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NBA AM: Now What? – Oklahoma City Thunder

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ Now What series by diving into the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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Welcome back to another edition of Basketball Insiders’ Now What? Series. Today, we’re focusing on the once-revered-now-rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have lost twice the amount of games that they won this season, which is pretty much right where we expected them to be. In spite of their immediate prospects as a team not looking good for the next couple of years, there may not be a young team whose future is brighter than OKC.

They already have the face of the franchise in the works. They have a few other intriguing young assets. They have barrels of first-round picks to use. Their record of 21-42 won’t impress anyone, but what’s there not like about where the Thunder are headed?

Strengths

You can’t spell strength without S-G-A!

Okay, yes you can, but the point is, OKC already had its new face of the franchise before their rebuild even started when they traded for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Not many players can say that they averaged almost 24 points on 51/42/80 splits, but Gilgeous-Alexander can! Adding the 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game, and you’ve got a young superstar in the making! Oh and as an added bonus, Shai’s got some nice tutelage from Chris Paul last year and some gritty playoff experience from the last two postseasons, so when the Thunder start taking off, their new face of the franchise has got a good idea of what to expect in a playoff atmosphere.

He’s not the only bright spot in OKC. There is also Lu Dort. He’s followed up with a modest improvement in an increased role in Oklahoma City after a pretty solid performance in the bubble. 14.2 points a game is a pretty solid jump from 6.8, even if his shooting splits are not-so-modest at 40/35/75. Upon further review, Dort’s April numbers show that he might just have another gear or two to his game. 25.7 points and 5.7 rebounds with 47/46/72 splits in a seven-game span can make one wonder. Considering he hung 42 on the Utah Jazz, the winningest team in the NBA fighting tooth and nail to get homecourt advantage, Dort might be in the running for Most Improved Player next season.

Of course, there are other youthful prospects, like Moses Brown, Darius Bazley, and Keinrich Williams. They deserve a shout-out, but Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort. Those guys should be on OKC’s next playoff team.

Weaknesses

When teams are rebuilding, it’s their full intention to be weak. That’s why it’s a little difficult to point out weaknesses in a team that doesn’t have much strength, to begin with. But can there be weaknesses in their rebuild? Let’s find out.

In spite of being one of the worst teams in the league, the Thunder can sleep well at night knowing that their future is in good hands. Sure their roster is weak, but they knew that all too well when they tore it all down in the offseason. It’s a small price to pay for what should be a great future ahead. They could not have played this any better. There is one loose end – Al Horford.

There’s no enjoyment in ragging on Horford because he’s had a nice bounceback year following the outright disaster he was in Philadelphia. By all indications, he still has enough left in the tank that by all accounts, he should be on a team that’s trying to win. It’s just that, nobody is going to want to pay almost $42 million (should he be waived in 2022) for a big approaching his mid-30s. The only way to trade someone like that is for a worse contract or if you’re planning on attaching assets to get him out.

The Thunder have publically declared their intentions of trading Horford this summer. Realistically, their options are either to wait out the contract until they can waive it, or waive it now and stretch the cap hit.

Opportunities

This section is probably what’s brought up the most by viewers who know anything about the Thunder these days. If there’s one thing OKC is knee-deep in, it’s opportunities. They own 17 first-round picks from now until 2026. Thanks to Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the Thunder have unprotected first-rounders that could be golden not too long from now or at could draw a disgruntled superstar in a trade. Other rebuilding teams would kill to be in a situation like that.

But there’s also something else they have on their hands. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort have deserved every last bit of praise thrown their way, but the one prospect that’s made everyone a bit curious is one Aleksej Pokusevski. Poku’s traditional stats won’t jump out at you in the slightest, but his slender frame, passing vision, and shooting stroke make him an unorthodoxly exciting prospect.

There may not be a player rawer in the league than Poku right now. For all we know, he could be a Giannis-type prospect or he could be another Perry Jones III. Either way, the tantalizing potential with Poku could very well be the deciding factor in if this new era of Thunder basketball being ushered in will be more fruitful in the playoffs than the last.

Threats

So, about those first-round picks. It’s never a bad idea to accumulate assets when you’re rebuilding. You just have to make sure you don’t go too overboard because one way or another, those assets are turning into players. This was a conundrum that Boston went through not too long ago. In the 2016 NBA Draft, the Celtics had eight picks. Five years later, the only one that has remained with the team is Jaylen Brown. Everyone else was traded away or waived in a couple of years. In other words, the assets were wasted.

OKC hopefully will do everything they can to not back themselves into a similar corner, but those 17 first-round picks over these next six years are going to be 17 human bodies one way or the other. The Thunder will have to choose carefully what they’re going to do with them. Luckily, Oklahoma City has all the time in the world to think up their next move, but this is something that they cannot brush to the side.

