HoopsHabit – Is The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Title Window Closing?

The Oklahoma City Thunder have two of the best 10 players in the NBA with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But after another unproductive and uneventful offseason, the Thunder saw every Western Conference contender get better. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on whether or not OKC’s title window is shrinking.

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LA’s Disappointing Debut

The Lakers opened their promising 2012-13 season up on a pretty underwhelming note: with a loss to a Dallas Mavericks squad without Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Kobe Bryant played through some foot pain, Dwight Howard played after having back surgery this summer and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were both perfectly healthy. So what went wrong? And how worried should Laker fans be about such a disappointing and downright bad first game at home?

To sum it up quickly, not very worried at all. Yes, it’s true the Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason. And yes, there were a lot of evident problems on the floor that Dallas was able to take advantage of. But there wasn’t anything that can’t be fixed by the time April rolls around. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s walk through why the Lakers looked so terrible tonight.

  1. Coaching – I’ve defended Mike Brown in the past for his focus on defense, but his implementation of the Princeton offense for a team with Steve Nash is just plain stupid. Nash is a point guard who needs to get out and run on the fast break. The pace of the offense needs to be up. The Lakers should be shooting with 10-12 seconds on the shot clock and dominate the tempo with fast plays. The Princeton offense is slow and dull. Slowing down the speed of the game completely negates Nash’s impact as an effective point guard, rendering him useless. Nash only had seven points and four assists. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an appalling statline for Nash. Steve Blake had more assists for crying out loud. It also hurts the impact Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol could be having: both big men are efficient at running the floor and Howard in a half-court offense allows teams to foul him and send him to the line, where his dismal free throw shooting (3-for-14 last night) hurts the team. This team’s entire starting five is comprised of superstars who have all been the best player on a team at some point in their careers. Not being able to get a win at home with Howard, Nash and Kobe against an injury-depleted Mavs team goes beyond a lack of team chemistry; that’s just poor coaching and management of your personnel.

    The next problem? The Lakers’ health. Howard had a nice statline, but he clearly looked rusty in his LA debut.

  2. Health – Mike Brown certainly has to change a lot of things to get the most out of his star-studded lineup, but he can only do so much while two of the Lakers’ biggest pieces are still healing. Although Kobe and Howard both played in LA’s opener, you could tell they were either rusty or still ailing. Kobe didn’t play as many minutes as we’re used to, although he still finished with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, Howard looked like he was completely out of rhythm. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but his appalling free throw shooting and a few easy missed shots show he’s not quite back in his groove. Credit Brandan Wright, Elton Brand and Eddy Curry for their defense, but Howard still has to get back into the flow.
  3. Chemistry – Even if they were healthy and had proper coaching for their star-studded personnel, the Lakers need time to develop their chemistry. Steve Nash has to find his place in the offense and free up looks for his teammates. Howard has to figure out what his role on offense is. The offensive pace has to speed up. Kobe has to relinquish some ball control to his All-Star point guard. Pau Gasol was really the only one last night who needs to duplicate his performance every night (23 points, 13 rebounds, six assists).

So all in all, it makes a lot of sense for LA fans to be upset. That was an ugly loss to a team that’s not very good and it wasn’t pretty to watch (no offense Maverick fans, but if you think a Dallas team without Dirk or Kaman will beat LA a few months down the road, you’re dreaming). But as frustrated as fans must be with such an anticlimactic opening night,  it was still only game one. There are bound to be some speed bumps before this superstar cast finds its groove. There’s still a long season to go and Laker haters are kidding themselves if they think this is the LA team we’ll see all year. However, one stat is pretty telling and it’s one that the Lakers may not be able to help down the road: Darren Collison had 17 points for the Mavs tonight. Now Mavs fans were very excited for this acquisition, but I never really was. Here was a guy who was a scrub behind George Hill in Indiana. So if Steve Nash, an eternal defensive liability, is giving up 17 points to Darren Collison, what’s going to happen in the playoffs when the Lakers meet up with Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson? Just something to think about.

