5 Players The Miami Heat Could Be Looking To Target This Season

Following the Miami Heat‘s 105-87 loss to the Utah Jazz, the Heat have dropped to a record of 12-14.
Despite Dwyane Wade’s 42 points, including 21 free throw attempts, Miami was unable to defeat the second-worst team in the Western Conference. Chris Bosh is out for the near future due to a calf strain, while Josh McRoberts is likely out for the rest of the season due to a knee injury that requires surgery,
The Heat have had their projected starting lineup on the court for a total of 34 minutes together. That lineup was supposed to be Bosh, McRoberts, Luol Deng, Wade and Norris Cole.
All five of the aforementioned players have missed periods of time due to injury. Bosh has missed the last three games, McRoberts has been out nine out of a possible 26 contests, Deng was inactive for two matchups, Wade was absent for seven games and Cole was hurt for four matchups.
This has resulted in the Heat using 11 different starting lineups through just 26 games.
The team is currently seeking a $2…

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Thunder looking like contenders again

Westbrook putting up big numbers, but it’s the numbers he’s preventing that has been key.

      
 

 

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David West’s Return Not the Answer Indiana Pacers Have Been Looking for

Despite a slew of injuries, the Indiana Pacers came out of the gate with a surprisingly strong start.

While most of their projected starting lineup rehabbed and recovered, players like Chris Copeland, Donald Sloan and Solomon Hill carried the Pacers to several gutsy wins. 

That performance created plenty of optimism. If the end of the bench can hold down the fort until guys like David West return, the Pacers might keep themselves in playoff contention. 

West has been back for seven games now and the Pacers have won just one. In short, he has not been the answer they were looking for.

His return was supposed to be a real linchpin. He has been the Pacers’ rock for the past three seasons, reliably competing on defense and carrying the offense through dry stretches. 

West has not been playing horribly, his per-36 minute statistics from Basketball-Reference are fairly close to what he averaged last season:

  PTS REB AST STL BLK FG%
2014-2015 15.7 7.9 3.3 0.6 0.4 41.1%
2013-2014 16.3 7.9 3.2 0.9 1.1 48.8%

The biggest difference is the field-goal percentage. West’s outside shooting is a pressure release valve for the Pacers offense. It provides some measure of spacing for penetration and gives everyone a target to throw the ball to when the shot clock is winding down.

You can see from West’s shot chart that his jump shot has been fairly limited in effectiveness so far this season:

Obviously the shot volume is small everywhere because he hasn’t taken many shots yet. But you can see he’s been very inconsistent on his mid-range pick-and-pop attempts around the free throw line, and normally those shots are West’s bread and butter.

Even more concerning is the lack of activity around the basket. Compare his shot chart from this season to last season’s version: 

Again, overall shot volume is much higher everywhere because he’s had so few shot attempts this season. But you can see how much more active West usually is in and around the paint. In addition to this shot distribution pattern, he also isn’t getting to the line. Last season he averaged 5.3 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference. This season that number is down to 1.7.

Both of these pieces are impacting the Pacers offense. West’s game has been one-dimensional—on the perimeter—and he’s still hasn’t found his rhythm from the outside.

According to NBA.com, the Pacers offense has been 14.2 points worse per 100 possessions, with West on the floor. That’s a pretty remarkable drop for an offense that is already among the league’s worst. Altogether, they are scoring just 85.5 points per 100 possessions with West on the floor. 

The starting unit has been a big part of the problem, which West acknowledged to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star after Wednesday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers:

Our chemistry is not very good with that group. We’ve got to work on it. Thank God for those other guys, the second unit guys keeping some of these games close, because we just haven’t been able to start the games well. We get down and really put the team in a bad way.

It’s a small sample, but one of the players who appears to be suffering the most is Roy Hibbert. He was in the midst of a moderate offensive bounce-back from last season’s struggles. With West on the floor, his field-goal percentage has dropped from 46.5 percent to 42.1 percent. His free-throw attempts per 36 minutes also dropped from 5.3 to 1.7.

Those two numbers are really important. A big piece of Hibbert‘s resurgence was playing strong on the interior. For whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to do that as well with West back in the lineup. It’s even gotten to the point where changes to the front-line rotation, one of the most reliable in the league over the past few seasons, may be on the horizon. Here’s Mark Montieth from Pacers.com:

Vogel isn’t giving up on anyone. He believes West and Hibbert are lacking synergy rather than energy, the result of being surrounded by three different starters than the past two seasons, and that the talent is adequate to win games. Still, he’s not opposed to making changes. Yes, he’s stuck with players in the past, but not when the losses are piling up.

