The last game that the Thunder played was not pretty, Oklahoma City were handily beaten by the Bucks and the team suffered the worst loss in franchise history. The total of the devastation was forty seven points and a blow in the race for home-court, the loss has dropped Oklahoma City back into the sixth seed. Oklahoma City play the Clippers tonight as they attempt to gain forward momentum during the season’s stretch run. The Clippers have looked like a dominant force over the last two games, they dominated the Nuggets before stealing a victory at the Wells Fargo Centre. For the first time in a long while, Doc Rivers has a full complement of players and will be looking to build chemistry among his play-off rotation. The game starts at 8:00 (EST)
Three Points to Note for the Thunder:
- Super-Small - Billy Donovan has been progressive in the way that he has coached the team this season, it is probably the most experimental that Donovan has been tactically. In previous years, we have seen Billy tinker with rotation and minutes incessantly but the core principles always remain the same. The offence would be built off the efforts of his two marquee players and the Thunder would always default to Russell Westbrook if the offensive action fell apart. This season, Donovan went for the three guard lineup despite the doubts about the lineup’s long-term viability and the effect that playing up positions could have on a player’s health. Billy has embraced small ball and he chose to go even further with small-ball against Milwaukee when he started Hamidou Diallo at power forward next to Steven Adams. Diallo has played a lot of small ball four for the Thunder in the reserve unit as Darius Bazley returns from injury. Hami has done well in these lineups as his lack of size is much less of an issue. The gamble did not work against the Bucks as Diallo was forced to guard Giannis who is much too big for Hami to defend effectively. It is an important lesson for Donovan to learn from, from this loss he will learn when using small ball lineups is appropriate and effective. The lesson will be instantly applied against the Clippers and the match-up issue presented by Kawhi Leonard. Leonard’s size and ability to close out games will mean that Donovan needs to consider carefully who guards Kawhi when it matters most.
- Defensive Slippage - OKC have been average defensively over the last five games. The defensive rating has been 112.5 which would put the Thunder 15th in the league in terms of defensive efficiency. For a team like the Thunder, they need to perform well on the defensive end to have a chance at beating good teams. The issues for the Thunder have been both schematic and effort-based. The scheme issues for the Thunder will be addressed by the coaching staff but the effort stuff is down to the players. The Thunder players need to have the desire to consistently make the next rotation or get over the screen and challenge the opposing team.
- Abdel Nader - Abdel Nader has drifted in and out of the rotation during the year as a result of OKC having a glut of wings who all need playing time to see how they fit into the long-term plans going forward. Terrance Ferguson, Luguentz Dort, Hamidou Diallo, Abdel Nader and Deonte Burton are all competing for two or three rotation spots, there will be a lack of minutes for players depending on the needs of the coaching staff. When Nader has been called upon, he has answered the call for the Thunder with steady scoring off the bench. Nader has averaged career highs in efficiency, scoring and net rating this season which is pretty impressive from a guy who only plays spot minutes for the Thunder. Nader has a fairly low ceiling and likely projects as a role player for OKC going forward but you need good role players going forward to supplement a core of guys. Nader understands his weaknesses and strengths, he is a decent scorer so that is his primary aim with the ball, he is not trying to do too much. Nader knows that he is a marginal NBA athlete who will struggle to stop an athletic wing like Giannis or LeBron so he mitigates his flaw by getting in good defensive positions. It is an interesting question for Presti as Nader’s contract expires this summer, does he continue to invest in a high-upside players or does he pay for a player who knows what he can do right now?
- Acquisitions - The buy-out market which materialises after the trade deadline is always an interesting aspect of a team-building to watch. Some teams prioritise talent acquisition over anything and therefore will add quality buy-out candidates when possible. Other front-offices will look at their team and choose to stand pat, confident with the roster which was assembled in the summer. The Clippers chose to pursue the first path and acquired Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris. Morris and Jackson were both starters on Eastern Conference teams and theoretically allow the Clippers to run ten deep in the post-season without experiencing a huge drop-off in talent towards the end of the rotation. NBA Championships are won on having talented, versatile rosters that can be relied upon deep in the year but I am somewhat skeptical about the acquisition of Jackson and Morris. Both players are ball-stoppers on offence and they hunt for their own shot rather than setting up team-mates for good looks. The Clippers already have a few players who prioritise looks for themselves first and adding two players who fit that description could cause the offence to stagnate. Moreover, adding Jackson to the reserve unit will take the ball out of Lou Williams’ hands who is a highly productive contributor for the Clippers and benefits hugely from running the offence for LA. I do not think that Reggie Jackson getting the ball instead of Lou Williams does not make sense.
- Full Roster - The Clippers will have a full roster against the Thunder, it will be the perfect time for Doc Rivers to start mapping out how his team will work with his key guys playing at the same time. Chemistry has been an issue for the Clippers all season, they have not managed to build chemistry due to injuries to Paul George, Patrick Beverley and injury management for Kawhi Leonard. Poor team chemistry is one of the flaws which could seriously harm Los Angeles’ chances in the play-offs. The pressure cooker atmosphere of the post-season test and break relationships up and down the organisation which makes it really important for every person to be tight and united in their common aim.
The George-SGA trade rocked the entire league and it is was the end of an era for the Thunder. Paul George leaving Oklahoma City signalled that Presti was tearing down and Westbrook would be on his way out shortly. At the time, it was believed that the Clippers won the trade as they received Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two players who elevate their current roster to title contention. The cost of SGA, the entire Clippers’ future and Danilo Gallinari was huge at the time and it looks even larger as Oklahoma City head towards the post-season. Shai is a rising star in the league who will be very good in the future while also being the Thunder’s leading scorer while George has been oft-injured and a few steps down from the MVP-type player he was last season.
The deal looks more balanced when this is accounted for but the potential for the picks makes Oklahoma City winners in the George-SGA trade. The Clippers’ future for the next seven years will belong to the Thunder, George and Leonard will be Clippers for a minimum of two years. The wing duo may choose to sign a new deal with the Clippers but this is not a guaranteed factor, they both have a history of quickly moving on when a better situation presents itself. Moreover, the LA Clippers have a veteran roster and lacks any future players that can be built around going forward. There is a high probability that the picks which convey to Oklahoma City in four or five years are really good. I feel confident in saying that the Thunder won the deal.
Before the turn of the year, there were wide-scale changes in SB Nation’s business model in regard to their California blogs. SB Nation chose to remove all of the contributors and contractors who had built these communities from the ground up in favour of building their own teams to cover California sports. ClipsNation was one of the communities affected and the team behind ClipsNation have made the decision to create and run their own website. 213Hoops will cover the Clippers’ full-time and I wish Robert, Lucas and the rest of the Clippers’ crew the best of the luck with their new venture.