If Nash is getting his ankles broken now, what’ll happen when he faces an elite point guard?

What We All Should Think of the James Harden Trade

Now that all the facts of one of the most shocking trades of the offseason have come pouring in, I thought it was important to separate fact from fiction to determine what NBA fans should think about James Harden leaving Oklahoma City. Was Harden greedy? Or was this OKC’s fault?

In short, it was OKC’s fault. You can gripe about how Harden turning down a $55.5 million deal over four years is selfish considering he’ll only be getting $60 million over four in Houston, but there are a few facts to consider. For those who say that Harden doesn’t deserve a max deal, that’s just downright foolish. Harden was a top 25 player in the league last year, and although many claimed he reaped the benefits of playing against the other team’s bench, often with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that’s just not true. Harden led the Thunder past the Mavs in crunch time during the postseason last year. He delivered critical blows to a Lakers’ squad that couldn’t keep him from getting to the basket and the free throw line. His consistency balanced out Westbrook’s poor shooting streaks. His chemistry with his brothers in OKC was palpable. He was the third best player on his team, but a lot of championship teams have needed a third, underrated player who could give up shots but still be effective with his minutes like Harden. And even if you disagree with all of that, about half the league would have given Harden a max deal if they had the cap space.

So how is all that OKC’s fault? After all, they did offer him a pretty sweet deal that wasn’t far behind what he’ll be getting in Houston, right? Wrong. Harden originally wanted a five-year deal, but OKC went with four, which would allow him to trade him if they wanted to when the time was right. Much like the Celtics did with Rondo, they tried to convince Harden they wouldn’t trade him if he just agreed to a smaller deal now. They wanted him to take less money with no guarantee he’d stay in OKC for the extended future. When Harden refused and held out for the max deal he deserves, OKC management declined and immediately shipped him off to Houston. And since Houston wants him to sign an extension, Harden will probably get a five year, $75 million deal. Which, as I’ve said, is what he fully deserves.

I was originally disgusted with Harden’s decision to turn down that kind of money and break up OKC’s dynamic young group with so much chemistry. But then the facts came out. And the truth is, this wasn’t his fault. This is on Oklahoma City, a team that said they didn’t want to offer Harden a max deal because it would put them over the luxury tax. But considering their extensive profits last year, paying the measly luxury tax is a small price for keeping a championship-contending group intact.

James Harden turned down a good deal, but he didn’t ruin what could have been in OKC

Like the rest of the nation, I was struck by the three stars of Oklahoma City standing arm in arm as the clock ran out in the NBA Finals last year. That moment was a sad one, but because of the youth of those three, it also seemed like the perfect moment to reflect on later, a time when this talented young dynasty finally broke through and won their first title. Now that moment is wasted. We’ll never see that dynasty happen now. Durant might win a title, but OKC’s path to the Finals will be nearly impossible without the chemistry and bench scoring Harden brought to the team. Kevin Martin can score and Jeremy Lamb will be a fine prospect one day, but neither one of them will provide the chemistry Harden brought. None of them will fit in with Durant and Westbrook the way Harden did. And no one can replace the fan favorite beard that became a trademark symbol of the special unity the Thunder shared. Oklahoma City effectively stepped down as favorites to win the Western Conference and ruined their title chances, possibly for good, by shipping Harden away. The Lakers and Spurs now seem poised to send the Thunder home disappointed once again. Because as talented as Durant and Westbrook are, Harden was an instrumental part of their championship-contending team last year.

