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NBA Daily: OKC Sitting On Top Of Stacked West

The Thunder are currently hovering around the top of the West. Jordan Hicks takes a look at what has been helping them be successful up to this point in the season.

Jordan Hicks

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During the offseason, just about everyone had Paul George jumping ship and joining LeBron James in Los Angeles. It totally made sense. Oklahoma City had just gotten torched by the Utah Jazz in six games, the Thunder didn’t have much of a promising future if PG-13 stayed, they still had Carmelo Anthony’s atrocious contract to deal with and Billy Donovan was more-or-less on the hot seat.

To everyone’s surprise, George decided to stay, inking a four-year deal to buddy up with Russell Westbrook. Many questioned this move, pointing to the fact that it would be much easier to win a championship in LA with LeBron. Regardless of all the noise, George felt something special brewing with the Thunder and felt he had an opportunity to win now.

Fast forward through the first quarter of the season and Oklahoma City is sitting atop a stacked Western Conference with a record of 17-8. They’ve had dominating wins over the Houston Rockets, the Utah Jazz and even the Golden State Warriors.

Things didn’t appear to be peachy off-the-bat. Andre Roberson – their best defender – re-injured the same knee that received surgery last season and still hasn’t returned. They started off the season with four straight losses. But after rattling off seven straight wins, and 17 of their last 21, the Thunder seem to be back on the right track.

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why OKC is winning games – things that happened both before the season started and are continuing to happen throughout the course of the season thus far.

Offloading The Carmelo Anthony Contract

This move was great for many reasons – some of which will be explained later in this article – but the one we will focus on is actually getting Carmelo off the team. Not only did it save ownership a lot of money from the luxury tax, it actually made their roster better. Carmelo can still play basketball at a high level, but his role as a starter for OKC clearly didn’t work out, and they didn’t really have a need for him coming off the bench, especially considering the fact that they would have had to pay him roughly 28 million dollars.

The Rockets tried to employ Carmelo in a similar fashion, and we already saw how quickly that played out. Getting him off the roster was very important, and by doing so it opened the doors to a much-improved roster.

Trading For Dennis Schroder

By drafting Trae Young, the Atlanta Hawks made a statement that Schroder was no longer part of their future plans. Whether or not you think his contract is bad, it doesn’t come close to as negative as Carmelo’s, even considering the fact that Carmelo’s was expiring after this season.

What most would consider as a blessing, the Thunder essentially flipped Carmelo’s deal to take on Schroder and his deal. The only difference, however, is that Schroder still has a lot to offer a team, especially when it comes to scoring off the bench.

His fit in the Thunder lineup has almost been seamless. Playing roughly 29.4 minutes a night, he’s averaging 16.8 points on 42.7 percent shooting. He’s behind only George and Westbrook in field goal attempts per game, and while he’s not as efficient as them, he’s not necessarily being asked to be.

On top of scoring off the bench, he’s notching 5 assists to only 2.8 turnovers and adding 1.2 steals a game, as well.

With Westbrook already having missed multiple games, plugging Schroder into a starting role that he is already comfortable with adds a much needed insurance policy-type benefit to this OKC roster. He clearly isn’t as talented as Westbrook, but he’s not necessarily a major drop off either. Oh yeah, he’s also shooting 34.3 percent from three compared to Westbrook’s depressing 21.8 percent.

Plugging Jerami Grant Into The Starting Five

After inking Grant to his new contract in the offseason, the writing was on the wall for Melo. There was no way the Thunder were going to keep him on and pay the unthinkable amount of luxury tax they would have owed.

The Thunder experimented with Patrick Patterson in the starting lineup the first few games, but plugging Grant in there essentially made them take off. He has an athletic, long frame that allows him to guard multiple positions. He’s playing highly efficient basketball on the offensive end of the floor, shooting 51 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. He’s third on the team in net rating at plus-11.5, second in true shooting percentage at 60.4 percent, and second in blocks at 1.2 per game.

His addition to the lineup clearly offers a plethora of more dimensions than what Carmelo brought with him. He might never be as good as “peak” Carmelo, but he’s certainly a lot more effective in today’s game.

Paul George Staying Put

This one is obvious. If George leaves, the Thunder are in a bad spot. Westbrook and Steven Adams aren’t enough to win a championship. Luckily for the franchise, George decided to stay long-term (or at least three more seasons).

His play this year has been otherworldly. He’s leading the NBA in steals at 2.2 per game. Per NBA stats, he’s first in defensive win shares. He’s currently 12th in scoring at 24.3 points a night. He dropped 47 points in Brooklyn against the Nets, including a game-winning three-pointer to seal the victory.

OKC currently has the number one defense in the NBA with a defensive rating of 101.6. Yes, Steven Adams is quite the force under the basket, but Paul George has been arguably the best defensive player on the team this season.

