Some Cavs schedule notes.

August 7, 2013

The NBA has released its full 2013-14 schedule of games, and the Cleveland Cavaliers will open their season against the revamped Brooklyn Nets in an NBA TV affair on October 30. (Find the full schedule here.)

The Cavs and Nets have been 2 of the league’s most active franchises this summer — Cleveland’s re-hired Mike Brown as head coach, drafted Anthony Bennett at No. 1, and signed Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark to free-agent contracts, while Brooklyn’s hired the just-retired Jason Kidd as head coach, traded for future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and also added a stable of veterans that includes Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Jason Terry and Alan Anderson.

Three years ago this summer, the Cavs opened against KG, Pierce and the Celtics in their post-LeBron debut, scoring a 95-87 win at Quicken Loans Arena. This one’s likely to have a similar atmosphere, and not just because it’s Livingston’s return to Cleveland. The Cavs are 2-1 in home openers in the post-LBJ era.

I like the NBA’s bet here. These are 2 likely playoff teams sure to grab the headlines this year, one for its aging All Stars and the other, if nothing else, for LeBron James’s pending free agency.

Then, there’s the questions. How will Kidd fare in his coaching debut? How will Brooklyn’s starting lineup of 4 superstars — past and present, mostly past — share the ball in the half court? And how will Bynum perform in his first real game action in nearly 18 months?

A few other nuggets on the schedule, in no order of importance.

* I counted 20 back-to-backs through 82 games, with the latter half of 11 of those coming on the road.

* The Cavs have a chance to start fast. Only 4 of the team’s first 13 games are against playoff teams from 2012-13, one of which comes versus a Milwaukee team that lost 3 of its best 4 players, Brandon Jennings (Detroit), Monta Ellis (Dallas) and J.J. Redick (LAC), this summer. That stretch also includes 2 games each against Charlotte, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Washington.

* The longest stretch of road games I counted was 5, from Jan. 10 to Jan. 17, right after which the Cavs return to The Q for 5, from Jan. 20 to Jan. 28, the longest home stretch of the season. The away stretch: Utah, Sacramento, LAL, Portland and Denver; the home stretch: Dallas, Chicago, Milwaukee, Phoenix and New Orleans.

* I only counted 2 other road trips of at least 3 games — Jan. 30 to Feb. 3, at New York, Houston and Dallas; and March 12 to March 16, at Phoenix, Golden State and LAC.

* To the naked eye, the most brutal stretch of games comes Nov. 22 to Dec. 10; the games: at New Orleans, at San Antonio, vs. Miami, at Boston, vs. Chicago, vs. Denver, at Atlanta, vs. LAC and vs. New York. After New Orleans, that’s 8 straight against postseason teams from a year ago, though Boston, Denver and maybe Atlanta are likely to regress.

* Immediately after this stretch comes a 2-day Florida sweep: at Orlando on Dec. 13 and at Miami the next day.

* Ironically, the Cavs’ second home game against Brooklyn, whom they open the season with, is the last game of the season on April 16.

* LeBron’s return to The Q comes early this year — on Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving. Miami returns to Cleveland on March 18.

* Andrew Bynum doesn’t have to wait long to play his most recent team, the Philadelphia 76ers … and Philly fans don’t have to wait long to boo. Cleveland and Philly play a home-and-home on Nov. 8 and Nov. 9, the first of which comes at Wells Fargo Center in a Friday night slot that I’d guess could be a national TV affair.

* Jarrett Jack doesn’t return to the ORACLE until March 14, but Golden State travels to Cleveland on Dec. 29.

* The ex-Lakers contingent of Bynum, Mike Brown and Earl Clark returns to L.A. on Jan. 14. The Lakers travel to Cleveland on Feb. 5.

* With Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in the fold, Detroit figures to compete for a low playoff seed, potentially against the division-rival Cavs. Two of Cleveland’s last 10 come against the Pistons, including an April 9 affair at The Q. The other 2 meetings are Dec. 23, at Cleveland, and Feb. 12, at Detroit.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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Mavs lurking by No. 8 playoff seed.

March 27, 2013

In not-so-good news for any team chasing the Western Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed, namely the L.A. Lakers and Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks refuse to surrender their season. Even after falling at home to the playoff-bound Clippers on Tuesday, Dallas sits only one game behind the Lakers, even with No. 9 seed Utah. Less than 2 years after winning an NBA championship, head coach Rick Carlisle’s team has fought its way back, winning 10 of their last 14.

