The Oklahoma City Thunder are only headed one way.

December 14, 2009

by Jack Maidment

When assessing the deemed quality of a team’s draft selections over the past 3 years, what do you look for?

Games won or individual points per game? Best plus/minus rating or perhaps how quickly a player ‘fits in’?

All of the above can play a part in guiding an evaluation but ultimately the single most important question regarding new players has to be: where are they headed?

The players drafted by already successful teams must fill a niche in order to be rewarded with playing time and if they are perceived to be unable to contribute, or if they happen to face superior talent at their position, they will not play, in which case the answer is brutal in its simplicity. No place fast.

Players drafted to losers face different problems, but problems all the same.

Expectations are usually a volatile mix of despair and ‘new dawn’ at the basement dwellers. If you were chosen in the lottery it is very much deemed your responsibility to resurrect a previously moribund franchise.

There are minutes to be had but there is no learning curve steeper.

Losing will become all too familiar and only the truly persistent, not to mention talented, will prevail through the storm of progress which will inevitably involve at least one loss of faith by the fans.

Vehemently believing that progress is being made and that the sunlight of the playoffs is not too far away is key, especially when the boos are raining down.

Every team not talking championship will churn out the same rhetoric at the start of every season, that the franchise is going in the right direction and that young players are gradually utilising their potential, but the conviction they have in every cliché that they speak can mostly be described as wavering at best.

There are very few teams in recent years to have prophecised a bright future and then actually gone about delivering one.

Only two spring to mind: the Portland Trailblazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Teams that have been as low as you can go, categorical rebuilders, that have drafted well and grown as a team over a number of years in steps that can be easily identified.

No empty promises and General Manager speak. Just empirical results.

In Brandon Roy and LeMarcus Aldridge the Blazers drafted two players in whose hands the future of a franchise could be safely placed and through cunning in successive drafts they have been able to surround their leaders with the kind of complementary players that enable 50 win seasons and playoff runs.

Crucially, the Blazers stuck to their strategy, maintaining their youthful vision even when the losses were piling up.

They acknowledged the importance of learning together rather than seeking veterans who could taint the mix.

They were thrown in at the deep end. Eventually they swam.

The future has arrived for the team once known as the Jailblazers: 3 years ago making the playoffs was a pipe dream, this year just making it there isn’t enough.

If ever there was a case of duplicated blue prints the Thunder have traveled the same road as Portland in pursuit of wins and a team to be proud of.

In recent times, no team has been under heavier reconstruction than the Zombie Sonics.

Where many teams have readjusted or retooled, the Thunder have entirely re-modeled, building from scratch a team capable of making noise in the years to come.

In a coincidental twist of fate the promise of a better tomorrow for the Thunder was heavily influenced by the actions of the team most like themselves.

By passing on Kevin Durant for Greg Oden the Blazers ensured OKC would have the centrepiece on which they could build.

Injuries have restricted Oden’s progress and the fact that the Blazers are as good as they are without him suggests that if he can get healthy for any stretch of time Portland could be Finals material

The fortunes of the man picked directly behind him could not be any more contrasting.

Durant has gone from highly touted prospect to potential MVP and best player in the game discussions within the space of 3 seasons.

A meteoric rise indeed.

The Thunder were simply in the right place at the right time to grab Durant: the stars aligned as they occasionally do and they took advantage.

Few teams will ever experience that kind of luck.

That is without taking into account the calibre of Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook who make up Oklahoma’s Holy Trinity, three players drafted a year apart with the realistic ability to drive the Thunder toward title contention.

Currently sitting at two games above .500, the Thunder stand a very real chance of making the playoffs, the next step on their path to possible greatness, despite being just a year removed from a 23-59 record.

Durant may receive the majority of the plaudits but the respect and admiration for his running mates is coming: there is a reason why Charles Barkley calls Westbrook a ‘stud’.

