Return of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook Could Save the Thunder Just in Time

It seemed on the surface like such simple-happy news: Following a frustration-fraught first month of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder could welcome back their superstar duo—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—as early as next week, per The Oklahoman’s Anthony Slater.

Few doubted the Thunder’s climb would be a trying one, especially after a 3-11 start put them squarely in the Western Conference basement.

The question is whether Durant and Westbrook’s much anticipated return might be an avalanche too late.

Start with the obvious: With the gap between the conferences wider than it’s ever been, even securing the No. 8 seed—currently occupied by the always-plucky Phoenix Suns—is far from assured. Particularly not with upstarts like the Sacramento Kings (No. 9) and New Orleans Pelicans (No. 10) waiting willfully in the wings.

And that’s before you get to the murder’s row of forces further up the ladder: the Los Angeles Clippers (No. 7), the San Antonio Spurs (No. 6) and Houston Rockets (No. 5) being just a few of the faces not liable to shy away anytime soon.

It’s never wise to project final pictures from 17 percent of the season, of course. Wider gaps have been surmounted under far weirder circumstances.

But nor have the Thunder done themselves any favors, either by their poor play or their cursed injury woes. With respect to the latter, the luck is almost ludicrous: Beyond Westbrook and Durant, Perry Jones and Reggie Jackson—stopgap starters both—have missed chunks of time with maladies of knee and ankle, respectively.

That, it can safely be said, is beyond OKC’s control. How the team has managed its superstars’ absence, however, has been far from encouraging.

Things started off innocently enough, with the Thunder plodding off to an eminently manageable 3-6 start. That’s when the wheels officially started flying off. In the five games since, OKC has registered the league’s 28th-ranked offense (92. 1 ORtg) and 23rd-ranked defense (101.3 DRtg) en route to its current 0-5 slide (NBA.com stats require subscription).

With their depth demolished, it was only a matter of time before the Thunder started swooning hard. All the while, the play of Jackson—who currently leads the team in both points (19.9) and assists (7.7)—has become a much-needed silver lining about an ominous cloud, even while questions of chemistry loom large in the distance. From SB Nation’s Jesus Gomez:

A more confident and aggressive Jackson is proving to be a great asset for this watered down version of the Thunder. In many ways, him embracing the role of leader is their best hope of remaining competitive while Westbrook and Kevin Durant are out. But how will the chemistry be affected when the superstars return and Jackson has to be reined in? Jackson’s emergence could catapult OKC to a title or harm the delicate balance of the locker room. It’s impossible to tell what will happen.

And it’s because of that unpredictability that the Thunder and especially Jackson are so fun to watch.

At this point, “fun” has become something of a relative term. Even with Durant and Westbrook raring for a much-heralded return, the road to redemption stands to be a rancorous one indeed for these Thunder.

After a three-game homestand the week of Thanksgiving, seven of OKC’s next 10 games are on the road—a stretch that includes away dates with conference foes the Pelicans, Kings and Golden State Warriors.

The big picture doesn’t look much rosier: With the 8-5 Suns currently on a pace similar to that of the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks a season ago (49-33), the Thunder would have to finish 46-22 (a winning percentage of .676) just to match that theoretical feat. And that’s before even knowing the exact date of Durant and Westbrook’s return.

For a team with a .709 win clip over the past four seasons, such a pace is more than doable, of course. It’s when you factor in the Xs—the shedding of injury rust, a recalibration of chemistry—that OKC’s prospects start to assume a murkier hue.

One thing the Thunder won’t entertain, however, is calling off the dogs in hopes of some draft-day coup.

“I don’t really pay much attention to other people’s thoughts on our team,” Brooks said, according to SportingNews.com. ”I know what we’re about, I know what our organization is about. Everybody has their opinion and they’re entitled to that. Tanking is not something that we will consider.”

Had Durant and Westbrook suffered more serious setbacks, OKC’s tune may well have been different. As it is, the Thunder—steep though the stakes may be—have more than a few factors working in their favor: from relative roster continuity to loudly loyal fans to their dynamic duo’s peerless basketball pedigree.

Indeed, for all the bruised bones and egos, there is scarcely another team (save perhaps for the Spurs and Chicago Bulls) better equipped to bring its foremost faces seamlessly back into the fold.

The story of the Oklahoma City Thunder is one with no shortage of curious turns and dramatic detours. A disappointing ending, even, had the book been closed already.

