NEW YORK -- For an indication of what kind of shape the Thunder are in, look no further than their morning shootaround at the Barclays Center on Monday. The twice-annual visit by Oklahoma City to New York usually attracts many national reporters, and this trip was no different. Writers from Grantland, CBS Sports, Bleacher Report and, yes, Sports Illustrated gathered in the bowels of the building, waiting for a public relations official to pull back the curtain preventing the media from observing the perennial Western Conference contender’s walkthrough.
Just before noon, OKC ace media relations man Matt Tumbleson approached the group.
“Who does everybody need?” Tumbleson asked.
“Perry Jones,” answered one reporter.
“Andre Roberson,” said another.
Meet the 2014-15 Thunder, a team so decimated by injuries that jokes about coach Scott Brooks -- a 10-year NBA veteran -- suiting up are starting to sound reasonable. Kevin Durant, the reigning MVP, is out until December after surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot. Russell Westbrook, the All-Star point guard, will miss the next month recovering from surgery on his broken right hand. The other walking wounded: Jones (knee), Roberson (foot) Reggie Jackson (ankle/wrist), Anthony Morrow (knee), Jeremy Lamb (back) and Mitch McGary (foot). The Thunder are giving heavy minutes to Sebastian Telfair and Lance Thomas, two members of the Chinese Basketball Association last year.
“We have certainly had a lot of challenges,” Brooks said.
The results have been predictable: a 1-4 start, an offense that can’t produce consistently (No. 26 in efficiency) and a defense that can’t stop anybody (No. 24). On Monday, Oklahoma City was blown out in Brooklyn; on Tuesday, the Thunder faded in a 12-point loss at Toronto.
November is usually not the time to panic (hello, Cleveland), but Oklahoma City may be an exception. The West is a mosh pit of heavyweights. It took 49 wins to get into the postseason last year, and the conference looks just as formidable this season. Say Durant and Westbook are sidelined until Dec. 8. That’s 20 games, nearly a quarter of the season. A 5-15 stretch could be a death blow, even for a team that’s capable of rattling off a 45-17 finish to reach 50 victories in that scenario.
Surviving the next month will depend on a variety of factors, but most importantly Jackson. At his best, Jackson is Westbrook Lite, a dynamic scorer who can play both backcourt positions. In fact, Brooks will put Jackson in a lot of the same sets as Westbrook and give him the freedom to create his own offense.
It’s a huge opportunity for Jackson. The fourth-year guard didn't agree to a contract extension before the Oct. 31 deadline, making him a restricted free agent next summer, and Yahoo Sports reported that Jackson intends to seek a starting job elsewhere next season. Oklahoma City has no intention of letting that happen. There have been a lot of comparisons between Jackson and former Thunder sixth man James Harden, who was traded to Houston two years ago for financial reasons. But there are key differences, as well. Oklahoma City -- which did not pay the luxury tax last season and doesn’t project to this season -- isn’t in danger of getting drilled with the NBA’s dreaded repeater tax penalty, and is willing to go into tax territory next summer to make Jackson the NBA’s highest-paid reserve. Moreover, with Durant a free agent in 2016, general manager Sam Presti isn’t about to strip-mine a team that, when healthy, can win a championship.
But Jackson can’t do it alone. The Thunder will need big efforts from guys who have played limited minutes the last two seasons. This is where Oklahoma City hopes its investment in its D-League affiliate pays dividends. No team uses the D-League like the Thunder. Lamb, Jones and Roberson frequently made the 108-mile drive to Tulsa, logging heavy minutes for the Thunder-owned 66ers.
To promote greater synergy, the Thunder moved the 66ers to Oklahoma City, rebranded them the Blue and heavily involved players and coaches with the parent club.
“We take it very seriously,” Brooks said. “It’s been a big part of our program from the moment we acquired it."
Then there is Brooks. A punching bag for critics, Brooks is rarely credited for the consistent -- and often rapid -- development of Oklahoma City’s young talent. Under his watch, Durant has become an MVP. Westbrook, whom some teams didn’t believe could be a full-time point guard, is one of the NBA’s top-five playmakers. Serge Ibaka (the No. 24 pick in 2008) has made three straight All-Defensive teams and is shooting an absurd 73 percent on two-point jumpers outside 10 feet this season. Jackson (No. 24 in 2011) has developed into a burgeoning star. Brooks has helped transform Steven Adams from raw rookie last season into Kendrick Perkins' replacement as starting center this season.
