The setting is February 2008. The Memphis Grizzlies have reached their peak with Pau Gasol. At their best, they are a middle of the pack team in a dominant Western Conference. At their norm, they are a surefire lottery mainstay.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Thirty-two home games. Thirty-two sellouts.
Capacity crowds are standard this year at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the 581-thousand-square-foot home to the reigning Western Conference champs, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And it’s all for good reason. If you don’t have an NBA arena bucket list, you should.
(This is another in a series of 30 guest columns that will run in October, when optimism reigns supreme across the NBA. The theme will be “Five Reasons to Feel Positive About … ” We encourage you to follow the authors on Twitter and visit their sites. – CS)
The Oklahoma City Thunder were one of the league’s most talked-about teams last season, and it seemed that they were destined to meet with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. It was what everybody wanted – the young, homegrown team from a small town taking on the superstars who decided to pal around and live on the beach.
But after OKC’s Game Five loss, the focus of the NBA has shifted to the league’s newest quickly constructed powerhouse, the Los Angeles Lakers. Other teams are looking more powerful as well, with the LA Clippers grabbing Lamar Odom, Denver getting Andre Igoudala, and San Antonio getting more time to work out their roster.
From a distance, it looks like the Thunder may disappoint this season. After all, the only real moves they made were losing veterans Derek Fisher and Nazr Mohammed while signing a late first-rounder in Perry Jones III and a well-known draft bust in Hasheem Thabeet.
However, if there’s one thing the Thunder know how to do, it’s to surprise you when it’s least expected. Here’s five reasons to feel positive about the team from OKC.
Kobe Bryant hasn’t played with a Hall of Fame point guard since, since …
C’mon folks …
You remember …
Crunch that cranium …
It was since 2004, when Gary Payton was at the end of his illustrious career and teamed with Karl Malone to join the Los Angeles Lakers for a one-year run that lasted all the way to the NBA Finals, where they were bounced in five games by the Detroit Pistons. I can still remember seeing Jerry Buss and his posse of post-pubescent pretties walking out of the Palace of Auburn Hills midway through the third quarter when it was clear the game was out of hand and the Pistons were going to win the title.
Bryant is a tricky guy for a point guard to play alongside, given Bryant’s propensity for dominating the ball and trying to beat his man one-on-one. Rarely is he on the receiving end of a pick-and-roll play, usually being the initiator instead.
Can he adjust his game to play alongside one of the greatest passers in the history of the game?
We shall find out after the Lakers agreed to terms with Steve Nash on a Fourth of July on which point guards dominated the NBA free agency landscape. In addition to the sign-and-trade deal in which the Lakers will send two No. 1 picks and to No. 2 picks to their longtime division rivals in Phoenix, the biggest names making news were a pair of other playmakers — Goran Dragic and Jeremy Lin.
Dragic will return to his original NBA team, getting a four-year, $30 million deal from the Suns that could rise with incentives, and Lin met with the Houston Rockets, Dragic’s old team, which is prepared to offer him a back-loaded four-year offer sheet worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $31 million. The New York Knicks, who lost out in the bidding on Nash, will have an opportunity to match if Lin actually signs the offer sheet.
Houston could end up with no point guards other than Scott Machado after trading Kyle Lowry to the Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-round draft pick.
Another point guard, Jason Kidd, was nearing agreement with the Dallas Mavericks to return for two years until he changed his mind today and decided to play for the Knicks.
With Deron Williams having come off the market a day earlier, and with Jameer Nelson coming to terms today on a three-year deal with the Magic, the field of available free agent point guards is down to Raymond Felton, Ramon Sessions, Delonte West and Lou Williams.
And of our top 25 unrestricted free agents, the only guys in the Top 10 still without deals are Ersan Ilyasova, Kris Humphries, Ray Allen and Chris Kaman.
Hasheem Thabeet did not make our Top 25 list, and he would not have made our Top 50 list is we had done one. But the Oklahoma City Thunder appear to believe that the former No. 2 pick of the 2009 draft still has the potential to be a contributor. They gave him a two-year deal at an affordable price $800,000 — or about one-tenth of what the Golden State Warriors bestowed on uberbust Kwame Brown during last year’s offseason signing frenzy following the conclusion of the lockout.
Of course, the player whose future remains the most up in the air is Dwight Howard, who was one of the primary subjects of yesterday’s free agency wrapup because of the uncertainty surrounding the Brooklyn Nets’ ability to trade for him and form a Big Three with Williams and Joe Johnson.
With Nash now heading to the Lakers, it raises the question: Would L.A. consider a swap of Andrew Bynum for Howard?
Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles says no, reporting that the Lakers want to move forward with a core of Nash, Bryant, Bynum and Pau Gasol.
If true, that erases one possible B-list destination from Howard’s wish list. But as I tweeted last night, I have reason to believe that the Chicago Bulls would be right in the mix if they had assurances that Howard would remain with them long-term.
New Magic general manager Rob Hennigan is trying to acquire multiple draft picks in any deal for Howard, and the Bulls are sitting on a nice one — a Charlotte No. 1 pick that is unprotected in 2016 and top-8 protected in 2015.
Now, let’s have a closer look at the deals that got done.
1. Nash. Just when it appeared the Knicks were in the driver’s seat, willing to give up a package of players including Iman Shumpert to facilitate a sign-and-trade that would get Nash his $25 million for three years, the rug got pulled out from under them. Unbeknownst to the Knicks, Nash had been speaking recently with Bryant about whether the two of them could co-exist successfully. And when the Suns decided to go ahead and make a deal with their long-time divisional rivals, the Knicks’ chances were dead. “I approached them and asked if they would be willing to do a sign and trade deal with L.A. because it is very important to me to stay near my children and family,” Nash said. “They were very apprehensive and didn’t want to do it. Fortunately for me, they reconsidered.” In return, the Suns get four draft picks — first-rounders in 2013 and 2015 and second-rounders in 2013 and 2014, along with an $8 million trade exception.
2. Dragic. Replacing Nash at the point in Phoenix will be Dragic, who began his NBA career in Phoenix, then was shipped to Houston along with a first-round draft pick for Aaron Brooks in February of 2011. The Suns have already reached agreement on a max offer sheet for Eric Gordon, and they did another deal Wednesday to lock up Michael Beasley for three years. Dragic had a breakout second half of the season when he replaced Kyle Lowry as the Rockets’ starting point guard, and the Suns were willing to outbid Houston, Charlotte, Dallas to get him back.
3. Lin. The Knicks have been insistent that they will match any offer that Lin receives, and now we shall see if they have the stomach for it. Much like the offer sheet Omer Asik received from the Rockets, Houston backloaded its deal with Lin in order to create luxury tax ramifications for the Knicks should they choose to match. But when you consider that Jim Dolan has never shied away from paying luxury tax before, and helps run a company, Cablevision, that mints money, it’s a good bet that New York will match. (I also believe the Bulls will match the offer sheet to Asik, leaving the Rockets will a big pile of unspent cash on July 14 — the end of the three-day period for teams to match offers to restricted free agents.)
4. Kidd. This is a guy who said he wanted to play in the Association for 20 years. Right now, he is at 18 and counting. And though it looked like he had his heart set on finishing his career with the Mavericks playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki, he opted instead for the brighter lights of a bigger city where he will play alongside Lin if the Knicks (as expected) match the Rockets offer sheet.