The degree of difficulty Durant and Westbrook now face—to not only scratch and claw their way back above the conference fold, but to exorcise years worth of deep-Spring demons—is starker and scarier than perhaps any that have come before.

Good thing, then, that that’s how some of the best tales end: their heroes forever forging ahead, pages and pages after first being left for dead.

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Oklahoma City Thunder: Time to panic after 5th straight loss

Before the season began, it was only a matter of who the Oklahoma City Thunder will face in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Now questions surface if they will even make the playoffs after losing five in a row. Is it time to panic in Oklahoma?
The Brooklyn Nets put an end to their five game losing streak displaying a masterful performance late in the fourth defensively and handing the Thunder their fifth straight loss with a 94-92 victory Friday night as they continued their offensive slump.
Led by Jarret Jack who scored 23 points going eight-for-fifteen shooting off the bench. Jack seem rejuvenated, turning the time clock a couple years back to his playing days with the Golden State Warriors when he was causing havoc for teams late in the playoffs.
Completely being shut down in the 4th quarter, the Brooklyn Nets exposed yet again a struggling Thunder team who could not seem to get into rhythm offensively in the 4th quarter. The Thunder could not buy a basket down the stretch and were hel

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Daily fantasy basketball: Carmelo’s time to shine

There are a couple of struggling stars tonight whose fortunes could change with great matchups.

      
 

 

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Daily fantasy basketball: Time for Carmelo to shine

There are a couple of struggling stars tonight whose fortunes could change with great matchups.

      
 

 

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It’s Time for the Utah Jazz to Prioritize Dante Exum over Trey Burke

To say Trey Burke‘s in a sophomore slump would almost be an insult to the phrase.

His numbers have tragically bottomed out through roughly one-fifth of the season, and he’s been thoroughly outplayed by backup Dante Exum, who’s already proven he deserves the bulk of the minutes at the point.

It’s been tough to watch Burke this season, and not just from the standpoint of a writer or fan. He’s gone from savior to scapegoat for this franchise in just over a year.

This was the general sentiment when he was drafted in the summer of 2013.

This is now.

And the change didn’t come without reason. Through just over one season’s worth of games, he’s barely looked like an NBA player. The eye test says he’s too small and not athletic enough.

Friday night, the Golden State Warriors trounced the Jazz, 101-88. In a 13-point loss, Burke was a team-worst minus-28. Exum was plus-15.

Golden State did what almost every other opponent has: Put Burke on an island—in the post, on the perimeter, whatever—and go to work.

And that’s just on defense. The numbers tell the story on the other end, where he’s rarely able to create an even decent look for himself.

In his first season, the numbers were rough (as you just saw), but there were at least flashes of solid IQ and playmaking ability. Maybe he could one day morph into a pass-first 1 like Andre Miller or Kendall Marshall.

But in year 2, Burke is still trying to be a scoring guard. And the picture gets even uglier when compared to what Exum‘s doing.

In all honesty, this is what should be happening. Exum is clearly the higher-upside asset. It’s unquestionable. Tune into any Jazz game and you’ll see it for yourself. Exum is taller, longer and more athletic. Plus, his vision and IQ are way ahead of schedule.

Obviously, there are still things to work out with Exum. His catch-and-shoot game has been better than expected, but his dribble pull-up is a mess. He’s yet to make a single shot off the dribble outside of 10 feet.

He gets out of position at times defensively, but he has the length and quickness to recover. Just imagine what he can do once he irons out those fundamentals.

He can also tighten up his handle a bit, even though he’s figured out that keeping things simple generally helps him stay out of trouble.

Thing is, the learning process could be accelerated by playing Exum more minutes with the first unit. There’s a theory in basketball that’s akin to exposure therapy. Just like you can help people with a fear of heights by taking them to the Empire State Building, a basketball player can adapt in difficult circumstances.

The skyscraper is a controlled environment. There are security guards and really tall fences. You’re not going to fall off. While playing with the starters, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors can be Exum‘s safety net as he truly adapts to the speed of the NBA.

The move is starting to come up among experts all over the NBA, but it’s a delicate process. Basketball Insiders’ Nate Duncan is worried what it would do to Burke.

ESPN’s Chad Ford has been asked about the debate as well. Twice, actually. In his weekly Q&A with SportsNation, Ford was asked, “When does Quin Snyder move Trey Burke to the bench in favor of Exum?”

