The Boston Celtics' recent slump has jumbled the Eastern Conference pecking order. That could be good news for the Thunder.
The halfway point of the NBA season arrives this week. That leaves six weeks for teams with playoff aspirations to tweak rosters before the Feb. 19 trading deadline.
The next six weeks, Thunder general manager Sam Presti can dangle veteran players to playoff contenders. Ideally, many teams will be interested in Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox, Earl Watson, possibly even Nick Collison.
Presti already has stockpiled three first-round draft picks. If he acquires another draft pick or two, or a young player on the rise, Presti can speed up the rebuilding process.
The more teams interested in Oklahoma City's veterans, the more Presti is in a supreme bargaining position.
Before their Christmas Day loss, the Celtics were viewed as the team to beat in the East. Now the No. 1 seed is up for grabs between Cleveland and Boston, with Orlando another possibility.
Each of those teams reportedly is on a list of potential Thunder trade partners.
Everyone in the East except the Wizards has playoff aspirations. That too could benefit the Thunder.
Detroit and Atlanta are playoff locks. Miami is in good shape. After that it's a crapshoot.
The longer New Jersey, Milwaukee and Toronto stay in the race, it decreases odds one of those bubble teams will trade a veteran. Having fewer players on the trading block strengthens Presti's bargaining position.
Halfway through the season, the West is clear cut. Nine teams are fighting for eight playoff berths.
The Lakers remain the overwhelming favorite to capture home-court advantage. But the conference once again is so balanced, one bad week can drop a team from the No. 2 slot all the way down to No. 7 or 8, possibly becoming the odd team out in the West's version of musical chairs.
Last week, the Nuggets gave up a first-round draft pick for center Johan Petro, who no longer was part of the Thunder's plans. If other teams experience injuries like the Nuggets (Carmelo Anthony), they could enter the Thunder trade sweepstakes.
By the time LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade put on a show Feb. 15 in the All-Star game, the season will be almost two-thirds done. Who knows what the Thunder's roster will look like at that point?
Keep a close eye on the injury report and the standings. It could impact the Thunder.
MIKE BALDWIN'S HALFWAY POINT AWARD WINNERS
1. LeBron James, Cleveland
2. Dwyane Wade, Miami
3. Chris Paul, N.O.
4. Dwight Howard, Orlando
5. Kobe Bryant, Lakers
ROOKIE OF YEAR
1. O.J. Mayo, Memphis
2. Derrick Rose, Chicago
3. Brook Lopez, Nets
4. Russell Westbrook, OKC
5. Marc Gasol, Memphis
COACH OF YEAR
1. Stan Van Gundy, Orlando
2. George Karl, Denver
3. Lawrence Frank, N.J.
4. Eric Spoelstra, Miami
5. Scott Skiles, Milwaukee
Sloan's long run
Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz will visit the Ford Center Wednesday night. Sloan was hired as the Jazz's head coach on Dec. 9, 1988. Sloan is the only coach to register 1,000 wins with one team. He only has a losing record against the Spurs (38-51) and Lakers (42-46).
Listed below are some interesting facts since Sloan took over the Jazz 20 years ago:
There have been 224 coaching changes since Sloan was hired.
NBA players have scored 4.7 million points the past 20 years.
Ronald Reagan, finishing his second term, was the President when Sloan was hired.
Last Emperor won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Cher won the Best Actress Academy Award for Moonstruck.
Magic Johnson (1988-89) won the first of back-to-back MVPs.
Michael Jordan didn't have an NBA ring but eventually won six.
David Robinson was completing his military commitment.
Howard hits 2 million
Orlando center Dwight Howard, the defending slam dunk champion, is still Superman at the ballot box with more than 2 million votes for the NBA All-Star game, Feb. 15 in Phoenix. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, though, are tugging on his cape.
Bryant, Tim Duncan and Yao Ming are locks to be Western Conference starters. The final guard spot will be between Tracy McGrady and Chris Paul. The final forward spot is a tight race between Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki.
In the Eastern Conference, James, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson and Howard most likely will be starters. The only close race is Chinese Internet voters have the Nets' Yi Jianlian pushing Kevin Garnett for the final forward spot.
The final ballot update was issued last Thursday. Voting at arenas has ended, but fans can continue voting online at NBA.com until Jan. 19.
All-Star starters will be announced Jan. 22 on TNT. Coaches for each conference will determine the remaining All-Stars to be announced a week later (Jan. 29) on TNT.
The Thunder's Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook all should be selected for the Feb. 13 Sophomore-Rookie game. Westbrook also is one of three candidates in fan balloting for a spot in the dunk contest.
FORWARDS: LeBron James, Cleveland, 1,940,162; Kevin Garnett, Boston, 1,375,814; Yi Jianlian, New Jersey, 1,216,348; Chris Bosh, Toronto, 751,927; Paul Pierce, Boston, 486,656; Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando, 366,174; Shawn Marion, Miami, 264,888; Danny Granger, Indiana, 188,200; Josh Smith, Atlanta, 163,145; Michael Beasley, Miami, 157,286; Tayshaun Prince, Detroit, 144,337.
GUARDS: Dwyane Wade, Miami, 1,818,717; Allen Iverson, Detroit, 1,278,600; Vince Carter, New Jersey, 856,498; Ray Allen, Boston, 552,094; Devin Harris, New Jersey, 474,637; Gilbert Arenas, Washington, 403,577; Luke Ridnour, Milwaukee, 379,806; Derrick Rose, Chicago, 293,483; Jose Calderon, Toronto, 274,509; Joe Johnson, Atlanta, 236,993; Jameer Nelson, Orlando, 227,226.
