Mike Miller Would Be Nice, But Not Enough for OKC

July 19, 2013

Mike Miller has cleared waivers and appears headed to Oklahoma City, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. Woj is reporting the Thunder are the frontrunners to sign Miller, with just about every other Western Conference contender — San Antonio, Memphis, Houston and Golden State — also mentioned as potential suitors.

The Miami Heat waived Miller earlier this week under the amnesty clause to duck counting his $12.8 million over the next 2 years against the cap. Miami’s still on the hook for Miller’s full salary — $6.2 million in 2013-14 and $6.6 in ’14-15 — but can save considerably in luxury tax penalties under the new CBA. Woj had linked Miller to Cleveland on Wednesday.

Miller cleared waivers after no team claimed the 33-year-old Florida product before Thursday’s 5 p.m. EST deadline. He is free to sign with any team.

As a move draws closer, Miller is also weighing back surgery, Woj reports. Miller has only played one full 82-game slate his entire 13-year career — his rookie season in Orlando.

What would Mike Miller mean to OKC?

Shooting. Lots of shooting.

Miller, a career 41% 3-point shooter, nailed 7-of-8 3s in Miami’s Game 5 elimination win over the Thunder in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals. The Thunder just lost their most potent 3-point threat, Kevin Martin — who shot a team-best 42.6% from deep last season and was particularly deadly from the corners — to Minnesota.

Spacing for OKC is crucial. Russell Westbrook, a limited long-range scorer himself, and Kevin Durant often command double-teams, leaving role guys like Thabo Sefolosha and, potentially, Miller open. With shooters on the perimeter, it’s that much harder for wing defenders to collapse on drives; if they stay on their man, that means more open lanes for OKC’s 2 stars, and, if they do help, well, open shooters.

And that goes without mentioning that Kendrick Perkins, and his albatross of a contract, is one of the league’s worst offensive players, requiring no defensive attention outside the paint.

Last season, OKC made 7.4 3s per game on 19.4 attempts. About league average. In the postseason, only one team, Houston, attempted more 3s per game (33.7) than OKC (24.7). Miller’s been to the playoffs 8 times, in which he’s converted a very respectable 37.7% of his 3s.

But Miller is not an answer to Martin’s departure.

The competition in the Western Conference is improving. It’s no longer a two-horse race, limited to San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Houston added Dwight Howard, Golden State added Andre Iguodala, the Clippers added Doc Rivers, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison, Memphis returns a roster that advanced to the Western Conference Finals, and even San Antonio improved with Marco Belinelli.

With Martin headed north, also gone are 14 points, 10 shots and 28 minutes a night. Your No. 3 scorer. Miller’s a nice piece — a shooter, capable defender with 6’8″ size at the 2, extremely underrated rebounder and even, best case scenario, a double-figure-a-night scorer — but he’s no No. 3 option. Not even a No. 4. Not on a championship team.

Of course Serge Ibaka could be your No. 3 option, and you could lean more on Reggie Jackson, likely to play more than the 14.2 minutes he averaged in 2012-13. The Oklahoman has reported that Derek Fisher’s likely to return for a third consecutive season, bringing (maybe) shooting and championship pedigree.

But Fisher’s not much more than a 3rd point guard. Your only major (but not really major) offseason addition is No. 12 pick Steven Adams, a 19-year-old New Zealand center unlikely to contribute much this season. In 2 years, you’ve went from James Harden to Kevin Martin to … Jeremy Lamb? More will certainly be asked of Lamb, the former Connecticut 2-guard who saw 23 games of garbage time in OKC last year.

In other words, for the tl;dr folks, two points:

  • Kevin Martin, himself a far cry from James Harden’s pre-trade production, darted in free agency, and the Thunder lack a viable replacement.
  • The Western Conference is improving, yet the Thunder are back-pedaling in the primes of their 2 stars, Durant and Westbrook. Aside from a healthy Russ, OKC’s done next to nothing to improve this summer.

No need to sound the panic alarm just yet. The summer is still young.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



March 1, 2013

The Spurs are not a favorite among casual basketball fans — fans who deride the team’s so-called ‘boring’ style of play, where consistency and execution trump flash and controversy. But, year after year, this team is right back in the thick of things in the always tough Western Conference, on its way to its 3rd consecutive No. 1 seed this season.