In fact, Dallas, 35-36, is only 3 consecutive wins away from shaving some of their ridiculous beards, as part of a pledge many of them made in February to not trim their facial hair until the team reached .500. (Well, their next 4 and 6 of their last 11 are against likely playoff teams, including 2 vs. the streaking Denver Nuggets, so maybe Dirk & Co. should expected to keep the ‘Duck Dynasty’ look.)

Before we go further, a quick look at the West’s fight for the No. 8 seed:

LAL: 36-35, 1-2 vs. Utah (0 left, head-to-head), 2-1 vs. Dallas (1)

UTA: 35-36, 2-1 vs. LAL (0), 2-1 vs. Dallas (0)

DAL: 35-36, 1-2 vs. LAL (1), 1-2 vs. Utah (0)

And remaining schedules

LAL: at MIN, at MIL, at SAC, vs. DAL, vs. MEM, at LAC, vs. NO, at POR, vs. GS, vs. SA, vs. HOU

UTA: vs. PHO, at POR, vs. BK, vs. POR, vs. DEN, vs. NO, at GS, vs. OKC, vs. MIN, at MIN, at MEM

DAL: vs. IND, vs. CHI, at LAL, at DEN, at SAC, at POR, vs. PHO, vs. DEN, at NO, vs. MEM, vs. NO

Of those schedules, the Lakers’ scares me least. Utah sees the fewest likely playoff teams (5), compared to L.A. and Dallas (both 6), but L.A. catches the breaks in timing. Milwaukee’s lost 3 straight and 6 of 8, so that one doesn’t scare me, nor does playing a San Antonio or Houston team (in the last 2 games of the season) that may be locked into its playoff seeding by then. Utah has 3 games remaining — Brooklyn, Denver and Memphis — against team’s fighting for home-court in the 1st round, and Dallas has 5. (The Lakers have 2 — Memphis and the Clippers — but both games are in their friendly, Staples Center confines.)

But given all that’s happened to Dallas this season, I find it amazing they’re even still alive. Their best player, future-Hall-of-Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki, missed the season’s first 27 games due to knee surgery — in which the Mavs started the year 12-15 — and has been limited just about ever since. Chris Kaman’s missed 14 games, Brandan Wright 18 and Shawn Marion 15. A remarkable 15 guys have started at least a game for Dallas, and 21 have logged regular season minutes.

Poor health aside, the team’s 2 most consistent players have been O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter. The hole Tyson Chandler’s departure left last season has yet to be filled, and only been exacerbated by the hole the departure of point guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry created. Darren Collison — 12.2 points, 5.2 assists and 47 starts — has been pushed out of the starting lineup for Mike James — yep that 37-year-old Mike James.

Think about it this way. According to 82games, their best 5-man unit, at least in terms of scoring differential, is James, 37; Carter, 36; Jae Crowder, 22; Nowitzki, 34; and Brand, 34. That unit’s scores 1.24 points per possession, the best of any Mavericks’ 5-man combination to log at least 30 minutes together, and yields only 0.97 points per possession to opponents, the best of any 5-man combination to play at least 40 minutes together. They’ve outscored opponents by 25 points in 49.2 minutes — again, a lack of shared time largely due to injuries. (Average age? 32.6.)

Of course this team’s not a threat to do anything in the postseason. Last year, OKC swept the defending champs in the 1st round, and that team drew core contributions from Kidd, Terry and Delonte West. So, unless Dirk were to go bonkers one night, Dallas would probably be swept again.

In the NBA, though, a stubborn lurker with a superstar is never someone to take lightly. And the fact they’re still hanging around, when everyone, myself included, wrote them off months ago, is really a testament to the guys in the locker room, starting with Carlisle.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


West: 3 playoff players to watch

March 13, 2013

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we gave you 3 Eastern Conference players worth keeping an eye on in the stretch run and postseason. Today, we give you the logical sequel.

Player No. 1: Klay Thompson

Thompson’s marksmanship suits the Warriors’ style of play so well. Sure, he’s far from an elite defender, even far from an average one, but when he’s on, Golden State’s tough to beat. A 16.7-points-per-game guy this year, Thompson’s dropped 20 or more in 22 games this season, in which Golden State’s 15-7.

Golden State’s an intriguing 1st-round out, if only for the fear their shooters, namely Stephen Curry and Thompson, will catch fire. Mark Jackson’s team is tops in the NBA in 3-point percentage, at 39.7%, and Curry, 439, and Thompson, 430, are 2nd and 3rd in the league, respectively, in 3-point attempts; Curry, 198, and Thompson, 170, are 1st and 3rd, respectively, in makes.

