Thunder Future Uncertain After Kevin Durant Injury and Other Thursday Takeaways

Everything had been going so well.

The Oklahoma City Thunder came into Thursday night’s 114-109 loss to the Golden State Warriors riding a seven-game winning streak. More importantly, it was reigning MVP Kevin Durant‘s eighth consecutive game after returning from a fractured foot earlier this month.

Now, both streaks appear to be finished.

After becoming the first player since 1976′s ABA-NBA merger to tally at least 30 points in fewer than 20 minutes, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (h/t ESPN.com’s Royce Young), Durant left the game in the second quarter with a sprained right ankle and didn’t return.

Russell Westbrook‘s 33 points and eight assists weren’t enough in his absence, not on a night when Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 53 points.

For the moment, however, losing to a hot team like the Warriors is the least of head coach Scott Brooks’ concerns. The possibility of having to spend more time without a four-time scoring champion is the bigger problem.

Fortunately, X-rays offered encouraging news, and the organization has thus far described the sprain as “mild.”

That may be sufficient reason for optimism in the context of most clubs, but the 12-14 Thunder are a different situation. This team would almost certainly rank alongside Golden State among 2014-15′s early front-runners were it not for a November sabotaged by serious injuries to Durant and Westbrook.

In turn, Oklahoma City’s margin for error between now and the postseason remains fairly thin.

It may be difficult to imagine teams like the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans or Sacramento Kings outlasting OKC over the course of a marathon 82-game season, but anything can happen given enough bad luck.

This time, Durant rolled his ankle after stepping on Marreese Speights’ foot—the kind of wrong place, wrong time injury no one could have anticipated. He stayed down on the court for a few moments before teammates helped him return to the bench. Now Oklahoma City can only hope a little rest and treatment do the trick as quickly as possible.

One would imagine Durant will miss Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, but there’s really no telling how much longer his recovery will take. OKC could find itself tested several times before month’s end by meetings against the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns.

With Durant, those are all winnable games.

Without him, the Thunder’s sub-.500 season may get a bit worse before getting much, much better.

 

Around the Association

Rondo Tells Boston Goodbye

After multiple reports indicating on Thursday that four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo was on his way to the Dallas Mavericks via trade, the ninth-year veteran had some words for his fans and the Boston Celtics on Twitter.

And while the Mavericks are already pretty good, it may well take something special to outlast the other elite teams out West.

 

Butler Drops Career High on Knicks

The Chicago Bulls beat the now 5-23 New York Knicks by a final score of 103-97 in a contest played without superstars Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, who were ill and injured, respectively.

The difference was that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau had another star to whom he could turn. Jimmy Butler scored a career-high 35 points while tallying seven assists, five rebounds and four steals—adding yet another well-rounded performance to his impressive season. Through 23 appearances, the 25-year-old is averaging 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest.

“All I can say is thank God for Jimmy Butler,” Thibodeau told reporters after the game. “You can’t say enough about him.”

Chances are plenty more will be said anyway before season’s end.

 

Cousins Returns from Viral Meningitis

Star Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins returned to the floor after a bout with a serious sickness, and there doesn’t appear to be much rust. The Kentucky product led Sacramento with 27 points, 11 rebounds and five assists en route to a narrow 108-107 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Kings were just 2-8 without Cousins in action and have now lost five straight games.

 

Pelicans Scrapping in December

Already without Eric Gordon, the New Orleans Pelicans were also missing swingman Tyreke Evans (knee contusion) against the 19-6 Houston Rockets.

It didn’t matter.

Anthony Davis accrued 30 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and five blocks as the Pels prevailed by a 99-90 margin. The win takes New Orleans to a 13-12 record, its first time above .500 since late November. 

All things considered, that’s not bad. The Pelicans are 6-4 this month, and the four losses were understandable. Two came to the Warriors, one to the Mavericks and the other against the Los Angeles Clippers. Three of those games were on the road.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the month won’t be much easier with meetings against the Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls coming along with two games against the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. One way or another, we’ll learn a lot about this team by the end of December.

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Fordham’s Eric Paschall, Christian Sengfelder Helping Rams Build a Better Future

Fordham head coach Tom Pecora has been saying all along that the Rams’ three upperclassmen—senior Bryan Smith and juniors Ryan Rhoomes and Mandell Thomas—have to “lead the way.”

When they do, Fordham has a shot, as evidenced by the wins over the New York Institute of Technology, Siena and Monmouth.

But it’s also true that, at least to some degree, the Rams will only go as far as the current freshmen take them—this year and beyond.

The rookie class of Eric Paschall, Christian Sengfelder, Antwoine Anderson, Nemanja Zarkovic, Manny Suarez, Dekeba Battee-Aston and Zaire Thompson arrived with expectations. When you’ve completed 19 seasons in the Atlantic 10 and finished below .500 in 17 of them, expectations are a good thing.

If you’re looking for hope—for an ounce of optimism about a program that’s lost 90 games in four-plus seasons under Pecora—look no further than Paschall and Sengfelder.

Paschall, last year’s New England Prep Player of the Year and the Rams’ biggest recruit in recent memory, was named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week following his 31-point, 10-rebound performance in Fordham’s opening-night win over NYIT.