The Pacers need West on their front line, but only if he’s working well. At his current level of production, he isn’t punishing defenders for overreacting to ball-handlers on the screen-and-roll. He also isn’t providing an additional weapon by posting up smaller players and bullying his way into baskets around the rim. 

It certainly makes things difficult that most of the wings and backcourt players West and Hibbert are working with are largely new. Still, West’s skill set and steady strength have always had the effect of making things easier on his teammates.

Right now, it’s going the opposite direction.

West’s skill haven’t degraded that far, and a rhythm can be found.

The Pacers have to hope he finds it soon.

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Warriors Looking to Match Longest Winning Streak in Franchise History

Coming off 10 consecutive victories, the Golden State Warriors enter Thursday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans looking to match the franchise record for longest winning streak, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The impressive streak nearly ended Tuesday night, when the Orlando Magic surprisingly gave the Warriors a tight game on Golden State’s home court.

Down 97-95 in the closing seconds, Warriors guard Stephen Curry drained an unassisted three-pointer with just 2.2 seconds remaining to give his team a one-point lead that would hold up.

Orlando’s following inbounds pass was batted away by Warriors forward Draymond Green, falling right into Curry’s hands as time ran out.

Now tied with the Memphis Grizzlies at a league-best 15-2 after the dramatic victory, Golden State has its fifth winning streak of 10 games or longer in franchise history, per Basketball-Reference.com’s play index.

Of the four previous streaks, three ended at exactly 10 games, including last season’s run from Dec. 21 to Jan. 7.

The only streak that went to 11 games occurred during the 1971-72 season—a campaign that ended with a 51-31 record and loss in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Golden State will again have the benefit of home court in Thursday’s game against the 8-8 Pelicans, but the Warriors will still have to deal with superstar forward Anthony Davis, who recorded a ridiculous stat line of 25 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, six steals and four blocks in Tuesday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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Los Angeles Clippers Looking Like Title Pretenders, and Sunday NBA Takeaways

The focus of the Memphis Grizzlies’ 107-91 mauling of the visiting Los Angeles Clippers would normally be on the victor.

But the Grizzlies’ dominant win didn’t teach us anything new about the team that has been tearing up the Western Conference for the first month of the season. The contest did, however, offer another piece of damning evidence in the case against the Clippers.

Los Angeles might not be a contender.

Marc Gasol continued his season-long demolition tour, hanging 30 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks on the Clippers. It was a brilliant performance on both ends from the man who’s played the center position as well as anyone (defense counts, DeMarcus Cousins supporters) this season.

Gasol, even in his newly trimmed-down form was perfectly happy to mix it up in an ultra-physical affair. Despite his terrific line, the big Spaniard still saw room for improvement, per Matt Moore of CBSSports.com:

And that’s where we shift the focus away from Memphis and onto Los Angeles, which put forth yet another disjointed defensive effort. Gasol’s comments served a dual purpose.

He was trying to keep his team, which has every reason to be full of itself, from getting too content. Even big wins like this one could have been bigger, he’s trying to say.

Secondly, Gasol was calling attention to the Clippers’ woeful help defense, which has been a major disappointment this season. Memphis knows it could have gotten even easier looks by moving the ball more efficiently. Somehow, its 20 assists felt like an underachievement.

It’s a perplexing problem, as this same L.A. core posted a 102.1 defensive rating a year ago, good enough to finish in a seventh-place tie with the Grizzlies, per NBA.com. This season, the Clippers check in at No. 20 with a 104.7 rating.

It’s hard to know the exact cause for this, and there’s almost certainly more than just one. Matt Barnes’ broken perimeter stroke has resulted in more minutes for Jamal Crawford, which essentially amounts to four-on-five basketball on defense. In addition, Blake Griffin hasn’t looked nearly as alert or mobile on either end this season.

Communication has been poor, as has been the team’s general effort level. For evidence of that, look no further than the historically poor offensive rebounding numbers, as noted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz:

After being out-rebounded by 20 on the night (including a minus-seven margin on the offensive boards), L.A. now ranks dead last in the NBA with an offensive-rebound rate of 16.7 percent, per NBA.com.

