Thursday, October 9, 2014

Misconceptions About OKC's Summer

If you have read any of the recent stuff on this blog, you know I am an unabashed apologist for OKC. For the most part, I am pretty on board with everything they have done over the last 2-3 seasons and I think they are 1-2 steps ahead of most of the conventional wisdom around the league. To be sure, it is a little oft-putting to be so far out on an island and I will certainly concede the possibility that the Thunder are wrong and everyone else is right.

Nevertheless, there is a logic to what they have been doing. It may or may not end up working out, but it's hardly ever acknowledged in most of the national coverage surrounding the team. A good example is a recent article from Andrew Sharp and Kirk Goldsberry in Grantland - it's not that the things they are saying are necessarily wrong, but that the way the piece is framed doesn't account for what OKC is actually trying to do.

In their final game last year, Kevin Durant played 52 minutes, and only FIVE guys scored. One of those guys is now coaching the New York Knicks. I think it’s fair to say they needed to get deeper this summer.

This is a very valid point and it speaks to one of the fundamental problems that most people have with the Thunder. Scott Brooks was deathly afraid of using some of his bench guys in the playoffs and he ended up riding clear liabilities like Derek Fisher well past the point of reason. Where I differ from most analysts is that I don't necessarily think this says anything all that negative about the young players in OKC who rode the bench last season.

There's an underlying assumption that NBA coaches make rotation decisions based strictly on merit, which I don't necessarily agree with. Part of that comes from my experience as a player - anyone whose ever played the game will tell you stories about coaches who played favorites and overlooked guys on their bench who could have helped the team. After all, they are only human. Coaches don't necessarily know everything.

In general, there's a weird cult of the coach that permeates a lot of the discussion of Basketball Twitter. These guys aren't geniuses and the vast majority of them are very replaceable. I've got nothing but love for my boy Erik Spoelstra (You won't see me saying many negative things about a fellow balikbayan), but I look at his success in Miami and think there must be guys like him in every team in the league and in a lot of college programs who just never received the same opportunities.

Coaching is a trade that is learned over time - there's no arcane knowledge that only select few brilliant minds can access. Everyone wants to break down screen-and-roll coverages and defensive rotations, which is fine, but it's hardly rocket science. A coach can only be as good as his players and a lot of times, even coaches at the highest levels of the game let their personal feelings about guys dictate playing time. It's no different than any other workplace.

They missed on Pau Gasol. The glaring weakness in OKC is obviously at the 5, and Gasol could’ve remedied that right away. To be fair to Presti, after Gasol, there really wasn’t anyone else available that could’ve patched that hole.

I'm not sure how you can blame a front office for missing out on a free agent. This is not NBA 2K15 - you can't just moneywhip a guy and guarantee you are going to get him. The Thunder did pursue Pau, but he ended up choosing Chicago, which I think illustrates why this franchise has been so committed to building through the draft. Even when they are a top-flight contender, a lot of NBA players just don't want to live in OKC.

When you consider lifestyle options, it's no surprise that Pau picked Chicago. A guy from Barcelona who spent most of the past few seasons in Los Angeles is going to have an easier time adjusting to life in an international metropolis than a boom-town in one of the most low-profile states in the country. As a born and bred Texan, I can never fault a guy for not wanting to live in Oklahoma. Hook 'em!

Good bigs are hard to find in today’s NBA. I can’t really blame Presti for striking out there, and I think it’s fair to expect better play from the newly mustached Steven Adams.

Goldsberry goes into a long digression about other free agent big men that OKC could have pursued, before eventually stumbling onto the key point. They weren't going to bring in random guys just to steal minutes from Steven Adams, because Adams looks like he is going to be a really good NBA player and he is a huge part of the franchise's future plans. This is all part of the Thunder's plan to improve internally without having to depend on free agents.

To be sure, they could have amnestied Kendrick Perkins and brought in someone to replace him, which would be hard to argue with. On that front, they deserve all the criticism they get because that's pretty obviously a straight money move - OKC ain't paying a guy $9 million dollars not to play for them, even when he's the walking, scowling definition of a sunk cost.

Nevertheless, the point about Adams can't be emphasized enough. For whatever reason, a lot of NBA fans and analysts have a hard time grasping the idea that a team full of young players doesn't necessarily have to do anything in the off-season to improve. Guys get better between their 1rst-4rth seasons just from gaining experience, becoming more used to the speed of the NBA game and becoming more mature players on and off the court.

Everyone understands this perfectly well in the NFL, where all the best franchises are lionized for their ability to build through the draft. I guess because we have all internalized the idea that playoff experience is a must for winning championships, a narrative that even the OKC coach apparently buys into, we have a hard time acknowledging that a title contender whose 6th and 7th men are in their early 20's could get a lot better just from those guys natural career arc.

Away from the interior, Morrow and Sebastian Telfair should help, but it would have been great to see someone like Paul Pierce or Vince Carter added to the mix. Both guys have a little left in the tank, and with the loss of Caron Butler, another veteran could have helped stabilize their second unit. Sure, those guys are old, but so is Manu Ginobili, who led the most dominant bench in the league last year.