Through the first seven gamesPaschall did not play at Maryland due to an irregular heartbeathe’s averaging 18.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.

He’s had highlight dunks and knocked down some big shots, but his best play to date is one that happened on the defensive end of the floor.

In desperate need of a win against Siena following crushing defeats to UMass Lowell and Maryland Eastern Shore, Paschall blocked a shot at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime. The freshman saved the day.

Earlier this week, after leading the Rams to a 68-58 overtime win over Monmouth, Sengfelder was also named A-10 Rookie of the Week. In the game against the Hawks, he had a season-high 21 points and 11 rebounds.

Two other freshmen could end up playing huge roles as well.

Anderson and Zarkovic have both started games at the point and both are part of the long-term plan. Anderson has started the last three games and shown some promise.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Fordham this year. The losses to UMass Lowell and Maryland Eastern Shore were as bad as losses can be.

Jon Severe, the team’s leading returning scorer, was suspended for a week and missed the Rams’ opener, then took a leave of absence a week later. He has yet to return to the team.

Fordham hasn’t even gotten to the starting line of the most difficult part of its race: the Atlantic 10 schedule.

So, yes, the veterans are important. Two of them, Rhoomes and Thomas, will be around next year and have been instrumental in the team’s wins this year.

But it’s the Paschalls and the Sengfelders who are here for the next few years—building blocks on a team that’s got a whole lot of building to do.

 

Charles Costello covers the Fordham Rams for Bleacher Report. A full archive of his articles can be found hereFollow him on Twitter @CFCostello.

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Predicting the Next Wave of Future Max-Contract NBA Stars

Form an orderly queue, folks. It’s time to meet and greet the NBA‘s millionaires and, in some cases, hundred-millionaires of tomorrow.

Absurd Association contracts aren’t handed out like free samples of four-times fried grasshoppers on Planet Nowhere. The NBA is not MLB. But lucrative contracts aren’t uncommon either. They’re bestowed upon the league’s most deserving players often, sometimes early.

Figuring out which talents are next in line for opulent incomes, then, is all about identifying the stars of tomorrow—many of whom are also stars of today, only cheaper.

Focus will lie on upcoming free agency. Candidates include unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents and the extension-eligible youngsters working on rookie-scale contracts. Basically, anyone who can sign a new deal this summer—even if they decide to wait—is fair game.

Narrowing the pool even further is a matter of past and present performance, team situation and a (subjective) look at what the future holds and why. Some choices will come as no surprise (Festus Ezeli), while others will shock you, shattering your concept of reality (Anthony Davis). 

Agree or disagree, though, there’s one thing each of these rising luminaries have in common: Pizza cocktails will be on them from now until forever.

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Austin Rivers Running out of Chances to Land Future with New Orleans Pelicans

Late in the third quarter of the New Orleans Pelicans’ 107-112 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 10, Austin Rivers summarized his entire NBA career.

The 22-year-old guard knocked down a big three-pointer to give his team a 76-75 lead with less than 30 seconds left.

Heading into the fourth with a lead would’ve been huge for New Orleans’ confidence against one of the NBA’s elite. But after the triple, Devin Harris blew right by Rivers for a wide-open layup to retake control.

Three years into the league, that’s who Rivers has been—a player whose flashes of productivity are overshadowed by inexplicable miscues.

The Pelicans took the former Duke standout with the 10th pick in 2012, and they were let down when he shot 37.2 percent from the field (6.2 points) his rookie year. Last season he slightly bounced back and contributed 7.7 points while converting at a mark of 40.5.

Nearly a quarter of the way through 2014-15, Rivers is averaging 6.9 points on 40 percent shooting for the 11-12 Pelicans. He’s rapidly approaching the point where “potential” will soon be replaced by “bust” in conversations about him.

As his first date with free agency looms this summer, Rivers has been handed a bigger role—and a chance to play himself into a contract—with starting shooting guard Eric Gordon (torn labrum) on the sidelines.

To be frank, he’s blowing it.

 

Another Disappointing Year (So Far) in 2014-15

New Orleans is greatly lacking in the small forward department. While Gordon is an SG, the team managed to cover up its SF deficiency with a three-guard lineup that included Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Gordon.

Rivers got handed two starts with Gordon out, and was so bad—as in 1-of-13 shooting—that Luke Babbitt has been given seven straights runs with the first five.

During Gordon’s eight-game absence, Rivers’ playing time has been sporadic, but he’s had six games of 20-plus minutes. Disappointingly, he’s managed to shoot just 32.8 percent for 6.2 points in that time.

“With any other team I would love to start, but with this specific team, to be honest, I would rather come off the bench because it fits me better,” Rivers said on Dec. 5, per Jeff Caplan of Fox Sports New Orleans. “I have my own unit, I have the ball in my hand and I get to go out there and play free and I have a better rhythm.”

Despite his struggles, Rivers remains as confident as ever. Via Caplan:

I could be very valuable, and I try to say that as modest as possible because Eric goes down and he’s a primetime player. If you have someone step up, it just adds another dimension to the team. I really think—I’m not even going to say if—when I do that, it can help this team so much because it’s going to make us deeper off the bench.

