NBA PM: Thunder the Eighth Seed? Not Really

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On a routine October day, with one small announcement, the skies over Oklahoma City seemed to get just a bit more gray.

“Kevin [Durant] made us aware of discomfort in his right foot,” general manager Sam Presti said back on October 12. “We proceeded to perform the necessary imaging studies to determine the cause of his discomfort. At this stage, Kevin has been diagnosed with a Jones fracture.”

Today, the Thunder are still dealing with questions and the fallout from Durant’s injury. In fact, he has just been sidelined once again after having another procedure to reduce pain and discomfort in that same foot.

Immediately after the initial injury was announced, the questions began.

Many wondered if the Thunder—who had dealt with major injuries to both Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—were merely snakebitten.

Some wondered what this would mean for head coach Scott Brooks while others wondered if the Thunder would miss the postseason altogether.

It seems so long ago that the Thunder were 5-13. Now, with the Phoenix Suns having traded key pieces of their core and the New Orleans Pelicans dealing with injury issues of their own, the Thunder find themselves emerging as one of the scariest eighth seed this league has seen in quite some time, assuming Durant will be back for the final stretch and postseason.

Most believe that Durant will make a full recovery from his recent procedure and be at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin. If true, that, an MVP-caliber season by Westbrook and an amazingly productive trade deadline have the Thunder storming.

Like the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, their cumulative record entering play on February 22 belies the team that the Thunder are today. After spending the majority of the season outside of the playoff picture looking in, Oklahoma City suddenly finds itself comfortably ahead of the Suns for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

A confluence of events—improving health, the effective replacement of Reggie Jackson with Dion Waiters, Westbrook’s emergence as a floor general and Sam Presti’s haul at the deadline—have the Thunder poised to be a team to reckon with once the playoffs begin.

The journey here, though, for these Thunder, has been anything but direct. It has been long and sometimes circuitous, but today, they are certainly in a better place than a few months ago.

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During his time in New York, Tyson Chandler would often remind anyone within earshot that winning basketball and winning big in the NBA is not merely about what transpires between the lines and on the court. It is about so much more than that.

NBA teams are families. NBA teams, in many ways, are a network of relationships. And in the instance of Jackson, when one individual lets it be known that he is not satisfied with his role within the family or in the relationship, it creates negative energy that can affect and impact the entire team. In Jackson’s case, it certainly did.

Jackson’s discontent was the 800-pound gorilla in the locker room and the questions surrounding the team and the distraction that his situation caused only got worse in the immediate aftermath of the acquisition of Waiters.

Jackson’s desire to be a starter and to have a team to call his own is not something for which he should be demonized, especially not in a basketball culture where we often chastise and criticize players who do not live up to their potential.

To his credit, Jackson believes in himself and his ability to be a foundational player for an NBA franchise. The only issue with that in Oklahoma City is that the team just didn’t have any vacancies. When Jackson saw Waiters sitting across from him in the locker room, he knew he was staring at his replacement.

Whether Waiters can fill the void left by Jackson’s departure remains to be seen. Jackson, after all, did answer the bell when the Thunder needed him to and his performance in the 2013 playoffs is the primary reason why he will get paid this summer.

Still, since the Waiters acquisition, everyone knew that it was more a matter of “when” and not “if” Jackson would be dealt. With him finding a new home in Detroit, there is now one less distraction.

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As defiant and ornery as we have seen in this league in quite some time, Russell Westbrook would never give his critics the satisfaction of letting them know that they were correct.

Westbook has too much pride to admit that, maybe, he was not necessarily doing things the right way before as a point guard. He is now, and he has joined Stephen Curry and James Harden as the three players whose names currently dominate the conversation for the Most Valuable Player award.

Numbers are good and numbers can often help to articulate a position on a player. Assists, turnovers, shooting percentages—they all have some merit. And if you look at Westbrook’s numbers on the season, the only thing that will pop out at you is his scoring average. Merely inspecting the paper and the statistics would probably hide the fact that, as a point guard and a floor general, Westbrook has evolved.

The true measure of a floor general is not how many assists he accrues or how and when he scores his points. Instead, it is his ability to improvise and manipulate. A great many of this generation’s point guards would come down the court and run their coach’s sets with a preordained result. In years past, Westbrook would waltz across the half court line and already have his mind made up as to what he was going to do—pass to Durant, pass to Ibaka, pass to James Harden or shoot.

Watching closely would reveal a point guard who had not mastered the art of manipulating the opposing defense. It would also often lead to bad turnovers and poor shot selection—the two areas that have plagued Westbrook most over the course of his career. His shooting percentage and turnovers still hover around what we would expect, but anyone who has watched Westbrook consistently over the course of the season will attest that his game is just different. It’s more controlled, more poised and more manipulative.

