NBA Roundtable: What’s Next for OKC? NCAA Talent Pool in Danger?

Oklahoma City Thunder
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One of the best months of basketball continues with the NCAA Tournament and the race for the NBA Playoffs in full swing. We got together this week to talk about future NBA prospect decisions, Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and more.

Writers this week:

Sean Linhares – @Linhares_BBS

Justin Kirkland – @jkirk41

Evan Anderson – @Jordainian21

DJ Allen – @DJAllen23

Alfonso De Falco – @FonzyDeFalco

1. Darius Bazley decided to decommit from Syracuse this week and enter the G League to begin his professional career. Will blue-chip players begin to bypass the NCAA? 

Linhares: Well with NCAA President Mark Emmert (who is paid over $1 million annually) saying simultaneously that schools have no interest in paying athletes and that the NBA should look into allowing high schoolers to make the jump to the professional level, I’m going to say yes.

Bazley jumping to the G League should make for an interesting case study. He isn’t the first guy to skip the college game, Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay both played professionally overseas before returning to the states to play in the NBA, but he could be the first to prove that the G League is a viable option for players that might not be able to wait a year to secure their families economic wellbeing.

Realistically, I think it’s more likely we see the NBA accepting high school players into the draft before the G League becomes a serious competitor to the NCAA, but I still see the NBA’s developmental program being used by more and more guys in the coming years.

Kirkland: It may not be specifically this route but change is coming to the journey from high school to the NBA. If Darius Bazley gets some buzz by developing his game to an NBA level through the G League (while getting paid) it could mean great things for G League.

I still do not believe the NBA should let players in straight out of high school. It is rare that someone straight out of high school is actually mentally and physically ready to be an NBA player. The G League option presents a nice middle ground and is a great way to get exposure (and maybe more money) for G Leauge players.

Anderson: Yes, we’ll see more of this in the future with high school prospects.The NCAA and G League have advantages and disadvantages with each other which can make it serious for recruits to think about joining which league. Although the NCAA is the closest league that simulates a real NBA game, players may be attracted to the money in the G League.This is trouble for the NCAA because prospects will have the opportunity to have their dream job in the NBA through a rather different route. I’m anxious to see how many high school recruits will switch leagues.

Allen: Yes, I believe so because it’s another alternative route for them to get to their dreams. Not everyone is meant to go to college and with the rules, as they are, not allowing kids to go to the NBA right out of high school, they have to find another route. Skipping the NCAA and playing in the G-league or overseas gives them an opportunity to do what they love while also putting some money in their pockets.

De Falco: I believe it will. We have seen this before with guys like Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson do this before but play overseas instead of staying in the states. Bazley has the potential to start a new era of high school stars going straight to the G-League before entering the draft. This benefits both sides, as players are getting paid while the teams they sign with (or enter the G-League) can potentially make money from this as well.

2. We have seen a full season of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball. Did the experiment work? What comes next? 

Linhares: Did the experiment work? Probably not, at least not if you expected the result to be this Thunder team being in that Rockets-Warriors tier.

As of March 31, they’re a pedestrian 44-33, still very much in the thick of a Western Conference playoff battle that has them only two games ahead of the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers. Since Andre Roberson’s season ended on January 27 with a torn patellar, they’ve gone an even more average 15-13.

So no, if you thought the Russ-Melo-PG nucleus could be a title contender, you are probably wrong at this point. Russ hasn’t really made the adjustments you wanted him to, Melo hasn’t lived up the hype Hoody Melo produced, and Paul George…. well Paul George has been pretty outstanding, honestly.

To put on my prediction cap for a second, I do think OKC’s talent eventually wins out and they’ll make the playoffs. With potential first-round opponents including the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, and white-hot Portland Trail Blazers, it’s hard to really envision them getting a series win under their belt.

Barring a deep playoff run, I’d be pretty shocked if George was playing in anything other than a Lakers uniform next year. As for Russ, he’s locked in OKC longterm and Melo still has at least another year there. For the immediate future, it looks like the Thunder will remain locked in mid-playoff seed purgatory.

Kirkland: I didn’t expect this team to be great in the regular season. The reason this team is dangerous is that between Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George they have enough firepower to get hot at any given time. The regular season is a grueling marathon and when you’re a team that is built for a sprint that can be tough.

I am not counting out any team with three proven offensive veterans that have seen playoff action. What comes next depends on how these playoffs pan out. If they get to the Western Conference Finals or are on the verge of them I can see their core staying together and seeing if they can add some bench depth. In the NBA you want to be within striking distance. There is still nothing guaranteeing Paul George that going to the Lakers will be a hit.

