With a mere 3 games separating Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and New Orleans, all NBA fans’ eyes riveted on the the Race For 8th in the Western Conference. Not only are the squads jockeying for position, but Russell Westbrook and Anthony “The Brow” Davis are embroiled in a battle for “The People’s Champ” MVP (both are very long shots to win the actual Most Valuable Player award, but damned if the fans aren’t captivated by their nightly exploits).
With Russell Westbrook going ballistic, Durant’s playing status murky, and the playoffs on the horizon, what better time to talk to Thunder Obsessed’s Jason Damiano? I had the pleasure of picking the native New Yorker’s brain during OKC’s exhilarating 6 game series with the Clippers last year. Let’s see what he has to say about OKC’s chances of making magic in the playoffs in today’s installment of “Bloggers Blogging Bloggers”.
Me: I almost reached out to you in November (but Westbrook and Durant were shelved and Oklahoma City was 3-12) or in December (but then KD went down with the ankle), I didn’t know if you’d be in any shape to reply coherently with all of the drinking and wailing angrily that I imagine you doing back then.
With OKC 19-11 in 2015, I figured that now would be a better time to gauge how you feel about the Thunder. Let’s get the big one out of the way: on a scale of 1 to 10, how concerned are you (and the thunder fans you talk to) about Kevin Durant’s foot issues, both this year and going forward?
Jason Damiano (JD): I’ll say my level of concern is a 9 out of 10 for this season, and I really don’t know what to think moving forward. The Thunder have reached a point in the season where Durant is not going to have much time to work off the rust and get into a nice rhythm with his new teammates, and it’s really tough to imagine a scenario where the Thunder are able to adjust in the playoffs. So for this year, with the goal being a championship, Durant’s foot issues have reached dire levels. Moving forward, the main goal is keeping Durant around. I can’t say we have any reason to believe he won’t ever be healthy again, but losing one of the two seasons he had left probably doesn’t help matters.
Me: Even in early January, Reggie Jackson was playing like a sulky child, OKC got smacked by the Warriors, Houston, and lowly Sacramento, and the Thunder were 2-5 in 2015. Things looked grim. Fast forward to today: Reggie Jackson and Perkins are gone, in comes Enes Kanter, DJ Augustin, Kyle Singler, and Human Towel Caddie Steve Novak. How do you rate these moves for OKC? Which of the new guys will be the most important?
JD: I really like the trade for OKC. There were a bunch of rumors around the trade deadline that I wasn’t as excited about (specifically the Brook Lopez deal), and I thought they got a great haul for their disgruntled backup point guard. With the Kanter/Singler/Augustin trio, they were able to improve their team while getting younger and maintaining control over their cap situation. DJ Augustin was actually my favorite pickup in the deal, though that was partially because of how little I knew about Enes Kanter, who has really impressed so far (Note: Kanter is averaging 14,3 ppg, 9.3 rpg in 8 games with OKC). I’ll say Augustin ends up the most important player in the deal, mostly due to the fact he is directly replacing a player who was really important to the Thunder in last year’s playoffs. Kanter may turn out to be the long term steal, but Augustin is still the one I’m looking at in this year’s playoffs.
Me: At the time of this interview, Westbrook, Durant, AND Steven Adams are absent, with all 3 to be reevaluated this week. The Pelicans and Suns are hot on the Thunder’s heels for that 8th spot. How do you see the rest of the season playing out? What seed do you think is in the cards? Out of the current top 4 Western seeds (Warriors, Grizzlies, Rockets, Blazers) which would you prefer in a 1st round match up and why?
JD: My biggest interest in the rest of the regular season is seeing how much run Durant can get in. If he can start looking like his old self with a few games to go, that gives the Thunder a legitimate shot at making some noise in the playoffs. Anything short of that though, and I would expect them to succumb to the difficult West. As for the playoffs themselves, I still have them making it without too much difficulty. They have a favorable schedule, especially over the last 5 games of the season, so I’m really not as concerned as I probably should be, but at the same time, I’d be surprised if they moved up to the 7 seed at this point.
