Thursday, January 22, 2015

Clouds Are Darkening

As a complete and total amateur writer, it has become increasingly, even glaringly, clear over the past week how hard it can be to write about sports.  From the "Good Execution" interview, to the previous blog entry by some guy about sounding the red alert...I've concluded that sports writing must not be for the faint of heart.  Like Russell's comments after the Golden State game, to Berry Tramel's, and most of the media's response to the Westbrook grizzly grumpiness, the dirty laundry must be put into the wash weekly, and declared done and over.  

Because, in sports, and I'm stealing this haphazard quote... "Sports remains the final frontier of true reality television".  After kickoff, tipoff, drop of the puck, or first pitch, you have no idea what's going to happen.  We can speculate, which we fact, resulting in millions of dollars spent and made each week on our hunger for speculation and by those that have a knack, or talent for predicting what may or may not happen in a particular game.  

So with my best thick-skinned "fake it till you make it" smiling face, I'm here to follow up my last blog entry, where the house was burning down, and I sorta felt like I wanted to see Sam Presti mowing my yard while I sipped on a beer telling him how to run his organization.  I don't think I was necessarily wrong, but will definitely admit to becoming increasingly worried that we had put too much flour into the cake, or forgot the eggs, or the sugar...which they say would be a scone, but why in the world would anyone have a scone when you could have cake?  Yeah, me neither...

In the past week...while you were sleeping, working and doing various and sundry's what happened:

The Springtime Storms are brewing.

- KD and RW became the only two players in the NBA this season to go back to back games with 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists.  Russell did it last week, and Kevin has done it this week.  

- That's not this year, that's this season.  

- This is why they are called the dynamic duo.  There are only two players to accomplish that feat in the NBA this year, and they happen to play beside each other.  Bam.

This part may be harder to explain, so grab some coffee, or beer, or a lot of beer...even maybe a whiskey.

The role players are doing exactly what they are supposed to do.

To make this simpler (for me, and less work for me mind you) I'm just going to use the total +/- stat for each game...which represents the net scoring affect in the game while that player was on court.  This is not a tell all stat, but can show the general impact a particular player had on the game.

- Dion Waiters:  GS (+18), OR(+20), MI(-9), Was(-9)

- Reggie Jackson:  GS (+12), OR(+17), MI(+20), Was(+2)

- Anthony Morrow GS (+5), OR(+19), MI(-1), Was(+5)

- Kendrick Perkins GS (+2), OR(+23), MI(+8), Was(+8)

Cutting to the chase...

Where Dion Waiters dropped off, Reggie Jackson picked up.  Waiters has shown his potential impact, and the honeymoon period starts to we see where he can grow into the organization and lineup.  In particular, the rumors of his dead or non-existent defense appear to be just that...he's provided strong D thus far. 

Reggie Jackson, rumored to have packed his bags several times and shipped his XBox to various locations doing exactly what we've seen him do in previous years.  When we've needed him the most, he has come through.  I have noticed in the media, as well as personally, that the past few games, he appears to be back in sync, which we all welcome.

Anthony Morrow remains my favorite pickup from the off season.  Waiters keeps trying to woo me, but watching Morrow on the court, I get the same feel as Derek Fisher and Caron Butler...I'm not an All-Star, but I bust my ass, and I'll find a way in each and every game to help my team.  I really like his consistency at not hurting the Thunder.  I'm also very glad he hasn't flashed into the limelight this season, but rather slowly built credibility hitting the shots we all wanted Daequan Cook, Kevin Martin, and Thabo to hit over the past few years...we know as the 3rd-4th option they're gonna rain some awful 3-balls.  Morrow, however, appears to be keeping consistent with his stats from last year, and slowly arriving at knowing when its his time to come up big...whether its a cutting catch and score 2, or taking the 3 off the pass.  

