trying to live by that. I think we’re getting better and the guys are working really, really hard to try to improve.”

He recognizes the stats look favorable now, but cautioned against being overly impressed when reviewing the defensive numbers on a sheet.

“I know our numbers look really good,” said Donovan. “I look at it a little bit differently, because I think sometimes when you look at the numbers, you have a tendency not to see shots. Like there are breakdowns defensively that are not going to show up on the stat sheet, because the ball didn’t go in the basket, but clearly it wasn’t good defense. I think sometimes you can look at the numbers and sometimes the numbers can be a little bit misleading.”

Westbrook keeps it simple when asked how the team can maintain this type of attention to defense for the remainder of the season.

“Same thing we’ve been doing all year,” he said. “Defend at a high level every night.”

It’s certainly working well so far. Of course, there are plenty of games left to play, but it’s a promising sign to see the Thunder playing defense at this level so early in the year.

Susan Bible covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for Basketball Insiders and writes about all NBA teams. She is a Senior Newslines Editor and contributes to fantasy basketball coverage.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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