My Mirror Staring Back at Me: Timberwolves at Thunder Preview

Call it a November hangover, but tonight the Timberwolves take on the Thunder in the second-half of a back-to-back. At least from here they will be off until Wednesday when they play the Spurs in Mexico City, but they still won’t be returning to Target Center until Saturday against the Heat. Yes, they play the Thunder, Spurs and Heat consecutively this week. Ideally, you’re happy if you come away from this stretch with one or two wins.

As for tonight, the Timberwolves face an Oklahoma City team that  has won six games ina  row and now has Russell Westbrook back. Yes, even a struggling Russell Westbrook is still a dangerous Russell Westbrook; just ask the Warriors.

While Westbrook’s return has rejuvenated the Thunder, having Nikola Pekovic back in his own rhythm has been valuable to the Timberwolves. And with Luc Mbah a Moute on board, the Timberwolves will be able to change up the looks that defenders see between him and Corey Brewer. These teams typically matchup very well and games are usually always competitive. The two things to remember about this Thunder team is that they can now play some defense and you really don’t want to send them to the line because they’re going to make them 80 percent of the time.

Kendrick Perkins is listed as probable for the Thunder, which is probably a better thing for the Timberwolves than the Thunder. Both of these times like to run, get to the line and make their shots, so the team that is able to get the most stops should be the one to come out on top this time. Just don’t expect a blowout like the first time these two teams met this season.

Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena; Oklahoma City, OK

When: 7pm

See/Hear It: FSN/WCCO AM 830


The Oklahoma City Model

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OKC cashed in with two lottery picks (Luck) but have also developed talent (Ibaka) and made smart decisions behind the scenes (Perkins, Harden). It's all apart of the "Rags to Riches Model" of the NBA

When one Googles the words “Oklahoma City Thunder model”, 9 of the first 10 results are NBA lottery level teams claiming they are going to follow the Thunder’s recipe for recent success. But what is this formula? And is it actually possible for other teams to follow it?

It seems overly kind to the Thunder’s brass to say that Oklahoma City’s success is based solely off making good basketball and financial decisions. After all…the whole franchise at the moment is built off a twice-lucky draft pick in 2007, lucky once because they were able to draft a franchise superstar like Kevin Durant, and lucky again because instead of winning the lottery and picking Greg Oden (the consensus number one at the time), they got the second pick…which turned out to be the real winner.

Not only did the Thunder score on Durant, they somehow won a superstar who was uninterested in the bright lights of Broadway or Hollywood. In the Summer of LeBron, of loud Decisions, documentaries, and even louder commentary, Durant quietly signed a 5 year extension on his current deal with the Thunder. Instead of announcing it on a one hour special on ESPN, Durant announced it on his Twitter feed, informing the basketball world that he was committed to winning a championship for Oklahoma City. No GM in the world could have seen a superstar like that coming.

Likewise, this current Thunder squad wasn’t going to be a true contender to defeat the Lakers or Mavericks out West without GM Sam Presti somehow encountering Boston GM Danny Ainge, the only executive in the league willing trade Kendrick Perkins, a defensive specialist against the biggest, baddest bodies in the NBA, for two players who are currently buried in the bench rotation in Boston. (Ugh.)

So…it’s partially luck, just as Jonah noted when commenting on the league’s bottom-dwelling, small-market squads, who are looking to break the ice just as OKC did. Just ask the Knicks, Clippers, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Bobcats, or any of the other 8 teams who sucked worse than the 2008 Chicago Bulls, who somehow won the lottery and snapped up current MVP Derrick Rose.

Still, while it may be a bit implausible to ask small market teams to fully follow the Oklahoma City model, given the whole “Kevin Durant, the best scorer in the freaking NBA, totally fell into their laps” thing and all, the Thunder have certainly made many wise decisions, shattering common belief that it was all just luck.

Russell Westbrook was pegged to struggle at the point guard position coming out of the draft in 2008, and Presti was widely criticized for taking him 4th. But while recent accusations about his shot selection are fully factual, nobody can deny that he has been an instrumental part of this OKC team, as well as a deserving All Star this season. His continued development is one of the biggest keys behind the Thunder’s current status as a legitimate championship contender.

Also, allowing Serge Ibaka to develop made the Thunder frontline of Perkins and Ibaka a dangerous combination of athletic and strong. Not only that, but trading Jeff Green and giving Ibaka more minutes at the 4, by far his more natural position, has worked wonders defensively for the Thunder.

So what does this mean for Minnesota? It’s tough to tell. It certainly means some hard questions need to be asked if this team is going to truly contend in the future. The hardest question of all might be this one: can a contender be built around Kevin Love? Let’s be honest: Kevin Love’s free agency is approaching, and he is going to get paid handsomely by someone. Which, of course, he deserves; he had a great season, winning the MIP, becoming an All Star, and significantly developing his offensive game. There is no reason to believe that next year won’t be equally successful. But he’s not a go-to scorer in crunch time. Minnesota still doesn’t have one, as much as we all love Beasley. And given that Love can also be abused on defense, Minnesota will be forced to ask themselves this: How much are rebounds and hustle worth in dollar bills?

Ultimately, it appears the formula for success as a small market team in the NBA is a strange, difficult to define combination of foresight, luck and losing. One needs the wits to realize what will work in the NBA, the luck to acquire it, and the patience to see it through.

But losses in the standings mean losses in the stands, which in turn leads to losses in the checkbook. And ultimately, money runs (and ruins) everything. One can preach about teams needing to lose to rebuild, but in these volatile NBA times, with the lockout looming, the horrifying word “contraction” being thrown around, and small market teams constantly in danger of bouncing from city to city (Sacramento is just the start of things, folks), the biggest question for small market teams actually becomes a bit frightening.