Anderson: When the trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony joined together this offseason, I believed they would finish as a top 3 team in the Western Conference. From what we’ve seen, they haven’t been playing to their overall best ability, but we’ve seen plenty of exciting games during the regular season that may be playoff previews. The experiment has worked, but it’s not done just yet.

What’s next for the Thunder is hope that the rest of the teams in a playoff race can hold their own. Finishing the end of the regular season strong would be just what the Thunder need if they’re heading for the playoffs.

Allen: Yes, it did work simply because they got Russell Westbrook to re-sign. Obviously, they wanted to win and go deep into the playoffs which they still can do, but the overall priority was to convince the former MVP to sign a long-term deal. The signing of George and Anthony got the job done. It showed Westbrook that they were trying to get him help and were willing to do whatever it took. Hopefully, they’ve shown George enough to get him to re-sign but even if he doesn’t, the Thunder are satisfied because they kept their marquee guy.

De Falco: I wasn’t expecting them to crack the Top 2 in the Western Conference but man, they could have played a lot better. It seems as if nothing ever clicked. One game they are all in sync and next they are all over the place. Signing Russell Westbrook to an extension was huge for them, but what happens to Melo and PG-13?

3. The All-Star game is no longer a strictly East vs. West affair. Should the NBA switch to just placing the top 24 players instead of 12 from each conference?

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Linhares: I’m all about tinkering with the All-Star game. I loved the new format this year, and I do think it’d be interesting to see a top 24 list as opposed to getting selected via conference.

That being said, I do think there’s something to be said for Steph Curry’s quote that there’s no need to rush into these rule changes all at once. I’m interested to see how the All-Star draft being televised works out, so giving this new format a couple years to settle in before making more drastic alterations might be a better path to take.

Anderson: There’s no problem with making changes. In fact, I enjoyed how they switched the All-Star game up this year, but switching up the choosing of players may be doing too much. Choosing 12 players from each conference helps let all-stars from both conferences enjoy being praised and recognized for their success on the court. Having more players from one conference may expose the other conference with fewer all-stars, causing some issues and arguments between players that feel like they just missed it.

The two captains and drafting of all-stars was a nice new direction of making the All-Star Game more appealing to the fans. Everyone was used to a non-defensive game, dropping a huge amount of points and crazy highlight dunks, but this year was more competitive. Switching to the top 24 players wouldn’t do much good for the players.

Kirkland: I have no problem with them going to the top 24 overall guys. It would fit even more into the spirit of an overall All-Star game.  CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard are the first two names that come to my mind when it comes to that process. Both guys have been deserving in previous years but were snubbed due to the amount of talent in the West. I am all for deconstructing rigid, conference only rules in terms of today’s NBA (even the playoff system).

Allen: I love this idea because at the end of the day it’s all about putting the best talent in the game. The NBA is full of elite players so someone is always going to get left off of that list. However, with this new format, I feel that you give yourself the best chance of getting it right and putting the best players in the game. Give the fans what they want!

De Falco: Not going to lie, I was not a fan of this year’s All-Star format at first. But, after thinking about it, I thought it was a good idea to change up the format of the game. What I did not get was that why would there still be 12 per conference if there is no conference. I definitely feel that we will see the change of the 24 best players regardless of conference.

How many times have we seen this recently that a player in a stacked Western Conference got snubbed? With the top 24 format, it can potentially eliminate that and constant snubs will finally have a better shot. We saw the NFL do this with their Pro Bowl for a few seasons, why not take a page out of their book and try it?

4. A player on the other end of the player loyalty discussion has been Kemba Walker. Walker just took over the franchise scoring record for the Hornets. He has been widely considered to be among the league’s best despite their struggles as a team. How do you judge his career thus far?

Linhares: If he were to retire today, Kemba’s legacy would most likely be attached to his run at UCONN through the Big East tournament and eventually to a National Championship. Oh, and also the premeditated murder of Gary McGhee (his real name, incredibly).

Hell, if he retires in five years that will probably be his enduring legacy. Still, though, Walker has really carved out a great spot for himself in the league. He’s not quite in that Steph-Russ-CP3-Dame-Kyrie tier of point guards, but he’s also never played with anyone even close to the caliber of the surrounding casts those top point guards enjoy.

At this point, it seems there needs to be some type of change in scenery for Kemba to take the next step, but where he’s at currently is far from an embarrassment.

