Does the NBA do enough to protect its players from on-court confrontations with fans?
Since Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook entered the NBA in 2008, he has been nothing short of pure excitement. Westbrook has been front and center for the Thunder’s ascent in the Western Conference, while he has become one of the NBA’s best players. At 6’3″, 200 lbs., Westbrook is one of the fastest players in the NBA and he is also fearless. It’s nothing for Westbrook to drive to the lane while also mixing it up with the big men in the paint. Westbrook is a six-time NBA All-Star and following the departure of small forward Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City last summer to join the Golden State Warriors, you expected Westbrook to have a special season; just not as spectacular as it has been.
This season I expected Westbrook to lead the NBA scoring in scoring as he would now be the focal point of the Thunder’s offense, but he has done it in the fashion of making history. Westbrook is on the verge of becoming the first NBA player since Hall of Fame point guard Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double for an entire season. On the campaign Westbrook is averaging 31.8 points (which leads the NBA), 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists. Westbrook has already tied Roberston’s single season record of 41 triple-doubles in a season, and he just missed setting the new mark as he had 45 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds this past Wednesday night in a 103-100 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Westbrook will have another opportunity to get his 42nd triple-double tonight when the Thunder face the Phoenix Suns. With Westbrook leading the way the Thunder are heading to the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight years and regardless of what happens in the postseason, he should be ready collect some individual hardware.
Being that Westbrook has done something which hasn’t been accomplished in more than 50 years, he is the odds-on favorite to become the NBA’s MVP. On 18 occasions Westbrook has scored at least 40 points this season which included going for 58 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 7. From February 26-March 3, Westbrook had four consecutive games in which he scored at 41 points. Westbrook has 10 contests in which he has gotten at least 15 assists which was highlighted by him going for 22 assists versus the Suns on December 17. And the other caveat is that 32 times this season Westbrook has tallied at least 12 rebounds in a game which included him grabbing 18 boards on two separate occasions which is why he’ll be a shoe-in to be the NBA’s MVP.
Westbrook has made the impossible possible as he has done what many people thought would never be done again which is to average triple-double for an entire season. Since Robertson pulled it off in 1962, the NBA has seen a plethora of great point guards such as Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, and John Stockton. But whereas these men had other talented players to shoulder the load, Westbrook is doing this without a talented squad around him as he needs to do what he is doing in order for Oklahoma City to win basketball games. This season the Thunder are 31-10 when Westbrook records a triple-double as he has been a one-man wrecking crew and thus head coach Billy Donovan has given him the green light to turn it loose.
With the NBA Playoffs right around the corner, I don’t expect Westbrook to slow down his production even though that the deck will be stacked against him as far as Oklahoma City being able to make a deep run in the Western Conference Playoffs due to the fact that they’ll have to go through the likes of the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets.
I knew that Westbrook would be locked in this season as he was out to emerge from the shadow of Durant in Oklahoma City. And since the folks in Oklahoma City weren’t thrilled at how Durant left along with the team that he joined, it has led them to embrace Westbrook more than ever; especially since he signed an extension to remain there.
Averaging a triple-double for an entire season in the NBA is the equivalent to hitting for the triple-crown in Major League Baseball, rushing for 2,000 yards in a season in the National Football League, and scoring 75 goals in one campaign in the National Hockey League. Occurrences such as these don’t come down the pike that often and thus they should be put onto a pedestal. And regardless of what Westbrook is able to do for the remainder of his NBA career, his name will forever live on in the history of the league.
It’s still early in the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean we cannot begin to look at who’ll take home some hardware in the spring as the league’s MVP. And although that Christmas has not yet arrived, here are some players that are right now a cut above the rest.
DeMar DeRozan-Shooting Guard-Toronto Raptors
Since the Toronto Raptors made shooting guard DeMar Derozan the ninth overall selection of the NBA Draft in 2009, he has been a work in progress. As a rookie, DeRozan averaged 8.6 points per contest, but he would make a huge leap in his second season as he netted 17.2 points per game. And by 2014, DeRozan had elevated his game to that of an NBA All-Star.