If Brooks is going to get tattooed for his play calling, he deserves credit for his player development. And the message to his young players this season has been simple: Nothing has changed.
“We have always had an expectation to put pressure on the player to play as hard as you can and play for your teammates," Brooks said. "If you do those two things, you can live with the result. The outside expectations change from year to year, from injury to injury, but they don't change from within. We have to still do the same things we are capable of doing. Obviously with some of our players out, we have to be realistic also, but some things never change.”
The Thunder hope Brooks' message resonates. The rest of the league? Not so much. An Oklahoma City team that treads water until Durant and Westbrook returns suddenly becomes a candidate for the most dangerous No. 7 or No. 8 seed in recent memory. Even without home-court advantage, this team can make a deep playoff run. The Thunder are still young, but four years of playoff experience has hardened them.
“Experience is on our side now,” Brooks said. “From Day 1, we never talked about our age. If we did that, we would have never been to the Finals or the conference finals because that would have been an easy crutch to hang on. It’s unfortunate that the injuries happened ... but [the missing players] will be back soon. We will be whole once again.”
Scout: On Lance Stephenson
An anonymous NBA scout dishes his take on Lance Stephenson, who averaged 6.6 points on 26.7 percent shooting in his first five games with the Hornets.
“He is trying to make too many plays. He’s not shooting well. The rest of his offensive game isn’t bad. He is passing and rebounding. But his defense is terrible because he is out of shape. He looks like all he did was hang out this summer. I’m not seeing the same intensity. [Charlotte coach] Steve Clifford wants him to defend, and he isn’t doing it.
"In Indiana, he handled the ball a lot. In Charlotte, Kemba Walker likes to handle it. He has to get used to playing with a point guard like that. And he has to learn to play with a center like Al Jefferson who needs the ball. Indiana ran a nice motion offense that shared the ball. Charlotte runs a lot of pick-and-rolls and post-ups. I don’t think he has adjusted to that.
"I think what they are going to end up doing is subbing him out early and bringing him back with the second unit, where he can do more of the things he likes. Miami did that at times with Dwyane Wade, putting him in when LeBron James wasn’t out there. Then, in the fourth quarter, they will figure it out. Maybe Lance will get enough touches early that he will be more willing to move it later. It’s not a big issue yet. But Clifford has to find ways to get the most out of Lance."
Rebuilding Anthony Bennett
Few No. 1 picks had as rocky a rookie season as Anthony Bennett.
OK, fine: Bennett’s first year was a total disaster.
He appeared in 52 games last season and averaged 4.2 points. He ballooned to 260 pounds, the direct result of shoulder surgery that sabotaged his offseason. He was shifted back and forth between forward positions. He didn’t make a shot until his fifth game. He battled asthma problems and sleep apnea. He had to constantly answer questions about his poor play and suggestions that the Cavaliers should ship him to the D-League.
“Last year," he said, "was chaos.”
A lot has changed for Bennett. He was traded to Minnesota, part of the package that netted Kevin Love for Cleveland. He dropped 20 pounds, thanks to a more active offseason and a three-week, end-of-summer boot camp with trainer Frank Matrisciano. He had surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids, which has helped him sleep.
He had laser eye surgery. Bennett has never worn contacts. Can’t put them in his eyes. How bad was his vision before?
“You see that white board?” Bennett said recently, pointing to a board no more than 10 feet away. “Last year, I couldn’t read the writing on it.”
And during games?
“Anything far, I couldn’t really see,” Bennett said. “I couldn’t see the people in the stands. Now I can see the scoreboard. I can see what plays coach wants to run.”
Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders has tried to help Bennett by simplifying things for him.
“The first thing I said to him was there are two things you are not going to do: You’re not going to play small forward and you are not going to shoot threes,” Saunders said. “Everyone has different ideas. That was just my evaluation. I believe right now he has a comfort level because he understands his position and what is expected of him.”
Saunders has gone out of his way to make Bennett aware that he believes in him.