On paper, Tim Duncan, 36; Manu Ginobili, 35; and Tony Parker, 30 — a cornerstone that’s delivered San Antonio 3 NBA championships since 2003 — are old, and sometimes they even play as such on TV, but somehow this team keeps finding a way to win under Gregg Popovich. Of the 3, Parker’s the only one to not noticeably have lost a step, though all 3 are still major contributors, but San Antonio’s found young gem after young gem, whether it’s Danny Green, 25; Kawhi Leonard, 21; Tiago Splitter, 28; Nando de Colo, 25; or Gary Neal, 28.


The Spurs’ success is really a testament to Popovich and the coaching staff, GM R.C. Buford, whose draft-first style has fueled the league’s new rebuild model (exhibit A: Oklahoma City), and the people of San Antonio, who consistently rank among the NBA’s best in attendance, despite a not-so-sexy on-court product. San Antonio’s the only team to rank in the top 8 in scoring offense, No. 4 at 104.2 points per game, and defense, No. 8 at 96 points per.

The buck with this Spurs team stops with Parker, who’s putting together an MVP-caliber season in any non-LeBron James year. At 21.1 points a night, Parker’s averaging his best scoring numbers since 2008-09 and the 2nd-best of his career. His assists, 7.6, are only a shade under last year’s career-high of 7.7, and his 3+ assist-to-turnover ratio is among the league’s best. He’s shooting an absurd 53.4% from the field (remember, he’s 6’2″), a career-best 38% from 3 and 82.7% from the foul line. All in only 33.1 minutes per game.


Duncan, 16.8 points and 9.7 rebounds, is still an All Star, but he’s lost much of his lateral quickness and lift; statistically, this is actually Duncan’s best year since 2009-10, in terms of points, rebounds, blocks, 2.7, and minutes, 29.7. His 49.4 field goal percentage is still strong. As for Ginobili, at 12.3 per game, he’s putting together his lowest-scoring season since 2002-03, his rookie campaign. Less is asked of Ginobili, though, given the ascendance of Green and Neal. Ginobili, 23.3, actually plays about 4.5 minutes less per game than starting 2-guard Green.

But the reason this team is good is its depth. Counting the aforementioned 3, Popovich plays 9 guys at least 20 minutes a night, and 4 others — DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, de Colo and Patty Mills — have averaged at least 10 minutes per in 44 or more appearances. Considering teams are only allowed to suit 12, not 13, up on any given night, that stat is absolutely insane.


Of all the young prospects, Leonard’s my personal favorite. The second-year starter at small forward, Leonard’s averaging nearly 11 points a game and offers intensity on both ends, athleticism and an ability to connect from outside (38.3%), spacing the floor for Parker and Duncan. His only stat to not increase over last year is field goal percentage, down to 48.3% from 49.3% in 2011-12.

The Spurs are 2nd in the NBA in field goal percentage, 48.5, and 5th in 3-point percentage, 37.9, thanks largely to Green, 43.2%, and Bonner, 42.2%. Speaking of Green, here’s a guy who could never find the floor in Cleveland, appearing in 20 games (mostly garbage time) on the 2009-10 Cavaliers, but has blossomed in San Antonio’s system, with consistency on both ends of the floor and a developing ability to create his own shot off the dribble.


Rounding out the starting unit is Splitter, who’s also improved mightily over his 3-year career. For the first time in his Spurs tenure, the 6’11” Brazilian is a double-figure scorer, chipping in 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds on 59.2% shooting in 23.9 minutes. His touch is also improving — he’s shooting 74.4% from the stripe, up more than 20 points over his rookie year. Also in the frontcourt is Blair and Boris Diaw, both former starters; Blair’s role, one that’s gradually diminished over his 4-year career, is bruising toughness, even at an undersized 6’7″ but 270, and Diaw’s to space the floor and hit from outside, where he’s a 42.6% marksman.

The one other guy worth mentioning here is Stephen Jackson, the journeyman scorer who’s found his niche in San Antonio. Jackson, 34 and a 3-time 20 points-a-night scorer, is averaging his lowest scoring totals since 2001-02, at only 6.4 points per game in 20.3 minutes. But when the playoffs roll around, Popovich will undoubtedly use Jackson’s shooting, given his range and ability to score in isolation situations. Captain Jack, after all, shot 53.5% in last year’s postseason, and a crazy 60.5% from 3.