He responded:

Great question. Exum, who was supposed to be the rawest of the lottery guys, has really outplayed him all year. In fact, Exum ranks second among all rookies in PER right now. And he’s going to get better. A lot better. It’s hard to watch that team with an objective eye and think Trey Burke is even in the same league as Exum as far as elite potential goes. Now, the Jazz may want to keep bringing him along slowly. There’s less pressure coming off the bench. But long-term? He’s going to be the Jazz’s starting PG. Combine him with Gordan Hayward and Derrick Favors, both of who have been excellent this year and the Jazz have a scary core for the future.

The next week, he went into the specifics on why Utah is hesitant to make the move:

I mentioned this last week and feel even stronger about it this week after talking to sources close to the Jazz. They know Exum is going to be amazing and quite possibly their franchise player. He’s not ready yet. He has to get stronger to handle all the contact he gets. But he’s got the tools, has the basketball IQ, has the work ethic to be GREAT. And his jump shot is dramatically improving. Fast forward two years and he’s likely Utah’s No. 1 option. But it’s early and I think they are erroring on the side of patience right now. He doesn’t need to be, nor is he ready to be THE guy right now. I think Burke might start the whole season. But by next year, or the year after, this will be Exum‘s team to run.

The question here isn’t whether or not Exum‘s ready to be the guy this season. That’s still Hayward, and to a lesser extent, Favors.

This is about who’s the better option to help the 2014-15 Utah Jazz win games. The numbers say it’s Exum. And he fits logistically.

He’s pass-first all the way, almost to a fault. That makes more sense with Hayward, Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, all of whom can score. With a second unit devoid of scorers, Exum‘s unselfishness can contribute to a stagnant attack.

Now, think about what the move does for Burke. Yes, there’s the fear that it negatively impacts his psyche, like Duncan pointed out, but it could also go the other way.

It could be difficult for him to accept at first. But after adapting, Burke could settle into the opportunity to be aggressive in a lineup that actually needs him to be, and against other players without top-tier physical tools.

All that said, there’s still no indication from within the organization that a lineup change is coming. So the most we can ask for now is more minutes, including some with the starters.

Exum is clearly the point guard of the future, and he’s earned more time to develop cohesion with the other core members of the team.

And if it means rewriting the next few months of Burke’s career from a tragedy to some kind of buddy-cop flick with his up-and-coming backup, even better.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats and salary figures are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com, and are current as of Nov. 22, 2014.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him @AndrewDBailey.

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Fordham Basketball: After Tough Week on the Road, Time to Look Ahead

Fordham lost twice this week in back-to-back games on the road against Big Ten opponents.

After a 94-77 win over the New York Institute of Technology in the season opener, the last two games served as a reminder that nothing will come easy this season—not that anything has ever been easy—with eight underclassmen who could see significant time, a schedule that includes 18 games against Atlantic 10 teams and the just-completed trips to Penn State and Maryland.

Last Sunday against Penn State, just two days after its win over NYIT, Fordham took an early 10-5 lead, but the Nittany Lions responded with an 11-0 run and led 38-21 at the half. The Rams trailed by as many as 25 in the second half and lost 73-54.

“Life with seven freshmen is interesting,” Fordham head coach Tom Pecora said after the Penn State loss, according to FordhamSports.com. “We’ve got to use this game as a learning experience and take something from it as we move on.”

Four days later Fordham was in Maryland, where the Terrapins, now 3-0, continued their hot start to the season with a 66-50 win over the Rams. Fordham kept it close in the first half, trailing by just five at the break, but Maryland would pull away in the second half for a 66-50 win.

“They’re good. We knew they were good. We had great respect for them,” Pecora said about Maryland in postgame remarks, reported by FordhamSports.com. “I thought we played really hard considering we didn’t have Eric Paschall and Antwoine Anderson. The guys played real hard, and they competed.”

Despite the two losses, there was some good news this past week, as Paschall was named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week after scoring 31 points and pulling down 10 rebounds in Fordham’s opener. The 31 points he scored against NYIT set a school record for most points scored by a freshman in his debut.

At 1-2, there’s some relief in sight. Fordham’s next four games against UMass Lowell, Maryland Eastern Shore, Siena and Monmouth, all at home, are games it can win. Then there’s the two against local rivals St. John’s (Madison Square Garden) and Manhattan (Barclays Center), before Howard and South Carolina State come to Rose Hill. Fordham won’t leave New York City until it travels to Rhode Island on Jan. 7.

As tough as the games were at Penn State and Maryland, it’s good to have those in the rearview mirror. It will be important for the Rams to get healthy, as that’s been one of the big storylines of the season so far.