Last season saw DeRozan help the Raptors make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, and he’s doing his part to help Toronto take that next step in order to win an NBA Championship.
This season DeRozan is averaging 28 points per game, which has included a pair of 40-point performances. In all but three games this season DeRozan has scored at least 21 points as he is the focal point of the Raptors offense.
DeRozan deserves a ton of credit as after signing a five-year, $139 million extension to remain in Toronto over the summer, his production has increased which goes against the norm as athletes tend to regress after agreeing to a mega deal. But DeRozan is mentally tough and as he has the Raptors poised to make a title run, he cannot be overlooked in regards to being the NBA’s MVP.
LeBron James-Small Forward-Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James falls into that rare air. James has been one of the best players in the NBA since he first came on to the scene in 2003 which is evident by him being a four-time NBA MVP. James is always in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP, and although that he’s only averaging 23.9 points so far this season, he is averaging 9.1 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per contest as he is still the game’s best all-around player.
Russell Westbrook-Point Guard-Oklahoma City Thunder
Since Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook made his NBA debut in 2008, he has been one of the league’s most explosive players. Westbrook is a five-time NBA All-Star in spite of the fact that he has spent his entire professional career playing out of position as he was always a shooting guard prior to joining the Thunder.
I expected Westbrook to have an increased role in the Thunder’s offense after small forward Kevin Durant left last summer in free agency and he has lived up to the expectations and then some.
In Westbrook’s first game this season, he dropped 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists on the Philadelphia 76ers. Westbrook follwed this up by torching the Phoenix Suns in the second game of the season for 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.
For the season Westbrook has 11 triple-doubles to his credit which includes recording one in his each of his last six games. Westbrook is currently averaging 31 points, 11.3 assists, and 10.9 rebounds as he is seeking to become the first player in the NBA to average a triple-double for an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1962. And if Westbrook is able to pull off that feat, he should receive very strong consideration to be the NBA’s MVP.
Kevin Durant-Small Forward-Golden State Warriors
Small forward Kevin Durant shocked many people last summer when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent to join the Golden State Warriors. And when Durant joined the Warriors, it was going to be interesting to see how he would play alongside point guard Steph Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson who are two of the premier scorers in the NBA.
But so far Durant hasn’t skipped a beat with his new team as he is averaging 26.5 points, 4.8 assists, and 8.4 rebounds which are a career-high. Durant has been consistent for the Warriors as he has scored at least 20 points in every contest in all but two for the Warriors. And as the Warriors once again find themselves in the title hunt, Durant’s contributions cannot be overlooked.
James Harden-Point Guard-Houston Rockets
Before this NBA season began, new Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he would be shifting James Harden from shooting guard to point guard. And whereas people such as myself laughed at the notion, D’Antoni has been right on so far.
Harden has still maintained his status as one of the better scorers in the NBA as he is averaging 28.5 points per game. But the amazing feat is that Harden has done this while he is leading the league in assists at 11.4 per contest. Harden has four triple-doubles on the season. And in those contests the Rockets are 3-1 which includes victories over the San Antonio Spurs, along with the Golden State Warriors.
D’Antoni has maximized the ability of Harden which is leading to victories for the Rockets and the elevation of the all-around game of one of the best players in the NBA.
Anthony Davis-Power Forward-New Orleans Pelicans
Being that the New Orleans Pelicans are not one of the better teams in the NBA, the exploits of power forward Anthony Davis could go unnoticed to the casual fan. Davis was the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft by the then New Orleans Hornets, and he has been as good as advertised. Davis is a budding superstar which began to recognized as he was named to his first All-Star team in 2014. That season Davis averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks as he helped the Pelicans reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Injuries limited Davis to just 61 games last season, but this time around he is currently averaging 31.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks.
On the season Davis has 10 games in which has delivered at least 30 points and 10 rebounds which was highlighted by going for 50 points and 15 rebounds in an opening night loss to the Denver Nuggets, along with a 41-point, 16-rebound barrage last Tuesday in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pelicans don’t have a good team around Davis which will hinder his chances as far as making the postseason goes, but what he is currently doing the season cannot be discredited.
