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.


Dribbles: Thunder play ‘dirty,’ Heat win again & Lakers hit .500

March 5, 2013

Editor’s note: Now that Armchair 3’s 30 in 30 series has run its course, I promise more regularly updated NBA news, notes and analysis.

Are the Thunder ‘dirty’?

Serge Ibaka’s, um, swipe at Blake Griffin’s groin area is the topic of much conversation in NBA circles today following Oklahoma City’s 108-104 win in Los Angeles yesterday. Personally, I’m not sure how Ibaka’s not ejected for this shot, for which he only received a flagrant 1, albeit a near-crucial one — headed into that possession, L.A., who had not lead all game long, trailed 99-93, but turned in a 7-point possession to a 1-point advantage, thanks to a Barnes 3, a Griffin free throw and then a Jamal Crawford 3.

But what does this say about the Thunder? Oklahoma City’s 2nd in the NBA in technical fouls this year, at 74, trailing only, you guessed it, the Los Angeles Clippers’ 78. Kevin Durant’s 12 is second to Kobe Bryant, 14, among all players, and Kendrick Perkins is tied for 3rd with 11. Russell Westbrook, 9, and Ibaka, 5, also crack the top 36. Perkins, 2 flagrants and 1 ejection, and Ibaka, 2 flagrants, make OKC one of 3 teams, alongside the Clippers and Knicks, to have 2 guys with at least 2 flagrant fouls. (Durant also pitches in with 1 flagrant and 1 ejection.)

I’ve got to say, OKC has a swagger about them this year, beginning with Perk and Russ, on down through Durant, Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. That bodes well for their playoff chances, even if it means Ibaka faces a suspension for his Griffin cheap shot.

Heat win 14th straight

The Heat trailed by 14 at the half, against a team that has beat them twice already this year (by 20 points each time), but still managed to come up with a 99-93 win at Madison Square Garden on Sunday to push their winning streak to 14. That streak, which started Super Bowl Sunday in Toronto, has seen Miami dispatch 7 likely playoff teams, plus the Lakers, by an average of nearly 11 points per, headed into tonight’s game in Minnesota.

The key, of course, is LeBron James. In February, the hands-down MVP averaged 29.7 points, 7.8 assists and 7.5 rebounds on 64.1% shooting. He also shot 80.9% from the foul line and 43.2% from 3, two of his perceived weakness throughout his career. Oops.

Lakers hit .500 mark for first time this year

After a 99-98 win over the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night, the Lakers, 30-30, are .500 for the 1st time since Dec. 28, when they were 15-15. Head coach Mike D’Antoni & Co. are obviously hoping L.A. does not reel off 6 consecutive losses, like they did after Dec. 28.

L.A.’s 2.5 games out of the No. 7/8 seed, currently co-occupied by the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets; the Lakers are 1-2 against each of these teams so far this season and will see James Harden’s Rockets once more, in the finale April 17 at Staples. Beginning tomorrow night in OKC, the Lakers have 11 games to play against likely playoff teams, Houston included; 12 of those 22 games are on the road, but one’s at the friendly confines of Staples against the co-inhabitant Clippers.

The Lakers’ way in may be Utah, which plays 13 of its remaining 23 games against likely playoff teams, starting tonight in Milwaukee; 8 of those 13 are on the road, where Utah’s 10-19, the worst away-from-home mark of any of the current 16 playoff teams. At this point, L.A., a squad Metta World Peace suggested less than 6 months ago could beat the 95-96 Chicago Bulls’ mark and win 73 games, is undoubtedly clawing for its playoff life.

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.


30 in 30: MIAMI HEAT

February 18, 2013

The defending-champion Heat are, barring a freak injury to LeBron James, odds-on favorites to repeat as NBA champions. LeBron, 28, continues to improve and appears to be nearing his prime; he’s averaging 27.3 points per game, his highest mark since departing Cleveland, and career-highs in rebounds, 8.2, and assists, 6.9. His field goal percentage is an absurd 56.5%, also a career-high, as is his 42% 3-point mark, a 6-point improvement over 2011-12, previously his career high. His 31.5 player-efficiency rating is tops in the league, leading Kevin Durant by 2+ points.

LeBron’s playing unreal basketball right now. As a fan who watched him in Cleveland, he always amazed me with how good he was so early — I mean, he took a Cavaliers team that started Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson and Sash Pavlovic to the NBA Finals — and how easy he made a triple-double look. He’s always been the best driver and finisher since he stepped on the floor in 2003. His mid-range game is a threat, thanks to improved shot selection, and he’s such a streak shooter, that when he gets going from outside, there is absolutely no way to stop him. In his last 10 games, LeBron is averaging 31 points on 62% shooting. Whether it is the confidence he’s gained from winning a championship, his natural progression or both, he’s in line for a 4th MVP award and 2nd ring.


Miami, 36-14 and firmly in control of the East’s top seed, is every bit as good as last year’s championship team, with the additions of impact players Ray Allen and Chris Anderson. Dwyane Wade’s scoring, 21 points a night, is his lowest since his rookie year, but he’s playing efficient ball, with a 50.5% FG shooting that’s a personal best. Wade’s 23.83 PER is 8th-highest in the NBA and tops among 2-guards. And Bosh, the team’s third All Star starter (thanks to Rajon Rondo’s torn ACL), is clocking in with 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and a team-leading 1.3 blocks, all while shooting 55.5%. Bosh is 19th in efficiency at 21.4.

Miami has surrounded James with floor-spacers, much like Danny Ferry tried to do in his final years in Cleveland. The Heat shoot the 3 at a 38.6% clip, which trails only Golden State and Oklahoma City. Allen, a 41% shooter, makes 1.6 3’s a game; Shane Battier, a 40% shooter, makes 1.8; Mario Chalmers, also a 40% marksman, makes 1.4. Rashard Lewis, 42%, and Mike Miller, 38%, are also threats from deep when on the floor.