As for Harden? He’ll never get the chance to redeem his disappearing act in the NBA Finals last year. He’s extremely talented and I think he can step up as Houston’s top scorer, but he won’t lead the Rockets to a championship. He won’t have a shot at a title in Houston. We will never get to see what might have been with the young Thunder dynasty. We’ll miss out on some truly epic Finals between the Miami Heat and OKC squad hungry for revenge. All because OKC didn’t want to shell out some extra money to continue sporting one of the most exciting, talented and profitable teams in the league. All because their financial motivations outweighed the desire for a championship. This team certainly could have afforded to keep Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka together. Yeah, they got draft picks, but what message does that send? That it’s ok to change the lineup of a team THAT WAS IN THE FINALS LAST YEAR as long as you leave some light at the end of the tunnel? That saving your organization a measly amount of money for one year is worth wasting your chances at a repeat appearance in the Finals or a few potential championships? You can’t blame Harden for asking for what he deserved. This one’s on Oklahoma City.

With the Harden trade, OKC may have handed over the West

2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

2012 Olympic Basketball: USA vs. Tunisia Game Recap

After another sloppy start, the United States blew open a big lead in their second Olympic matchup against Tunisia. For the game recap and analysis, click here.

2012 Olympic Basketball: USA vs. France Game Recap

The United States earned a 98-71 win against France in their 2012 Olympic opener, making it clear that it will take a gargantuan effort to knock this team off. However, it also became pretty obvious that this is no ’92 Dream Team. Read the game recap and analysis from Team USA’s Olympic opener here.

The LeBron James Opinion Piece, Part 2

Almost four months ago, I wrote The LeBron James Opinion Piece, detailing the King and his journey in the NBA: from his struggles to secure a ring, to the general feelings of dissent, betrayal and hate directed his way from the basketball public, to what his final legacy should be taking everything into account. At that point, LeBron had no rings. He was the most hated player in the NBA, playing on possibly the most hated team in the entire league. And while the LeBron haters certainly won’t let up now that the King has finally won his crown, the rest of the basketball population knowledgeable enough to know a dazzling postseason run when they see one has to at least respect LeBron for his complete dominance throughout the 2012 NBA playoffs. In other words, if you know anything about basketball, you have to admire him and somewhat feel happy for him for winning his first ring.

What made the run truly spectacular was the fact that LeBron finally silenced all the haters and doubters who said he couldn’t come up clutch when his team needed him the most. During the regular season, LeBron would play fantastic for the first three quarters of games and end up with 30+ points to go with other solid statistics, but when the fourth quarter rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. When he passed up a potential game-winning shot to a wide-open Udonis Haslem and cost his team a regular season victory, people criticized him. When he passed up another potential game-winning shot in the All-Star Game with Kobe Bryant egging him on and turned it over, people were ready to abandon ship. But in the playoffs, LeBron James settled the argument over who was better between him and Kevin Durant by coming up big for the Heat down the stretch in the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. During the regular season, it was easy to win a LeBron argument; just point out that he didn’t have any rings or that he wasn’t clutch and you’d get someone to laugh. Try making that joke now and you’ll start a heated debate that you’ll probably lose.

However, winning his first ring doesn’t change the fact that LeBron took the easy path to get there. While I’m happy for such a transcendent player to finally win a ring after nine years of putting up with unfair amounts of hype, scrutiny, criticism, expectations, hate and doubt, I still would have preferred him win one on his own, in Cleveland. Yes, basketball is a team game and yes, LeBron’s decision to leave for Miami ultimately proved to be the right one because he got what he was looking for. It’s hard to fault a guy for choosing to play with his friends: one future Hall-of-Famer and his reptilian All-Star counterpart. But ever since LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, the culture of free agency and the NBA as a whole hasn’t been the same and probably never will be again. Before The Decision, championship teams were built from good draft picks, smart trades and team chemistry build over the course of a few seasons, all engineered by good management (aka the Oklahoma City Thunder). Now, star players decide where they want to play and which one of their superstar buddies they want to join forces with. In other words, it just doesn’t feel fair or natural. While I applaud LeBron for taking a pay cut and give up money for what should be the ultimate goal (an NBA championship), that mentality is dangerous for the competitive integrity of the game; nobody wants to play pickup at the gym with all the talented players on one side. It looks like that’s exactly how the NBA is starting to function.

LeBron James made for fantastic television with the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. If only it had all come about about naturally.