Chuck Burton/AP

Anderson: Kemba Walker has always been a versatile, general point guard who has an incredible scoring ability and just proved that he’s a top point guard in the league. Taking over the franchises scoring record has solidified his basketball skill set as one of the bests. Now you can’t judge his career thus far by just looking at his team’s record. The Charlotte Hornets are not making the playoffs this year, but Walker still has put his name out there in the league that will make his recognizable. In a way I see it, Walker doesn’t get enough recognition for his point guard ability because of his team’s overall record which isn’t fair on Walker’s part.

Kirkland: This is the other end of what people killed Kevin Durant for. Kemba could have pressed to be traded to a contender and would likely have made much more money and fame for himself if he did so.

I see the fact that Walker got the all-time franchise points record as a testament to his loyalty and leadership, two values you want in your floor general. These are the guys that fans need to think about when it comes to bashing players for being “disloyal” and leaving. Kemba Walker is the cautionary tale of loyalty to a franchise with little to no direction for the majority of your career.

Allen: I believe one can say that Walker has had a solid career so far. I would consider him a star in the NBA. He hasn’t hit super-stardom yet but I strongly believe he has the capability to. The loyalty narrative is for the birds. It’s in players best interest to look out for themselves at the end of the day. If Walker is on a winning team and he’s contributing heavily, I believe that can elevate his career to the next level. He has the talent but I believe he goes unnoticed or pushed to the side because of the team he plays on.

De Falco: I’d consider Kemba Walker one of the top point guards in the league right now. He has had a solid seven years so far in the NBA, being named an All-Star in two of those seasons. The problem right now? He has only led his team to the Playoffs twice, losing in the first round both times.

We all know how much of a beast he was at UConn but is often looked as an afterthought so far in the NBA with the number of talented point guards there are. Becoming the Hornets all-time leading scorer is definitely nice resume wise, but they are wasting his prime years without adding talent around him and that should be the top priority in the offseason.

5.  Is NBA “nice guy” Kevin Durant really going to go down instead as a classic NBA villain? 

Linhares: Realistically, it will probably blow over eventually and we’ll forgive him and he can go down as the greatest scorer of all time…

In the meanwhile though, he’s definitely at the top of the league in terms of getting under fans skins. People are just sick of the fake tough guy shtick he seems to intent on trotting out on a nightly basis. Calling refs b**** motherf******? Getting techs every other game? Man, that’s not KD and KD himself probably knows it! My take: He’s been watching a little too much of Draymond. We all have an older sibling we looked up to and imitated, and something tells me KD looks at Draymond’s antics and thinks, “wow, he sure looks cool doing that, I’m going to imitate it.”

People want to see genuine athletes and until Durant can get over this weird insecurity he’s had since joining Golden State, I’m not sure it’ll be possible for him to be the “nice guy” we know from OKC.

Or maybe he was just a massive asshole the whole time and this is just who he is.

Anderson: No. Despite all these NBA villain and traitor names he’s been getting after joining the Golden State Warriors, he’ll still be looked at an NBA Champion who has proved himself as one of the leagues best. After his career, people will definitely remember how Kevin Durant won a championship, but that’s not all. He’s still a fan favorite and will always be a fan favorite even after he leaves the NBA. Ray Allen, who has just been accepted into the NBA Hall of Fame Class of 2018, practically did the same thing as Durant and he isn’t known as an NBA villain.

The villain names will die down for Durant and he’ll be known as one of the NBA greats when he’s done

Kirkland: The villain role looks better on him than it did on LeBron that’s for sure. Part of the whole burner account twitter thing will always stick out as ultimately corny to me but besides that I think Kevin Durant is winning.

Being in Golden State has done nothing but wonders for his career both on and off the court. He is going to play meaningful basketball deep into the playoffs for the next decade if they all choose to stay together and he has already released gear mocking people who have called him a “snake” in the past. I think Kevin Durant used to want to be loved more than he does now.  Winning is simply just more fun.

Allen: I honestly don’t pay the Durant as a villain thing much attention. It’s all overblown in my opinion. He has become more defensive and demonstrative but I believe a lot of that has been due to the constant slander that has been thrown his way. We’ve never seen this from him before but he has always been perceived as the nice guy. So I’m not going to start calling him a villain because I believe when the slander calms down, so will he.

De Falco: Listen, everyone has made jokes about Kevin Durant being a traitor, snake etc. but at the end of the day, he is still one of the best players I have ever seen. To add all of that, he is an NBA Champion. He isn’t the first one to do this and he certainly won’t be the last. Things pass and eventually people will not go after Kevin Durant as much and in return, the “nice guy” will be back.


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