The perfect example came with about six minutes remaining in the Thunder’s 110-103 victory at the Charlotte Hornets on February 21. Sharing the court with Enes Kanter for the very first time, Kanter initiated a simple pick-and-roll set with Westbrook. Kanter held the ball at the top of the key and found Westbrook on the right wing, off of a curl.

Westbrook drove to his right, making a beeline toward the basket, but when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson (who was guarding Kanter) trapped Westbrook, Westbrook beautifully threaded a bounce pass to Kanter. Jefferson was unable to recover and Kanter nailed the wide-open 16-footer.

The Westbrook of old probably would have barreled into Jefferson on his way to the basket and picked up an offensive foul. But this Westbrook, the new Westbrook, has put himself in the same class as Steve Nash, Chris Paul and, most recently, John Wall.

A point guard’s greatest gift is mastering the art of defensive manipulation. When making a move toward the basket or getting into the teeth of the defense, if the opposition has no idea whether they are attempting to create a shot for themselves or one of their teammates, it leaves them off balance.

Before our very eyes, even if the raw numbers do not necessarily support it, Westbrook has matured into a manipulative floor general. That his assist numbers have not dipped considerably, even playing without Durant, is a testament to this. He has consistently been getting his shooters wide-open shots and getting his finishers dunks and layups, both in half court sets and on fast breaks.

Now, Kanter is poised to be the newest beneficiary.

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Selected with third overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, scouts were high on Kanter mainly because of his solid, “true center” frame and his soft hands. He is both a capable finisher around the basket and a good midrange shooter.

Thus far, his NBA career has been marked by inconsistency, but in spurts he has shown both an impressive nose for the basketball and the ability to finish in traffic. He has also consistently shown an ability to put the basketball on the floor, drive into open space and create his own shot opportunities. On pick-and-rolls, Kanter is able to read opposing coverages and make sound decisions with regard to rolling to the rim, popping out for a basket, or laying back and allowing his guard to penetrate.

It is difficult to see those gifts not meshing well with Westbrook, Waiters and Durant.

One element that Kanter may introduce to the Thunder that has been missing is a post player who can get the team easy baskets either by scoring from the low-box or finding cutting teammates.

By the time a top pick has been in the league for four years, general managers want to begin seeing a return on their investment. After four years, a player should have more to offer than potential. Still, in the case of Kanter, he was drafted to a Utah Jazz team that was in transition and spent his first two seasons playing behind both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.

After a falling out in Utah, Kanter showed signs of progression this season as a full-time starter for Quin Snyder before being traded on February 19.

Now, in a winning situation, Kanter (who is still just 22 years old) will have the opportunity to play for a Thunder team that will be watched by many onlookers around the league and, perhaps, one that will compete deep into the playoffs. He is eligible for restricted free agency this offseason, so it will be interesting to see how he competes, what he does for his market value and whether the Thunder would truly be willing to match a big money offer for Kanter, if one should come.

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With Jackson gone, Kanter arriving and the improved play of Westbrook, the Thunder seem to have everything that they need to find themselves back in the NBA Finals. Since losing to the Miami HEAT back in 2012, the Thunder have come no closer to a title, but now find themselves with a talented and balanced team that can go 10-deep without yielding much in the talent department to most of their opponents.

Amazingly, despite the departures of Harden, Martin and Jackson, Pesti has managed to keep his team together and afloat.

Entering play on February 22, the Thunder find themselves locked into the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. If health is on their side, and if they jell the way they are capable, moving up is a distinct possibility.

If they do not, however, they may very well enter the playoffs as the scariest eighth seed that this league has seen in quite some time.

Back in 2007, the Dallas Mavericks entered the postseason after turning in a 67-15 regular season that saw Dirk Nowitzki win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. Baron Davis, head coach Don Nelson and the Golden State Warriors pulled off a miraculous upset and knocked those Mavericks out in the first round.

Back in 2007, Stephen Curry was making a name for himself at Davidson University and probably wasn’t even on the radar of the Warriors.

The rabid fan base in Oakland, though? They knew what it felt like to be on the good side of an upset.

Now, as the sprint toward the playoffs officially begins and the Thunder find themselves a strengthened and unified bunch, it is not outside of the realm of possibility for the top-seeded Warriors to find themselves on the wrong side of the upset this time around.

There is a ways to go, but with Jackson gone, Kanter acquired and Westbrook improving, so long as the Thunder have their health, they will have a shot at capturing the title that escaped them in 2012.