How many franchises can actually afford to improve?

The end of things as we know it?

How about those NBA Playoffs?! Derrick Rose is leading the Bulls like a once-led-by Jordan team did back in the day. Russell Westbrook has established himself as just as worthy and important to the OKC Thunder as teammate Kevin Durant — might there be some jealousy clouding the team’s Playoff hopes? We already witnessed the Hawks of Atlanta beat down Orlando and their muscly-chiseled giant and could very well see Memphis take the Best of the West down too. All that in the opening round, and it’s just heating up.

It’s really unfortunate that these lively and entertaining Playoff games have to be dolefully overshadowed by the unfortunate situation in Sacramento. Some may think nothing of it — Why should we care about what’s going on in a poor basketball town like Sacramento? But when the league’s integrity is at stake, it should be considered a big deal.

If you’re not up to date on the Sacramento situation, here’s where we are now: The Maloof’s, Sacramento’s “proud” owners of their Kings, screwed up, ran out of money, cut the costs of operations throughout the organization and now they’re in a pickle looking for a new arena and a new beginning. Unfortunately, a city as small as Sacramento can’t afford a new arena to please the Maloof brothers’ requests and they’ve explored the option of relocating. “Relocation,” it’s the only word that provides enough motivation in the word itself to bring a community together to fight the stronger powers of the world. So as the city of Sacramento rallies itself to save their lone professional franchise — The Maloof’s already allowed their WNBA team to hit the fan — the fate of the Sacramento Kings is now in the NBA’s hands, as they’re now figuring out if it’s worth their interest to keep the franchise afloat in a dismantled NBA market.

In Sacramento’s case, we’ve quickly learned the fact that smaller-market teams are ruining the NBA’s limelight. By that I mean that they’re low attendance, poor marketing and tendency to withhold franchise players from going to a preferred destination hinders the league and its owners — and in Lebron James’ case, can curse a franchise and its fans. That won’t get you on David Stern’s good side, where he pictures the NBA as joyful as a fairy tale, where Chicago, New York, Miami, Boston and L.A. are all an integral part of each season and postseason.

But we’ve seen this all over, especially as of late with the Kings on the fence and other franchises in limbo. To make matters even more relevant than it blatantly should be already is that it happened in our very own city. Kevin Garnett hoisted this franchise onto his back and hauled it for 12 long, demanding seasons. But when KG left at McHale’s request — and ultimately for the good of the league — the franchise turned into a crippled and demoralized heap of excrement that proved to be more detrimental to the league than helpful. After that, all those involved, especially the fans, grew detached from the situation entirely. And now we’re winding down an awfully similar, and eery, path that the Kings tumbled down. We’re watching operation costs getting slashed, the fan support is decreasing and they haven’t caught a glimmer of luck, or hope, yet.

We’ve seen very similar situations happen multiple times — Seattle and New Orleans most recently — where the NBA’s front office has had to intervene in one organization’s business because either A) Owners go broke, B) Fans grow disinterested for any number of reasons, or; C) The team just flat out sucks. But more importantly, what all these troubled teams have in common is they’ve just failed to catch that break and, honestly, were never in the right caring hands to begin with.

Why didn’t the situation implode? Because Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge showed up. Because owner Paul Allen embraced how deeply Portlanders identified with his franchise and started emphasizing character. Because Allen hired an enterprising front office that used his money as a competitive advantage, buying extra draft picks, thinking outside the box with creative free-agent offers and raiding cost-cutting teams of solid veterans. The team built a good enough foundation to survive a few bad breaks (most recently, Oden and Roy), and now they’re giving the Mavericks everything they can handle in Round 1. Maybe the Blazers haven’t been totally lucky, but they’ve definitely been smart.

Bill Simmons said that here and I advise taking 15-20 minutes out of your day to read the article in its entirety. Anyways, back to the point: Teams in smaller markets are doomed in the NBA. Unless they’re being run by very smart people, such as the Blazers, or have just caught some lucky breaks, such as the Thunder, you’re years in the NBA, or at least in a specific city, are limited at best.

The next question is how can we fix this dilemma. Underprivileged owners in poor markets don’t have the gonads or the resources to survive in the NBA. It could very well lead to a contraction process in the NBA. Would contraction be a bad thing for the NBA? Looking forward both economically as well as the entertainment factor, a condensed and consolidated league could be the best thing going forward. No longer would Stern have to worry about bankrupt owners. No longer would city’s sit through season after season of suffering and aching. No longer would down-to-earth athletes have to make a professional decision about leaving their “home team” because of a “business decision.” The league would flourish in mounds of cash, sponsorships and the overwhelming amount of publicity they’d receive with all the different rivalries that could stem from big name players moving from one big name city to the next.

But at the same time, you can take Minnesota’s perspective and shoot all of those glamours of contraction down. We have the talent to turn things around. We have enough fan support, as we showed during the KG era, to make a statement amongst a league of coast-dwelling, tax-free states that have all the night clubs and warm weather to attract any talent they sought after.

The league doesn’t need to jump to any conclusions: If they find the right hands for a franchise like Sacramento, there’s hope. And if they also hit the lottery like OKC has, they could very well be the Blazers of tomorrow, even in a city as irrelevant to basketball as Portland once was. Minnesota is no different. Given the right amount of time and brains working behind the curtain, any team can be flipped right-side-up.

It’s just a matter of luck and intelligence. Isn’t everything?