Open Floor: Thunder still struggling as Durant's exit looms in background
NEW YORK – Those that have been around Oklahoma City the last few years are familiar with the message: It’s a process. Lose in the Finals? It’s a process. Get beat in the first round? It’s a process. This Belichick-ian response has been programmed into the mind of every player, coach and executive in the organization. Failure is not met with desperation; long-term goals are not sacrificed for short-term success. That’s why when you grill the Thunder on the sense of urgency for a team sitting in 10th place during an injury riddled season in a brutal conference and just 18 months before the reigning MVP is set to hit free agency you get, well, it’s a process.
“We’re in a rough patch right now,” said Scott Brooks on Thursday, a day after a 100-92 loss to the lowly Knicks. “But [GM] Sam [Presti] has always been focused on staying consistent. That comes from the philosophy from our ownership. That hasn’t changed with us, with me. We always go back to what we do every day.”
No question, “the process” has yielded remarkable results. Oklahoma City increased its winning percentage each season from 2008 to 2013, just the second team ever to achieve such a feat. Since 2009, only the Thunder and Spurs have won 61 percent of their games each season. Presti, arguably the NBA’s best executive, has drafted two bona fide superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and fleshed out the roster with a talented supporting cast of Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams.
Recently, Oklahoma City’s behavior has begged the question: Has the process changed? Has the Thunder’s long-term strategy been shaken up by Durant’s looming free agency in 2016? Last month, Oklahoma City flipped a first-round pick for Dion Waiters; Presti parts with first rounders as often as he does fingers. This month the Thunder aggressively pursued Brook Lopez, a struggling center owed $16.8 million next season. Fiscally sound Oklahoma City absorbs overpaid players as often as an offensive lineman skips a meal.
So what gives? Look deeper and you will see... not much. Waiters raised a few eyebrows. The maligned guard struggled to fit in with a talented Cavaliers team and his perimeter shooting has taken a nosedive this season. Still, the price -- a heavily protected pick -- was right. The Thunder have Josh Huestis, its 2014 first rounder, marinating in the D-League, the result of a clever deal concocted by Presti that will effectively make Heustis a rookie next season. In addition, Oklahoma City has the rights to German center Tibor Pleiss and Spanish guard Alex Abrines, two intriguing young talents who could be ready to come over next season. To Oklahoma City, the value of a late first-round pick is minimal.
Another reason: Waiters gives Oklahoma City the flexibility to deal Reggie Jackson. The Jackson/Thunder dynamic has been well-chronicled. Before the season, Jackson turned down a lucrative extension, one that would have made Jackson the highest paid backup in the NBA, according to a source. Subsequently, reports surfaced that Jackson -- a restricted free agent this summer -- intended to pursue a starting job elsewhere. This season, Jackson has struggled. His shooting percentage has dipped to 42.9 percent and he has become a liability (28.5 percent) from beyond the three-point line.
Ideally, Oklahoma City would bring both Jackson and Waiters off the bench, a 1-2 scoring punch that could take the offensive burden off of Durant and Westbrook, who are still shaking off some rust from early season injuries. But Waiters is also insurance if the Thunder are unhappy with early results and choose to flip Jackson,
Lopez is a shell of the All-Star center he was in 2013. His scoring has dipped to 14.7 points per game and he is averaging a pedestrian six rebounds. But Oklahoma City was willing to roll the dice with Lopez because the cost was low (a package build around center Kendrick Perkins) and with Adams entrenched as the starter. Expectations for Lopez would be limited to a solid scoring option off the bench. As for Lopez’s money, the Thunder, who have carefully avoided being taxpayers in recent years, have dodged the dreaded repeater tax penalties and are willing to go deep into the tax this year, if necessary.
“I don’t think anything has changed with them,” says a rival GM. “They will only do trades that won’t damage the future. They are still not going to give up any of their top talent. What they are doing is looking for teams that are desperate. They want to help facilitate deals without giving up anything.”
Thunder officials understand there are no guarantees with Durant. They know they can offer the most money -- several executives believe a max deal for Durant in the new TV revenue-infused market in 2016 could be worth in the neighborhood of $200 million over five years -- and they believe Durant likes playing in Oklahoma City. “I think he likes his teammates,” said Brooks. “That’s always important.”
