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.


February 27, 2013

Think of where the Blazers might be if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden had healthy knees. Roy, 28 and a 3-time NBA All Star, averaged 22.6 points per game in 2008-09 and 21.5 the following year before his knees began to degenerate so quickly that he was forced to retire following an injury-shortened 2010-11 campaign. Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, missed his entire rookie year due to microfracture surgery on his right knee, then saw 2 more seasons end prematurely because of knee-related injuries. In all, Oden’s played 82 games in his career, a full-season schedule, averaging a respectable 9.3 points and 7.4 rebounds on 58% shooting in 22 minutes.


With a healthy Roy and Oden in their primes, as well as All Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, there’s no reason to think this team could not compete in the top half of the Western Conference. But, for Portland fans, the status quo is not too bad, either; rookie Damian Lillard, this year’s No. 6 overall pick acquired via the Gerald Wallace deal, is a surefire bet to win Rookie of the Year. Meyers Leonard, another lottery pick at 7’1″ and age 20, shows promise as a rotation filler. And Portland’s starting 5, man for man, is as good as anyone’s in the Western Conference.

All 5 of those guys — Aldridge, Lillard, J.J. Hickson, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum — are averaging at least 13 points per game. Hickson, perhaps the biggest surprise, is earning himself some serious coin this offseason, when he enters a weak market as an unrestricted free agent, averaging a double-double with a team-leading 10.4 boards and absurd 57.4 field goal percentage. Matthews is one of the league’s most exciting players to watch, with a very under-the-radar 15 points per and team-high 39% mark from 3. And Batum is rewarding Portland for that borderline max deal they offered this summer, with 15.5 points per game.


But let’s not kid ourselves, this team is built on 2 guys: Lillard and Aldridge. Lillard has been sensational in his rookie season as the team’s primary ball-handler and crunch-time facilitator. The Weber State product is more of a scoring guard, 18.3 points per game, than a distributor, similar to the Kyrie Irving mold, but his 6.5 assists and 2.1 assists-per-turnover ratio both demand an opponent’s respect.

Aldridge, 27, is one of the few post threats left in today’s NBA, with a mid-range game more consistently used than any other big. I’d like to see him get to the line more — only 4.8 FT attempts per game, on 17.7 field goals — but his 48% shooting is a positive considering the defensive attention he attracts.


Portland’s problem, though, is its bench. As good as the starting unit is, Terry Stotts’ bench is dead-last in the NBA in scoring; in fact, the Blazers bench scores, on average, 16.5 points per game, about 10 less than 29th-ranked Indiana. Aside from Hickson, 29.5 minutes, all 4 other starters play at least 34.9 minutes per game; Leonard and Luke Babbitt, each at 4.1, are the only bench guys to tally at least 4 points a night.

The unit’s stretched so thin, they’ve tried Ronnie Price, to Sasha Pavlovic, to Jared Jeffries, and everything in between. Excluding Leonard, no bench player has a PER exceeding 8.6, Luke Babbitt’s mark already 6.4 points below the league’s 15.0 average.


The deadline acquisition of Eric Maynor, formerly Russell Westbrook’s backup in Oklahoma City, can’t hurt, though Maynor has not lived up to his 2010-11 Western Conference Finals run level, even being replaced by sophomore Reggie Jackson as OKC’s primary reserve PG this season. If Maynor fails to produce, Portland’s stuck with Nolan Smith’s 36.6% shooting and poor 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio as Lillard’s backup. Hell, Maynor got 15 minutes in his debut game with the Trail Blazers, showing you just how badly he’s needed.

But, man, is this team fun to watch. Rarely can you put a lineup on the floor with 5 guys and tell any one of them, ‘Hey, go get me 2 points this possession,’ and have a reasonable chance of that player succeeding. Even still, Portland’s -2.9 points differential is 23rd in the league, they’re 18th in FG percentage and 27th in 3-point percentage, at 33.8%. The fact that Portland’s 7th in turnover differential, at 1.5, speaks volumes for Lillard. On the other end, largely thanks to the perimeter defensive energy of Batum and Matthews, Portland’s 8th in 3-point percentage allowed. Defensively, they’re 27th in opponent’s FG percentage, though, and 17th in rebound differential.


Nestled into the West’s No. 10 seed, Portland, 26-30 and 4 games behind No. 8-seeded Houston, still has playoff aspirations. But they’re 3-7 in their last 10, and 19 of their remaining 26 games are against likely playoff teams, so it’s a far-fetched possibility at this point. Either way, Portland’s future is bright, especially with Lillard, who will benefit from another full offseason and hopefully some bench support via the draft and free agency.

From an organizational perspective, Portland’s in a precarious spot financially, with about $44 million committed to  9 players next season, as well as the $32+ million the team owes the amnestied Brandon Roy over the next 2 years. Maynor’s a restricted free agent with a $3.35 million qualifying offer this summer, meaning he’s essentially a short-term tryout for the next 26 games, and Pavlovic has a less-than-queasy $1.4 million team option.


Based on the year he’s having, my best guess is Hickson could command $10+ million annually this offseason, which I’m not sure Portland’s ready to deliver, given that he was very much dangled before Thursday’s deadline. The Blazers committed about $46 million to Batum this offseason, Aldridge’s deal is up in 2015, and, even though he’s not eligible to enter unrestricted free agency until 2017 at the earliest, it’s never too early to start thinking about Lillard’s future deal. With Leonard waiting in the wings, Hickson seems the most expendable of the 5.

Bottom line: The playoffs are not likely this season, but with a few veteran cogs and an improved Leonard, this team is going to make some noise in the years to come.

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.


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