NBA PM: Is Oklahoma City Poised for Title Run?
I was speaking recently with a league source who made a good point about the nature of a strike-shortened season; and as obvious as it sounds, it bears repeating.
“The teams that had their nucleus before the lockout,” he said, “those are the teams that had the advantage this year. They didn’t have to figure out where the new guys fit or how to work the rotations.”
He described the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and the Chicago Bulls as all having a distinct advantage in that area. Even as Derrick Rose has suffered injuries throughout the season, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was able to simply plug in guys that already knew his system (Mike James, who knew it from Thibodeau’s days as an assistant in Houston, and John Lucas III, for instance).
Obviously, there were plenty of numbers to back up his belief. For instance, those four teams rank atop the league in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), along with the Denver Nuggets who are tied with the Bulls for fourth on that list.
However, one team stuck out to our source: OKC.
The Thunder lead the league in offensive efficiency and true shooting percentage because even if they’re not shooting well from the field, they still get to the line and that’s a big advantage in the playoffs. Scott Brooks’ team has scored 20.2% of its points at the charity stripe this season (second in the NBA) thanks to a league-best 79.7% success rate on free throws.
“That’s a three-headed scoring monster that is really, really hard to stop,” the source said. “(Russell) Westbrook, (Kevin) Durant and (James) Harden, they look like the best right now. To beat them four times is going to be tough. I don’t really know who can do it.”
Oklahoma City has also succeeded at putting teams away early. On average, the Thunder have a 5.9-point lead after three quarters which is third-best in the NBA. And it’s a shame for Western Conference opponents that the 40-13 Thunder have a near lock on the top seed because they have an average lead of 10.2 points through three quarters when they’re at home, which is the best in the NBA.
But that doesn’t mean the Thunder can’t win close games. In fact, their .714 winning percentage in tight contests is actually the league’s best—it’s just not something that happens very often.
And when the Thunder have faced the league’s best this season (Spurs, HEAT, Bulls and let’s include the Los Angeles Lakers for good measure), they’ve won 5 of 7 times.
That’s not just because of their offense. The Thunder aren’t the best in terms of defensive efficiency (they currently rank 11th and allow 100 points per 100 possessions), but that’s largely because they rank in the bottom third of the league in 3-pointers allowed. Opponents are making just 45.2% of their 2-point attempts against the Thunder and that’s actually the fifth-best in the entire NBA.
In other words, you better be hitting from outside against the Thunder because you’re not going to score down low against Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison.
“Ibaka has been good,” the source said. “Perkins gives them that championship pedigree. His numbers don’t tell the story and that goes for Collison, who doesn’t get enough credit. He makes Perkins less important, which is good. They have depth. I think Collison would start for most teams, as would Harden.”
The Thunder have another big test when they visit the HEAT on Wednesday before traveling to Indianapolis to play the Pacers on Friday. But besides two games against the Los Angeles Clippers, one against the Lakers and matchups against the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, it looks like Brooks’ players shouldn’t struggle to finish the season with the best record in the West, if not overall.
Update: Lakers Fine Andrew Bynum?
According to a new report by Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Lakers center Andrew Bynum has been fined by the team:
Bynum recently was fined an undisclosed amount for ‘numerous infractions,’ multiple sources confirmed to ESPNLosAngeles.com. One of the stunts that warranted the fine from the team was Bynum blowing off a meeting with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.”
Bynum said he doesn’t know of any fine, but told McMenamin that he will miss Tuesday’s game against the New Jersey Nets because left ankle sprain.
Meyers Leonard Declares
As mentioned in Monday’s NBA PM, this year’s NBA Draft has plenty of serviceable centers. Yesterday, it was Syracuse’s Fab Melo who declared and now it’s Illinois’ Meyers Leonard, according to a report by Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com.
It seems like Leonard, a 7-1 sophomore who might sneak into the lottery, would have considered staying, but perhaps the firing of coach Bruce Weber helped him make his decision.
“This was a very difficult decision because I love the University of Illinois,” Leonard said in a statement. “But I feel the timing is right for me to follow my dream of playing in the NBA and having the opportunity to provide for my mom and family. I want to thank everyone in the Illini program for their support these past two years. It starts with coach Weber, who has always believed in me. He taught me so much about the game of basketball and helped me mature as both a player and a person.
“I will miss all my teammates,” he continued. “We’ve been through so much together and I consider them my brothers. The future is bright here and under the direction of coach (John) Groce, I know they’ll be successful. Finally, I want to thank the fans for their incredible support. It was a dream come true to represent my state school and play at the Assembly Hall. I will always be an Illini.”
Leonard averaged 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game this season and DraftExpress.com currently has him going 15th overall to the Rockets. However, there’s a chance that teams could respond to his upside over North Carolina center Tyler Zeller’s proven track record. Zeller is two years older and 10 to 15 pounds heavier than Leonard, plus he’s played in so many more big games than the Robinson, Illinois native.
Leonard has some back-to-the-basket skills and made well over 50% of his field goals this season, so he’s being classified as a traditional center.
Calhoun Thinks Lamb is a Top-5 Pick
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said shooting guard Jeremy Lamb is closer to a decision on whether or not to declare for the NBA Draft than prized recruit Andre Drummond.
“I think Jeremy is closer (to a decision) than Andre,” Calhoun said, as quoted by Scout.com’s Ken Davis. “At one point I think Andre thought he needed another year, which we do too. But that’s a decision he has to make. With Jeremy, all the [NBA] guys I’ve talked to, a lot of them think he would go No. 5 or No. 6. If a guy is going to go No. 5 or No. 6, I have a tough time telling him he can’t go.”
Obviously both players’ decisions will be effected by the school’s potential postseason ban in 2013 for academic infractions, but in spite of that, Calhoun said he doesn’t know if both players will enter the draft.
Lamb is a 6-5 shooting guard who is still only 19 years old. He averaged 17.7 points per game last season but he’ll have to improve his 3-point shooting (33.6% from deep this year) during the draft process if he’s going to enter the top end of the lottery.
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