But the Thunder know a couple of early playoff exits the next two seasons could diminish the team’s chances of re-signing him. So the Thunder are loading up. Just not recklessly. As part of the process.
Give and Go: All-Stars and Cavs' rise
In the latest episode of Give and Go, SI.com's Chris Mannix and Phil Taylor discuss All-Star reserves, the Cavaliers' title chances and which rebuilding teams are on the path to success (hint: they play in Madison Square Garden).
Rise of Rudy
In 2013, one of the most compelling prospects to come through the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago was a gangly Frenchman named Rudy Gobert. Impossibly long -- a 7-foot-9 wingspan -- with good mobility, Gobert had lottery buzz. Then came the 25-inch vertical. Followed by the 29-inch running vertical. Then drills where Gobert appeared overwhelmed physically. By the time Gobert left town, several executives wondered if he was even worth a first-round pick.
“The combine was a mistake,” Gobert told SI.com. “My knee was hurt. I wasn’t in the best physical condition. Looking back, I probably should have just done the measurements.”
On draft night, Gobert slipped to the Nuggets at No. 27. Denver promptly traded him to Utah for the bargain basement price of a second-round pick and cash. In his first season, Gobert struggled to adjust to the NBA game. He was a walking three-second violation, (“Those rules were the toughest to adjust to,” Gobert said) who was shoved around in the paint. In 45 games, Gobert averaged 2.3 points in 9.6 minutes per game.
• MORE NBA: Where do Jazz rank in latest NBA Power Rankings?
“I couldn’t box anyone out,” Gobert said. “Physically, it was hard for me. The game was way too fast. I would come in and I would be worried about committing a turnover.”
This season? A little different. Gobert ranks among the NBA’s most improved players. He’s averaging 6.8 points on 63.8 percent shooting in 21.4 minutes. He’s swatting 2.2 shots per game. His defensive presence has inspired nicknames like the "Stifle Tower" and the "French Rejection." Gobert says the secret to his success has been simple: Steady, consistent work since the start of last season. “Here is a guy who has some real tools,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder. “And he has really put in the work.”
Suddenly, Gobert is a prospect with an enormous upside. He has packed on ten pounds of muscle since the start of last season and says he has devoted much of his time in the weight room to strengthening his core. He's an underrated passer who can read plays from the low or high post. His offensive game is rudimentary, though Snyder isn’t the least bit concerned about it. “It’s not so much about expanding his game but improving on the things he does now,” Snyder said. “Rolling to the basket, playing at the high post, finishing at the rim. He watches a lot of film. He spends a lot of time with [Jazz assistant coach] Alex Jensen. And he’s interactive. He has opinions, and he’s quick to share them.”
With Utah rebuilding, Gobert can develop his game slowly. True big men prospects are rare in today’s guard dominated NBA. The Jazz are more than willing to wait.
Five Questions with… Markieff Morris
The fourth-year forward is averaging a career-high 15.3 points per game for the 27-20 Suns.
SI.com: You were a backup last season. You’re a starter this year. Are you doing anything different?
MM: "The preparation is a lot different. When you are a starter, you have to be ready to go right away. As a reserve, you have time to get into the flow. I don’t really have a preference though. Whatever is good for the team. I just have to go out there and do the same job I did last year."
SI.com: You did replace Channing Frye in the starting lineup. At any point did you try to be Channing Frye?
MM: "A little. Early in the season I was trying to pick my spots more. Channing was always at the three-point line, I thought not being out there, maybe I’m crowding the paint, maybe I was getting in the way of the guards trying to penetrate. Early in the season I would run to the three. But that’s not me. It changed 15-20 games into the season. We were struggling to score the ball down low. That’s where I can help the most.”
SI.com: Who is your toughest matchup?
MM: "Zach Randolph. I know I’m in for a long fistfight. He has such great touch combined with physicality. All game long, it’s physical. It’s like being in a wrestling match. It’s like that all game."
SI.com: You seem really happy to be playing with your brother…
MM: “We just have great chemistry. We are close in basketball and in life. When we were split up [in the draft], it was tough. You are with someone your whole life and then, suddenly, now you are not. It made us vulnerable. It was hard. When [the Suns] brought us back together, it was the best feeling.”