Generously listed as 6’3, Westbrook is as springy as they come, the product of hours of sand work and plyometrics. Quick as a cat and strong to boot the UCLA product will challenge Mr Paul and Mr Nash for best point guard honors in the years to come.

As for Green, the man is versatile. Playing on the wing or in the post the Georgetown alumni presents opposing forwards with the kind of match up problems that coaches love to hate.

It will be apparent soon enough whether James Harden, OKC’s newest young gun, will force the Three Amigos into the Fantastic Four but it is already clear that the shooting guard will be at worst a solid and effective offensive weapon. He can score. Consistently.

If he can find the next level in the NBA the Thunder will possess not only the youngest core in the League but also the most fearsome in terms of where they are collectively, and individually, destined.

Add projects like BJ Mullens and the rehabilitated Shaun Livingstone to the Thunder mix and the roster is clearly on its way toward strength in depth, a prerequisite for competing at the highest level.

The Blazers and Thunder are moving forward rapidly and they have their unwavering vision, and luck, to thank for it.

So where are they headed? The Finals eventually.

The difficulty is that they will have to through each other to get there.


NBA Playoffs: No Time For Fishing

May 2, 2009
$100 Million?
$100 Million?

6 are gone.

 The Utah Jazz, New Orleans Hornets, Portland Trailblazers, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs have all gone fishing, time on their hands.

 Utah has vowed to improve defensively after falling to the Lakers. Again. The fact that Carlos Boozer is seeking out a $100 million deal probably puts team defense fairly low on team priorities.

 The Jazz need to re-sign Mehmet Okur and Paul Milsap, so the possibility of matching a big time deal for the Booze must be scaring the GM up in Salt Lake something fierce.

 The current economic climate and the allure of the free agent market for the next two years makes it difficult to justify such a blockbuster contract for a player who is unlikely to put you over the hump to the Finals.

 Utah are not the only team with decisions to make. If much of the media is to be believed then San Antonio are either officially at the end of their title contender status or very, very close.

 You can’t beat age. You can deceive it for a while, but it will catch you eventually. Charles Barkley rubbished the idea that an early rest will give Tim Duncan the time he needs to repair, and rightly so.

 If their big three can get (relatively) healthy then they have a shot next year. As long as they bring in some, whisper it, youth.

 The Hornets, despite their destruction by a VERY good Denver Nuggets team, cannot be too worried about their immediate future as long as they have Chris Paul and the rest of their guys get healthy.

 The only team with little to worry about are the Portland Trailblazers. Brandon Roy being hailed as the best player that Ron Artest has played against must fill Oregon with confidence that their team has a player who can lead their team to the Promised Land.

 They are pretty much the antithesis of the Spurs. Old versus young. The likes of Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum and Greg Oden (!) are all going to get A LOT better really fast. The Blazers’ future looks pretty enviable.

 Philadelphia are in much the same position as the Jazz with one of their main guys looking around for a new, and big, contract. The loss of Andre Miller to the Sixers would be a huge loss for a team who are light on leadership.

 However, no team that has just exited the Playoffs has more to think about than the once great Detroit Pistons.

 Allen Iverson’s contract is off the books leaving the Pistons with some maneuvering room. The question is when does Joe Dumars decide to pull the trigger: he could go after Boozer or whoever else this summer or he could tread water for a year and wait to make an assault on the fabled free agent class of 2010.

 The one major plus for the Pistons is that players do want to play in Detroit. It’s not like the Memphis Grizzlies who could offer LeBron and co all the money in the world yet would still receive a big fat no in reply.

 Detroit must also decide whether or not to re-sign Mr Technical Rasheed Wallace. As brilliant as he is combustible, and expensive to boot.

 Wholesale changes could be the order of the day in Mo-Town as the team is broken down and rebuilt: will Tayshaun or Rip still be there next year? Or will they be traded for the All Star that the Pistons crave?

 The exit from the Playoffs means that these teams have lots of time on their hands to think.