All those guys could definitely still help a team, but if you bring in more veterans, you are just going to further impede the development of a guy like Jeremy Lamb, who is ready for more minutes. I'm apparently the last Lamb fan on Basketball Twitter and I'm really not sure why everyone else is so down on him.

1) When I'm looking at young players, the first thing I'm looking for is whether he has the physical tools to play an NBA position and the skill-set to succeed in a big role in a rotation. Lamb checks all those boxes - at 6'5 185, he's a little thin, but he's pretty athletic and he has long enough arms (6'11 wingspan) to hold his own at the SG position. He's shown the ability to shoot from deep, handle the ball, find the open man (more assists than turnovers) and get a good number of rebounds, steals and blocks for a SG, which is where the length comes into play.

2) For young guys, it's much more important to look at per-minute numbers than the raw totals, because they can only control what they do when they are on the court. That goes back into what I was saying earlier about the cult of the coach - Lamb's second season in the NBA was only disappointing in the sense that his coach stopped playing him to give minutes to older guys who couldn't move their feed on D and put up consistently worse statistics than him across the board.

When Lamb was on the floor, he produced. Like any guy who doesn't get a ton of opportunities on a per-game basis, he went through his fair share of slumps, but his season totals were very impressive - per-36 minute averages of 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.6 blocks on 43/36/80 shooting. Those are exactly the type of numbers you would want a lottery pick with a small role on a good team to put up! I'm not sure what exactly people were expecting from him. He can't make Brooks play him.

I'm going to re-emphasize that because it's something that a lot of people don't grasp about the NBA. When the numbers tell you one guy should be playing and he isn't, maybe it's because he's not getting it done in practice and the coach knows something that we don't ... but maybe not. Coaches aren't always right - Lamb had a 14.4 PER in the post-season and D Fish was at 7.9, but we already know who Brooks was going to make excuses for and who he wasn't.

3) Even if his numbers weren't as good, it would still be way too early to write off Lamb. This isn't the 1980's, when guys came into the league after four years of school as mostly finished products. Lamb declared for the draft after his sophomore season of college. He's almost a year younger than rookies like Cleanthony Early - if Lamb had stayed four years at UConn, he would have been up absurd numbers next to Shabazz Napier and we'd all be really excited to see what he could do in the NBA. It doesn't make any sense to penalize guys for paying their dues in the NBA when you are going to be super excited about 23-year olds dominating teenagers in college.

I could say a lot of the same things about PJ3, but I'll concede that the stats don't look nearly as good for him. He still a monster though. Duncanville's finest!

If I were Presti, I would have realized it didn’t make much sense to add big-name veterans, and then I would have remembered there’s a cost-effective way for teams to add new talent every year. Then I would have remembered that OKC had two first-round picks in one of the deepest draft classes ever. Then … Yeah. I would have not done what Presti did.

I agree with most of what Sharp writes earlier in this piece and he does a good job of pushing back on the way in which the article is framed, but where I think he goes off the rails a bit is a good example of how a lot of even knowledgeable NBA observers misinterpret the draft.

He apparently made a promise to Mitch McGary with the no. 21 pick, so now there are two Nick Collisons on the Thunder. I really like McGary — his passing, screens, and unmedicated-ADHD hustle can help anyone — but with Ibaka and Adams in front of him, he can only help so much. 

I love young guys as much as anyone, but you don't make draft picks for the next season. For the most part, rookies just aren't going to help your team win. The competition jump between the NCAA and the NBA is so high that's its preposterous. If you look at advanced stats like RAPM, very, very few rookies grade out positively. Even for very talented players, it still takes a year or two for them to get comfortable in the NBA.

Unless there is a rash of injuries, McGary is almost certainly not going to get any real minutes in OKC this season and that is totally fine. Sharp kind of stumbles around the real rationale for drafting Magic Mitch - he is being groomed as Nick Collison's replacement. Collison is 34, he's been in the league for a very long time and his level of play is starting to slip. A smart franchise like OKC is always looking 2-3 years down the road.

That's when a commitment to the draft pays off and that's really the plan in OKC. The guys they were going to draft this year were always going to be at the back of the line, behind Jackson, Lamb, PJ3, Adams, Andre Roberson and Grant Jerrett. Those guys are all headed into their 2nd-4rth seasons in the league and they should all be better than they were last season. That's where the Thunder are counting on improving and that type of internal improvement is totally under the radar of most people's analysis of this team.

** Jerrett probably isn't going to play this year either, but don't sleep on him. At 6'10 235, he's got a lot more size, athleticism and skill than your average stretch 4. He was a McDonald's All-American who declared after only one season at Arizona because he was worried about Aaron Gordon taking his spot. He's the perfect example of the type of young player in which you need to exercise extreme patience. He's 21 and he may not be ready for a big role until he's 23.