X-Portland Trailblazers 51-31 (4)
After winning 51 games during the 2014-2015 NBA season, the 2015-2016 campaign was expected to be a down one for the Portland Trailblazers. The summer of 2015 saw the Trailblazers ravaged by departures which included power forward LaMarcus Aldridge joining the San Antonio Spurs and shooting guard Wes Matthews signing on with the Dallas Mavericks. But Blazers general manager Neil Olshey didn’t cry over spilled milk as he simply went to work in building his team around All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Last season saw Lillard become the focal point of the Trailblazers offense to the tune of averaging 25.1 points per game. And when the regular season was over, Portland shocked many people as they were heading for the NBA Playoffs. But the Blazers weren’t just content to reach the postseason as they advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals for the second time in three years. Now the Trailblazers will head into this NBA season looking to build off of their last campaign and add to what they accomplished.
Aside from Lillard being the best player on the Trailblazers team, he is rapidly developing into one of the best players in the league. Along with averaging 25.1 points per game last season, Lillard averaged a career high in assists with 6.8. Lillard isn’t afraid to mix it up in the post as well where as averaged 4 rebounds per contest last season. And as Lillard goes, so goes the fortunes of the Trail Blazers, but he has a team around him that can compliment his style of play.
Center Mason Plumlee has seen his numbers improve in each of three NBA seasons, and after being a starter in all 82 games for Portland last year, he could be poised to average a double-double in points and rebounds this time around. Like Plumlee, the Blazers also employ players in their front court such as power forward Ed Davis and center Meyers Leonard who can play off of Lillard’s ability to get to the basket as they are finishers at the rim who don’t require set plays to be run for them.
Lillard is consistently paired with guard C.J. McCollum to give the Blazers one of the fastest backcourts in the NBA as it is simply pick your poison with both players who have the ability to take over a game.
During the summer, Portland signed swingman Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million deal. Turner gives the Trailblazers another ball handler, while he is a solid defender. And due to the attention that Lillard and McCollum will receive, Turner is going to see more than his fair share of open looks at the basket which should allow for him to have one of his more productive seasons in the NBA.
Aside from Turner, the Trail Blazers also signed center Festus Ezeli in free agency. Ezeli was an under utilized big man during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but his championship experience could pay dividends for a young team in Portland.
Terry Stotts is set to begin his fifth season as the Blazers head coach, and in spite of the fact that he has guided this team to the postseason in each of the last three years, he is an underrated commodity in the NBA. But Stotts has a team this time around that could be more than just a playoff participant as the Trail Blazers have the potential to do some damage in the Western Conference.
Y-Oklahoma City Thunder 50-32 (5)
This past June the Oklahoma City Thunder appeared to be on the verge of heading to the NBA Finals, until things came apart for them in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder had a 3-1 series lead against the Golden State Warriors until the wheels fell off. And as the 2016 NBA Playoffs ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Thunder, the sorrow didn’t end there for them.
After nine years with the Seattle Supersonics/ Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, small forward Kevin Durant decided to leave. Durant spurned the Thunder’s offer in free agency in favor of joining the Golden State Warriors. Durant’s departure signals the end of his pairing with point guard Russell Westbrook as one of the most dynamic duos in the NBA. But if anyone is expecting the Thunder to feel sorry for themselves after Durant left town, think again.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti is one of the best front office people in the NBA when it comes to putting a team together which means that Oklahoma City should be poised for another run to the NBA Playoffs.
After Durant left, the Thunder made it their business to sign Westbrook to a three-year extension that is worth $85.7 million as he will be the centerpiece for head coach Billy Donovan. This new deal will keep Westbrook in Oklahoma City through 2020 which is more than enough time for him to show the basketball world that he is ready to emerge from Durant’s shadow.
When Durant missed the majority of the 2014-2015 NBA season with a foot injury, Westbrook led the league in scoring at 28.1 per contest. And I don’t see Donovan attempting to hold him back this year.