Paschall didn’t make the trip to Maryland after undergoing medical tests. Before the game, WFUV Sports reported that he had an irregular heartbeat.

It’s expected that he’ll rejoin the team at practice Friday.

The injury bug has definitely hit Fordham hard.

Anderson was a game-time decision opening night, played just five minutes at Penn State and sat out the game at Maryland with a groin injury. Point guard Nemanja Zarkovic has been battling a hip injury for some time, though he’s been able to play through it. Manny Suarez, who didn’t play in the opener, played a season-high 20 minutes Thursday night. He had shoulder surgery in July. Ryan Canty, one of only two seniors, is out indefinitely following back surgery.

The Rams dressed just 12 players Thursday. Eventually, one would think, they’re going to get healthy.

On the non-injury front, Jon Severe, who was suspended for a week due to a violation of team rules, has appeared in the last two games but has played only 22 minutes combined and has only two points in those games.

You have to think that Fordham can take advantage of a long stretch of games at home over the next month-and-a-half. There will be challenges, but no back-to-back scenarios on the road against teams from power conferences.

Time to look ahead.

 

Statistics, game information and quotes courtesy of FordhamSports.com.

Charles Costello covers the Fordham Rams for Bleacher Report. A full archive of his articles can be found hereTwitter: @CFCostello

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Anthony Davis and Pelicans are going to see more TV time

The NBA season isn’t even a month old, but already the association’s television partners are putting some flex scheduling into action.  ESPN announced that the network was swapping out a scheduled Knicks-Spurs game scheduled for December 10th and replacing it with Pelicans-Mavericks.
In years past, flexing into Pelicans games would be inconceivable (partly because Pelicans highlights were limited to Scarface), but don’t be surprised if this becomes a pattern this year.  New Orleans is only scheduled for just one other game on ESPN and TNT this year – a February 27th matchup against Miami on ESPN.  They have a further 7 games slated for NBATV.  But there’s one reason and one reason only why this ESPN flex is happening so soon.
Anthony Davis.
Ok, there’s another reason.  The Knicks are putrid.  At 3-10, the only thing keeping them out of the Eastern Conference cellar is the zombie corpse of the Philadelphia 76ers.  But let’s focus on the positives here!
Before the season, the Brow was b

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LA Clippers Find ‘Lob City’ Swag at Critical Time

Off to a 2-0 start on what promises to be a revealing seven-game road trip, the Los Angeles Clippers are beginning to resemble the club that claimed a franchise-record 57 victories a season ago. That is to say, they’re looking a little bit like contenders again—even if their solid but unremarkable 7-4 record hasn’t exactly left that impression.

Thursday night’s 110-93 victory over the Miami Heat was the latest evidence of a reawakening. Chris Paul‘s 26 points and 12 assists led the way for a club that raced out to a 39-15 lead after the first 12 minutes of play. 

Sixth man Jamal Crawford did his best CP3 impersonation with nine assists of his own. Altogether, the Clippers finished with a season-high 31 assists on 43 made field goals—several of which came amidst the often electric transition game for which this team is known. Miami may have been missing Dwyane Wade, but he probably wouldn’t have altered the outcome, not with L.A.’s Lob City alter ego taking over.

These Clippers would not be denied some cause for celebration.

All six of center DeAndre Jordan’s field goals were dunks, which should illustrate all you need to know about how effectively this team was creating high-percentage looks.

We’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” Paul told reporters after the contest.

At its best, head coach Doc Rivers’ squad seems to channel its highly decorated floor general. The offense is selfless, aggressive and purposeful. Los Angeles ranked third league-wide with 24.6 assists per game last season and led all teams in offensive efficiency with 109.4 points per 100 possessions. 

Simply put, this team is no stranger to scoring the ball efficiently, and its commitment to taking good shots has a lot to do with that. Tempting as it may be to hand Blake Griffin the ball and get out of the way, that’s not how the Clippers operate when the offense is purring.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for L.A.

While the Clippers opened their road trip with a decisive 114-90 win against the Orlando Magic, they’re now just 3-4 against teams with .500-or-better records. And in three of those four losses, they scored 92 points or less.

As CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore recently argued, “The problem is not the losses, or their struggles. It’s the way they’re struggling.”

And it’s been enough to spur a little introspection at the outset of Rivers’ second season running the show.

“We had the same kind of start last season,” Crawford told reporters this week. “We need to figure it out and I think getting away and getting back with each other on this road trip will be good for us.”