Out of the current top 4 out West, I’d definitely prefer the Rockets or the Blazers, mostly because I don’t think those teams are better than a healthy Thunder squad. I can’t quite say the same for the top 2. Most of the discussion in OKC these days is regarding a preference between the Warriors and Grizzlies, and I’ve been wavering between the two. Most switched to preferring the Warriors when Kendrick Perkins was traded, and that might be the right answer, but I am worried about the Warriors shooting the Thunder out of a quick series. At least if they play the Grizzlies, the games will be close and the Thunder should have a chance to win them. The basketball fan in me wants to see a 7 game, 115 points a night Warriors-Thunder fun fest, but I just worry only one of those teams ends up going all out.
Me: The summer of 2016 has all eyes on Kevin Durant. Presti brings you into his war counsel, and asks you to write down 3 moves that must be executed to to keep Durant in Thunder blue and white. What do you tell him?
JD: I’m not sure Sam Presti has as much control over Durant’s potential return as he would like, but here goes:
1. Re-sign Enes Kanter. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, and the Thunder just made an important deal to get him. There is an expectation around the league that he is going to be asking for a lot of money, but what player doesn’t say that? With the cap going up, the Thunder have to go all in, and keeping Kanter around is the first step in the right direction.
2. Trade Dion Waiters for someone who isn’t Dion Waiters. Throw Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III into the deal. The Thunder are a little too deep for their own good when it comes to young players, and I think they can put together a solid package around those guys to get a veteran who can actually help them right now. A real three and D starting shooting guard would be a nice addition, and I certainly think Durant would appreciate it. Andre Roberson and Mitch McGary are assets as well, and the right deal may present itself over the next year or so.
3. Hire a new coach?! I can’t say I agree with this move myself, as it could make Durant unhappy. The Thunder players all seem to really like playing for Scott Brooks, and he’s the only coach a lot of them have played for in a very long time. A new coach could really mess up the way the team operates both on and off the court, and that is something the Thunder can’t afford. A new coach could also turn the Thunder into a near invincible juggernaut. Scott Brooks is good at a lot of things, but he has clear shortcomings that have held the Thunder back at times. My read on the situation is that if you have reason to believe Durant is leaning towards leaving, make a change at the coaching spot. If you think he is staying, keep Brooks and don’t risk it. As of right now, my guess is that Kevin Durant is planning to stay, and that Brooks will be doing the same.
Me: More impressive month: Westbrook’s February or Durant’s 2014 January?
JD: I’m leaning towards Kevin Durant, but it’s not by very much. In January of 2014, Durant averaged 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game on 55/44/89 shooting in 16 games. 13 months later, Westbrook countered with 31.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game on 46/32/91 shooting in 12 games. Both guys led their squads to .750 winning percentages with their amazing play, which would have been an easy tiebreaker. Durant ran away with the MVP race last January, while Westbrook catapulted himself into one. Durant’s prolific shooting and efficiency were answered with Westbrook’s triple doubles and overall impact with his historic usage. I’m leaning ever so slightly towards Durant purely based on the feeling I had while experiencing each of their respective runs. Durant’s multiple game winners left Thunder fans with specific memories that Westbrook simply didn’t match, and that’s enough to break the virtual tie for me.
Me: I really appreciate you making time to chop it up with me. Any final thought you’d like to leave Thunder fans with?
JD: First off, thank you for taking the time to put this together. A final thought? There has been some talk about which center should start moving forward now that Steven Adams is back and Enes Kanter has been playing so well. While I don’t think the Thunder will gain or lose too much with either option, I’d love to see them give Kanter a shot when Durant returns to see what happens when the Thunder have 4 offensively capable players starting together. It’s been years of Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams starting for the Thunder, and I wonder what it will look like if they have an extra guy who is actually worth passing to on the floor. The defense would take a step back, but would the increased offense make it a net positive? I have no idea, but I’d love to find out.