There are still plenty of games left to play, but if the beginning of this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Oklahoma City Thunder are surely going back to the playoffs. The odds of them finishing this season atop the Western Conference aren’t incredibly likely – they have had one of the easier schedules to start the season – but their style of play and the consistency at which they compete on the court night in and night-out surely point to them being a dangerous team come the postseason.

A handful of important pieces weren’t discussed in depth, but it will be the continued play of guys of Steven Adams and Terrance Ferguson, coupled with the return of defensive talent Andre Roberson, that will help the Thunder win games throughout the rest of the season.

As they continue on into December, the Thunder fanbase can find solace in one thing: this core is here to stay. Whatever success they have this season can only be built on next year.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Bought Out Players Faring Well With New Teams

The deadline for teams to send their unwanted players to the buyout market was March 1. Jordan Hicks takes a look at some of the key acquisitions since the deadline and how they are helping postseason pushes.

Jordan Hicks

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The buyout market seems to be gaining more and more popularity with each season. While rebuilding teams tend to forego more seasoned players in order to give their younger guys some run, veteran players often find themselves bought out or waived prior to the deadline.

Teams competing for a spot in the playoffs – so it seems – have increasingly taken advantage of this situation by signing guys that can definitely help them get enough wins. While you definitely will not find All-Stars in the pool of available players, oftentimes solid role players find themselves there due to a myriad of reasons.

It could be that their previous teams wanted to give more playing time to guys more in-line with their future plans. It could also be because their previous team was simply wanting to lose games in order to increase their draft position, which is also known as tanking. By waiving better players on your roster and keeping less talented ones, teams can essentially give themselves a better chance to lose games without totally making it look like they’re doing it on purpose.

This year had one of the stronger pools of players on the buyout/waived market as of March 1st in recent memory, so let’s take a look at some of the top players and how they’ve fared since joining their new team.

Wesley Matthews

Matthews was part of the marquee trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He ended up with the Knicks, but after two short games, they realized they didn’t want his talent interfering with their draft position. They waived him prior to the deadline and he was picked up by the Indiana Pacers.

This has turned out to be an incredibly important acquisition for the Pacers – primarily due to the fact that they lost All-Star Victor Oladipo for the season.

Matthews brings grittiness on the defensive end and a diverse set of skills offensively. He is an above average shooter from the three-point line, averaging 38.8 percent on 6.1 attempts per game since joining Indiana. He has added much-needed scoring to the offense as well – currently at 12.5 points and 2.4 assists each night.

He’s very clearly a step below Oladipo, especially when considering what Vic brought to both ends of the floor, but the fact that the Pacers added him without having to give up any assets is pretty remarkable.

While he has yet to add any considerable value on defense, Matthews has ranked fifth on the team in offensive rating since joining them on February 7. If Oladipo was still on the roster, you could argue that they wouldn’t necessarily need Matthews. But in light of recent events, being able to add Matthews as easily as they did was certainly a win for the franchise.

Enes Kanter

Another player the Knicks decided to unload was Enes Kanter. He was sent to the player pool via buyout, and it is safe to assume that New York had to spend handsomely to send him there.

Kanter is an interesting player. He has always been able to get buckets around the rim, as well as grab rebounds, but he has always struggled defensively. This was not why the Knicks wanted to let him go, however. Tension had been growing between Kanter, the front office, and the coaching staff, as they wanted to limit his minutes in lieu of the younger players on the roster.

Enes just wanted to play, and, by being bought out and signing with the Portland Trail Blazers, he’s been able to do just that.

Since joining Portland, the team as gone 9-3. While he continues to have his struggles on defense, he is posting 10 points and 6.7 rebounds on only 18.2 minutes per night.

Since the acquisition, Meyers Leonard has seen a decreased role. Kanter has turned into the de-facto backup to starting center Jusuf Nurkic. While Kanter is a poor defender himself, Portland has enough solid defensive players in the frontcourt that they haven’t had too much of a problem hiding him on that end of the floor.

Jeremy Lin

Lin headed to the market after being bought out by the Atlanta Hawks. He was picked up by the Toronto Raptors, who have struggled to field consistent backcourt players off the bench due to injuries – which was made more difficult after dealing Delon Wright to the Grizzlies as part of the Marc Gasol trade.

In 13 games with the Raptors, Lin is averaging 8.4 points and 2.5 assists in 20.8 minutes per game. He has struggled to find any consistency with his shot, as he’s averaging just 39 percent from the field and a morbid 18.4 percent from three.

That shooting has every opportunity to increase. Lin is a 34.3 percent shooter from downtown over the course of his career.

The Raptors will need Lin to pull his shooting together as the season wraps up for a strong playoff campaign. The bench unit was a major part of their success last season and it is proving to be another key part this year. In order for Toronto to finally reach their goal of winning the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Lin to be at his best. He isn’t the only key to their success, but he’ll have a major impact on how the Raptors finish out the season.