 The four teams that have game 7s to look forward to will be praying that they are able to put off the inevitable change process by proceeding to the Conference Semi Finals.


Portland Trailblazers: NBA’s Youthful Redeemers Championship Bound?

April 10, 2009
Portland Is Back

Portland Is Back

Prepare to Uprise, Rip City. The excitement is officially back in Portland, Oregon. The team website is emblazoned with slogans full of pride which emphasise the importance of unity in the recent resurgence of the state’s only Major League franchise. ‘Together We Made It Happen, Playoffs Are Back 2009’. It has been a long 6 years for the Trailblazers who have not sampled the delights of the Big Dance since 2003.

 

The rebuilding of the Blazers has taken time and much patience on the part of some of the most loyal fans in sports: Portland holds just about every record for attendance and sell-out streaks. The start of their current journey toward post season glory can be traced back to the 2006 draft when the Blazers took Brandon Roy 6th overall. Despite injury in his first season, Roy contributed straight away, trying to help a struggling franchise. He was rewarded with the Rookie of the Year award.

 

The ability of B-Roy was recognised by Portland’s front office and the franchise identified their young shooting guard as the future of the team. With that in mind, the Trailblazers sent Zach Randolph, captain, to the Knicks, clearing the way for Roy to take up a leading role and to stamp his authority on His team.

 

Portland’s confidence in their man has proven to be well-founded as he has done nothing but improve over his short time in the NBA, both as a player and as a leader of men. Back to back All Star nods pay testament to his talent, the first Blazer to make the mid-season showcase since Rasheed Wallace in 2001.

 

Having identified their leader for the foreseeable future, the Blazers set about acquiring players that could complement each other and grow together. An emphasis on youth has been apparent in Portland where veteran leadership has been replaced or usurped by youthful exuberance and confidence.

 

The core that has been assembled is one of the youngest in the League and based on potential, the Blazers have their destiny in their own hands. Last season they showed what direction they were headed finishing 41-41 on the back of a 13 game win streak.  They did this without their number 1 draft pick Greg Oden who suffered a season ending knee injury before games had even begun. The fitness of their future All-Star center along with some wise picks in the draft bode well for the current season, demanding that other teams not sleep on Portland.

 

And it has come to pass. Despite Oden’s unfortunate injuries, Portland has begun to deliver on their youthful promise. With 4 games to go, the Trailblazers are tied for the 4th seed in the Western Conference, with home court advantage for the first round looking attainable. The Blazers are only half a game back on Houston for 3rd, making the climax to the regular season all important.

 

The playoffs are well and truly back in Rip City and such is the confidence and excitement which surrounds this young team that expectations are well above a respectable first round exit. The reason for this is simple: Portland are a team. They are not overly reliant on one player, beating others with teamwork and consistent production.

 

They are paced by Roy’s 22.9 points per game along with his 5.1 assists. But the Blazers can score in so many ways that teams have a hard time picking how to get beaten. In LaMarcus Aldridge they possess a developing inside presence who can not only bang in the paint but has also been pulling other big men out of their comfort zone by shooting mid range and even 3 point jump shots. Consistently. Aldridge averages 18.4 and 7.5 rebounds and is a great second option on the Blazer offense.

 

Consistent play by their starters is complimented by the League’s second most prolific bench, led by Travis Outlaw who is averaging 12.7, placing him among the candidates for 6th Man of the Year. Any player is capable of big nights off the bench in Oregon: Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye, Nicolas Batum. All young, all supremely talented and all loaded with potential.

 

Their current record of 50-28 has Portland on course for a first round match up with either New Orleans or San Antonio, and with a home record of 31-7 they have every chance of progressing at least into the conference semis. Beyond that Portland will be in unchartered territory, possibly meeting the Lakers, a team who has been and done everything before.

 

But who knows. Strange things happen in playoff atmospheres. Only one thing is certain. Portland are back.