It’s saddening knowing that the Thunder had a decade-long window on their hands in the 2010s and only managed to get to the finals once. But, instead of moping around thinking about what could have been, they’ve been heads-on in their rebuilding approach. They now have the privilege of simply developing a fun and energetic product before it turns into something more meaningful.

But at some point or another, they’ll need to remember that they can’t go through a deja vu.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA veterans are offseason targets for LeBron James and Lakers

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From Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the reporter mentioned, “Lakers have a ton of veteran-type players ready and interested to come sign on minimum deals.” Now, this is not necessarily breaking news near the end of July, but this gives fans a reason to believe that Los Angeles is going all in this offseason to win their eighteenth championship next season. Concerning trade rumor speculation, the Trail Blazers, Kings, Wizards, Lakers, and Suns have all been involved and mentioned by NBA analysts across the Internet.

LeBron James is turning 37-years-old this December, and Anthony Davis suffered a few injuries last season, such as a strained calf and groin. Davis is a 9-year NBA veteran, but of course, him and James are not getting any younger. As they continue to age, these players will be placed at a greater risk of sustaining more injuries. The organization will need all the fire power they can acquire this offseason, if they hope to remain at the top of the competition in the Western Conference.

According to another report by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, the Los Angeles Lakers have “stepped up their efforts” in their pursuit of Kings‘ shooting guard Buddy Hield by including the No. 22 pick to an existent trade deal that would also be comprised of Montrezl Harrell and either Kyle Kuzma or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell has a player option this offseason, and he may even be interested in playing in Sacramento.

Sources say he has strong connections with Kings’ developmental coach Rico Hines. On November 22, 2020, the 27-year-old center/power forward signed as a free agent with the Lakers. The contract he signed was a two-year, $19 million deal. Regarding the trade rumors, Harrell reacted on Twitter tweeting, “Lmaoo this is wild man!”

Last season on the Lakers, Harrell averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 69 games. In 71 games played in the 2020-21 NBA season, Hield averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. The 28-year-old Bahamian also shot 40.6 percent from the field last season. On October 21, 2019, Hield signed a four-year, $94 million contract extension with the Kings. He will earn $22.4 million next season.

This news about Hield comes one week after the story broke concerning Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook’s potential trade to the Lakers. The trade was pertaining to a Westbrook sign-and-trade for Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Schroder, and Talen Horton-Tucker. Suns’ guard Chris Paul was another mentioned player target on the Lakers’ offseason list. In 65 games played last season, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 13-year NBA veteran led the league in turnovers last season (312), but he also has the most career triple-doubles (184) and the highest assist percentage in the league (48.6 percent).

Westbrook is also projected to lead the league in assists and triple-doubles in the upcoming season as well. He finished his performance last season with 38 triple-doubles, the second most in a season in his NBA career. On December 2, 2020, the 32-year-old point guard was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Washington Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round pick. However, Westbrook is set to earn $44.2 million in the 2021-22 season. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will have to make a big decision on this one.

Additionally, Chris Paul, who finished third in assists per game (8.9) last season, is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season, too. This amount is recognized as Paul’s player option. Either way, the organization might have to overpay for their talent. Referencing Spotrac, the current contracts of Davis and James consume nearly 63 percent of the Lakers’ total salary cap. If Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope get traded, this will clear up $26 million of cap space.

Plus, Harrell’s salary represents almost 8 percent of the team’s total salary cap. With all things considered, the Lakers are much better off working out a trade with the Kings to acquire Hield rather than Paul or Westbrook. Team chemistry is a notable factor in this discussion, and LeBron might not be on board with an isolation-style player, similar to that of Westbrook. Head coach Frank Vogel hinted back in earlier January that randomness was the key to the team’s offensive scheme.

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Mike D’Antoni to step away as Nets assistant coach

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On Wednesday evening, the Brooklyn Nets organization announced that assistant coach Mike D’Antoni would not be returning to Steve Nash’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 NBA season. Coach D’Antoni is deciding to step down from his position after one season spent with the organization. The reason D’Antoni is deciding to leave the team is unknown. In late June, D’Antoni met with the Portland Trail Blazers for the vacant head-coaching position; he was interviewed twice.

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the 70-year-old veteran coach is still seeking to pursue another job as head coach. Coach Nash commented on the story stating, “I will forever be grateful for his guidance and will carry on a lifetime of lessons from the many years we’ve spent together. Our players and staff all benefited from this time in Brooklyn and we wish Mike, Laurel, and their family the very best in what lies ahead.” This news has personally shocked Nash, considering their history together.

