NBA PM: OKC’s James Harden Replacement Plan
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Oklahoma City’s James Harden Replacement Plan
When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets last summer, pundits were somewhat split on which team got the better end of the deal. Once the season started, however, pundits jumped off the fence on the side of the Rockets. Harden turned into a superstar overnight, and is now expected to lead the Rockets back to contention with new teammate Dwight Howard. The Thunder, of course, lost All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook to injury in the first round of the playoffs and were then ejected from the proceedings in the second round, and Kevin Martin left Oklahoma City to sign with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While fans and analysts alike await a big trade or free agency signing that puts the Thunder back in contention, Thunder GM Sam Presti continues to hold the line on the methods and practices that have gotten his team to where they are among the NBA’s elite.
“The focus of our organization has always been building from the inside out, and a big part of that is a continued evolution of the core of our team, understanding that evolution, and adapting throughout the course of the summer but also the course of the season, more importantly,” Presti told HOOPSWORLD. “I think the development of our players individually and how they fit together collectively will be an important thing for us. We will always look for opportunities to improve the team, but we also recognize where we are and we recognize who we are, and we’re going to continue to focus on the things that have driven our success to this point. I think that’s a really important thing for us to embrace.”
For the Thunder, then, summer league is a huge part of their plan, and while winning the Orlando Summer League championship is a small thing, it represents the organization’s commitment to developing winners.
“Obviously, it was a good week for our guys,” Presti said. “The coaches and players did an excellent job, starting with practice and establishing some things they wanted to accomplish during the week. We’re certainly happy that it ended with winning, but most importantly, there was development individually, collectively, and the players and the coaches deserve a lot of credit.”
One player who took noticeable strides during summer league play was Jeremy Lamb, who was acquired from the Rockets in the aforementioned Harden trade. Lamb struggled to connect, even on wide open shots, early on, when he went 5-for-16 against Indiana and then 4-for-16 against Orlando, but he hit the game-winner in the Magic game and that seemed to give him confidence. He scored 32 and 18 points, respectively, in the team’s final two games, showing signs of becoming the player the Thunder hope he will evolve into.
“We never really concern ourselves with external expectations for our players or our team,” said Presti, referring to outside perceptions of Lamb. “We’re only focused on what we can control, and obviously things that each player is being asked to do internally, but he’s someone that has come along during his time with us and he’s been an excellent addition to the team. As long as he continues to work as he has, and we continue to support him and put him in a position to be successful, we think he’s going to be a contributor for a long time.”
Daniel Orton was not a summer league standout, by any means, but he looked better than he’s ever looked before, and has shown the Thunder that he’s willing to work for his roster spot.
“Daniel is a great example of somebody that is invested in his development,” Presti said. “Our coaching staff has done an excellent job with him as well, and it’s a process. He did not get a lot of opportunity this season, but did a very good job in his time in Tulsa and also when he was called upon which is a mark of a professional and the mark of a strong organization to be able to look internally for support and continued growth, but we’re very proud of what Daniel has done and we’re looking forward to another summer with him.”
Of course, the most important part of the Thunder’s offseason development will continue to be the growth of superstar small forward Kevin Durant. Despite being a perennial MVP candidate, he is committed to developing every bit as much as his young summer league counterparts.
“The thing that’s always apparent is his ongoing growth and development, but I think the things that continue to impress me and encourage us as an organization is his belief in the process, his belief in repetition, and his continued leadership throughout the adversity of the season when the unforeseen or uncertain circumstances present themselves,” Presti said. “That’s when he’s at his best, and I believe that is a sign of somebody that is an organizational leader as well as a tremendous player.”
It makes sense to link the Thunder to key free agents given their postseason shortfall and the loss of James Harden, but the reality is that they simply are not going to be a team that chases the big names. They got where they are by remaining flexible and through first-rate internal development, they are not about to change course.
“Our organization is always focused on building a team that is adaptable and sustainable, and we feel good about the group that we have,” Presti said. “We’ve had evolution and adaptation over the years due to the fact that the core of our team is still young and still evolving, so we’re looking to continue to grow. We anticipate that we’ll grow collectively and individually, adapt throughout the year to optimize ourselves and be playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”
The Thunder might not be the sexy choice to win the Western Conference this season, but the fact is that they have great management, an outstanding core group of players who are all on the same page and some interesting young pieces who look ready to contribute. Odds are, when the dust settles on the West next season, the Thunder will be right back in the mix as contenders.
Metta World Peace in the Spotlight
There aren’t many impact free agents left on the market, but one of the more intriguing names to join the fold is that of Metta World Peace, who was recently amnestied by the Los Angeles Lakers. More than anything else, World Peace has established a reputation for doing the unexpected, and it sounds like his next move won’t disappoint. In a much-anticipated move, World Peace reached terms with the New York Knicks on Monday afternoon.
“It was a nail-biter and now he is in control of his destiny,’’ Doug Davis told Marc Berman of The New York Post prior to the decision being made. “We’re not rushing it. We want him to make a smart decision and take all the options in consideration and do what’s best for him. He’s very excited he’s in position to choose his own destiny.”
There was a very real possibility that World Peace could have taken his game to China, as well.
“China has over a billion people. It’s fun,” World Peace said in a recent interview with Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports. “I want to be adventurous. I’ve been thinking about it.”
For what it’s worth, World Peace’s family was hoping to have him return to New York.
“I’m hoping he comes home,” Artest Sr. told The Post. “It’s New York. It’s home. He wanted to play here for a very long time. He doesn’t have to win a championship here but playing for the Knicks, that’s good enough for me.”
While World Peace is certainly a challenging player to coach, Knicks head man Mike Woodson said he would welcome the challenge, and is confident he can channel World Peace’s energy into positive things on the basketball court.
“I can coach any player,’’ Woodson told The New York Post. “I’ve coached guys from 18 years old and built a team in Atlanta. That’s tough for a first-time coach. I don’t think there’s a player who I can’t coach if he’s willing to be coached. … It’s a matter of pushing the right buttons. If anybody comes to this team, they’ve got to understand it’s all about team and not about individuals here. It’s about the New York franchise trying to win an NBA title.”
Despite his frequent antics, World Peace has proven that he can be a valuable part of a championship team. It’s easy to see why the Knicks wanted him, especially with their cross-town rivals loading up an impressive depth chart heading into the new season.