New Orleans is still waiting for Rivers’ words to translate into on-court actions.

This is a guy who’s been a star for most of his basketball life, so his bravado is understandable…to a certain extent.

To succeed at the highest level, it’s almost necessary to have a little bit of swag in your step and a chip on your shoulder. But once Rivers reached the pros, he was no longer the best player on the floor—and unfortunately for New Orleans, he’s yet to adjust his game to the level of competition.

The third-year man boasts a slick handle along with a quick first step. When he puts the defender on his heels, Rivers is very effective at making plays. But if he can’t shake his man—which is often the case—he’s lost.

Defensively, Rivers is tough to watch. Per 100 possessions, he’s allowing 113 points, per Basketball-Reference, the worst number on the team. John Salmons couldn’t guard the guy selling hot dogs and even he is allowing fewer points.

It doesn’t appear as though the cause for Rivers’ porous defense is a lack of effort. His offensive quickness just doesn’t translate to the other end of the floor, and his feet are often made to look like cinderblocks when he’s matched up with a serviceable opponent.

At just 22 years old, Rivers is young and raw, but he has capability to become a dynamic player. And every so often, he’ll lead you to think that he’s on the cusp of taking that leap from potential to productive.

With 10 minutes, 14 seconds to go in the second quarter against the Mavs, Rivers beat the defensively stout Jae Crowder off the dribble, drew a foul and stepped to the line. The first shot was money, nothing but nylon.

The referee tossed him the ball for shot No. 2, and Rivers didn’t even make it to the net—it was an embarrassing air ball.

Mark Jackson, who was calling the nationally televised game with Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Tirico, poked fun at the way Rivers blew on his hands after the miss as if the temperature had anything to do with the shot.

And there it was again—another reality check. Just when you start to think Rivers could reach his ceiling, he air-balls a foul shot.

 

Letting an Opportunity Slip Away

Over the summer, the Pelicans declined to pick up the fourth year of Rivers’ rookie deal, which would’ve kept him around next season for the price of roughly $3 million.

Instead, he’ll become a free agent after 2014-15.

Nakia Hogan of NOLA.com spoke to Rivers about the move back in late October and got some interesting quotes from the guard:

Everything happens for a reason. At the end of the day, all that does is put a chip on my shoulder. I look at it as a challenge for me just to prove them wrong and to get better each day and, at the end of the year, to be the last one laughing about this. That’s my focus.

If anything, this is actually a good situation for me. This is a good year for me to break out, have a break-out season so I can be a free agent. And I can be a lot more comfortable this summer. I’m not mad at it at all to be honest. It actually just makes me more anxious and excited to go out there and have fun. This is my option year now. Now I am excited.

Rivers was spot-on when he said that it’d be a good year for him to break out, and keep in mind that this interview took place before Gordon even got hurt. He also added this nugget: “It’s business. I’m going to do what I have to do. So I am just going to go out there and play and make them pay for it.”

New Orleans will have a chance to enter next year with a significantly different roster. Gordon is expected to pick up his player option, which will leave seven Pelicans, including Rivers, on the unrestricted market for 2015.

Anthony Davis, who is in for enormous payday two summers from now, Ryan Anderson, Holiday, Evans and Gordon—the team’s clear-cut top five players—will be the only ones signed on for 2015-16.

Gordon has recently begun to add shooting drills to his rehab and could be back in three to four weeks, per NOLA.com’s John Reid, which would take a serious chunk out of Rivers’ PT. Until then, the former Dukie will see a healthy dose of minutes in the backcourt.

This season is far from over, and Rivers’ hopes of playing himself into a quality deal are not yet dead. His NBA future, which once glimmered with promise, could be determined by his play throughout the rest of this season.

Rivers is still extremely young and playing on a developing team, so don’t write him off just yet.

But the clock is ticking on him—almost as fast as Devin Harris barreling down the lane.

 

All stats are accurate as of Dec. 14 courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com. Contract information from HoopsHype was also used.

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Kobe Bryant’s Latest Feat Touches NBA’s Past, Present and Future

MINNEAPOLIS — As part of his book-giving tradition, Phil Jackson in 2006 gave Kobe Bryant Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Jackson knew Bryant had read and appreciated Gladwell’s The Tipping Point—though even as Bryant’s leadership skills were evolving then, it was still hard to envision someone with as sharp an edge as Bryant ever being one of Gladwell’s “Connectors” who know and reach so many people that they change the world.

Bryant has indeed changed the world in a very, very individual way. It is his name alone that sits third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list as of Sunday night, with Michael Jordan now behind.

Yet let’s not overlook just how connected Bryant has become. He is a link to basketball greatness in so many ways—far beyond just what he has played himself.

Bryant has reached out to so many to learn so much. He played so memorably in front of so many.

And he is, um, so old.

After getting Andrew Wiggins in early foul trouble, Bryant got the whistle on a drive against Zach LaVine and sank two Jordan-passing free throws in the second quarter Sunday night. When Bryant, 36, was a rookie in 1996, current rookies Wiggins and LaVine were 1 year old.

“I witnessed greatness,” Wiggins said later. “A living legend passing Michael Jordan, who everyone thinks is the best of all time.”