AT 45-14, San Antonio’s 2 games up on Oklahoma City for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed and 4 games up in the win column on the Miami Heat for the NBA’s best record. Of San Antonio’s 23 remaining games, 13 are against likely playoff teams, but 16 are at home, where they’re a conference-best 22-3. So, in other words, the Spurs are likely to grab homecourt advantage throughout, meaning OKC will have to win at least 1 in its building should they meet in the Western Conference Finals, like they did last year.

Last year, San Antonio won its first 10 playoff games before dropping 4 straight to the Thunder, now without James Harden, who scored at least 15 points (including one 30-point effort) in 5 of 6 games in that series. If the 2 were to meet once more, which is by no means a sure bet given the competitive landscape out West, I prefer San Antonio’s chances this year, due to the development of their bench talent and the departure of Harden, whose isolation scoring and big-time shot-making ability was key to OKC’s win in 2012. How the Spurs match up with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, of course, is another story.


Looking even further into the future, financially speaking, the Spurs are in as good a position as anyone. From top to bottom, there’s not a single bad contract on their payroll. Ginobili’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason, whom I expect Buford to return at a team-friendly rate. Jackson’s $10 million comes off the books this summer, as does Blair’s rookie deal; Jackson could return with a major pay cut, but Blair, who’s been reportedly on the trading block for some time now, will probably sign elsewhere. Duncan’s owed $10.36 million in 2013-14 and has a player option for said amount in 2014-15, at which point he’ll probably retire, if next year’s not his last.

Buford will likely extend affordable qualifying offers to Leonard, Splitter and Neal, all 3 of whom I’d guess stick with this franchise for the indefinite future. Say Diaw, $4.7 million, and Mills, $1.13, pick up their player options, and San Antonio will have 11 guys under contract for 2013-14 with at least more than $10 million to spare (and likely re-sign Ginobili with wiggle room). That, my friends, is why San Antonio has not missed the playoffs since 1996-97.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



February 23, 2013

At the start of the season, maybe the question in NBA circles was how the Thunder would fare minus their 3rd star, James Harden. GM Sam Presti, knowing full well Harden was a free agent this upcoming offseason, shipped the beard south to Houston, in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a few draft selections. Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in only his 3rd NBA season, was OKC’s primary ball-handler in big-time moments, best facilitator and 2nd-best pure scorer. And he was gone, a few days before the 2012-13 NBA season was set to begin.

Harden’s doing his thing in Houston, averaging a career-high 26.5 points per game on a Rockets team that’s primed for a playoff push. But all is well in Oklahoma City, as well; the Thunder are 40-15 and, barring a San Antonio collapse, appear locked into the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed. Harden’s 16.8 points per from last year has almost been entirely replaced by Martin’s 15, though the latter offers a less versatile game.


Oh, and Kevin Durant is, well, Kevin Durant. A 3-time NBA scoring champion, Durant’s 29 points per game leads the Association once again, as KD’s putting up his best numbers since the 2009-10 campaign. Outside of developing the facilitator skills and sheer strength of a LeBron James, there really are holes in Durant’s game. And Russell Westbrook, OKC’s freakishly athletic and sometimes-out-of-control combo guard, is having another stellar season, with his assist totals up almost 3 per game, to 8.1, over 2011-12. Russ supplements Durant’s 29 with 23 of his own on 43% shooting, not quite near Durant’s absurd 52% mark. With Durant, 28.91, and Westbrook, 22.93, the Thunder boast the league’s 2nd- and 11th-most efficient players.

And then obviously there’s the other fixtures of OKC’s success over the past few years: Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha. Ibaka’s offensive development is one of the reasons why OKC’s starting unit is so  effective; he’s averaging career-highs in points, 13.5 (up almost 4.5 per over 2011-12); rebounds, 7.9; assists, 0.6; field goal percentage, 55.5%; and FT percentage, 77.5%. His mid-range game is a very underplayed floor-spacer, especially in a frontcourt where Perkins is not at all an offensive threat. Ibaka also remains a preeminent shot-blocker, making up for some risky mistakes Westbrook makes on the outside, averaging a 2nd-best 3 per.