I put Kendrick Perkins in here just to show his output doesn't indicate his impact on the game.  Reduced minutes, and a different role, but Big Dog comes in and has a positive impact on the game.  What's been missing the past couple of years are the flash games...look at Orlando.  Yes, we blew them out, but in the process, not the trash minutes, Perk kept the scoring machine going by dropping in 10...which kept all the other scoring elements in motion.  They double/tripled in desparation and Perk makes a nifty move one on one, or grabs a quick open dunk and the defense remains disoriented for another few series.  Perk's in a contract year and it shows...he's worth keeping around.  The Miami game was close, so the +/- stats of everyone were pretty low.  Perk stood out at +8, because he knows Miami, and how to play D.

The chemistry I was so concerned about, appears to be coming together.  I was very impressed with two things I saw last night:  

1. Ball movement within an offense at various times.

2. This one got me...  it looks like the old stand-around pick and let KD or Russ do their thing...but in reality it's a motion oriented offense where KD picks for Russ coming up from the baseline.  Leaves the free-ing pick for KD open on wing, KD gets a clean pick on Russ's guy, then pops or rolls.  This gave both KD and Russ several options for attacking the resulting open space  (as opposed to forcing something)...and they drove...they each other...and to the wings and inside big men.  When I saw this in the 4th quarter, my first thought in OT was "We gotta be tired and on fumes", but then quickly changed to, "They aren't going to be able to stop that...I'm not sure anyone will be able to stop that".

That's new.  

That's offense.

And it appears to be getting on a roll.

They could catch an early exit in Atlanta, and detour straight back to Struggles-ville, but it appears that the defensive forces are stiffening, transition buckets are coming and offensive sets are creating motion and opportunity.  Assists are up, Turnovers will always be up (but they are down just a tad)...and the Thunder look ready to roll.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Take us to Red Alert Mr. Spock!

After the "healthy" Thunder have dropped 7 of their last 13, and showed a peculiar and newly creative sense of inconsistency on both offense and defense, you have to wonder what's at the core of these issues.  

The Thunder are under-performing at their most basic levels, forget offense and defense for just a moment...and let's reflect on a couple of things the Thunder have always done as trademarks to grab the hearts of a basketball centric part of the US...the plains and heartland.  

  • Freethrows:  At 74%, the Thunder are down 6 percentage points from last year, and 8 from the year before.  When Kendrick Perkins first came to the Thunder, he remarked that he went straight for the gym because he knew the Thunder made their freethrows.  I'm not a sportsologist, but I believe that FT% at the NBA level indicates the level of focus and concentration of the player and the team.  Honestly, it isn't just a quantitative issue, the Thunder are still on pace individually to rectify their FT% into their normal really seems like they are missing freethrows at crucial parts of games.
  • Passing and Dribbling:  While turnovers and unforced errors are in line statistically, the Thunder do not appear as sharp as they have in the past.  They are moving the ball around more, which again, not an expert, but I would point to missed pass turnovers as opposed to dribbling turnovers...I'm sure I can find that stat somewhere...but appearances would indicate that KD looks lax in his ball handling, slow and a careless.  I also really need to know if they are eating buttered popcorn before every game, or if Perkins has shared his personal hand lotion with Ibaka, Adams, and Collison...who seem to have all been practicing catching passes with fists instead of open hands. They simply do not look sharp.
From a straight statistical perspective, the Thunder's shooting %, Rebounds, FT%, TO%, and Assist numbers are pretty in line for their losses and wins...nothing glares at you.  Which means that the Thunder are pretty much playing consistent to the numbers for wins and losses.  Baffling...wouldn't it be easier if there was a stat that stuck out like a sore thumb to indicate what's wrong with our team?!