Bryant’s cagey pump fakes suckered Wiggins, who had to smile about it when he went to the bench with his second foul, and Bryant couldn’t help recalling his own over-exuberant early days when matched up against Jordan.

Citing Wiggins’ “baby face,” Bryant smiled afterward and said, “It was like looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago. It was pretty cool.”

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders pulled Wiggins off the assignment to defend Bryant near game’s end in favor of veteran Corey Brewer. First, though, Bryant cut crosscourt after sloppy execution bogged down a designed play, fetched the ball from Wesley Johnson and drilled a long three-pointer over Wiggins to break a 94-94 tie with 1:02 left.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ 100-94 victory allowed Bryant’s night to swell into a celebration of his career, to prop him up alongside or above Jordan, from whom he learned so much.

Jordan’s congratulatory statement to The Associated Press cited Bryant’s “strong work ethic” and “equally strong passion for the game of basketball.”

“That’s the most important thing to me,” Bryant said. “Playing for that, playing for the respect of the greats, feeling like I’m a part of that culture and part of that brotherhood.”

At this point, it’s uncanny how deep Bryant’s roots go into the game.

Bryant played with the No. 6 all-time scorer Shaquille O’Neal and No. 2 Karl Malone (and had memorable beefs with both). Beside getting peppered with questions from a curious Bryant while he was a special assistant coach with the Lakers, No. 1 scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar actually knew Kobe when he was a baby because of Abdul-Jabbar’s relationship with Kobe’s father, former pro Joe Bryant.

And before you dismiss No. 5 scorer Wilt Chamberlain as too far in the past for Kobe to touch, consider this: Bryant once told me the amazing story of how his maternal grandmother, Mildred, went to West Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School with Chamberlain.

“He asked her to the prom,” Bryant said, smiling. “But she shot him down. She was dating my grandpa.”

Bryant learned almost as much for his fadeaway jumper from Hakeem Olajuwon’s footwork as from Jordan’s. Bryant hit up John Stockton right on the court back in the day for ball-handling intel. Bryant’s study goes as far back as George Mikan, bringing the Lakers from Sunday night all the way back to when they were truly in Minneapolis in the 1940s.

Basketball history is one thing. Being able to feel it is completely another.

When Dirk Nowitzki passes Elvin Hayes’ 27,313 points for eighth on the NBA scoring list in the next week or so, the names and numbers won’t feel like anything more than names and numbers.

It’s hard to compare players when most have passed through different generations. It’s why San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked about Bryant and Jordan on Friday night, said flatly: “I don’t compare players.”

We do at least have real images of Bryant and Jordan guarding each other, though. We’ll cycle through them again in February when Bryant goes to New York for the All-Star Game, his first time up there for the showcase since the 1998 game at Madison Square Garden that was all about Bryant’s All-Star debut against Jordan in that Chicago Bulls uniform.

Yet it’s not just Bryant and Jordan. Bryant wanted to make that clear when we talked about Jordan at length recently; he openly admits he stole from everybody to be the best he could.

If you want to talk about guards Bryant learned from, he’ll quickly cite Clyde Drexler and Oscar Robertson. In fact, two Lakers shooting guards have been deeply meaningful mentors for Bryant: Jerry West and Byron Scott.

Bryant peppered Scott, his teammate that rookie year in 1996, with questions about how the Lakers did all that winning in the ‘80s. West wasn’t just in charge of Lakers basketball operations when Bryant dazzled him in that predraft workout; he was a go-to advisor for Bryant through so many tough times.

Bryant appreciates that much of his access to history is because he has been a Laker, mentioning his training sessions just this season with James Worthy, now a studio TV analyst for the team, about positioning and his spin move, in particular.

The Lakers cherish their history, and after Bryant was presented with the game ball in a quick ceremony upon passing Jordan (teammate Robert Sacre’s apt summation: “You know you are special when they stop the game”), Bryant got a long embrace from Scott, now his head coach. Scott told him just how cool it was to be there for his first point and now this historic one—and how he was proud of him and loved him.

Bryant moved on to hug Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, then handed the ball over to Lakers equipment manager Carlos Maples for safekeeping. Both Vitti and Maples have been with the organization throughout Bryant’s tenure and have served as valued friends.

On the flip side, it was young Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers’ rookie guard, who would serenade Bryant in congratulatory song to the tune of Happy Birthday as the team plane left Minnesota late Sunday night and post to his Instagram account about Bryant: “The GOAT. Congrats, big homie.”

Bryant’s reach now extends to Clarkson, same as it has for nondescript young Lakers guards of the past such as Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris who vouch for Bryant as their mentor, no matter how harsh he looks and how hated he might be from the outside.

Said Bryant: “Competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people. …You can’t get to a supreme level without channeling the dark side.”

Bryant said the warm ovation inside Target Center for his accomplishment Sunday night was actually jarring.

“I’m used to being the villain,” he said. “To have moments like that, when you’re not expecting a hug and you get a hug, you’re like, ‘Man, this actually feels pretty damn good.’ ”

Without necessarily trying to unite the world, Bryant has managed to do just that.

We already knew Michael, for as iconic as he was and his legend still is, has touched legions.

