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The X-Factors: Oklahoma City

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factor series with a look at the surprise of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Spencer Davies

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The groundwork has been laid out.

The NBA is another inch closer to resuming with a plan in place for 22 teams to congregate in Orlando. Disney World, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth” is set to be the location for the conclusion of the regular season, where each team will play eight games to determine the field of 16 that qualifies for the playoffs — and a play-in tournament between the ninth and eighth seed could happen as well if necessary.

With a “bubble” environment squared away and logistics being figured out, we’re about a month-and-a-half away from our first game action since mid-March. That’s why Basketball Insiders has been visiting each team that’s currently in the postseason picture by looking at potential x-factors surrounding them. We’ve knocked out quite a few to this point, so make sure to check those out.

Today, we’ll dive into the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chances to make some noise.

Firstly, it’s certainly worth mentioning that we may not be having this conversation if it weren’t for Chris Paul’s firsthand involvement. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne detailed how the talks started in the first place between Paul and Disney chairman Bob Iger. The veteran Paul is the president of the National Basketball Players Association and, in turn, great friends with Iger. The two mulled over the idea of the league coming back and how they could bridge the gap between the NBPA and the NBA Board of Governors.

Shifting to his work on the floor, Paul has played a primary role in putting the Thunder in position to make a run. His performances have uplifted his younger teammates and simultaneously proven that he is anything but over the hill. There were concerns about how much was left the tank after the Houston Rockets dealt him; they were very much misguided.

Paul’s true shooting percentage has dramatically increased, as has his efficiency with the ball in his hands. Playing alongside the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder in three-guard lineups, he has a great feel of where his teammates are going to be and knows where his shots are coming from. One of his best abilities is finding those crevices to pull up from the mid-range, which was the opposite of the Rockets’ philosophy. In Oklahoma City, he hasn’t been a square peg trying to fit in a round hole, and head coach Billy Donovan has allowed him to run the show and dominate in the pick-and-roll game.

Of course, being 35 years old now, it will be interesting to see how Paul rebounds from a few months off the hardwood. He’ll have to get himself back into game shape, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it took a week or two to do so. He’s the obvious first x-factor in all of this on the Thunder side of things.

Next up is Steven Adams. The mountain of a man in the middle, the 6-foot-11 Kiwi big is the king of the backtap. It’s a thorn in the side of every team that’s trying to secure a board and run the other way. Instead, extra possession after extra possession is the result, which gives out Oklahoma City a distinct advantage on the glass and chances to score a bucket. He also sets bone-crushing screens and can finish on the interior when they need him to. Centers like Adams don’t necessarily work best for those faster-paced teams, but the Thunder like to be methodical and slow things down in the half-court due to their defensive strengths.

That’s where Gilgeous-Alexander enters the picture. Though his second-year numbers are solid on the offensive end — nearly 20 points and 6 rebounds per game — the sophomore out of Kentucky pesters his opponents with frustrating length and in-your-shirt pressure. That leads to steals and forced turnovers quite a bit, which results in Oklahoma City being able to push it in the open floor with an advantage.

Of course, you have Dennis Schroder to pick the pace up when required. When Paul is out, he’s able to pack a powerful scoring and distributing punch off the bench. When Paul is in, he plays more off the ball and acts as a shooting guard. Schroder is taking five treys a game and knocking down 38 percent of those. He kind of cooled off post-All Star break – still, the Thunder boast enough playmaking and shooting to make up for it if he’s having an off night.

Danilo Gallinari might be having one of the most overlooked seasons just by playing the tertiary role on the squad. Over his last two years (so far), the Italian veteran’s produced to the tune of 19 points per game. He’s crashed the glass more on the defensive end as well, however, it’s the stroke that’s really been the weapon of choice. Gallinari is firing up a career-high seven triples on average. Playing the four is truly his sweet spot, stretching the floor and pulling bigger forwards out to the perimeter to make room for the speedy, lengthy guards to get into the paint.

Maybe the question on everyone’s mind right now is the status of Andre Roberson. It feels like forever since the top-tier defensive swingman has stepped foot on an NBA floor. That’s because it’s been since Jan. 27, 2018! He’s been recovering from a ruptured left patella tendon injury for over two years now. But now that we’re in June, Thunder general manager Sam Presti had some interesting comments to The Oklahoman surrounding his status.

Evidently, Roberson is healthy and progressing every day. The hesitancy to say he can make his return is based on the lack of on-court practice and reps. What makes it even tougher to assume this is who’s in front of him on the depth chart and rotations, too. Yet, if there’s even the slightest chance of him being cleared to play, it could be feasible for Roberson to at least play a stint or two in the games. Keep an eye on that situation because he is a game-changing defender, and the Thunder’s greatest strength is already on that end of the floor.

Oklahoma City’s second unit has a lot to offer as well. We’ve already mentioned Schroder, but it’s guys like Hamidou Diallo and Nerlens Noel that can flip the team’s pace in the snap of a finger. Rookie Lu Dort also received a ton of playing time after the break as a starter. It’s a really nice mix of youth and veterans that Donovan has to work with.

Based on the current standing, it’s conceivable that the Thunder could finish anywhere from third place to seventh. There is a giant logjam between the second-best team in the west and the final playoff seed. It’s impossible to predict the future on where they’ll be when all is said and done.

If you were to tell us that Oklahoma City would finish in that position before the season started, we’d have called you crazy — and that’s why Donovan and company should be proud of what they’ve already accomplished.