There are still plenty of solid players on the market. Carmelo Anthony, Ben McLemore and Nick Young could provide instant offense off the bench. Greg Monroe, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph could help improve the frontcourt of any team in need. Whether or not teams decide they need their services, only time will tell.

While the season plays out, it will be interesting to see just what impact these players discussed – as well as those not mentioned – will have for their franchise in the postseason.

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NBA Daily: Justin Bibbs Gets First NBA Opportunity In L.A.

Justin Bibbs spoke to Basketball Insiders about joining an NBA team after going undrafted, playing in the G League, his developing skill set and more.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the best moments in the life of an aspiring pro basketball player is to receive the news that an NBA team wants to sign them.

For Justin Bibbs, that dream became a reality of his when the Los Angeles Clippers called him up to the team on a 10-day contract last week. The former Virginia Tech guard went undrafted last summer and was spending his first professional season in the G League with Maine Red Claws, the affiliate of the Boston Celtics.

This past Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets was actually his first day being around the team as they had immediately assigned him to the Agua Caliente Clippers after signing him.

“To be honest, I still don’t have words for it. It’s kind of indescribable,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I always wanted to be on this level, but now that I’m here I just trying to take in every second of it, just relax and let God do his thing.”

Bibbs had a decent showing with the Celtics in summer league, leading to him being added to their training camp roster. He was ultimately cut and joined the Maine Red Claws as an affiliate player. Each NBA team is allowed to assign up to four players to their G League affiliate, players who were in training camp and are guaranteed a G League roster spot.

Affiliate players, however, are still considered ‘free agents’ in that they can sign with any NBA team. Bibbs played in 44 games with the Red Claws and averaged 11.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

At Virginia Tech, he was a knockdown outside shooter (42.4 percent) and a strong defender. He has good size for a guard at 6-foot-5 and 225-pounds. It’s those qualities that he’s hoping to bring to the Clippers should he get the chance on the court.

“I always bring energy defensively and I just play my game. On offense, I bring shooting,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “But it’s whatever the coach tells me to do and basically just playing the right way.”

Although Bibbs has reached his goal of the NBA, he’s in a different situation than the rest of his Clippers teammates. They’re all secured with guaranteed contracts. Bibbs has ten days to prove himself to team brass, ten days to show he’s worth keeping around a bit longer.

“I’m happy that my play has been rewarded, that the organization believed in me enough to give me a 10-day. Its motivation for me to keep going,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I was called down from the G League team, and I’m just trying to get all the sets and plays and stuff, trying to make that adjustment. But it’s definitely a blessing.”

He’s played in three games for the Agua Caliente Clippers so far, logging 27.1 minutes per game off the bench. He’s put up 9.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists during that stretch.

He’s yet to log any minutes for the Clippers, but he’s just thrilled to be a part of an NBA organization. Despite being undrafted, he always knew that he’d get to this level at some point.

“Yeah I did, for sure I did. I didn’t know when or how, but I always thought I would be here,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I had no idea what team, but being out in LA, I’ll take that as a blessing. But yeah I thought I would be here for sure.”

For players like Bibbs who are on 10-day contracts, nothing is guaranteed. But he’s soaking up the entire experience as long as he can. Whether the Clippers decide to retain him a little bit longer, or he moves on to another opportunity, he just wants to be able to play his game.

“My overall goal is just to actually play my game my way and not be restricted,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “Kind of just play freely and right now that’s what I’ve shown, that’s what got me here. I’m just taking in the whole process, just taking it all in and getting the experience and knowledge.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 3/19/19

With the field of teams set for the 2019 NCAA March Madness tournament, things should get noisy over the next few weeks on the NBA Draft front. Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft before all the zaniness begins.

Steve Kyler

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Let the Madness begin.

The basketball world will shift its attention to college basketball’s biggest stage over the next few weeks, especially this weekend’s opening round of 64.

While the tournament doesn’t necessarily make or break a player’s draft stock, this will be the first time some notable draft prospects will face elite talent and, more importantly, the pressure of the big stage. You can check out march madness predictions 2019 here.

Expect things in the draft world to start to percolate, not just because of the magnitude of the games, but also because a lot of NBA scouts will be in the same places, which is where the draft chatter originates.

Equally, a lot of NBA teams will watch games together in the conference rooms this week, so more group discussion on players will happen inside NBA teams’ front offices, and that could lead to new preference information flowing into the NBA Draft information bubble.

Here is this week’s 60-Pick Mock Draft, based on NBA games played through 3/18/19:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the standings, it will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the standings, would convey.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the current standings, the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the current standings this pick would not convey. If the debt is not settled this year, the pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

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