Kobe, though, has established an epic reach of his own.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

 

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How Many Kentucky Wildcats Will Become Future NBA Draft Picks?

Word on the streets is that this Kentucky roster is deep. It’s actually unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

The Wildcats smoked North Carolina Saturday afternoon 84-70, and Karl-Anthony Towns, a top-three overall candidate for the 2015 draft, didn’t even record a shot attempt. 

It was the rest of the guys in Kentucky’s ridiculously deep rotation who stepped up. The blowout was simply a reminder of the endless talent on this team.

And that raises the big question—just how many of these Wildcats will eventually get drafted?

The following Kentucky players are guys who can expect to hear their names called in the draft, whether it’s this June or in 2016.

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Rookie James Ennis Proving His Clear Worth to Miami Heat Present and Future

There aren’t a wealth of reasons to be excited about the 2014-15 Miami Heat.

The four-time defending Eastern Conference champions are 9-11 through 20 games and are perfectly mediocre on both ends of the floor. According to ESPN.com, the Heat sit No. 17 in offensive efficiency and 26th in defense.

The problems are, to an extent, predictable. Chris Bosh is struggling to adjust to the role of the offense’s prime mover, while Dwyane Wade—though he’s been effective when he’s suited up—has already missed seven games with a hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, Chris Andersen is cratering, Josh McRoberts has made zero impact and Erik Spoelstra hasn’t managed to coax every bit of potential production from what’s still a reasonably talented roster.

There is a bright spot, however. His name is James Ennis.

Ennis, in the first quarter-season of his NBA career, has been wonderful for Miami. While his counting stats don’t look like much—Ennis is averaging 3.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in 14 minutes a night—they obscure his actual significant value.

The 6’7” small forward has proved to be a very efficient player.

Per 48 minutes, according to BoxScore Geeks, Ennis is a plus-rebounder and an efficient scorer—his true shooting percentage of 55.5 is 2.5 percentage points above his positional average—who blocks shots at twice the rate of the average 3 and flat-out never turns the ball over.

His .189 wins produced per 48 minutes, per BoxScore Geeks, actually leads the team. The figure also places him third among rookies who have played more than 200 minutes.

Basketball-Reference.com, while a little more bearish on Ennis’ 2014-15, has him producing .113 win shares per 48 minutes, still 13 percent above the league-average rate.

What’s most surprising about the 24-year-old’s hot start though is that we probably could have seen it coming. In relative anonymity in the past several years, Ennis has put together a persuasive resume.

His journey has been long and strange. He played his freshman season at Oxnard College and his sophomore year at Ventura College before transferring to Long Beach State for his junior and senior seasons. In his final campaign, Ennis averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds, led his team to the Big West championship, won Big West Player of the Year and became an honorable mention All-American in the bargain.

That is when things got even weirder. Ennis was selected in the second round of the 2013 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks before he was traded to the Heat for a future second-round pick. Miami was capped out and wanted to put the forward in the D-League, where he would have played for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, but he would have earned just a $25,000 salary if he made the move.

This was a problem for Ennis. Per an interview with Fox Sports’ Chris Tomasson, his family needed his financial support—he has five brothers and sisters and a mother who he said is disabled—so he signed in Australia to play with the Perth Wildcats of the NBL for what his agent told Tomasson was a “six-figure” contract.

“I basically put my family first,” Ennis told Tomasson at the time. “My family is struggling (financially), and I want to help support them. So that’s why I’m going (to Australia).” 

It was a move he surely doesn’t regret.

Ennis was tremendous overseas. In 33 games, he averaged 21.2 points on 46.8 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists. At season’s end, he was named All-NBL and finished third in MVP voting.

The momentum carried over. After a 12-game stay in a professional league in Puerto Rico, Ennis joined Miami’s summer league team. He was great in the summer league, great in the preseason and then, in his NBA debut, he did this:

Heat fans should get used to rooting for No. 32. Ennis isn’t and won’t ever be a superstar-level player, but he might just be the next-best thing: a cheap, productive young piece.

Miami has Ennis under contract though 2016-17 at salaries of $507,336, $845,059 and $980,431, according to HoopsHype.com. At his current level of production that’s a great deal. And if Ennis continues to improve, it looks even better.

A caveat: It’s hard to say just how much improvement Ennis has ahead of him. While he’s an interesting player with great leaping ability (all dissenters can review the above video evidence), he’s also already 24 years old, an advanced age for a rookie. Anthony Davis, for point of reference, was 14 when Ennis was old enough to join the military.

And he’s still raw. Ennis’ value comes almost entirely from his physical gifts. At this point he’s a much better athlete than he is a basketball player. He needs to be coached. And, seven months shy of his 25th birthday, it’s not clear how much room he has to grow.

But, at his level of production, he doesn’t need to grow much to be worth a roster spot in Miami. His ability and pay grade make him a perfect fit on a team that prioritizes the pursuit of superstar players.

Miami is widely believed to be keeping its books clean so it can make a splash in the stacked free-agent class of 2016. Ennis, suffice it to say, does not draw a salary that will interrupt that pursuit.