But around Westbrook, the Thunder have a very talented team that consists of the likes of centers Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. Last year with the Thunder, Kanter averaged 12.7 which was the result of not enough basketballs to go around for everyone, but this time around he should become more involved in the offense due to the loss of Durant. Adams is a wild man on the boards and at the defensive end of the court as you never know what you’re going to get from him which makes him an X-factor for the Thunder.
Aside from losing Durant, center Serge Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic. In exchange for Ibaka, the Thunder received shooting guard Victor Oladipo, power forward Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis.
Oladipo is expected to be a running mate in the Thunder’s backcourt with Westbrook and he should be able to have an immediate impact. In three years with the Magic, Oladipo averaged 15.9 points per game, and as long as he is healthy, the sky is the limit this season for him in Oklahoma City.
Last year Sabonis was a second-team All-American for the Gonzaga Bulldogs where he averaged 17.6 points, and 11.8 rebounds per contest. Sabonis is the son of former Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas, and he will flash some of the moves that his old man did once upon a time on the hardwood.
In Donovan’s first year as the head coach of the Thunder, he stayed out of the way while letting his superstars in Westbrook and Durant do their thing. This time around I can see Donovan being more hands on, but I doubt that he will attempt to stop the one-man show that is Westbrook.
Y-Utah Jazz 41-41 (8)
The last two NBA seasons have seen the Utah Jazz overachieve, but it still wasn’t enough for them to make the playoffs. The Jazz won 40 games last season and missed making the NBA Playoffs by one game which is something the head coach Quin Snyder will attempt to build off of as Utah is seeking their first postseason berth since 2012.
If Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward played in a bigger market, he would be a household name. In each of Hayward’s first six seasons in the NBA, his offensive stats have increased which included him averaging 19.7 points per game. Hayward is developing into one of the better wing players in the NBA, and his continued improvement is vital to any success that Utah seeks. Like Hayward, the numbers of power forward Derrick Favors continue to improve as he is one the most underrated big men in the Western Conference. At 7’1″, the length of center Rudy Goubert gives opponents problems, and after he averaged 11 rebounds and 2.2 blocks last season, he is a prime candidate to be the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year this time around.
With the return of point guard Dante Exum who missed the entire 2015-2016 NBA season after suffering a torn ACL, the Jazz decided to trade point guard Trey Burke to the Washington Wizards for a 2021 draft pick. And along with veteran guard Shelvin Mack who led the Jazz in assists last year with 5.6, Exum will be looked at as being one of the floor generals for Utah.
Last year the Jazz were one of the younger teams in the NBA, but general manager Dennis Lindsey has attempted to remedy that as over the summer he signed veteran swingman Joe Johnson, point guard George Hill, and power forward/center Boris Diaw. All three players have tremendous experience in the NBA which includes Diaw winning an NBA Championship in 2014.
Minnesota Timberwolves 37-45
The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of a very long hibernation. You have to go back to 2004 in order to find the last time that the Timberwolves made the playoffs as they’ve become an afterthought in the NBA. Minnesota has had its fair share of misses at the NBA Draft, but they finally appear to be headed in the right direction.
Tom Thibodeau is set to begin his first year as the T-Wolves head coach and president of basketball operations as he will be bringing law and order to the franchise. For five years Thibodeau was the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and in each season he was able to get them to the postseason. Under Thibodeau, the Bulls were one of the better defensive teams in the NBA and that is a philosophy that he will attempt to instill into the young Timberwolves who gave up 106 points per game last season which was tied for 23rd in the NBA.
The Timberwolves have the last two NBA Rookie of the Years to work with in shooting guard Andrew Wiggins and center Karl-Anthony Towns. Last year Wiggins led the Timberwolves in scoring at 20.7 points per contest and it would not surprise me to see him make the All-Star team this year. Power forward Karl-Anthony Towns was a double-double machine last year for the Timberwolves, and he has the potential to be the second best big man in franchise history behind Kevin Garnett. The T-Wolves also have a pair of young ball handlers in point guard Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, while guard Kris Dunn could be in the running to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year which would make it three years in a row that the franchise could claim that honor.