All that said, is there room to criticize the picks they made at the end of the first round? Absolutely. There's no easy picks at that stage of the draft. Personally, I would have loved them to see take Kyle Anderson out of UCLA, but I could say that for just about every team in the back half of the draft. I don't say that because I think Anderson is going to play a big role in San Antonio next year (he will probably spend a lot of time in the D-League), but because I think he has way more long-term potential than McGary. We'll see.

Then Presti got cute at No. 29 and took a borderline draft pick in Josh Huestis from Stanford, a player who literally won’t play in the NBA this year, because the Thunder don’t want to pay his guaranteed contract. Even with OKC’s proud history of penny-pinching, this was groundbreaking stuff.

The whole Huestis thing was pretty silly and it did not do much to improve OKC's reputation, but I think people are kind of missing the point here. They were never going to bring in two rookies to this year's team - as is, they have seven guys on their rookie deals on the roster. You can only develop so many young players at once. The whole point of the Huestis shenanigans was to stagger out the contracts of their first-round picks so that they don't expire all at once.

From the jump, I had assumed they would do something similar with the No. 29 pick to what Phoenix did at No. 27, when they took Bogdan Bogdanovic as a draft-and-stash European player. There were not a lot of foreign players taken in the first part of the second round, but I think a guy like Damien Inglis - an 19-year old French SF with a ton of tools - would have made a lot more sense than going with an older guy with less upside like Huestis.

I watch a ton of college basketball and Huestis wasn't even really on my radar until Stanford made their run in the NCAA Tourney - most draft guys would agree that Dwight Powell was the best prospect on that team. At the same time, Huestis does have the tools to be a decent small-ball 4 and it's not out of the question that he develops into a nice rotation piece for them. A 6'7 230 combo forward on a Pac-12 team who shoots 34% from 3 and blocks 2 shots a game is, at the very least, interesting.

Meanwhile, they passed on Rodney Hood as an NBA-ready swingman, K.J. McDaniels as a prospect, P.J. Hairston as some combination of the two, and Cleanthony Early as one of the biggest sleepers in the draft. Any of these guys could have helped this season and made the rotation deeper for the future. And that’s where the Thunder deserve all the criticism they’ve gotten the past few months.

I wouldn't have rated Huestis over any of the guys that Sharp mentions, but the idea that they were going to walk into the OKC rotation and carve out a role for themselves as rookies is a little far-fetched. Rodney Hood should be a good NBA player, but let's see whether he even gets big minutes on a rebuilding Utah team and what he does with them before we assume that he's ready to be a rotation player on a title contender.

It's the same story with Hairston, whom I really doubt plays much at all in Charlotte this season. KJ McDaniels actually has a fairly similar profile to Huestis while being the better overall player, but he's still a work in progress and he wouldn't get minutes on a lot of teams outside of Philadelphia. And I guess I'm going to have to write something about Cleanthony Early because we need to go ahead and slow the hype train on him, a lot.

Cleathony could carve out an NBA career for himself, but he's a 23-year old (red flag) who didn't put up great stats (red flag) in a mid-major conference (red flag) and he's going from playing as a small-ball 4 to a pure 3, which is one of the most difficult transitions a young player can make (red flag). I think a lot of the hype around Cleanthony is based off what he did against Kentucky in the Tourney, but interpreting what happened there is much more complicated than people assume.

Ignoring the draft is a big reason why a team like the Heat had no depth down the stretch the past few years. Exploiting the draft is a big reason the Spurs have been able to stay dominant for the better part of two decades. Nothing the Thunder did this summer was going to change their core that much, but they had a chance to get younger and scarier off the bench, and for some reason Presti went with the Miami approach.

Sharp is 100% right about what happened with San Antonio and Miami, but this is where I tear what's left of my hair out when I hear people talking about OKC. They got much younger and much scarier off the bench this season - they literally did exactly what he wanted them to do! Jackson, Lamb and PJ3  and Adams should all get more minutes this season now that Caron, Fisher and Thabo are gone. What happens with those four players (and maybe Roberson) is the story of this season for OKC, one way or the other. I'm higher on those guys than most, but let's at least concede the possibility that they could make this team better.

I also get the sense that people have given up on Lamb and PJ3 because they didn't instantly become featured players for OKC and that same mentality is why people think Cleanthony and Rodney Hood are going to be good NBA players next season. It takes time and patience to develop a young guy into a quality NBA player - this is a process that takes multiple years and you have to look at things on that time scale, not an individual off-season.

OKC is counting on the moves they made in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 drafts to pay off for them in the 2015 playoffs. That may or may not work and opinions can certainly vary on what the guys they took will end up doing this season. The point is that there was a plan and it wasn't signing a bunch of free agents and going into the luxury tax before they have to hand out monster 3rd contracts to KD, Russ, Ibaka.

I ended up writing more about this than I thought when I started it, but I'll finish by imploring people to stop judging drafts after one or two seasons. The 2014 draft was done with 2015, 2016 and 2017 in mind - that is how you have to evaluate a draft. And for the love of all that is holy, please stop jumping to conclusions based off summer league games. That shit is meaningless and I think it leads people astray more than it helps them when it comes to evaluating young players, but I guess that's a topic for another blog post.

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