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Tobias Harris Showing He’s Invaluable Part of Orlando Magic’s Uncertain Future

A 7-14 start to the 2014-15 campaign may not sound like your traditional definition of success, but it’s a sign of progress for the Orlando Magic—especially when accounting for the fact that 14 of those first 21 games have been on the road.

The rebuilding franchise won just 23 games a season ago, Jacque Vaughn’s second as head coach. And while it may not be on pace to surpass that mark dramatically, there are tangible signs of growth.

Forward Tobias Harris is chief among them. The 22-year-old was acquired via trade from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013 and instantly became a rotation fixture, averaging 36.1 minutes through his first 27 games in Orlando—a marked increase over the 11.6 minutes per game he’d been playing in Milwaukee.

Through 19 appearances this season, the fourth-year pro is tallying a career-high 18.3 points and 8.2 rebounds. While he isn’t a prolific three-point shooter, he’s making 40.5 percent of his attempts—which is pretty good for a strong 6’9″ frame that can mix it up inside.

The Tennessee product is taking his game to another level without losing sight of the team-first principles general manager Rob Hennigan treasures.

“We’ve just been focusing on team chemistry that the coaches have been giving us, we’ve been executing and things have been working,” Harris told reporters in November, per NBA.com’s John Denton. “When we play like a team and play team basketball, it’s fun to watch and everybody enjoys themselves.”

The Magic are hardly a one-man show. It’s a roster without superstar pedigree and the baggage that comes therewith. Alongside 24-year-old center Nikola Vucevic, a blossoming Evan Fournier and the rookie pair of Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, Hennigan has assembled a promising young core.

Harris just happens to be something of an early bloomer, one of the first signs that this stockpile of raw talent could actually pay off.

He’s also become one of the first major contract decisions Hennigan has faced since his arrival in 2012. The two sides failed to reach agreement on an extension in October, but there doesn’t seem to be any lingering bitterness.

“It’s not personal. It’s just business. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it,” Harris told NBA.com’s Denton last month. “We’re past that point (for a contract extension). There’s no hard feelings at all, and it’s just business.

“As a basketball player this is my job, this is what I come out to do and this is what I love to do. It’s all about how I approach the game and help my team now. I just go out there and play basketball. I’ll let everything else handle itself.”

That’s not a surprising sentiment from someone having a career season in advance of his restricted free agency in July. The Magic retain the right to match any offer Harris receives on the open market, and it could be a significant one given the current economic climate.

Young swingmen cashed in this summer. Chandler Parsons (three years, $45 million), Gordon Hayward Aaron Gordon (four years, $63 million) and Klay Thompson (four years, $69 million) have established something of a price range for emerging stars on the wing. Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler join Harris among free agents poised to claim similar hauls in 2015.

Pricey though he’ll be, Orlando would be wise to keep Harris in the fold. And he’s indicated an interest in sticking around.

“Obviously, I want to be here…I love the fans, the city of Orlando and the guys,” Harris told the Orlando Sentinel‘s Brian Schmitz in September (subscription required). “Management knows I want to be here. It’s the perfect situation for me.” 

Should his hometown New York Knicks make a strong push, however, Harris might prefer a change of scenery.

TheKnicksBlog.com’s Adam Zagoria cited “a Harris confidant” in November who suggested, “I’m telling you if the Knicks come at him hard, who wouldn’t want to play for their hometown team?”

Harris is from Long Island and has a strong relationship with Carmelo Anthony, with whom he played as recently as this summer.

“They play well together,” Zagoria‘s source added. “Carmelo always had him on his team when Kevin Durant came to town, and they would win every game.”

It’s certainly a plausible scenario.

As the New York Post‘s Marc Berman notes:

The Knicks will have a ton of cap space in 2015. They are capable of signing their No. 1 target, center Marc Gasol, and could still have room for the versatile Harris…The Knicks will have even more cap room if J.R. Smith opts out.

New York may very well have other priorities given its assortment of needs, but guys like Harris will be in high demand one way or another. His combination of size, shooting ability, athleticism and two-way pedigree will elicit some serious dollars from somewhere.

Then Hennigan and Co. will have some thinking to do.

The Magic would have preferred to lock Harris up via a more modest extension, but that would have made little sense for Harris, who was somewhat limited by a nagging ankle sprain last season. He’s back to full health and now has an opportunity to audition his improved skill set to potential suitors. 

But Orlando can ill afford to take a step back at this juncture, still just beginning to scrape itself off the floor of Eastern Conference standings. Massive investments always come with some risk attached, but the organization will only have so many opportunities to acquire another player of Harris’ caliber. 

It’s probably better off retaining a known commodity, no matter the cost.

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Is It Too Early for Chicago Bulls to Plan for a Derrick Rose-Less Future?

Chicago Bulls star point guard Derrick Rose has dealt with injuries the past three postseasons. While it’s starting to get better, should the Bulls start planning for the worst?

What started off as an illustrious career—becoming the youngest MVP in NBA history—quickly took a sour turn. Rose was hit with consecutive season-ending injuries, putting a stop to Chicago’s championship aspirations for three years.

Rose had this to say regarding concerns about his health earlier this October, per Jack McCarthy of USA Today:

I’m going to have to answer this question for the rest of my career. I can sit here and say a million times that I’ll be fine. But I think the only way to answer all the critics and everyone asking about me is to actually be on the court and actually be playing.