Which leaves us to wonder what could possibly be the problem.  I have personally consulted the Oracle of Delphi, The Magic 8 Ball, Black, White and Green Tea leaves, and had Sam Presti's palm read in order to figure out the following definitive list of possibilities: 

  • Steven Adams and Nick Collison don't like Mitch McGary.  All resulting from an altercation about a tie that Mitch wore about hating Kiwi's, Corn, and Wheat.  Might be hard to get through this one.
  • Kevin Durant won the MVP last year, and is going all David Duval on the world after he won the British Open...just taking his trophy and dropping off the face of the Earth.
  • Reggie Jackson has figured out that Rex Kalamian looks a lot like Voldemort, and it really has him wondering how long he has to room is in turmoil, because nobody believes Kalamian is out to kill everyone.
  • Kevin Durant's 2K15 video game season is in a serious slump...he got himself hurt and traded everyone for Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett and it isn't working out.
  • Scott Brooks is letting the assistant coaches talk to the media, and they are all getting too big for their britches...notching their belts each time and getting tattoos that say "Brooks likes me better!".
  • Sam Presti's wife is just really pissed at him for the anniversary he forgot this all rolls down hill.

Ok, seriously... it looks like the Thunder are going to deal a few more players before the Feb deadline.  Up first is the Brook Lopez deal.  This would remove J Lamb and most likely Perkins from the roster for Brook Lopez, should he be healthy enough to pass the physical and travel to OKC without breaking a foot...(enough with the feet already...Thabo, Kevin, Mitch, and Andre...good grief).

Reggie Jackson still remains the invisible Elephant in the room.  His numbers are ok, but most seem to agree that he's off...and by "off", I mean in a way that he's not coming back from.  If you look at Jones, Lamb and Reggie, the 3 youngsters that were the wave of the future, they all got tons of playing time at the beginning of the season.  That's over.  There's games where one of them doesn't play at all weekly.  That's gotta be difficult to get into a rhythm, not knowing whether you, or Lamb are gonna get the call tonight, and if you don't flash fantastic, it could be weeks before you see the floor again.  Now, all of that is completely beside the point of Lamb and Jones consistency issues on the court, but if you stare long enough, you can sort of see why.

Dion Waiters coming into the locker room, and sitting next to Reggie.  SMH...if there's nothing to it, you wouldn't do it.  So, trying to play things close the vest isn't really a long term strategy for Presti and Brooks at the moment...eventually the bomb goes off, mom and dad get a divorce, and all the ugly things under rug come out for full view.  

I'm not saying their ARE locker room issues, but if the stats are consistent, between wins and losses, then why are the Thunder looking to faceless?  They've lived on hard defense and superstar offense...Brooks has said the "Offense isn't going to be a problem"...well IT IS!  AND SO IS THE DEFENSE!    Ibaka looks lost on the court when he isn't shooting the ball from "not the lane".  Have the Thunder given up on the Congo ever getting a strong inside game and thrown in the towel?  Just let Serge learn to hit a 15 foot jumper and call it good...there's no need for a multi-facted player like say, Marc Gasol, Kevin Garnett, or Lamarcus Aldridge...we've got Perk and Adams for that...right?!  SMH...

Russ and Kevin haven't taken over games consistently this year at all...last year, they ran the Knicks into a downward spiral on Christmas Day that the NBA will not soon forget...and the Knicks might not crawl out of for another year or two.  

Superstars aren't being superstars...they are getting their stats, but not by making a statement.  Durant continues to get decent numbers, but how many of you have asked, "When is Kevin coming back in?"...only to realize he's been on the floor the entire quarter?  Russ had a great December, but as soon as Kevin got back, he's on again-off again.

Perhaps, the offensive changes, and personnel changes have the Thunder in an adjustment period.  Where they are not yet comfortable with the sets and personnel we have on the floor.  Hopefully with the impending personnel changes, we'll say goodbye to some loved friendly faces, and welcome new ones...and the Thunder will remember their two hallmark phrases:  Hard Work and We are Family.  

They need to find an identity, and soon...because the red light isn't going to stop flashing until they blow into the 7th or 6th playoff spot.  Simply making the 8th spot at this point won't give anyone confidence that this team has the ability to show up on a particular night and lay down an ass whooping regardless of who they play...and that's what we miss.  Sometimes they Bring IT!  Other nights, they argue with the refs and each other about where IT might be hiding.