In games this year when Thompson converts at least 4 3-pointers, the Warriors are 14-5, with wins over Indiana, Miami, Los Angeles (Clippers) and New York. Thompson plays close to 36 minutes a night for the sole purpose of spacing the floor for Curry and David Lee, and if Golden State has any hopes of making a series with a San Antonio, Oklahoma City or Los Angeles, though still unlikely, Thompson needs to get hot.

Player No. 2: Thomas Robinson

When Houston (essentially) dealt Patrick Patterson to Sacramento for Robinson, the No. 5 overall draft selection 9 months ago, pundits argued Houston was taking an immediate step back in favor of long-term gain. Patterson, the undersized, 6’9″ power forward who could smoothly stretch Houston’s up-tempo attack to the corners — he’s a 37.4% 3-point shooter on the season — was a perfect fit to run alongside James Harden, Jeremy Lin & Co.

Enter Thomas Robinson, who’s still working himself into Houston’s rotation, averaging 14 minutes a game in 6 appearances since the trade. Robinson was not seeing much more time in Sacramento, where some young players are cast to the end of Keith Smart’s bench (exhibit A: Jimmer Fredette), but, per 36 minutes, was still averaging double-double figures, 11 points and 10.6 rebounds.

The looks will only get easier with the attention Harden, one of the league’s most effective drivers, commands; Robinson’s field goal percentage, albeit in a sample size of only 6 games, has climbed more than 14 points, to 56.3, in Houston (over Sacramento). And the Rockets are going to rely more on Robinson as he further entrenches himself in the system, since, at the deadline, the team flipped another power forward, Marcus Morris, to Phoenix, leaving Greg Smith and Donatas Motiejunas as the only other contributor bigs.

Player No. 3: Austin Daye

Acquired as a secondary piece in the Rudy Gay deal, Daye is already one of Memphis’ most potent 3-point threats. He’s one of 2 Grizzlies to shoot at least 40% from 3, Quincy Pondexter the other, and he’s already chucking up 2.1 attempts from distance per game, in 10.8 minutes, so it’s pretty clear what head coach Lionel Hollins is asking of him.

Memphis, the league’s worst 3-point shooting team at only 4.7 makes per game, also shipped Wayne Ellington, previously their top 3-baller, to Cleveland in a cap-saving move in January. (Memphis also attempts the fewest 3’s, at 13.7 per 48 minutes, again just ahead of Chicago.)

Daye’s putting up some of the most efficient numbers of his career in his brief time thus far in Memphis; per 36 minutes, he’s averaging a career-high 17.1 points. The Grizzlies very much rely on their frontcourt-heavy, defense-first starting 5, with combo guard Jerryd Bayless, 7.2 points per game, providing the main (yet limited) punch off the bench.

As the playoffs wear on, though, Memphis is going to need shots, and Daye’s unique size, a 6’11” stretch 4 who’s more natural playing the 3, and athleticism could pose problems for defenses. He’s scored double-digit points 3 times since Feb. 8, and the Grizzlies are 3-0 in games he makes at least 2 3-balls. (Oh, and Daye, a restricted free agent this summer due a fairly steep $4.2 million qualifying offer, has the added incentive of playing for his NBA career.)

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


East: 3 playoff players to watch

March 12, 2013

Editor’s note: After a very brief hiatus, we’re back in full force here at Armchair 3. Tonight, I give you 3 players on likely Eastern Conference playoff teams worth watching through the season’s end and playoff stretch. Tomorrow night, predictably, will be our Western Conference edition. Thanks for reading!

Player No. 1: Monta Ellis

Named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the Feb. 25 – March 3 stretch, Ellis is on a roll. The shoot-first guard who’s struggled to coalesce with Brandon Jennings has, for whatever reason, exploded as of late, scoring 22 points in 7 straight games. He’s a major reason the Bucks are 6-1 with J.J. Redick in uniform, with 4 of those wins coming on the road and 3 against current playoff teams. (In 5 games in March, Ellis is averaging an even-better 26.8 points on 54% shooting.)

Consider this: the Bucks are 16-9 this season when Ellis scores at least 20, and 7-1 since Feb. 13.

With Ellis hitting on all cylinders, Milwaukee’s an intriguing out. Should they advance out of the No. 8 seed and thus avoid Miami — they’re only 2 games behind No. 5-seeded Chicago — the Bucks have the offensive firepower to compete with any other team in the East, especially when they go small with Ellis and Jennings in the backcourt, Redick at the 3, and Ersan Ilyasova at the 4 with LARRY SANDERS! (Milwaukee’s also one of 5 East teams to enjoy a winning record on the road.)