It’s been a rocky start to Rose’s return. The 26-year-old point guard has been hit with a couple of nagging ankle and hamstring injuries, forcing him to miss eight contests so far, not including two games in which he started but couldn’t finish.

When Rose has played, though, there have been mixed results.

He has scored 20 or more points in four games, shooting 50 percent on two of those nights. However, he’s looked sluggish and very passive on several occasions. Rose was pulled from the Denver Nuggets matchup on Nov. 25 after halftime because “The way the game was going, the way we were going, I just felt at that point I wanted to go a different way,” said head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Rose has strung together a few games and looks a little better every night. He has become extremely perimeter-oriented, though, as three-pointers make up 44 percent of his attempts this year. He’s shown only small flashes of his former self.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times likened Rose’s game to that of a stone skipping across water: “A few splash plays, a ripple and then a quiet sink to the bottom.”

However planning for a future without Rose isn’t contingent on his level of play. He’s bound to get better with time; after all, he has two years of rust to shake off.

It may seem early to look toward a future without Rose. He’s only 26 and barely entering his prime, but it seems that no matter what, he can’t stay healthy. Even if it was just bad luck, the damage to Rose’s lower body has been significant.

If he misses a fourth consecutive playoff run, can Chicago afford to keep waiting for him?

 

Postseason Purgatory 

The Bulls have proven year in and year out that they can still compete without Rose.

They earned the No. 4 seed in the 2014 postseason, but without their star scorer and playmaker, they’ve never advanced past the second round, winning just one series against the Brooklyn Nets in 2013.

Chicago is boasting a more complete team this time around, though. Pau Gasol is playing at an All-Star level as is four-year swingman Jimmy Butler, who is looking at a possible max extension this upcoming summer.

With Joakim Noah anchoring the defense and Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks coming off the bench, the Bulls would still have enough firepower to stay competitive and possibly make a deeper run than before even if Rose is not there.

Without the former MVP, though, a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors or the Washington Wizards becomes much tougher to overcome.

Rose is confident he’ll be able to stay healthy and that his game will come to him, but he reminds everyone that it will come in time:

When it comes to basketball, I listen to myself. I have a lot of confidence in myself and my talent. I know where I’m going to be in a couple of weeks. I know where I’m going to be at the end. It’s just that y’all are going to be surprised to see me there. It’s just going to take time.

It’s certainly encouraging to see him so confident, but the problem is injuries are unpredictable.

Sure, there’s probably an equal chance that Rose is healthy as there is to him getting hurt again, but there’s no denying the previous damage to his lower extremities.

Rose plays fast and aggressive—it’s what separates him from the crop of guards around the NBA. But he’s been unable to show that this season due to his the early setbacks. This season’s hamstring injury was in a non-contact situation, just like his ACL and meniscus tear.

That’s really the biggest fear, that another freak misstep could put a stop to what seems like Chicago’s most promising season during the Rose-Thibodeau era. Injuries have already ended Rose’s season twice; if it happens again, the Bulls will have to start looking for an alternative.

 

Planning for the Future

There are two different ways the Bulls could address a future without Rose. The first option is trading him for draft picks, although that could prove to be somewhat difficult if he is, in fact, coming off another injury.

The three-time All-Star has two years left on his deal (not including the 2014-15 season) worth just over $41.4 million, per Spotrac.com. By no means is that an easy contract to unload, especially with teams being a lot more cap-conscious. But considering Rose’s age and remaining potential, rebuilding teams could take a chance on the former MVP in order to solidify their backcourt.

Chicago could then try to draft the best point guard available while using a veteran guard (i.e. Brooks) as a fill-in while the prospect adjusts himself to the NBA in his first couple of years.

This does, however, have the potential to close the championship window as Noah and Gibson go into their 30s. Younger players like Mirotic, Butler and Doug McDermott would make up a bulk of the new core, and Chicago could be back in the championship hunt within two or three years if all five are still intact along with the new point guard.

The Bulls could also elect a win-now solution, which would include trading Rose for an established point guard. The one player that comes to mind is Rajon Rondo as his future with the Boston Celtics is still up in the air.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge remains adamant and doesn’t seem like he will trade Rondo any time soon according to league executives, per B/R’s own Howard Beck. Beck continues: “many of those same executives believe that Ainge has to trade Rondo, to avoid losing him for nothing next summer.”

A max deal for Rondo would be worth upwards of $20 million in average yearly salary, which is what Rose currently earns. With Marcus Smart waiting in the wings, maybe the Celtics’ brass decides to part ways with its All-Star point guard in exchange for a younger option.

Rose’s price tag could drive Boston away, but Chicago can sweeten the deal with draft picks and perhaps another young player to give Boston more depth (McDermott, for example).

Rondo is nowhere near the scorer Rose is, but the former’s court vision is second to none, and the manner in which he creates for others and opens up the floor is something Rose—along with many other point guards—can’t do.

While a Rose-less future is a hypothetical scenario, it isn’t too far from the realm of reality. If Rose suffers a third major injury, Chicago cannot afford to lose another year waiting for the possibility that Rose can return to superstardom while the rest of the team ages.