There’s no question LeBron and the Miami Heat deserved to win the 2012 NBA Finals. If the Thunder had played the way they did on their run to the Finals, I think they would have challenged the Heat, but because they didn’t show up in full force, there’s no doubt that the best team won the trophy. But the way Miami came to be is nothing short of unnatural. The people of Cleveland still have a legitimate reason to hate LeBron James, ring or no. As a fan and student of the game, I can’t say I was cheering LeBron to victory, even if I did respect and admire his dominance along the way and even if I was happy for him when he finally got his ring. On the one hand, you had the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were built on smart draft picks (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka), helpful trades (Fisher, Perkins), good management and a rabid fan base. On the other, you had the Miami Heat, who became the most hated team in basketball after LeBron and Chris Bosh settled for smaller salaries just so they could play with their fellow superstar Dwyane Wade. Nobody on the Thunder’s roster betrayed an entire city, let alone make their announcement to do so on national television.

But as easy as it will be for some people to do so, eventually, the world will have to get over The Decision and stop holding it against him. Because as much as that move was an ultimate act of betrayal, holding that grudge against him would mean missing out on being able to appreciate one of the greatest players in NBA history. We looked down on him because he couldn’t win one in Cleveland and he couldn’t rise to a Michael Jordan-level to elevate his team to greatness. We turned on him faster than he turned on Cleveland because we were disappointed that this superstar we loved to cheer for had suddenly admitted he couldn’t do it alone. By taking his talents to South Beach, he basically told the world that he wasn’t going to be the greatest and his legacy would never trump Jordan’s. The Decision cemented that fact. As a news-hungry generation that depends on social media to establish and clarify our thoughts, opinions and expectations, we are always looking for the next Michael Jordan, the next Michael Phelps, the next Tiger Woods. We want to believe that the great sports figures we witness in our lives will be better than the ones we watched as children or heard about from our parents. But the fact is, even with an NBA championship under his belt, LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan. As I wrote a hundred times before this, he never was going to be Michael Jordan. But that’s not the worst thing in the world.

LeBron James isn’t a villain. Now that he’s finally won a ring, people must acknowledge his skills on the court as an NBA champion. Whether they like him or not is irrelevant now because he’s not going anywhere. LeBron will still be one of the most polarizing figures in sports because of his decision to leave the Cavaliers, but hopefully the hate will recede as much as LeBron’s hairline (one more LeBron joke for old time’s sake) so we can all appreciate what this future legend can do on a basketball court. There will always be haters; Kobe Bryant is living proof of that. But let’s keep things in perspective: the worst thing LeBron has ever done was leave a terrible basketball team for a more talented one. Some players in the league have been accused of rape, domestic abuse, gun possession and other serious crimes. Looking at the big picture, LeBron and his rise to the championship really shouldn’t be the enemy. We can be disappointed that LeBron sold out and that it ultimately paid off. We can be upset that The Decision changed the dynamic of free agency in the NBA. And we can be upset that a class act like Kevin Durant wasn’t able to win a title in his first attempt. But this ring forces us to acknowledge the LeBron is a winner who took matters into his own hands, even with two fellow superstars on the floor. And although one ring doesn’t put him the conversation with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and other NBA all-time greats just yet, he’s getting there. A few more rings and who knows? We might have to mention him in the top ten if he keeps winning. But for now, let’s be clear: LeBron James is not Michael Jordan. LeBron James is not Kobe. LeBron James is still LeBron James. His choice to leave Cleveland will slightly tarnish his legacy forever, no matter how many rings he wins. And while he’s still young and there’s no way of knowing how many titles LeBron will claim before his career is over, keep in mind Bill Russell won more rings than anyone; that doesn’t make him the best player of all time. We can’t say for sure where LeBron will rank on the list of all-time greats yet, but whether you like it or not, the name LeBron James can now be equated with being a winner.

LeBron will never be MJ. But let’s stop the hating and appreciate him for what he is: The King.