There’s a drop-off, at least in offensive production, from Ibaka to Perkins and Collison. At 25.1 per game, Perkins is tallying his fewest minutes since 2007-08 in Boston. His field goal percentage, 48.6, is his lowest since 2004-05 and about a 13-point dip from his career-high mark. Perkins’ points, 4.6, and rebounds, 5.9, are also his lowest since 2006-07. But one’s man loss is another man’s gain — though Collison is not having his best statistical year, he’s averaging a career-high in FG percentage, 61.5%, and his most points, 5.4, since 2009-10, the team’s 2nd in OKC. And he’s doing this in the fewest minutes, 19.7, since his rookie year.

In 28.5 minutes, the 3rd-most of his career, Sefolosha is putting together respectable numbers across the board — 7.7 points, the second-highest mark of his 7-year NBA tenure; 48.3% shooting from the field, a career-high; and 41.2% from 3, his 2nd-best ever — especially considering his primary contributions come on the defensive end.


The Thunder, not particularly known for their depth, receive meaningful contributions from only 2 others — backup center Hasheem Thabeet, a former No. 2 overall pick and nice 7’3″ filler, and Reggie Jackson, who’s replaced the recently traded Eric Maynor as Westbrook’s backup. (Unfortunately, Sefolosha, 12.7; Perkins, 9.5; Collison, 14.1; Jackson, 12.5; and Thabeet, 11.0, all have efficiency ratings below the league’s 15.0 average.)

Unsurprisingly, depth is the concern I have with this team, especially in a conference with stocked benches like San Antonio and Los Angeles. OKC’s 2nd in the NBA in points per game at 106.3, but more than 75% of that scoring comes from 4 guys — Durant, Westbrook, Martin and Ibaka. Scott Brooks’ bench, at 29.1 points per game, is 22nd in the NBA in scoring, and more than half of that comes from a quasi-starter in Martin. (That said, I really like Thursday’s pickup of Ronnie Brewer, a guy who’s started 34 games this season in New York and has previously scored  13.7 points per game in an 82-game season. If nothing else, Brewer gives Brooks another bench scorer, something he really lacks outside of Martin.)


Otherwise, offense is really not a concern in OKC. Even as their top 3 scorers are perimeter players, the Thunder are 3rd in FG percentage, at 48.2%, and they’re also 2nd in 3-point percentage, at 38.9%. At 26.9, they attempt the 2nd-most free throws of any team, trailing only the L.A. Lakers, whose candidacy is aided by the ‘Hack-a-Howard’ strategy. And even as he takes heat for sometimes dominating the ball, Westbrook is 5th in the NBA in assists. Defensively, even though OKC’s in the middle of the pack in scoring, 16th in fact at 97.7 points per game allowed, they’re 2nd in opponent’s FG percentage and tied for 8th in forcing turnovers.


The return road to the Finals, however, will not be easy. Should they stay in the No. 2 seed, which is likely since they were 3 games behind SA’s pace heading into Saturday’s action, Durant & Co. are looking at a 2nd-round matchup against the Chris Paul-led Clippers to return to the Western Conference Finals for a 3rd year in a row, where they would presumably find the Spurs in a repeat of last year’s 6-game series. OKC is a combined 3-1 against those 2 teams this season, with the only loss coming on a Tony Parker buzzer-beater Nov. 1.

But say they overcome the Spurs once more, a Finals rematch with the Heat is likely, and I’m not just not sure OKC yet has the tools in its arsenal to match the LeBron James locomotive. Time’s still aplenty for OKC, whose core of KD, Russ and Ibaka is locked up through at least 2015-16; nevertheless, Presti’s made clear his wishes to avert the luxury tax, with the Harden deal serving as Exhibit A, so with $66.1 million already on the books for next year, I don’t really see how the Thunder can afford to bring Martin, an unrestricted free agent, back into the fold, unless Presti can find a taker for Perkins’ $17.6 million through 2013-14.


If Presti succeeds in keeping a respectable team together, though, with the strong possibility of Miami’s core breaking up in the summer of 2014, there will no team better positioned to assume the mantle than this one.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.



February 13, 2013

This blog was born in an L.A. apartment complex around the same time as the James Harden deal, and I spent my first substantive post (substantive being loosely defined) heaping praise, albeit cautiously, on Rockets GM Daryl Morey for finding his team’s first franchise guy in the post-Yao Ming era. A few days later, Harden inked a 5-year, $80 million extension with Houston, and boy he has not disappointed.