Speculation continues as to whether Ellis, due an $11 million player option, will opt in for 2013-14, or (likely) take an immediate pay cut for long-term security. So if Monta can continue his hot stretch into the postseason, there’s also the incentive of millions to be made.

Player No. 2: Kenyon Martin

This is an obvious one. Rasheed Wallace, 38, has been out since Dec. 15 with a stress fracture in his foot, though he insists he will return this year. And last week news came down that Amar’e Stoudemire, who already missed the first 2 months of the year due to knee surgery, will miss another 6 weeks due to, you guessed it, knee surgery. This leaves Martin, 35; Tyson Chandler, 30; Marcus Camby, 38; and Kurt Thomas, 40, in the Knicks’ frontcourt.

And a lot of pressure on Martin, signed off the street less than a month ago. Martin, who averaged 22.4 minutes in 42 games on the Clippers last year, played 17 minutes against Oklahoma City on Thursday and 22 more against Utah on Saturday, more in both than Camby or Thomas. And the Knicks will need K-Mart’s size should they draw a big-heavy team like Indiana, Brooklyn or Chicago in the postseason.

But New York’s best lineup is when Carmelo Anthony plays the 4, so there’s less onus on Martin in that regard. Still, Chandler is off the floor 15 minutes a night, a time the Knicks could sorely use Martin’s defensive intensity to make up for Jason Kidd’s lack of lateral quickness, and the team’s overall weak perimeter D.

Player No. 3: Jeff Teague

Lost in the will-they-or-won’t-they-trade-Josh-Smith kerfuffle from trade deadlines past is Teague’s future in Atlanta; he’s a restricted free agent due a $3.5 million qualifying offer, though it would be in GM Danny Ferry’s best long-term interest to ink his point guard long-term. (But, should Ferry decide to give up on Teague, he has combo guard Louis Williams under contract through 2014-15.)

Teague’s quietly been a solid third option in Atlanta, averaging 14.6 points (trailing only Smith and Al Horford), 7 assists, 33.1 minutes and a respectable 16.58 player-efficiency rating. He’s a limited (but improved) outside shooter, but his scoring and assist numbers have increased each of his 4 years. And, at 24, he’s a very capable floor general. Atlanta’s a remarkable 10-2 in games Teague averages double-digit assists; their last loss in such a case came Jan. 18 in Brooklyn.

If I’m a top seed in the East, Atlanta’s still the team that scares me the least; Milwaukee’s guards can get hot quickly, Boston’s been there and done that, and Chicago’s a healthy Derrick Rose away from being Miami’s top threat. But Teague, like Ellis, is playing for dough, and Atlanta needs defenses to respect his passing skills, if only to further open up secondary Smith and Horford screen-and-rolls.

Another stat: Atlanta’s 7-11 in games Teague averages 5 or less assists, and 0-6 since Jan. 12.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: SAN ANTONIO SPURS

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.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — SACRAMENTO KINGS

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

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.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


30 in 30: OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MIAMI HEAT

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.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

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.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


30 in 30: MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

February 20, 2013

Coming into the season, I was really high on Minnesota. Here’s a team that, despite a mediocre 26-40 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, was growing together with 3 really solid young pieces: a bruiser in Nikola Pekovic, a crafty young PG in Ricky Rubio and arguably the league’s best stretch 4 in Kevin Love. Add guys like Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved and Brandon Roy, and this had all the makings of a fringe playoff team.

But that has not been the case. Far from it, actually. Headed into Tuesday’s games, the Wolves are 19-31, 12th in the Western Conference, dead last in the Northwest Division and 7.5 games out of the No. 8 seed. Minnesota’s 2-8 in their last 10 and a conference-worst 3-7 against division opponents.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MILWAUKEE BUCKS

The reason, or at least a major part of it: injuries, injuries, injuries. Love has missed 32 games with a broken hand and is out for the foreseeable future; he missed 9 games to start the season with the same injury, caused by knuckle pushups, but did not elect to undergo surgery until January. Rubio’s missed 25 games after starting the season on the sideline recovering from a torn ACL.