Five of the Timberwolves first seven games will be on the road, and even if they start slow, this should a be an exciting team as the NBA season progresses.
Denver Nuggets 35-47
After a decade of success, the Denver Nuggets are fading into obscurity. From 2004-2013, the Nuggets made 10 consecutive playoff appearances, but the last three years have seen them fail to reach the postseason while winning no more than 36 in any campaign. And as Michael Malone is set to begin his second year as the Nuggets head coach, he must find the right formula that can once again make Denver a playoff contender in the Western Conference.
One thing that has hurt the Nuggets in recent years is that they don’t have a consistent go-to scorer. Last year the Nuggets had seven players average at least 10 points per game with small forward Danilo Gallinari leading the team with 19.5 points per contest. However the Nuggets lack of a consistent 20-point per game scorer will hurt them against the better teams in the Western Conference.
The keys to any potential success for the Nuggets during the 2016-2017 NBA season will come down to the development of point guard Emanuel Mudiay, the health of Gallinari, and how power forward Kenneth Faried will play off of them.
Last year as a rookie, Mudiay averaged 12.8 points and 5.5 assists as he was one of the better first-year players in the NBA. Mudiay has the potential to be a quality floor general and the Nuggets could be ready to improve if he continues to make progress.
In five seasons with the Nuggets, Gallinari has averaged 15.6 points per game, but his main issue has been his inability to remain healthy. In eight NBA seasons, Gallinari has never appeared in all 82 games as he has been done in by knee injuries. But in spite of that Gallinari is still a solid perimeter scorer as he is a career 41% scorer. And if Gallinari is able to appear in at least 70 games this season, it should be a big boost for the Nuggets.
If there were an All-Energy team in the NBA, Faried would be on it. There’s nothing fancy about Faried’s game as he plays with the mentality of a junkyard dog. Faried scraps and claws as he does whatever is necessary for the Nuggets to win. Faried is one of those rare players in the NBA that doesn’t need a play to be called for him, but when the game is done, he’ll have 15 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals, along with the respect of his opponents. And it is that ability of Faried which will allow him to play off of Mudiay and Gallinari.
As a team the Nuggets were 22nd in the NBA in points allowed last season as they surrendered 105 per contest which must improve if they want to become a playoff contender.
Six of Denver’s first seven games for the upcoming NBA season will be on the road and they last thing that need is a slow start which could derail their postseason chances before they even start.
In a bit of a surprising move point guard Russell Westbrook signed an extension this week to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook was heading into the final year of his contract with the Thunder and he agreed to a three-year deal that is potentially worth $85.7 million, while he has a player option to opt out after the 2017-2018 NBA season. The move comes officially one month after small forward Kevin Durant left the Thunder as a free agent to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Durant’s move to join Golden State appeared to signal the end of Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City as the All-Star point guard might have been looking for a new home as well after next season when he was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were prepared to pursue Westbrook in free agency or trading for him, however these teams will now have to go back to the drawing board as he is off of the market. Westbrook’s decision to remain in Oklahoma shows that he believes in the Thunder’s foundation under general manager Sam Presti and the upcoming NBA season could be very special for the enigmatic point guard.
For Westbrook’s eight-year NBA career he has averaged 21.5 points and 7.6 assists per contest. Westbrook has done this in spite of the fact that he has played out of position. Prior to being drafted by the Thunder, Westbrook never played the point guard position as he was a shooting guard throughout his high school and collegiate career. That has shown up at times throughout Westbrook’s career with the Thunder where he has attempted to take games over by himself while not always playing within the realm of the offense. And with Durant no longer around to get the basketball to, Westbrook could now be off to the races.
It’s only August, but it is not far-fetched that Westbrook could be one of the early favorites to be named as the NBA’s MVP next spring. As the Thunder’s top scoring option for next season, Westbrook could flirt with averaging 30 points per game like he did during the 2014-2015 NBA campaign when Durant missed the most of the season with a foot injury. That season saw Westbrook begin to emerge from Durant’s shadow as he averaged 28.1 points per game which was tops in the NBA, and it should be more of the same this time around.