To be fair, teams often punt on the offensive glass in the interest of getting back in transition. But the Clips clearly aren’t defending this season, so it’s hard to believe giving up on offensive boards is part of some grand plan.

If it is, the plan’s not working.

Something just feels wrong about the Clippers, and playing against a Grizzlies team for whom everything looked so very right was a study in serious contrast.

The Clippers won 57 games last season, and it’s difficult to believe a 7-5 start means imminent doom. But the Clips fancy themselves a title contender, and it doesn’t take much slippage to make that belief unrealistic.

Less than halfway through a rough seven-game road trip, Los Angeles needs to either find a spark or risk returning home under .500. We’ll soon see whether the Grizzlies’ thorough beatdown serves as motivation or accelerates a tailspin.

The Clippers had better find their edge in a hurry. The West isn’t getting softer anytime soon.

 

Around the Association

Game of Inches

The Charlotte Hornets fell short against the Miami Heat by the slimmest of margins on Sunday, dropping a 94-93 decision that would have gone their way if an Al Jefferson tip-in at point-blank range had stayed down at the buzzer.

Mario Chalmers had a dozen of his 20 points in the fourth, and Chris Bosh‘s slick, fading left-shoulder turnaround from the right baseline gave the Heat a lead that would hold up through a costly turnover on their next possession. When Jefferson couldn’t clean up Kemba Walker’s shot at the buzzer, it was all over.

Devastation was the prevailing mood for a Hornets team that played well enough to win but couldn’t close the deal against a Heat squad missing Dwyane Wade (hamstring) for the sixth straight game.

Oh, and there may be trouble a-brewin’ in Charlotte:

It’s something to keep an eye on as the Hornets, losers of five in a row, try to keep it together.

 

Mo Speights, No Problems

The Golden State Warriors let a physical, scrappy Oklahoma City Thunder team hang around all game long, lost Andrew Bogut (orbital contusion) and Leandro Barbosa (knee sprain) to injuries (neither of which are expected to linger long term) and saw the Splash Brothers combine for just 11 made field goals on 35 attempts.

That’s not a recipe for a win under normal circumstances, but normal circumstances don’t include Marreese Speights getting loose for a game-high 28 points off the bench.

This was the continuation of a trend for Speights, who has averaged 17.4 points and 6.2 rebounds on 63.5 shooting over his past five contests. Golden State will need its most impactful reserve to keep producing with Bogut potentially limited (but very enthusiastic) as the Warriors embark on a five-game road trip, the next four of which are in the East.

Thanks to Speights, the Dubs emerged with a 91-86 win to start their travels.

 

Blake and Bake

Evan Turner was just trying to anticipate the Chris Kaman screen, and part of his job as a defender on the pick-and-roll is to make sure the guard—Steve Blake in this case—doesn’t get to the middle of the floor. It’s called “icing,” appropriately, as Turner looked very much like he was on skates.

Unfortunately, Turner’s anticipatory lunge combined with Blake’s quick right-to-left crossover to produce a highlight the Boston Celtics wing will be hearing plenty about in the coming days.

Turner’s defensive uh-oh was a micro example of the macro problem that sank the Boston Celtics. After defending capably for three quarters, Boston stumbled through a 10-0 Portland Trail Blazers run to start the fourth quarter—a surge that ultimately decided the game.

Summation: Blake 1, Turner 0. Blazers 94, Celtics 88.

 

Lakers Highlights!

Wesley Johnson got to work on both ends in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 101-94 loss to the Denver Nuggets, soaring for a hurt-your-feelings two-handed stuff on Arron Afflalo:

And then rising for the spectacular slam on Danilo Gallinari in the fourth quarter:

On a night when many Lakers fans were ecstatic to see Ed Davis get the start over the injured Carlos Boozer (finally!) and then disappointed when Davis fouled out after 22 minutes, Johnson stepped in to fill the excitement void.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s moments of heroism were the only positives in a game the Lakers gave away at the foul line and on the offensive glass.

 

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Bulls Looking to Open Season with 7-0 Road Record for 1st Time

The Chicago Bulls improved to 6-0 on the road with Monday’s 105-89 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, marking the first time since 1996-97 the franchise has won each of its first six road games in a season, per NBA.com/stats.

The NBA’s only team with an undefeated record away from home, Chicago largely benefited from an easy road schedule at first, moving to 4-0 thanks to wins over the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.

