The Thunder come into their home game against Cleveland with a lot of momentum. OKC has been rolling since the start of the year, and the Cavs represent an easy layup to continue the winning ways.
Cleveland has not been good recently, as they struggle with young players hitting the rookie wall and trade rumours causing the squad to be unsettled. Jordan Clarkson was dealt earlier in the season and it is probable that Tristan Thompson and John Henson will be dealt by the deadline.
The game starts at 8:00 (EST).
Three Points to Note for the Thunder
1. Starting Small Forward
At the Thunder practice yesterday, Terrance Ferguson returned to the team for the first time in two weeks. Ferguson has been absent for personal reasons, which has meant that Billy Donovan has had to juggle his rotation. Donovan has inserted Luguentz Dort into the starting lineup, and Dort has done really well in this role. The defence of the starting unit has not slipped without Ferguson and it could be argued that the offence has improved with Dort.
Dort was a point guard in college and those instincts are still evident at the professional level. He is more than happy to move the ball and keep the offence ticking. For all of Ferguson’s strengths, he struggles to create shots for others, which can limit the flow of the offence. Concerns about Dort’s size as a starter who guards larger wings have been addressed by Lu’s recent performances — he has played exceptional defence on a variety of players including James Harden, Luka Doncic and Devin Booker. Dort is not a lengthy defender but he is stout and fights over every screen.
Dort’s confidence has only grown as a starter and he has made a legitimate case for starting over Ferguson. It will be interesting to see how Billy Donovan addresses this issue. Ferguson has been inconsistent this season, but his past performance does give him credence as a starter.
2. Team Rest
Oklahoma City played a ton of games during January — 17 in total — and a decent portion of these games coming on the road. As a result of the heavy schedule, the Thunder have struggled with injuries over the last month or so.
The centre spot has been a revolving door in a sense as all three centres have played significant minutes this month when players have gone down with injury. Mike Muscala stepped up in a big way against the Rockets when both Adams and Noel were injured.
Oklahoma City have needed the four days off between the Phoenix Suns and the Cleveland Cavaliers games. A lot of the Thunder players would have been in a ‘red zone’ where injury was highly likely at the end of the month, after four days rest the players will be a lot healthier.
3. Importance of veteran leadership
Over the last week or so, there has been a lot of talk regarding the All-Star game and how a few players feel like they have been snubbed. The common name thrown out as the person who is undeserving of All-Star status is Chris Paul.
In my mind, Chris Paul is worthy of being an All-Star for his impact on his team-mates, Paul makes everybody on his team better, compared to someone like Karl-Anthony Towns who does not at this point at time. There seems to be a belief among players and fans alike that statistical production should be sole metric when judging whether a player is an All-Star. I do not agree with this — team success has to be factor when it comes to judging whether a player has earned this accolade. Towns spoke recently about being ‘desensitised to respect’ in response to not being picked as an All-Star this season. He does not seem to realise that the Wolves are abysmal with him defensively and that he has personally not won a game since November. It is February right now.
There was another reason why veteran leadership has become an important talking point in the media this week, — the consternation regarding Andre Iguodala. Iguodala came to an agreement with Zach Kleiman, Memphis GM, that Iggy would remain in the Bay Area and train away from the team. There was no expectation that Iguodala would suit up for the Grizzlies, and yet he expects to be bought out after the deadline if he cannot be traded to a contender of his choice. I think that the player empowerment era is great in terms of players getting to places where they are happy but this instance is ludicrous, Iggy has not compromised one bit, and yet there is pressure on Memphis to acquiesce to his wishes.
It is farcical and for a strange reason, it made me think about Chris Paul’s impact as a leader on the Thunder. When Paul came to Oklahoma City, there was a belief that Paul could refuse to play basketball and remain separate from the team. There is no incentive for an aging point guard like Paul to expend energy on a team which did not look like a contender at the start of the year. Paul chose to embrace the team fully and commit his effort into making the Thunder a play-off team. When the time comes, Paul will be traded to a contender but there will be no ill will unlike in Memphis where Iguodala is regarded with derision by his own team-mates.
Garland was a puzzling draft selection by Koby Altmann. It did not seem to make sense at the time because Cleveland already had a small, score-first point guard in Collin Sexton. In recent weeks, Darius Garland has flashed play-making abilities in terms of creating for others rather than just himself. His feel looks better in recent week — his assists numbers stand at 5.3 assists per game over the last five games compared to just 3.7 on the season. The data is still not great, Garland has way too many turnovers for his assist production but it is trending upwards. The Cavs badly need a guard who can play-make as they lack reliable shot creation.
Cavs are sellers
Cleveland are expected to be sellers at the deadline as they have veteran players on expiring contracts who could feasibly play a role on a contending team. It makes no sense for the Cavaliers to retain these veteran players, as the team is slowly rebuilding around a young core when it emerges. Kevin Love will not be dealt before the deadline, according to the press coming out of Cleveland, and the team will look to move Love during the summer.
The interesting player to watch at the deadline would be Tristan Thompson. Thompson is in the last year of a deal and is an experienced energy big man who plays hard on defence. Thompson is a limited basketball player on offence and defence but he provides solidity to a front-court rotation.
The Dunk Contest is generally a dry affair. Players try dunks which they have no chance at making and props are excessively used during the dunk set-up.
Hamidou Diallo brought a little life to the Dunk Contest last year as his raw athleticism created a good atmosphere in Charlotte, North Carolina. Diallo was named Dunk Champion 2019 and yet has not been invited to the contest in Chicago. I do not understand why Hami has not been invited because he was hugely exciting last year and would raise the quality of the contest this season. A contest between Aaron Gordon, Derrick Jones Jr and Hamidou Diallo would bring the excitement back to the Dunk Contest for the first time in years.