The Thunder have a head coach in Billy Donovan that isn’t going to attempt to reign Westbrook in as he knows that he is one of the most exciting and energetic players in the NBA. Westbrook is a triple-double waiting to happen, and as the game of basketball has transformed into more of a perimeter game, he is ready to take his game to another level.
Westbrook’s decision to remain in Oklahoma City is a huge coup for Presti who had to watch Durant leave without getting anything in return, while also trading shooting guard James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012 after failed contract negotiations. Presti has shown that he can put together a quality team as the Thunder have won at least 50 games in five of the last seven seasons.
In spite of losing Durant and shooting guard Dion Waiters in free agency, while also trading center Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic, the Thunder still have a quality team that they can put around Westbrook which includes centers Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, along with shooting guard Victor Oladipo who was acquired from the Magic as Westbrook is now the undisputed leader in Oklahoma City.
The most recent piece of NBA history that can compare to the divorce of Durant and Westbrook was when the Los Angeles Lakers traded center Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat in 2004. O’Neal’s departure from Los Angeles paved the way for shooting guard Kobe Bryant to emerge from the shadow of “The Big Diesel” which included Bryant averaging 35.4 points per contest during the 2005-2006 NBA season. And you can expect Westbrook to prepare for the upcoming NBA season with a huge chip on his shoulder as he has something to prove to himself, his teammates, his opposition, and Durant that he doesn’t have to play second fiddle to anyone.
By now you know that small forward Kevin Durant has decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors in free agency. The moves marks the end for one of the greatest players to ever suit up for the Seattle Supersonics/Thunder franchise as Durant was the team’s all-time leader in made three-point field goals (1,143) and second in points (17,566). Durant has left a lasting impact on Oklahoma City and his departure has opened up a ton of questions in regards to the future of point guard Russell Westbrook with the Thunder.
For the past eight years, Durant and Westbrook were one of the top duos in the NBA. Durant and Westbrook combined to help the Thunder go from a record of 23-59 during the 2008-2009 NBA season, to winning 50 games and making the postseason in 2010. Durant and Westbrook were also vital in the Thunder winning the Western Conference Championship in 2012, while that summer would also see them win gold medals as part of Team USA in the Summer Olympics. Durant and Westbrook are each regular fixtures at the NBA’s All-Star Game and it is hard to think about one without recognizing the other as they’ve been like peanut butter and jelly.
But with Durant having left Oklahoma City as an unrestricted free agent, it means that the Thunder didn’t get anything else than well wishes from the superstar when he decided to join the Warriors. And with Westbrook set to enter the final year of his contract, Thunder general manager Sam Presti is now on high alert about the status of their All-Star point guard.
With Durant taking his talents to Oakland, it doesn’t look like Westbrook wants to remain in Oklahoma City either which will make the next seven months very interesting there as the talents of “Trader Sam” will once again be on display. Presti is one of the better general managers that is currently in the NBA as he hasn’t been afraid to make trades that will return value to Oklahoma City.
In 2012 after being unable to come to agreement on a long-term extension with shooting guard James Harden, Presti traded him to the Houston Rockets which saw players such as center Steven Adams, along with guards Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb go to the Thunder. With the contract of center Serge Ibaka set to expire next summer, Presti traded him last month at the NBA Draft to the Orlando Magic in exchange for guard Victor Oladipo, power forward Ersan Ilyasova, and the draft rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis. And over the past few years Presti has made key in-season trades to beef up the Thunder’s postseason chances which included acquiring shooting guard Dion Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers and center Enes Kanter from the Utah Jazz.
Durant’s departure definitely changes things as far as the Thunder being a title contender, but don’t expect Presti to allow Mr. Westbrook to catch a flight out of Oklahoma City without receiving something in return.