The past two road victories were far more impressive, with Monday’s skunking of the Clippers preceded by a 100-93 win over the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 13. The 8-2 Raptors have won each of their other six home games by an average margin of 15.3 points

The Bulls, meanwhile, have outscored their opponents by 60 points in the six road games, making for an average margin of exactly 10.

Back in 1996-97, the Bulls won each of their first six road games with an average margin of 13 points, but then lost No. 7 to the Utah Jazz.

Chicago would finish that season with a 69-13 record, before beating Utah 4-2 in the memorable 1997 NBA Finals.

The Bulls’ six-game season-opening road winning streak in 1996-97 came on the heels of a seven-game road streak to close out the previous campaign. The combined 13-game road winning streak still stands as easily the longest in franchise history, per Basketball-Reference.com’s play index.

This year’s Bulls have a long ways to go before thinking about that record, but they’ll still have a chance to become the first team in franchise history with seven consecutive road wins to start a season.

The matchup is certainly winnable, with the Bulls facing the 6-5 Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena on Thursday. The Kings have lost four of their last five games after jumping out to a 5-1 start.

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Family Taunting Brooklyn Nets with ‘Nets.com’ Looking to Sell Domain Name

If you ever typed “Nets.com” into your Internet browser, funky things would happen.

Sometimes you’d be taken to the Boston Celtics homepage. Other times you’d be thrown onto Jason Kidd’s website. At its weirdest, you might suddenly find Mark Cuban sticking his tongue in your face.

The address led anywhere but the Brooklyn Nets homepage, and the people behind its creation remained a mystery until stepping forward in a piece published Tuesday by The New York Times’ Andrew Keh

Keh reports that the website, long hailed as a monument to “trolling” the Brooklyn Nets, is owned by Jane Hill, a former photographer and telecom businesswoman living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Hill, 69, says she purchased “Nets.com” in 1996 for $20,000. She says she’s since enjoyed being the subject of Internet and NBA intrigue over the last several years.

“We’ve had fun with the mystery of it all,” Hill said.

Hill says she began shopping the domain after the Nets announced their plans to move to Brooklyn. Having sold other domains for “seven-figure sums,” she decided to ask for $5 million in her pitch to the team. They didn’t bite. 

Rather, the Nets took offense to the offer. Team spokesman Barry Baum told Keh that the team considered Hill’s attempts to sell “shameful.” 

“Our website is BrooklynNets.com, and our fans know this is our site,” Baum said. “Brooklyn Nets is our brand, and we have no interest in Nets.com, despite the shameful efforts of the registrant to attempt to sell us this domain name for seven figures.”

One person’s shameful ploy is another’s sound business strategy. Hill maintains that the website carries tremendous value, given the scarcity of simple domain names in the market.

“It’s a word in the dictionary,” Hill said. 

Thus the cyber warfare began, with Hill’s 37-year-old son John taking over the responsibility of redirecting the sites’ visitors. He, along with a number of his mother’s employees, redirected traffic to the New York Knicks and New York Mets websites.

“The one compliment I take to heart is when people say, ‘This is the ultimate troll,’ John said. “There’s some joy in that.” 

The most notorious iteration of “Nets.com” featured the aforementioned image of Cuban and his tongue. Plopped onto an amateurishly designed page in late 2012, the photo was accompanied by the words: “Looking for the New Jersey Nets? Looking for the Brooklyn Nets? They’re not here … but they SHOULD be!” 

The page also contained a message for the team’s majority owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Its rough English translation is, “Mikhail, are you watching? Vilena wants to know.”

Some took this to be a stab at Prokhorov’s alleged involvement in an international prostitution ring. Hill told Keh that the mysterious “Vilena” is just the name of a Russian woman who works for her. 

“We were determined not to be malicious in any way,” Hill said. “But we did want to get a little bit of attention.” 

Nets.com no longer redirects, ironically. Typing in the address now takes users to an eBay auction site, where potential owners can bid on the domain. The auction’s description paints the address as a “premium” domain name for tech start-ups, tennis net manufacturers and social networking businesses: 

Perhaps you are a tech start-up with a need for a fantastic domain name to get you off the ground? Are you one of the major players on the planet in the routing and/or networking equipment business? Maybe you are the proprietor of the world’s preeminent manufacturer of tennis court nets? Fishnets? Volleyball nets? Goalpost nets? 

Of course, Hill hasn’t forgotten her preferred buyer.

“Or, maybe you just happen to have a basketball team of the same name?”

