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Thunder- Real Madrid Preview: A new era dawns, we begin to glimpse

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But where is Cameron Payne?!

Westbrook left shark
Repping OKC and America simultaneously!
W. Bennett Berry

The Oklahoma City Thunder will be opening their pre-season in Spain, as they play the historic Real Madrid Baloncesto on a sunny Monday afternoon. The game is part of a good will effort by the NBA to draw more international fans. Alex Abrines, a current Spanish national team player and former FC Barcelona guard, signed with the Thunder over the Summer. This now doubt played a huge role in the NBA’s decision to bring the Thunder to Spain for this exhibition game.

For those of us back in the states, it provides us an opportunity to have a first look at our players after the Summer. Drawing a game with an international opponent is a good deal for Thunder fans who want to see their guys early. Generally, NBA teams will play some of their best players for longer than they usually might in the pre-season. My thought is that it’s just a common courtesy to the international fans, though I have no idea what the real reasoning is.

Payne in Peril, Price to step in

The biggest news out of Thunder training camp prior to today’s game is the injury of backup point guard Cameron Payne. Payne has an acute fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his right foot. Payne had surgery on the same foot over the Summer to deal with a separate Jones fracture, but was apparently 100% heading into training camp. According to Erik Horne of the Oklahoman, a good estimated timetable for Payne’s return would be 6-8 weeks. It should be noted, however, that the Thunder have officially declared Payne out “indefinitely”.

Payne was once considered to be a potential savior for the Thunder’s sagging second team offense. In High School and at Murray State, Payne had managed the majority of his team’s offensive possessions. Payne’s length also gave him potential to hold his own on the defensive end as well. But Payne, despite flashes of potential, couldn’t put together sustained greatness during his rookie season. And with this injury news, it makes one wonder how long the Thunder will be committed to Payne’s development.

The good news emerging out of all this is that the Thunder can start planning for Payne’s absence now. Ronnie Price wasn’t the flashiest off-season signing, but Presti is looking like a genius at this point. A 10 year NBA journeyman point guard, Price appears to be a good fit for a Thunder team that will want to make the playoffs this season. Price won’t win any awards, but he’s very capable at managing an offense while really shining on the defensive end. There’s simply no way Price would have made it through four seasons on Jerry Sloan’s Jazz without some real defensive hustle. But Price’s lack of shooting touch will only exacerbate the need for other wings to step up as spacers on offense (namely, Singler and Morrow).

How does everybody fit into Donovan’s plan?

With all of the mix up in the roster, Game 1 will be a real opportunity to see what Donovan thinks of each player. In general, Donovan has proven himself to willing to mix up the rotation from game to game. But there are clear tiers and echelons of players within Donovan’s system. And there’s no clear idea, to me, what he will do outside of a select group of players. Obviously, Westbrook, Adams, Kanter, and Roberson will have locked in roles from last season. They were all key pieces in the Thunder’s run to the Western Conference Finals. And Victor Oladipo will certainly lock down a a big starting role, having taken 14 shots per game for Orlando last year. But beyond those five, I could see any other player potentially dropping in or out of the rotation.

Some players played decent roles last season, but proved themselves to be limited and lost relevance as the season went on. I’d put Kyle Singler, Nick Collison, and Anthony Morrow in this category. They all know how to do certain things really well, but have had trouble finding ways to contribute night in and night out. They are proven, imperfect solutions to some of the Thunder’s problems.

Other players are a known quantity to the NBA, but are an unknown quantity to Donovan and his staff. Ersan Ilyasova, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Ronnie Price all fall into this category. All three of these players were likely wanted by multiple teams in the off-season, and can fill a role under the right circumstances. But none of them have real star potential, and it’s hard to see any of them really adding to the starting lineup.

Other players still are more of a mystery, but could emerge as solid contributors this season. Domatas Sabonis, Alex Abrines, and Josh Huestis all fall into this category. Still, the best possible case scenario for all three of these guys has them being a really solid role player. Despite the lack of star potential, this group seems to hold the key to the Thunder’s success this season. If just one of these guys could come through as a significant contributor, it could be enough to keep the Thunder through some tougher games. But by the same token, it’s entirely possible that all of these guys are out of the league in 5 years as well.

There’s two remaining categories. One is the forgotten men, which includes Mitch McGary and Cameron Payne. McGary’s weight problems have long been a rumor among Thunder fans on the internet. But what we do know is that McGary couldn’t hold down any sort of court time last season. And this season, McGary will sit out the first five 15 games of the year for violating the NBA’s archaic anti-drug policy. Given these facts, I wouldn’t expect to see much McGary at all this year.