In his 16-year NBA head coaching career, D’Antoni’s W-L record is 718-555 (.564). Despite never winning an NBA championship, D’Antoni won the 2005 Coach of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns when Nash was his star point guard, and he won his second award while coaching the Houston Rockets in 2017. The 2004-05 Suns finished 62-20 (.756), ranking first in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. However, the Suns went on to lose four games to one against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets ended their season 65-17 (.793), ranking first in the Southwest Division and first in the Western Conference Finals. Though, once again, D’Antoni’s team came up short, losing in Game 7 versus the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Coach D’Antoni was also the NBA All-Star Game head coach in 2007 and 2018. Moreover, the Nets lost another assistant coach this offseason after the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka to become their next head coach. On July 9, 2021, the Nets hired former Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to their coaching staff.

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NBA Draft: Déjà Vu in Detroit

Tomorrow night the Detroit Pistons will make the first overall selection in the NBA Draft for just the second time in team history. They selected a Hall of Famer with that pick 51 years ago. Chad Smith details why it might happen again, this time with a player that resembles a guy that was once the face of their franchise.

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It has been 18 years since the Detroit Pistons had a top-three pick in the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, it was arguably the worst selection in the history of the event as they took Darko Milicic second overall ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It was a night that everyone in Detroit would love to forget, and now they might be able to do just that.

Detroit will kick off the 2021 NBA Draft on Thursday night in what has been labeled as a loaded draft class, especially at the top. The last time the Pistons had the top overall pick, they did well by selecting Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier out of St. Bonaventure in the 1970 draft. The organization is hopeful that history will repeat itself.

Cade Cunningham is the consensus number one pick this year, which speaks volumes when considering the other candidates. While Detroit has not publicly hinted that they will take Cunningham, it would be an absolute shocker if he does not end up in the Motor City. It is a place that Cunningham has already grown fond of.

Should things go according to plan on Thursday night, there could be some déjà vu in Detroit. Aside from the Darko debacle, the last top-three selection by the franchise came in 1994 when they took Grant Hill out of Duke. The physical attributes are quite clear. Both players are listed at 6’ 8” tall and around 220 pounds. Just as their build is the same, so too is their demeanor on and off of the court.

Both Cunningham and Hill have similar playing styles and share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. They have incredible vision and passing ability that allows them to create for teammates. They use their size and strength against smaller defenders near the basket and are incredibly versatile with the ball in their hands. They are able to initiate offense from anywhere on the floor and have a complete all-around game that includes defense.

Hill recorded 29 triple-doubles in his career. That is something that Detroit hopes to get out of the 19-year old playmaker. Unlike many situations where the top overall pick finds himself on a team lacking talent, the Pistons have done a marvelous job of transforming their roster under Troy Weaver. Most of their core is already under contract for next season and will be earning less than $6 million.

Cunningham will join Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, as well as two All-Rookies in Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. With Killian Hayes missing much of his rookie season due to injury, the Pistons have plenty of talent surrounding their new floor general. With some more talent and veteran leadership possibly coming onboard during free agency, Detroit should be able to return to the postseason next year.

As gifted as Cunningham is, he is not the most explosive athlete for his size. He won’t blow by defenders on the perimeter or leap over them for a highlight dunk, but that doesn’t stop him from attacking the basket. Like Hill, he has shown the ability to either create for teammates, create for himself, or simply finish at the rim. He makes the right reads against traps and hard hedges, making him even more difficult to defend.

The versatility is on full display whether it be on offense or defense. Cunningham’s seven-foot wingspan adds another element to his game as a physical defender with active hands. His high basketball IQ allows him to capitalize on filling passing lanes and his timing on shot-blocking. His improved jump shot has also elevated him as a true dynamic threat, scoring from all three levels.

As a Freshman at Oklahoma State, Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor. He plays under control and never looks rushed or uncomfortable. It may take him some time to adjust to the NBA game but he has all of the tools and attributes you would want a top prospect to possess.

The fit in Detroit is tailor-made for the versatile guard. Cunningham can do a little bit of everything and elevates the play of his teammates. Whether he is facilitating, scoring, or playing off the ball, his impact on the court is significant. Despite not being an elite athlete, he can initiate the offense and get his own shot when needed.

Detroit clearly lacked guard play last season, with Hayes out of the lineup. They relied upon Grant and Plumlee to fuel their offense, with the rookies filling in at times. With the addition of Cunningham and the return of Hayes, the Pistons will have a sensational young backcourt to go along with their already established frontcourt.

There is also the potential for Detroit to have one of the most improved defenses in the conference. With their length and athleticism, this young core fits right in with the culture of a blue-collar team built around defense. Much of their success will ride on the shoulders of Dwane Casey, as he returns for his fourth season in Detroit.

Both Hill and Cunningham are from Texas and their birth dates are just ten days apart. Hill spent his first six seasons in Detroit, where he enjoyed the prime years of his playing career that included the Rookie of the Year Award. Five of his seven All-Star seasons came as a member of the Pistons and he was often seen as the next great superstar.

While injuries derailed his career, Hill’s journey ended with a trip to the Hall of Fame. While it is too early to put those expectations on a 19-year old, it is safe to say that the Pistons are in good hands for many years to come.

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