Now let’s see if the Thunder will be able to continue that momentum.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

David Yapkowitz

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The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.

The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.

The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.

But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.

After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.

“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.

“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”

One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.

They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.

With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”

In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.

“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”

A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.

He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.

“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”

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NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch

The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.

Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.

The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.

The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.

The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.

Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.

New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.

If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.

One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.

The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.

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NBA Coach of the Year Watch – April 14

With the final quarter of the NBA season here, a few names have emerged as the favorites for Coach of the Year; who are they? And what are their chances of winning the award come the end of the season?

Zach Dupont

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The NBA season is hitting its final stretch, and teams are gearing up to make a run at the postseason. With the season nearing its conclusion, who is in the running for the NBA end-of-season awards are becoming clearer and clearer.

Today, Basketball Insiders will take a look at the four candidates that have become clear favorites for Coach of the Year and break down why they’re in the running.

Quin Snyder

The Utah Jazz’s Quin Snyder currently appears to be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award. Snyder has led the Jazz to the best record in the Western Conference and the NBA at an astounding 40-14. Snyder has become a favorite because he is doing this with nearly the same roster as last season, a team that went 44-28 and was the six seed in the Western Conference.

The Jazz have emerged as dominant on both offense and defense, holding the fourth-best defensive ranking and second-best offensive rating in the NBA. Snyder has been instrumental in the improvement of the young players on his roster. Donovan Mitchell is having the best season of his career, averaging 26.3 points and 5.3 assists per game and Rudy Gobert himself is one of the favorites to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He’s also managed to get top-tier production from Jordan Clarkson, who seems like a runaway favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, putting up 17.2 points per game in 51 bench appearances.

While there are other coaches with solid resumes, at this point, it’s Snyder’s award to lose. If the Jazz keep the foot to the throttle for the last quarter of the season and remain at the top of the NBA, it’s hard to see Snyder losing to anyone.

Monty Williams

The other person who has a good shot at winning the award is the coach of the NBA’s second-best team, Monty Williams. Williams – the coach of the Phoenix Suns – has had an equally impressive season as Snyder, leading the Suns to a 38-15 record, good for second in both the Western Conference and the NBA. Williams gains points because he is coaching an exceptionally young team; Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges are 24-years-old and Deandre Ayton is just 22. That’s a lot of wins for a team starting three players under 25 nearly every game.

Williams loses some points, however, due to the Suns just not having as impressive a statistical team. The Suns are behind the Jazz in both offensive and defensive rating, seventh in offense and fifth in defense. Both excellent marks, but not at the same level of excellence as Snyder’s Jazz. Williams also gets docked some points because, unlike the Jazz, the Suns made a major offseason pickup, grabbing veteran point guard Chris Paul from the Thunder. Paul’s presence has been a game-changer for Phoenix, and his play has elevated the games of all of his young teammates.

Williams has a real shot at winning Coach of the Year, but as of now, Snyder marginally has the edge. But there is still plenty of time left in the season, and Williams could snatch the award from Snyder if the Suns make a late push or the Jazz find themselves faltering.

Steve Nash

Steve Nash deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in his first year as the Brooklyn Nets head coach. Nash has helped keep the Nets not only competitive but elite despite all three of James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving missing significant time this year. The Nets are second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 36-17 and are considered one of the favorites to win the NBA Championship, if healthy.

Despite Nash’s great work as a first-year head coach, he is a bit less of a favorite than both Williams and Snyder. The trio of Durant, Harden and Irving has a combined 27 All-Star appearances, 18 All-NBA appearances and two MVPs; excellence was the expectation for this group. Nash has done a great job keeping the Nets afloat despite injuries and many, many off-court dramas, but his roster alone compared to those of Williams and Snyder, makes it a touch more difficult for him to win the award. Nash is also at the helm of one of the worst defenses in the NBA, with the Nets clocking in at 25th in the league in defensive rating. While the Nets offense could very well be the best in the league, it’ll be difficult to win the award with a defense performing that poorly.

Nash is still a contender even if he isn’t at the same level as those listed above. Nash just needs things out of his control to happen to get him back in the running. If both the Jazz and Suns struggle down the stretch, and the Nets thrive, Nash could find himself winning Coach of the Year in his rookie season.

Doc Rivers

It’s been a hell of a renaissance for Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach Doc Rivers. Rivers had a tough stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, ending his seven-year run there with an embarrassing second-round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets. Now in Philadelphia, Rivers has coached the 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference at 37-17. Rivers has turned the 76ers into a defensive juggernaut, rocking the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, a 107.2. Their defense is anchored by MVP candidate Joel Embiid and three-time All-Star Ben Simmons. Rivers has also gotten major contributions from Tobias Harris – who looked lost in his past few seasons in Philly – and former Dallas Maverick Seth Curry.

Rivers has done a great job helping turn around a team that looked like a mess just at the end of last season, but like Nash, he too falls a bit short of Snyder and Williams. Working against Rivers is the 76ers offense, which just hasn’t produced at the same level as both the Jazz and Suns. The 76ers have the 14th best offensive rating in the NBA of 112.2, while not bad, it’s also not good. Rivers also has a disadvantage through no fault of his own, having already won the award before and being an established name in the league for over a decade now, voters are just more likely to vote for the fresher names.

Rivers isn’t out of the race yet, and with a good push – and some help from other teams – Rivers could end up as the Coach of the Year come May. But, the 76ers will have to take a step forward on offense, or that will never become a reality.

 

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