I’m normally not a big “gut feeling” guy, but I randomly mentioned to the Grantland bosses last week in L.A. that the Thunder just “felt due” for some unexpected move. They didn’t have enough financial flexibility to add even one meaningful NBA player in free agency, perhaps leaving them (and their rivals) to wonder whom they might have lured had the league kept Kevin Durant’s max salary at its original level. They’ve watched the Western Conference get stronger around them. The Spurs are the Spurs, the Grizzlies tweaked around the edges (including signing Mike Miller, one of several wing shooters the Thunder could have used), the Clippers reinvented themselves, the Warriors are good and young, and the Rockets annual candy budget is probably near the $185,000 or so Andre Roberson lost when the Thunder hardballed him.
But this wasn’t, and still isn’t, a sob story. The Thunder are contenders, even with Kevin Martin gone and no veteran in his place. And that’s sort of the point: The window is still open, even with the rocky offseason, only there are more Western Conference teams strong enough to shove it closed. A team in that position — a contender, but a wounded one with hunters stalking it — cannot afford to stand still, or to wait for next July.
That portrait gets more interesting now that Russell Westbrook will miss something like 20 games after doctors discovered complications from an earlier surgery to repair his torn meniscus. The obvious way to jolt a franchise is via trade, but the Thunder’s salary structure makes a game-changing deal difficult. Kendrick Perkins is the only highly paid player the Thunder might be willing to move unless they find a blockbuster involving Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the trade chips earn so little money as to make salary-matching a challenge in a big-time deal. There are interesting trade options at lower prices, and the Thunder could sign a minimum-salaried ball handler — Roddy Beaubois, Daniel Gibson, Chris Duhon, et al. — without going into the luxury tax, provided they waive one of the Hasheem Thabeet/Daniel Orton/Ryan Gomes trio. The Thunder have some interesting young pieces, a few appealing international guys, and a Mavs pick that could become unprotected in 2018. You could make a deal for a semi-unwanted mid-priced wing — Lou Williams? John Salmons? Courtney Lee? Evan Turner? — with that kind of treasure chest. (The Thunder have two significant trade exceptions, including a $6.5 million bad boy leftover from the Kevin Martin sign-and-trade, but using either would take them over the tax line.)
1. It’s almost refreshing how little “maybe Kevin Durant isn’t clutch!!??!” idiocy we’ve been hearing over the last three days, after Durant’s shaky shooting performances down the stretch of the last three Thunder losses. Durant has shot 2-of-14 in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime (with the scoring margin at five points or fewer) over those three games, per NBA.com, and he shockingly bonked two free throws with 39 seconds left in Game 3 that would have brought Oklahoma City back within two. He missed a midrange jumper right before those free throws (and probably got fouled) and two more isolation jumpers in the last minute of overtime on Monday.
If the first two games were any indication, the second-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies is going to be decided by the slimmest of margins. A mere eight points is all that has separated the two squads as they head to the River City, and between two evenly matched sides, any advantage, no matter how minuscule, could prove to be the deciding factor. It’s with this in mind that a four-minute stretch from Game 2’s second quarter might say a lot about Oklahoma City’s chances.
In the absence of Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City can no longer overcome its role players’ offensive deficiencies with the sheer firepower of two superstars. To come anywhere close to the incredibly efficient offense they were in the regular season, the Thunder now need space and shooters around Kevin Durant. Against Houston, a team with exactly one effective big man (Omer Asik), this was easily accomplished without exposing the Thunder to mismatch problems inside.
The Grizzlies duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring a different challenge. They make it much more difficult for the Thunder to both field these smaller lineups and match up with the Memphis front line. In two games, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has chosen to match the Grizzlies behemoths with his own, but this has meant giving a staggering number of minutes to two players, Kendrick Perkins and Hasheem Thabeet, who should be relative afterthoughts.
Making adjustments in the playoffs is like any art form, in that inspiration is derived from experience. As coaches navigate the gauntlet of playoff basketball, they rely heavily on the situations they’ve already seen. When a coach makes a brilliant, calculated gamble or keenly alters his team’s tactics on the fly, it’s not a moment of virtuosity taking place on a higher plane. It’s a product of tapping into years of scenarios he’s already come across. Perhaps no coach is better at reflecting on that process than Stan Van Gundy. Widely recognized as one of the best at his craft, Van Gundy has experienced almost everything the NBA postseason has to offer — from the highs of coaching in the NBA Finals to the lows of an untimely first-round exit.
But one element of in-game and game-to-game adjustments that remains steady no matter the scenario, Van Gundy says, is that they’re never all that drastic.
“Barring injuries, it’s just going to stay to the core of who you are,” Van Gundy said. “You’re not going to play the way Denver does during the year and then back up your defense and play from the 3-point line and not get in the passing lanes and stuff. I don’t see those kinds of adjustments from people. It’s much more subtle.”
That first qualifier is one that’s come up several times already in these playoffs. As we’ve seen in Oklahoma City’s recent struggles, an injury to a star player can throw an entire team out of whack. Though a lot changes for those teams, the adjustment doesn’t necessarily have to be widespread. When talking about the Thunder, Van Gundy mentions that while things will no doubt be different, they likely won’t be new. Instead, OKC will have to rely on using previously less-emphasized concepts more frequently.
Chris Ryan: At various points last night, during Grantland Live's live-tweet coverage of the Rockets-Thunder game, Chandler Parsons was compared to Brad Pitt's character in True Romance and someone out of a Whit Stillman movie, was described as trade bait for Dwight Howard, and had his possible Los Angeles real estate preferences scrutinized (Manhattan Beach, Beverly Hills). Funny thing happened on the way to making fun of Chandler Parsons: Dude saved the series for Houston.
The first thought is one of genuine sadness, just as it has been with Derrick Rose, Danilo Gallinari, David Lee, Andrew Bynum, Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, Kobe Bryant, and every other important player on a playoff team who has suffered a season-ending injury over the last calendar year. This is a truly unprecedented run of star injuries. But with apologies to those players, plus Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, and so many others, the sadness here is a little bit deeper in a big-picture sense.
My personal fear about the NBA this season, and about these NBA playoffs, was that they constituted an overlong non-drama with a predictable ending. The Heat are 35-1 in the last 36 games in which LeBron James has played. That is very nearly half an NBA season, with one loss. To review: NBA rules dictate that one team must defeat another team four times in seven games in order to eliminate said team and advance to the next round. Four losses, seven games. Miami is 35-1 in the last 36 games featuring the world’s best player. The math it is not good.
Even if luxury-tax concerns were the no. 1 factor in the Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden earlier than they had to, the deal still amounted to a calculated series of basketball wagers. The most general one: that the Thunder’s current personnel would evolve quickly enough to keep this team in the title hunt, and neck and neck with Miami, even after trading a borderline franchise player in Harden for a less dynamic guy in Kevin Martin.