 

Follow Dan on Twitter for more sports and pop culture filigree.

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5 NBA Teams That Should Already Be Looking to Make a Trade

In the NBA, complacency is only a good thing when your team is just rolling along, allowing the “Why mess with a good thing?” inquiry to come into play. 

But for teams that are struggling to meet expectations—or just struggling in general—during the early portion of the 2014-15 season, complacency can’t be a positive. It’s never too soon to begin tinkering with a lineup or a roster, making adjustments that potentially lead to better results. 

For five squads throughout the Association, it’s already time to start working the phones and looking into some possible trades. 

Of course, it’s worth noting that not all of these teams have to make trades in order to turn their seasons around. A number of them are talented enough that they can expect natural progression and improvement even if a deal would be advantageous and speed along the process. 

Looking around at the market never hurt anyone, right? 

 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current as of Nov. 10.

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Milwaukee Bucks: Looking back at Jennings trade

Last offseason, the Milwaukee Bucks traded Brandon Jennings, one of their best players, to the Detroit Pistons. It was a big move for the Bucks, but it helped inspire a change in direction after spending many years as a mediocre team. In the trade, Milwaukee acquired Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Viacheslav Kravtsov.
Brandon Jennings immediately burst onto the scene his rookie year making a big impact on the Bucks. In his NBA debut, Jennings almost recorded a triple-double scoring 17 points, grabbing nine rebounds and having nine assists. Jennings even had a game where he scored 55 points during his rookie year.
The future looked very bright for Jennings, but over the next few years, he never developed into an all-star caliber player. He was and still is a good player, but he hasn’t improved a great deal since his rookie season. Jennings averaged 15.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game his rookie year. So far this season, he is averaging 10.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game.

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As Injuries Steal Thunder’s Heart, OKC Looking for Ways to Survive Season Ahead

It’s hard to see hope through the thicket of walking boots, casts, Ace bandages and gauze littering the Oklahoma City Thunder locker room. Kevin Durant (broken foot) can’t walk. Russell Westbrook (broken hand) can’t catch. An injury plague of biblical proportions has left the Thunder depleted, dumbfounded.

But Nick Collison is an optimistic sort, and he is insists the silver lining is there, if you squint hard enough.

“We still got five good defenders out there,” the 11-year veteran assures a reporter. “We got all our bigs. Andre’s probably one of our best perimeter defenders. Perry’s one of our best defenders.”

This was Monday morning, and Collison was bravely charting the ways in which the Thunder would remain competitive without Durant and Westbrook, their two electrifying stars.

That night, Andre Roberson sprained his left foot in Brooklyn and left the game.

The next night, Perry Jones bruised his right knee in Toronto and left the game.   

The Thunder lost both games, leaving them with a 1-4 record and two fewer reasons to be optimistic.

In this cruel November, even the Thunder’s silver linings are fractured.

“I don’t really know what to say, other than it’s unfortunate we had another injury,” coach Scott Brooks said late Monday. “That’s just how things are going right now. But we’re not throwing the white flag. We’re going to keep battling.”

It’s hard to overstate just how dire the situation in Oklahoma has become, with Durant and Westbrook out for the foreseeable future and the roster gutted by a dizzying array of fractures, strains and sprains.

Jeremy Lamb is out with a sprained back. Mitch McGary is out with a broken foot. Anthony Morrow is out with a sprained knee. Grant Jerrett is recovering from ankle surgery.

Jones, however, who suffered what the team called a knee contusion and hasn’t practiced, could return as early as Friday night against Memphis, the Thunder believe. 

Circumstances have dictated a complete overhaul of the Thunder’s agenda: from title contention to mere survival. Even a postseason berth is not assured.

It could take 50 wins to make the Western Conference playoffs. Westbrook is out for at least four weeks. Durant could miss 25 games or more. The Thunder’s entire season now boils down to simple math, and two figures in particular: How far out of eighth place will they be when Durant and Westbrook return? And can they win at a high enough rate to make up the distance?

The answer to those questions may be linked to one more: How good is Perry Jones?

Of the remaining Thunder players, Serge Ibaka is the most accomplished and Jackson, the young point guard, is the most offensively skilled. But the 23-year-old Jones is easily the most intriguing, and perhaps the key to the team’s survival.

On the night Westbrook broke his hand, Jones scored 32 points in a narrow loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Two nights later, he scored 23 points in a victory over the Denver Nuggets. On Monday, Jones scored a relatively quiet 16 points against Brooklyn.