Whereas Presti will seek to trade Westbrook, it will have to be to a team that believes that they will have a legitimate shot at locking up the point guard to a long-term deal. And as of right now Presti is holding all of the trump cards which means that he’ll more than likely look to ship Westbrook to the Eastern Conference where he wouldn’t compete with the Thunder for a playoff spot. But it doesn’t mean that Presti wouldn’t trade Westbrook inside of the Western Conference which was the situation with Harden in 2012. What has made Presti so good as a general manager has been his ability to be a forward thinker which means that he dictates the trades and holds all of the aces.
Whomever will acquire Westbrook will more than likely surrender a king’s ransom to the Thunder as Presti is going to do what’s best for his organization as far as keeping them competitive. But just as the folks in Oklahoma City are beginning to come to grips with the fact that Durant is gone, they might as well begin to think about Westbrook playing for another team as his days there appear to be numbered.
A week ago life was good for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had a 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and a trip to the NBA Finals appeared to be in the cards for them. But the Thunder were unable to seal the deal as they lost their next three games, with each defeat being more painful that the previous one. Now the Thunder have become a running gag on social media as some people are labeling them as “choke artists”, with their star players in point guard Russell Westbrook and small forward Kevin Durant being singled out. The Thunder enjoyed a terrific season as they won 55 games during the regular season en route to winning their fifth Northwest Division Title in the last six years. In the Western Conference Semifinals, the Thunder got past the San Antonio Spurs who were viewed by many observers as the uncrowned NBA Champions. But after being so close to defeating the Warriors, the Thunder are left to ponder what could have been as they’ll be licking their wounds over the summer.
But the Thunder won’t be able to sulk for long as team general manager Sam Presti must formulate a plan to keep Durant in Oklahoma City. Durant is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and there are several teams in the NBA that will be putting on the full-court press in order to entice him to join them. However what the Thunder have going for them is that they can offer Durant more money than any other team, while roster wise they still possess a squad that is championship ready.
Presti must also decided if he is willing to re-sign shooting guard Dion Waiters. During the 2014-2015 NBA season, the Thunder acquired Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he became a valuable sixth man in Oklahoma City. Waiters made $5.1 million this season, but you can expect that he will be seeking a bigger payday over the summer, and it will be interesting to see if the Thunder are willing to commit to him on a long-term deal. However being that Waiters is a restricted free agent, the Thunder will have the opportunity to match any offer from another NBA team.
Other than Durant and Waiters, all the key players to the Thunder’s success are under contract at least through next season. Billy Donovan was solid in his first season as the head coach of the Thunder as he was brought in for his ability to deal with different personalities. And Donovan did a solid job of staying out of the way, while letting his players be.
But as good as the Thunder have been and can be, they are not going to get too many opportunities to win an NBA Championship like the one that they just had which was right within their grasp.
The Western Conference is still difficult with the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, and the emerging Portland Trailblazers. And the Thunder proved how difficult that winning the Western Conference can be as they’ll more than likely have to go through the Spurs and Warriors once more.
Although that Westbrook didn’t enter the NBA as a point guard, he has evolved into one of the best in the league as he is a triple-double waiting to happen. And in the defeat to the Warriors, Westbrook showed that he is the heart and soul of the Thunder as he was a big reason why Oklahoma City was up 3-1 in the series due to his relentlessness at both ends of the court. With the deep run by the Thunder in the playoffs, I don’t see Durant leaving Oklahoma City as being there gives him the best chance of winning an NBA Championship which appears to be high on his list of priorities. The Thunder have rebounding in the form of centers Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, along with power forward Serge Ibaka. The Thunder also get interior defense from Ibaka and Adams, while Waiters and shooting guard Andre Roberson are solid perimeter defenders. But what the Thunder could benefit from is having another ball handler on the court coming down the stretch of games which would take some pressure off of Westbrook while allowing him the freelance more. And most importantly, the Thunder must find a way to finish.
What separated Golden State and Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals was that the Warriors expected to win, while the Thunder hoped to win. The Warriors have been there and done it, which is why they are the defending NBA Champions and are still playing as the Thunder are not. Make no mistake about it that this version of the Thunder was better than the team that lost to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. And if the Thunder can find a way to build off of this difficult defeat as opposed to allowing it to bring them down, they can once again be a very formidable team next season.