And then it continues: Budinger’s only played in 6 games this season and is out indefinitely due to left knee surgery, as is Roy, Minnesota’s $10.4 million investment this offseason, who’s appeared in 5 due to right knee surgery. Malcolm Lee underwent season-ending right knee and hip surgery after playing in only 16 games. Kirilenko’s missed 9 games, Pekovic 7, J.J. Barea 8, and Josh Howard, who played in 11 games, was waived in December after suffering an ACL injury. Even head coach Rick Adelman missed 11 games spending time with his ailing wife.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MIAMI HEAT

So that the Timberwolves have somehow accumulated 19 wins might actually be impressive. Hell, Adelman’s now starting a SF in Mickael Gelabale who played his way onto the team via 10-day contracts. Hybrid guard Luke Ridnour is the only Wolves’ player to appear in all 50 games this season.

Minnesota’s struggled to fill the hoop, especially in the absence of leading scorer Kevin Love, tallying a 21st-ranked 95.1 points per game. Without Love, their only consistent interior scoring presence is Pekovic, contributing to their 25th-ranked 43.7% FG percentage. And the Wolves lack shooters from the outside, easily coming in dead last, at 30.1%, in 3-point percentage. The Wolves remarkably have 8 guys averaging at least 9.9 points per game — Love (18.3), Pekovic (15.9), Kirilenko (13.3), Ridnour (12.3), Budinger (11.8), Barea (11.1), Shved (10.5) and Derrick Williams (9.9) — but those players have missed a combined 109 games.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

The long-term future of this organization is in flux. Love has a fractured relationship with both owner Glen Taylor and GM David Kahn, neither of whom, at least according to reports, have been the most pleasant hosts. Love is still reportedly bitter over the organization not offering him a max-level 5-year, $60 million deal, instead opting for a 4-year extension last January. Love’s still paid handsomely and on the books through at least 2014-15, as is most of the team’s young core (minus Pekovic), but his name’s even been circulated in trade rumors.

Pekovic, and his interior force, is a schoolyard bully, in the best ways imaginable, with a team-high 19.2 player-efficiency rating to go along with his 15.9 points and 8.9 rebounds in 31.9 minutes. Pekovic, 27 and a restricted free agent this summer, has improved leaps and bounds each of his 3 years in Minnesota and is on pace to make some serious coin this offseason, should he sign a long-term offer sheet. Also in Minnesota’s frontcourt, Dante Cunningham, 8.2 points per game, is a reliable mid-range threat, and Greg Stiemsma, who emerged as a reliable bench guy in Boston’s run last year, is strong defensively, averaging a team-best 1.2 blocks in only 12.7 minutes.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Williams, last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick, has struggled to catch on in the NBA, with numbers barely better than last year’s in less minutes. Experts lauded Williams’ athleticism coming out of Arizona, but his versatility, also supposedly a strong suit, has yet to translate, with a poor 41.2% field goal percentage and even worse 32.7% 3-point mark (2.3 attempts per game). Williams, occasionally a liability defensively, also averages more turnovers (1.0) than assists (0.4). Williams, at this point merely a very poor man’s Josh Smith, needs to be more aggressive driving to the cup with his 6’8″, 241-pound frame, which should cause matchup problems either at the 3 (height) or the 4 (speed).

Aside from newcomer Gelabale, who’s limited offensively (and intelligently plays as such), Ridnour’s the only member of Minnesota’s backcourt with any form of consistent outside game. Rubio, who’s also struggling with turnovers (2.7 per game), is only a 34.3% shooter, and Shved, though with an explosiveness Rubio lacks, is not much better at 37.7%. Barea’s a 41% shooter with a limited perimeter game, other than using his speed and niftiness to access the lane. Minnesota was relying on from Budinger and Roy’s wing scoring, but obviously injuries have hampered those expectations.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

With the playoffs likely out of the picture, Kahn should starting looking toward the offseason. Love will hopefully return fully healthy at his $14.7 million salary, and Kirilenko has a $10.2 million player option he would be crazy not to extend (though he’s been effective on the floor this year, with an 18.2 PER). Unless traded, Minnesota’s stuck with Roy’s $5.3 million cap hit, the same for Williams, a player with whom I still think Kahn should exercise patience. In total, Kahn has about $50 million already dedicated in 2013-14, which is $8 million short of this year’s cap, meaning very little wiggle room to fill out his roster (and re-sign Pekovic, who, by all appearances, seems happy in Minnesota and ready to ink long-term).

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — INDIANA PACERS

For a team that has not made the postseason since 2003-04, this may be tough to hear, but this team is still a few years away from contending. A lot depends on whether Love’s a part of their future; if not, the Wolves should cut their losses, build up some assets and start over.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

FULL COVERAGE: ARMCHAIR 3’S 30 IN 30 SERIES


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