Still, that was three straight games of beating his previous career high (14 points), all while displaying the rare combination of size, skill and athleticism that made Jones such a tantalizing prospect in college.

At 6’11″, with a 7’2″ wingspan, Jones has the size to play in the paint, the speed to play on the perimeter, with ball-handling skills and shooting range.

“At certain moments, he looks like a young Magic Johnson, only a little bigger and a lot faster,” a New York Times Magazine story raved in 2011, during Jones’ freshman season at Baylor.

At the time, Jones was pegged as a top-five draft pick. But he chose to return to Baylor for his sophomore season, to continue growing and maturing. He was still viewed as a high lottery pick in 2012, until concerns about his knees and his motor caused him to freefall on draft night.

The Thunder snatched Jones with the 28th pick.

Some teams were scared off by whispers of a degenerative knee condition. Some viewed his laid-back demeanor with suspicion – an indication that, despite his admirable skill set, Jones would never become a star.

But the star-studded Thunder didn’t need another alpha male. In Jones, they saw an ideal complement to Durant and Westbrook: a player who could do it all, but didn’t need to. An elite talent, without the ego.

“He fit the profile of the types of players that we’re generally attracted to,” general manager Sam Presti said, listing Jones’ size, length, quickness and positional versatility.

“And he’s also a guy that is a tremendously diligent worker and he wants to fit in and find ways to blend with the players that are generally carrying the bulk of the weight,” Presti said. “I think that’s a tremendous quality for someone as talented as him.”

The Thunder also had the luxury of letting Jones develop. He spent his rookie season shuttling frequently between the Thunder and their D-League affiliate in Tulsa. He played in just 38 NBA games, averaging 7.4 minutes.

“I think it’d be frustrating for any player,” Jones said. “But also it was a learning experience for me. The last two years have been nothing but learning experiences. What these guys do every day, following in their footsteps, working hard every day….Patience is the key.”

Last season, Jones became more of a fixture, appearing in 62 games for the Thunder but averaging just 12.3 minutes. Along the way, he has polished his three-point stroke and his ball-handling skills.

Jones shot 36 percent on three-pointers last season, on 61 attempts, after taking just two shots from behind the arc as a rookie. Through four games this season, he was shooting 38 percent (8 for 21). He’s also improved his post game.

In athletic testing, Jones outscores the entire Thunder roster, Westbrook and Durant included. He has proven most valuable as the stretch-four in a small-ball lineup, according to the team’s internal analytics.

“We knew he obviously has the talent,” Brooks said of Jones. “It’s hard to get minutes when you’re behind KD. But he’s always been a worker….I’m not going to sit here and say we knew that he was going to score 23 and 32 in two games. But I knew he had the ability to score.”

Although Jones is not a lockdown defender, his versatility is an asset, especially against the pick and roll, allowing him to switch at will. Over the course of Monday’s game, Jones guarded Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson and Bojan Bogdanovic.

But it’s Jones’ offensive potential that matters most right now, with the Thunder missing about 54 points a game between Durant and Westbrook. Ibaka has improved as a scorer, and Jackson showed some flashes last season. Yet in lieu of a single, dominant scoring threat, the Thunder will need multiple options to stay afloat in the coming weeks.

After two years of playing behind Durant, and battling him daily in practice, Jones may need to emulate him.

“I think his assertiveness is maybe that light bulb that’s gone off,” Collison said. “He’s had the ability. If you watch him in a workout, he’s capable of doing anything on the court. He’s as talented as anybody in the league. It’s just that comfort level and always just being assertive out there, not questioning, not second-guessing, and it’s great to see. Hopefully, he can keep going.”

The coming weeks will be a test, not only of Jones, but of the Thunder’s entire roster-building strategy during the Durant-Westbrook era. Their fate rests for now on lower first-round picks like Jones, Jackson (24th in 2013) and Roberson (26th in 2013, by Minnesota). It rests, as well, on the players and picks acquired in the James Harden trade: Steven Adams, Lamb and McGary (once healthy).

Thunder officials believe they have assembled a sturdy, versatile and talented second group behind their stars, despite the low picks and salary-cap constraints. That faith, too, will be tested in the weeks ahead.

Westbrook and Durant could lead the Thunder to the championship next June. But that can’t happen unless Jones, Jackson and Adams can get them through December.

 

 Howard Beck is a senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

 

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