Everyone involved—from players, to fans, to the front office—is hoping Rose can make it through the rest of 2014-15 unscathed. Maybe then, Rose could be back on the path to glory and pick up where he left off in 2012.

Fingers are crossed throughout the Windy City.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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Why It’s Time for Oklahoma City Thunder to Give Up on Jeremy Lamb’s Future

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been waiting for Jeremy Lamb to finally live up to the hype. Rather than continue to tread water with their inconsistent shooting guard, it’s time for the team to move on.  

Lamb is a former No. 12 overall pick and was one of the key pieces in the 2012 trade that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. By now, he should have solidified his position in the backcourt with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook or at least show signs of improvement. 

However, a month into his third season, the 22-year-old has been a disappointment. He failed to win the starting shooting guard position in the preseason. When injuries forced him into the lineup, there have been bright spots like his 24-point outing against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 14. Unfortunately, those moments have been few and far between. 

This year, Lamb is averaging 12 points per game and shooting 40.7 percent from the field (including 39.6 percent from three). Those would be decent numbers for a fourth or fifth option, but with the roster short-handed due to injuries, he should have used this opportunity to show signs of development. 

Just look at what not having Westbrook or Kevin Durant around has done for Reggie Jackson’s numbers (19.5 points, 7.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 41.5 percent from the field). Granted, Jackson is a better player, but he’s also an example of someone who saw a chance to emerge and took it.

Furthermore, here’s how Lamb stacks up against some of the guards taken after him. 

A potential split would work for both parties. It would allow the team to streamline its guard rotation while also providing the UConn product a chance to develop with a team that believes in what he brings without him having to look over his shoulder. 

 

No Confidence, No Consistency 

You don’t need to be a psychology major to figure out Lamb has confidence issues.

When Lamb is feeling good, you get stat lines like this one in a 97-82 win against the Utah Jazz on Nov. 26: 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting (3-of-3 from downtown), four rebounds and three steals in 24 minutes. 

“Jeremy came in and gave us a good game,” head coach Scott Brooks said, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. “Obviously he scored a bunch of points, but he competed on the defensive end. … He earned his minutes tonight.”

When his mind is clouded with doubt, you get the guy who failed to make a field goal in the team’s 91-86 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 23. Lamb clanked all six of his shots, including one from behind the arc, and played just 12 minutes. 

The problem for the Thunder is that the latter version of Lamb seems to show up more often than the former. Throughout his career, he’s had some bright moments, but he doesn’t sustain those stretches long enough to build momentum. 

In the end, that lack of confidence causes a vicious cycle. If he’s out of sync, he’s not productive. If he’s not productive, the team will have less faith in him. If the team lacks faith, it will become harder for him to find his groove. 

 

Three’s a Crowd

One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of Lamb’s development is the lack of a defined role. He’s not the Thunder’s starting shooting guard. That job belongs to the team’s perimeter pit bull, Andre Roberson. 

Is he the next-best guard off the bench? No. That’s Reggie Jackson, whose breakout performance this season mandates increased playing time both alongside and in place of Russell Westbrook. 

Is he the team’s best shooter in the backcourt? Lamb statistically holds the lead right now, but it’s a safe bet that Anthony Morrow will eventually earn that distinction. Morrow’s a career 42.7 percent three-point shooter, while Lamb holds a 35.7 career mark from long range. 

Lamb isn’t a starter. He isn’t the sixth man, and he isn’t a specialist. So, what is he? The answer could be trade bait. Jon Hamm of The Oklahoman pitched the idea of moving the third-year guard:

The Thunder could choose to do Lamb a favor, much like they did with D.J. White and Byron Mullens, and send him to another team where he can attempt to prove his worth. Such a move could resolve rotation conflict and net the Thunder a future asset.

With Roberson entrenched as the team’s shooting guard of the future and a proven sniper in Morrow as the backup, Lamb is the odd man out in Oklahoma City. Even if he goes on a spirited run in the near future, he’s not going to unseat Roberson in the starting rotation.

Traditionally, Scott Brooks has always chosen a fine defender over a good scorer. It’s why Thabo Sefolosha was in the starting lineup for so many years. It’s also why Roberson got the nod to replace Sefolosha before the season. 

A change of scenery to a team that will make his development a priority is the only way Lamb will reach his true potential. He’ll never grow with his minutes fluctuating on a game-by-game basis in Oklahoma City, where the focus is on winning a championship.

It should have never reached this point with Jeremy Lamb and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

By now, he should be a vital cog on a championship contender. Instead, he’s a potential bust stuck in limbo on a team that doesn’t have the patience to develop him. 

The blame for Lamb’s failures falls on both the player and the team. Oklahoma City never fully committed to the crown jewel of the biggest trade in the franchise’s history, and Lamb never gave it a reason to do so. 

Instead, the club continued to add depth by bringing in guys like Morrow and Roberson. That should tell you something about where it sees Lamb in its big picture. The end game now is to cut its losses and admit defeat.

What was once considered a possible bright spot for the team’s future has now become a mistake of the past.  

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats current as of Dec. 1 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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