The one (and probably only) concern with Erik Spoelstra’s team has to be defense and rebounding. At 103.2 points per game, Miami has the league’s 5th-ranked scoring offense, but has fallen to 12th in scoring defense, at 96.8 points per game. The Heat are 30th in total rebounding, but a less alarming 19th in differential, -1.4. Spoelstra’s squad is 8th in opponent’s field goal percentage, but 19th in 3-point percentage, largely due a slower Allen. (When Allen and his opponent play 25+ minutes, Miami’s lost the head-to-head efficiency battle 14 of 24 times; in games when Allen’s more efficient, the Heat are 8-2, but when he’s less efficient, the Heat are 7-7.) Last year, Miami only alloted opponents 92.5 points per game, though they also scored 4.7 points less.

The Heat’s rebounding woes can at least be partially attributed to their smaller lineups, when they push James or Battier to the 4, or sometimes even the 5. That’s the main reason I was not really high on the Allen signing this summer, as I thought Miami would be better served to bring in another bruiser. At least until the Anderson signing, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony, the latter of whom is extremely limited offensively, were all the Heat had in that category. (And Haslem only scores 3.7 points per 19.1 minutes, though his jumper at least deserves some respect.)


Miami’s 3-0 against Brooklyn, but a combined 1-6 against Boston, Indiana, Chicago and New York, two of which will probably see the Heat in the postseason. In their 2 games, New York used its hot shooting, but Indiana and Chicago are each capable of dominating Miami’s smaller frontline. (We forget Indiana had Miami on the ropes in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, up 2-1.) If Derrick Rose returns healthily this season, Chicago could pose a serious threat; Indiana’s run came when Miami was minus Chris Bosh. Miami’s 6-2 against the Western Conference’s top 5 teams, with the only losses coming at Los Angeles and at Memphis in November.

I would be very surprised if Miami did not hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy each of the next 2 years. LeBron is just playing at that dominant of a level right now. But whether Pat Riley can keep this core together past 2013-14, when every player on the team, minus Norris Cole, either has an expiring contract or a player option, remains to be seen. LeBron will be 29 and still in his prime, but Miami’s arguably not the best option for him then, with Battier, Haslem, Allen, Miller and maybe even Wade, now 31, looking at the final years of their career.


LeBron’s been linked to the Lakers and Cavaliers, the former of which will be eying its heir apparent to Kobe Bryant and the latter, near his hometown of Akron, will have a young core, headlined by Kyrie Irving, that has serious appeal as a supporting cast. Both teams will be flexible enough financially to throw whatever dollars at him he so desires, at least up to the CBA-dictated max.

But Miami fans do not want to think about that just yet, and rightfully so.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


So, who’s the NBA MVP?

January 20, 2013

Editor’s note: Now that the Packers’ season is over, and I’ve got those sappy tribute posts out of the way, it’s time to talk basketball. I’ll be here with you down the stretch of the NBA season.

LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant. Debating the NBA MVP race is an easy question with no easy answer. All three are having stellar seasons with their teams off to better-than-expected starts, Miami excluded, with obviously still a whole lot of basketball to be played.

‘Melo, mostly minus Amare Stoudemire, has the Knicks off to a 25-13 start, good for second place in the Eastern Conference and only one game behind LeBron’s Heat. The Knicks are second in the East, again to Miami, in points per game at 101.5, and are surprisingly ahead of the Heat in points allowed per game, giving up 96.5 a night behind Mike Woodson’s defensive-heavy coaching style.

Anthony’s numbers? In 31 starts, he’s averaging 29.2 points per game, up from his career 24.9 average, and has higher shooting percentages across the board. The biggest difference is from behind the 3-point line, where Carmelo is stroking it at a 42% clip, 9 points above his career average.

What about Durant? Well, so much for missing James Harden … OK, let’s no jump that far ahead of ourselves, but his 29.3 ppg average is his highest since 2009-10. But my favorite stat line of Durant’s 40-game season thus far: he’s shooting 52% from the field, which is straight up silly for a perimeter player. And the Thunder are 32-8, holding the league’s best record through 40 games — also remarkable, given that they traded a franchise player just days before the season began.

But the MVP has to be LeBron James. I mean, statistics aside, the guy’s the best player on the planet. Sorry, Kobe. Sorry, KD. Sorry, ‘Melo. Nevermind that the Heat are a mediocre 10-9 away from home. Nevermind that James plays with two established superstars in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, and a future Hall of Famer in Ray Allen. The dude can ball; there hasn’t been a more complete player in this game since Magic Johnson. Sorry, Michael. But LeBron’s the most talented player in the game, on both sides of the ball.

Back to his statistics, and they’re ridiculous. He’s averaging 26.3 points a night, which is actually down from his career average of 27.6. All his other numbers, though, are up. Rebounds? His 8.1 bests a career 7.2 average. Assists?  His 7.0 barely edges a career 6.9 mark. Shooting? His 55% average from the field is absurd, ahead of his 48% career average, and he’s shooting the 3-ball, always a struggle for him, at a very respectable 40% clip.

On a championship team, James is the primary scorer, primary distributor, best defender, top rebounder and leading steals guy. The only major statistical category in which he doesn’t lead his team is blocks, where Bosh tallies 1.4 a night and James 0.92 (second-highest on the team). His PER, or player efficiency rating, of 30.3, which leads the league, is more than 7 points ahead of Wade, the team’s No. 2. Oh, and he plays the most minutes, 38.4.

No player in the NBA, or maybe even professional sports, is asked to do more for his team on any given night than LeBron James. And for this 3-time NBA MVP, that will probably translate into a fourth.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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