Last season’s Clippers went 3-3 out of the gate before finishing November with a strong 9-2 push. But there’s no question this roster hit its stride in January, February and March. Just 11 games into the Clippers’ 2014-15 campaign, that stride has proved elusive.

“They just look lethargic,” one scout told CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger prior to Thursday’s game. “They’re a shell of what they were last year.”

L.A.’s recent 105-89 loss to the Chicago Bulls (sans Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol) highlighted questions about this team’s ability to get stops, but there are also reasons for broader concern. Coming into Thursday’s contest, the Clippers ranked 21st in defensive efficiency, yielding 104.3 points per 100 possessions. 

So while the Clippers can build upon an outing in which they made 55.8 percent of their field-goal attempts (including a 13-of-31 mark from beyond the three-point arc), holding the Heat to 93 points may be just as important. Maintaining some momentum throughout the remainder of this road show will require some defensive stands—especially during next week’s meeting with the 9-3 Houston Rockets.

With five away games left before a four-game homestand beginning Dec. 1, now is a good time to reestablish a two-way identity and rediscover the winning habits to which this team’s become accustomed.

“I like going on the road,” Rivers told reporters this week. “It’s an opportunity to find yourself.”

The San Antonio Spurs have famously used their annual “Rodeo Road Trip” in February as an opportunity to build cohesion after the All-Star break. Perhaps the Clippers can adopt a similar strategy en route to some midseason momentum.

A little connectivity can go a long way for a team that’s been relying so heavily on its admittedly talented individual parts.

“I thought our trust was broken in the Chicago game,” Rivers told the media after the loss. “I thought we all tried to do it individually. That is the old way we played. We had the ball in one spot. We made some miraculous shots, but it is hard to beat a team with great defense that way. That was proved.”

Just as Thursday proved what 31 assists can accomplish.

We just got to keep trying to get everyone involved and be aggressive,” Paul told the media after losing to Chicago.

It’s the Clippers way. It’s Chris Paul’s way. 

And it was on full display during a first-quarter explosion that almost single-handedly erased any fears this team had somehow taken a step back.

“Not a whole lot to say,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters after Thursday’s game. “That was a blitz in that first quarter. They absolutely knocked us on our heels and we just could never gain our footing after that.”

The Clippers have a way of doing that when playing their brand of ball. 

Maybe some time away from Staples Center will remind them how to do just that.

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Ranking Connecticut Basketball’s Top 5 Players of All Time

Selecting and then ranking the top five players in Connecticut basketball history is no easy task.

The school has won four national championships since 1999, has produced a slew of top NBA players and has attracted some of the top talent from across the country. Future NBA Hall of Famer Ray Allen and current NBA players Caron Butler, Andre Drummond, Rudy Gay and Kemba Walker are just a few of the players who first made an impact at UConn before moving on to produce at a high level in the Association.

Storrs, Connecticut, is a small town full of trees and leaves and is dominated by the expansive terrain of the University of Connecticut. It’s cold for a large portion of the year, it snows quite a bit and it’s not located in or close to a major metropolitan area with a big market. When Jim Calhoun took over Connecticut’s program in 1986, the program wasn’t even close to relevant.

Turning a small school that no one associated with basketball into a national powerhouse, Calhoun gave the reins to assistant coach Kevin Ollie after recording an incredible 629 wins in 874 games coached for the Huskies.

Winners of the NCAA Championship in 1999, 2004, 2011 and 2014, the Huskies have won double the amount of titles of more traditional “powerhouse” programs such as Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas since 1999. As you might expect, in order to achieve the success that the school has been able to experience, a number of star players have passed through the program.

Here are the top five players in Connecticut basketball history. You might find it surprising that Ray Allen did not make the list! Find out who did…

Begin Slideshow

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Audition Time for OKC’s New Generation

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a playoff institution for so many years that their slow 3–9 start just might feel like the sky is falling for all of their fans. While medium-term injuries for both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are a surefire way for any team to take a little tumble down the standings, I think the Thunder are so far below .500 because of the massive quantity of injuries sustained up and down the entire roster. Important players like Reggie Jackson (three games missed), new free agent Anthony Morrow (seven games missed), and 2014 draft pick Mitch McGary (yet to play) have forced the Thunder to go with not just their second-string options, but their third-string backup plans.

What’s interesting about the Thunder is, even though they’ve been playoff contenders for so long, they have a growing battalion of young players that even some rebuilding teams can’t compete with. General manager Sam Presti is wise to never trade his draft picks, especially because …

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