CENTERS: Dwight Howard, Orlando, 2,102,368; Samuel Dalembert, Philadelphia, 257,527; Rasheed Wallace, Detroit, 255,950; Jermaine O'Neal, Toronto, 224,583; Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee, 198,811; Al Horford, Atlanta, 191,105; Brendan Haywood, Washington, 178,868; Ben Wallace, Cleveland, 159,132; Emeka Okafor, Charlotte, 133,501; Zyrdrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland, 122,607; Kendrick Perkins, Boston, 85,855.
FORWARDS: Tim Duncan, San Antonio, 1,454,918; Carmelo Anthony, Denver, 905,121; Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix, 894,690; Ron Artest, Houston, 890,992; Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas, 837,482; Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers, 618,943; Bruce Bowen, San Antonio, 509,593; Shane Battier, Houston, 482,724; Luis Scola, Houston, 281,372; Josh Howard, Dallas, 255,698; LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland, 212,651.
GUARDS: Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, 1,903,798; Tracy McGrady, Houston, 1,216,224; Chris Paul, New Orleans, 1,059,161; Manu Ginobili, San Antonio, 669,837; Tony Parker, San Antonio, 614,939; Jamal Crawford, Golden State, 462,039; Steve Nash, Phoenix, 441,746; Jason Kidd, Dallas, 381,906; Rafer Alston, Houston, 372,130; Jason Terry, Dallas, 323,279; Brandon Roy, Portland, 267,053.
CENTERS: Yao Ming, Houston, 1,758,499; Shaquille O'Neal, Phoenix, 1,006,383; Andrew Bynum, L.A. Lakers, 356,280; Mehmet Okur, Utah, 292,845; Greg Oden, Portland, 195,552.
Jazz coming to town
In contrast to last week's busy schedule with two back-to-backs, the Thunder has only three games this week. Each game is followed by a day off.
→Monday: at New Jersey. Devin Harris, Vince Carter and the Nets have been one of the season's early surprises but have struggled at home.
→Wednesday: Utah. The Jazz has been hampered by injuries but has stayed competitive. Utah, though, has lost 11 road games.
→Friday: Detroit. Will it go down to the wire again? Allen Iverson's buzzer-beater decided the first matchup three weeks ago in Detroit.
Talking about 'crab dribble'
→LeBron James' "crab dribble" comment is the talk of the league. Asked if the call becomes routine, and he's forced to change his game, James responded: "I'll find a way to do something else... I'll be fine."
→The Spurs are on a roll, but now comes the real test. San Antonio hosts Orlando tonight and the Lakers Wednesday night. After taking on division leaders at AT&T Center, San Antonio has six more road games left this month.
→Miami coach Eric Spoelstra gave Nets rookie Brook Lopez the ultimate compliment when he said: "I think he's Mr. Baby Fundamental," playing off Tim Duncan's nickname. Spoelstra doesn't predict Lopez will have the same success but said Lopez is far advanced for his age.
→For all the talk of Utah's injuries, the Bulls have had players miss a combined 96 games due to injuries. Led by Rookie of the Year candidate Derrick Rose, Chicago is a team on the rise even if it's next season.
→Houston's Tracy McGrady said: "I'm physically down" and "I haven't played well all year." McGrady's knee is so bothersome he isn't playing on back-to-back nights.
Cleveland. The Cavaliers are 19-0 at home. Because of Boston's recent slump, LeBron James and the Cavs are now the team to beat in the East.
Los Angeles Clippers. Ricky Davis gets suspended five games. The Clippers can't win at home. They've lost 10 in a row. Unless things improve they'll be in the running for the league's worst record with a shot at landing OU star Blake Griffin.
Some opposing players have said the Thunder's talent, and level of play, are much better than a team with 30-plus losses. The Knicks' Al Harrington gave a different viewpoint following a 107-99 loss to Oklahoma City last week.
"Yeah, we took some steps back by losing this game, especially losing to those guys," Harrington said. "No disrespect to them, but we're in a different place than them guys. We're supposed to win this game. And we didn't."
No disrespect? Can't get any more disrespectful.
A different place? Don't be surprised if the Knicks' and Thunder's records are more similar at season's end than Harrington thinks.
BY THE NUMBERS
Consecutive double-doubles by Utah's Paul Millsap entering Saturday's games. It's the longest double-double streak this season by any NBA player and the primary reason Utah is still in the middle of the Western Conference playoff chase despite Carlos Boozer having already missed 25 games.
Mike D'Antoni New York Knicks coach
What would you have done if you weren't a coach?
I was in pre-med. I don't know if I would have made it all the way through. I probably would have been a doctor or lawyer or something like that.
What's your reaction to those who suggest you've given momentum to the league's scoring renaissance?
That's flattering. Any coach tries to do it the best way he can offensively and defensively. Since I've never won a title we obviously have to get better at it.
Who was the greatest influence on your offensive philosophy?
I played back in the day everyone played that way. When I went to Europe we played that way. It wasn't any one person. Defense, though, is as big a part as anything. It's also the players you have, the personnel.
What are your memories of coaching the Suns?
It was a great four years. We didn't win a title but we battled every night and had four really good years. It was some great memories. Now, I'm trying to create some new ones. I don't have any regrets. You miss the guys when you leave but I'm really happy in New York.
What is your favorite game you've ever coached?
Beating the Lakers in Game 6 when we beat them in overtime a couple of years ago in the playoffs. Tim Thomas hit the big shot. A great highlight.