SI.com: You both signed new deals this summer. Can you ever see yourself playing on different teams again?
MM: "I can’t. It’s going to be almost impossible to get us apart. The Suns knew we wanted to be together. I think we could have made more money [if we went to free agency]. But the game doesn’t mean the same when we are apart. They got to $52 million [to split] for us. I took $32 million. I score more points (laughs). But it’s all going to the same bank account. What’s important is that we stayed together."
Scout’s Take: Robert Upshaw
The troubled center was dismissed from Washington, less than two years after being dismissed from Fresno State. Upshaw battled drug problems at both schools, according to ESPN.
"He’s a good shot blocker, but not a disciplined one. He’s foul prone. They played a lot of zone at Washington so he wouldn’t get into foul trouble. He shows flashes of stuff, like coming over from the weak side for a great block. But then he will follow it up with a terrible foul.
"He’s not especially strong. He can catch it around the rim and finish pretty well. But I don’t see any real moves. He uses his length to score over the top of people. If he lasted the season, I could see some team taking a chance on him late in the first round. Now, he’s just too big a risk. His best move is to go to the D-League. He’ll get some exposure and maybe start to repair his reputation. But he is bringing a lot of baggage with him."
Next page: Quotes and tweets of the week, latest NBA trade rumors
Quote of the Week I
“He's the best player in basketball right now. The things he's doing are incredible. The scouting report is focused in on stopping him and you see he's still getting 30 a game. It's impressive.” -- Former Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons on James Harden, his former teammate in Houston.
Harden leads the league in scoring (27.3 points), is second among non-point guards in assists (6.8) and third in rebounding (5.6). More surprisingly, Harden is fifth in Defensive Win Shares (2.7) and second in the NBA in total steals (94).
Quote of the Week II
“I think this is the best situation for me, 'cause there's nothing but basketball. There's nothing you expect but basketball. There's nothing, there's no going out, there's no late nights. There's video games, basketball and basketball.” -- Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith, to NBA.com’s David Aldridge.
I doubt Cleveland’s brass will use Smith's words as a recruiting pitch for free agents. Come here because there is nothing to do here probably won’t resonate.
Tweet(s) of the Week
Responding to an OWNER who cussed at me first.. 50,000 dollars for that?? Come on now!— Matt Barnes (@Matt_Barnes22) January 27, 2015
I might need to find a second job with all these crazy tecs & fines. I Can see it now LA TIMES.. "Costco worker by day nba player by night"😂— Matt Barnes (@Matt_Barnes22) January 27, 2015
Clippers forward Matt Barnes was obviously frustrated by a fine he believes he received after being provoked by Suns owner Robert Sarver. In a release, the NBA said Barnes was being fined for an exchange with a fan at the Suns-Clippers game this week. Barnes denied using inappropriate language towards the fan, claiming that any foul language he used was directed at Sarver.
The Ray Allen watch continues. While several teams remain hopeful they can convince Allen to join them, there is a growing belief that Allen has already decided where he wants to play and is now weighing if he wants to play … Pathetic performance by Denver in a 30-point loss to Memphis on Thursday. Brian Shaw takes heat for a lot of things, but you can’t pin a total lack of effort on him … Speaking of the Nuggets, they remain in pursuit of Nets center Brook Lopez. The centerpiece of Denver’s package is JaVale McGee, though the Nuggets have balked at including any core players -- a group that includes Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic and Wilson Chandler -- in any deal … A 3-3 road trip won’t make headlines, but Brad Stevens ability to keep his team focused while the front office guts the roster is a testament to his coaching ability. The Celtics, incredibly, are only two games back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference … Jason Kidd’s exit from Brooklyn was unsavory, but Kidd has been phenomenal with Milwaukee. With Jabari Parker done for the season and Larry Sanders possibly done as a Buck, Kidd has Milwaukee above .500 and in a strong position to make the playoffs … Dallas’ struggles incorporating Rajon Rondo into the offense are troubling, but it’s way too early to call the trade a mistake. Rondo, remember, is a premiere playoff performer who has more than two months to fit in before the real season starts.