“I believe the biggest thing is we showed that we really care about him,” Saunders said. “We work with him on a daily basis, whether it is in the film room or on the floor or just talking to him. There is a saying coaches use: A player is only as good as his coach thinks he is. If he feels the coach has confidence in him, he is probably going to play at a higher level. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Bennett’s numbers have not been eye-popping: 7.3 points in 15 minutes. He plays behind starting power forward Thaddeus Young, getting the chunk of his minutes in the second and third quarters. But occasionally he shows signs of his enormous potential. In Wednesday's 98-91 victory at Brooklyn, Bennett caught a pass in the paint and threw down a ferocious two-handed dunk over Nets center Mason Plumlee. Bennett, 21, has a lot to learn, but he now knows what is expected of him.
“Last year I felt like I was always playing catch-up,” Bennett said. “This year, it feels a lot different.”
Quote of the Week I
"I think there is a nice proverb in English: Don't let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.” -- Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, when asked about former coach Jason Kidd
Think Prokhorov is upset with Kidd? The billionaire owner gave Kidd his first head coaching opportunity just months after retiring as a player. After a failed power play to gain more control in the organization, Kidd engineered his defection to Milwaukee. Clearly, Prokhorov was prepared for that question.
Quote of the Week II
“Not a big deal.” -- Prokhorov, when asked about the Nets' $144 million in operating losses last season.
It must be nice to be a billionaire.
Tweet of the Week
Volume shooting guards on teams that don’t win don’t get consideration for MVP, Magic.
Five questions with ... Paul Pierce
After 15 seasons with Boston, the 37-year-old Pierce, who signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Wizards last summer, is on his second team in two seasons.
SI.com: Looking back, what was last season in Brooklyn like?
Pierce: "It was a roller coaster, definitely. A lot of emotion went into it. Going through what we went through last year, I had a lot of thoughts like, ‘Shoot, I could have just stayed in Boston.’ [The Celtics] were going through some of the same things we were going through in Brooklyn. The key was to stay positive. Times change, you have to move on, and that is what I eventually did."
SI.com: Was moving on from Boston more difficult than you thought it would be?
Pierce: "It was. I thought after a few weeks I would be all right. Then all those feelings resurfaced when I went back to play there, then they come back again when I went back to play again. It was tough to even play in that building. Every time you thought you put it behind you, it kept resurfacing. It was hard."
SI.com: You hadn’t been a true free agent in a long time before this summer. Was it strange?
Pierce: "I really didn’t know at first. I thought I would end up back in Brooklyn. Talking to Kevin [Garnett], we created a bond over the years and I said I would come back and finish it out with him. Things didn’t go the way we wanted, obviously. Brooklyn went in a different direction. I had to make a choice."
SI.com: Doc Rivers said he tried really hard to get you to L.A. How close were you to being a Clipper?
Pierce: "I thought a lot about L.A. My wife wanted to stay there and put the kids in school. It would have been an easier transition for me being with Doc, being at home. I think I missed out on that opportunity by waiting to see what Brooklyn was going to do. When they eventually said they weren’t going to make any moves, I missed that boat. That kind of upset me."
SI.com: Think you will ever go back to Boston?
Pierce: "Definitely. Maybe as a player, maybe as a coach, maybe upstairs [in the front office]. I follow what they are doing. I went back to Boston twice this summer, went to their practice facility. I keep up with them."
Houston’s 6-0 start is impressive, but the Rockets have played only two playoff contenders and one (San Antonio) rested two of its best players. Saturday’s showdown with Golden State will be a nice test. ... Give the Cavaliers until Christmas before pushing the panic button. The assist numbers are pathetic (an NBA-low 16 per game), but it’s going to take time for so many offense-oriented players to jell. That said, moving Dion Waiters to the bench, as coach David Blatt did before Wednesday's loss to Utah, was smart. ... Lakers coach Byron Scott wants more defense out of Carlos Boozer. So did Tom Thibodeau. He didn’t get it ... The best center in the NBA? That would be Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins, who hung 30 on Denver in just 22 minutes Wednesday. ... Boston vs. Oklahoma City next week. The halftime show should be Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren (a strong advocate for lottery reform) and Presti (equally as vocal against it) in a college-style debate. ... The Knicks need to learn the triangle, but they can’t do it with Jose Calderon (calf) and Pablo Prigioni (ankle) battling injuries. ... You are never going to get the benefit of the doubt from the league office, J.R. Smith.