In his first game as a member of the Rockets, Harden tallied 37 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds. On the year, he’s averaging 26.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in his first full year as an NBA starter. He’s 5th in the NBA in scoring, trailing only Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, all future Hall of Famers, and 9th in PER, with the only 2-guard rated higher being Dwayne Wade, another future Hall of Famer. Harden is the primary option on the league’s 2nd-ranked scoring offense, totaling 106.1 points a night, and, according to some Stats LLC data compiled by Grantland’s Zach Lowe (the best NBA writer out there, BTW), Harden’s 5th in total drives per game, with Houston scoring an unprecedented 1.51 points per those possessions.


OK, Harden, an All Star reserve, has been unconscious, but what about his supporting cast? Well, the 2nd-ranked Rockets’ player in PER, among those to play in at least 45 games, is second-year PF Greg Smith, who’s averaging 5.5 points, 4 rebounds and 13.9 minutes in 49 appearances; his PER is 17.7. The rest of Houston’s starters’ efficiency ratings hover around the league’s 15.0 average — 15.7 for Patrick Patterson, 15.0 for Omer Asik, 14.8 for Jeremy Lin and 14.7 for Chandler Parsons.

Before the Oklahoma City trade, Houston made noise this summer with two decent-name free agent signings in Lin and Asik. Both were restricted free agents whom Morey offered back-loaded contracts, making it even more difficult for New York and Chicago, respectively, to match; both are due $5 million this year, $5.25 in 2013-14 and then $14.9 in 2014-15. Houston is thus one of the rare teams that has more contractual dollars on the books in two years than presently.


Asik, formerly Chicago’s No. 4 big, has not disappointed in his first full year as a starter; the Turkish 7-footer is averaging a double-double — 10.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in 30 minutes — every night he steps on the floor. Asik is hardly a post threat offensively, though only in his 3rd NBA season, but he leads an otherwise 29th-ranked scoring defense in blocks, 1.2 per game, and anchors the league’s 11th-rated rebounding unit in spite of a frontcourt mate, Patterson, who averages less than 5 rebounds a game.

Lin has shown flashes this year, like in his 28-point, 9-assist performance against Golden State a week ago Tuesday, but is widely considered as having a poor season. Despite more minutes, his assist numbers are below last year’s averages for the Knicks, though he leads the team, barely over Harden, at 6.1 dimes per game. I still wonder if Lin and Harden can gel together, given both are poor defenders and, on the other end, need the ball to operate. Either way, Lin’s turnovers — 2.9 per game — are also a concern, as Houston’s 16.3 turnovers per game lead the league, or are worst in the league, depending on your perspective. But Houston’s fast-paced style, one reason why Lin’s low assist totals are troubling, also produces the league’s 6th-best field goal percentage and 9th-best 3-point mark.


Headed into Tuesday’s games, Houston held a 2-game advantage on 9th-seeded Portland and a 3.5-game advantage on the lurking 10th-seeded L.A. Lakers, even as the Rockets are only 11-19 against Western Conference opponents. Houston is a threat to put up a lot of points, with capable 3-point shooters in Harden (35%), Parsons (36%), Carlos Delfino (39%), Marcus Morris (39%) and Toney Douglas (38%). The only team to make (and attempt) more 3’s per game than Houston is New York; Houston’s 23 3-pointers a week ago against Golden State tied an NBA record.

Kevin McHale’s club boasts 6 double-figure scorers, and I’m not sure there’s any scorer, outside of Durant and Bryant, that strikes more fear into defenses eyes than Harden, at least in the Western Conference. Should Houston, which still has 13 games against likely playoff opponents after Tuesday’s trip to Golden State, hold off the Lakers, who I think are the Rockets’ most threatening challengers for that No. 8 seed, they’re likely to draw San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round — Houston is a combined 0-5 against those teams this season, with loss margins of 30, 22, 22, 8 and 6.


If Houston earns a postseason bid, it has to be considered an accomplishment, especially since the Rockets only have $39 million on the books for next year and are rumored to be in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, should he decide to leave Los Angeles. The only player on Houston’s roster over the age of 26 is Delfino, who has a $3 million team option for next season, and Morey has 2 top-18 picks from this year, Royce White (still yet to play in the NBA) and Terrence Jones, to develop.

The last time Houston made the playoffs was 2009 and the last time they advanced to the Western Conference Finals was 1997. The latter is far from likely this year, but with another piece or two, mainly a solid No. 2 to pair with Harden, and a few years to grow, expect Houston to be right there in the mix with Oklahoma City.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


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