The last category is training camp invitees. Semaj Christon, Alex Caruso, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Chris Wright will be vying for a guaranteed spot on the Thunder roster. Most notable among them is Semaj Christon. Christon played 14-15 with the Oklahoma City Blue, and spent last season playing in Italy’s top league. Most pressingly, Christon is a point guard and stands a greater chance of getting singed with Payne’s ominous injury.

Anyway, that’s just my theory on how things will shake out for this team. We’ll get a more definitive idea once we see them out on the court.

What to expect from Real Madrid

It’s long been said that the Euroleague is the second best basketball league in the world. But the Euroleague is a champion’s league, and each club still has to play in domestic competition. As far as domestic competition goes, Spain has far and away the best in Europe.

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are the two basketball powerhouses of Spain. Combined, Madrid and Barcelona account for 51 of the 60 basketball titles awarded in Spanish league history. Both teams have legions of passionate fans, a solid financial backing, and perpetually competitive rosters.

Real Madrid has been the more dominant side in recent years, capturing the three most recent Spanish basketball titles. Real Madrid has been competitive in the Euroleague as well. Last year, Madrid got all the way to the top 8 before being swept by Fenerbahce in 3 games. And the year before last, Real Madrid captured the Euroleague championship.

In the off-season, Real Madrid added a lot of borderline NBA talent. Andres Nocioni is a long-time NBA veteran, and will provide a steady perimeter presence. Gustavo Ayon is a really nice pick and pop big that’s good at finding open space. Jeffery Taylor is a spark plug wing who can occasionally light up the other team with a combo of athleticism and shooting. And Dontaye Draper is an American-born forward who has become a regular Euroleague presence. Draper even goes so far as to play for Croatia’s national team in the off-season, providing them with shooting.

Returning for Real Madrid will be a mean starting lineup. At center is Othello Hunter, a NBA washout who has found a home on some of Europe’s best squads. Hunter is short for a center, but still has a heck of a post presence. Size is harder to come by in Europe, so Hunter has made a name for himself with physical play and an affinity for finding the rim. At power forward is Anthony Randolph, another NBA washout. At one point in Randolph’s career he looked like a solid NBA role player. I’d go so far as to say Randolph even had star potential. But Randolph could never carve out his niche, as a wiry 7 footer. There were also questions surrounding his work ethic. Now, Randolph is pretty much an athletic-first big.

Madrid’s small forward is Jonas Maciulis. Maciulis is a glue guy who knows all of the fundamentals really well. But Maciulis never really had the athleticism or creativity to be a star. Still, you’ll find Maciulis getting signed by winning teams year in and year out. At shooting guard for Madrid is Rudy Fernandez. Fernandez has the talent to be an NBA regular, and played four seasons with a significant role. But Fernandez also has a lot of national pride, consistently turning out to play for the Spanish national team year after year. As such, it’s not surprising that Fernandez returned to Europe before he had to, so he could be a leader on one of his country’s top teams.

At point guard is Sergio Llull, another Spanish national and consistent national team mainstay. I wouldn’t say Llull is nearly as talented as Fernandez. Llull generally comes off the bench on the national team, occasionally surfacing as part of a effortless looking fast break. But athletically, Llull will be no match for Westbrook.

How tonight’s game will go

I’m expecting the Thunder to be outright dominant out of the gate, simply because Westbrook has such a good repertoire with his old teammates. But as soon as the new guys start cycling in, I think Madrid will have a slight advantage. Madrid is going to have some guys coming off the deep bench that have been with the team for a while, and know how to win. Meanwhile, the Thunder will just be trying guys out.

Still, I’d expect this to be well out of hand by the time the final buzzer sounds. It’s just a matter of Thunder pride. I’ve never seen this team and the culture they embody come up short against measurably inferior competition. And by measurably inferior, I mean sub-NBA level teams. We’ll leave follies like that to Sooner football.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 110, Real Madrid 89

What do you think of tonight’s game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2017 NBA Pre-Season Game 1

Real Madrid

October 3rd, 2016
Palacio de Deportes de la Comunidad de Madrid, Madrid, Spain
1:30 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: NBA League Pass
Injury Report: Cameron Payne (Out)
No previous matchups.
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Sergio Llull
Victor Oladipo SG Rudy Fernandez
Andre Roberson SF Jonas Maciulis
Ersan Ilyasova PF Anthony Randolph
Steven Adams C Othello Hunter