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Tramel's ScissorTales: Will Thunder benefit from Western Conference slippage? Depends on whom you ask

Berry Tramel
Oklahoman

On the final day of the NBA regular season, three verdicts stood out. 

Chicago beat Minnesota 124-120. Atlanta whacked Houston 130-114. Boston smacked Memphis 139-110. 

Those were the only interconference games on that day. Those three games gave the Eastern Conference a 226-224 edge straight up against the Western Conference. For only the second time in the 2000s, the East won the season series. In 2008-09, the East was 231-219 against the West. 

Now in the playoffs, the East looks like it sports some bonafide NBA championship contenders. Miami, Milwaukee, Boston. Philadelphia, initially. Heck, cut Brooklyn some slack. We all hail the Celtics, but their total margin of victory in four games was 18. That makes Boston-Brooklyn the closest four-game sweep in NBA history. 

Over in the West, Golden State looks great. But Phoenix suddenly is shaky. Memphis is scraping to lead the forlorn Timberwolves. Dallas leads Utah 3-2 in a series that should be 5-0. 

Is it fair to ask if the East has caught the West? Is it safe to assume that the Thunder’s rebuilding operation could be a little easier, since the Western Conference doesn’t seem its normal land-mine self? 

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Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) reacts after a basket during the NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Charlotte Hornets at the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, Monday, March, 14, 2022.

No and no, says Sam Presti. 

The Thunder general manager says this season and last are no true gauges, that COVID interruptions have skewed the seasons, even moreso in 2021-22 than 2020-21. 

“I think the last two years are really hard years to make many predictions off of, primarily because of the injuries in the league and COVID,” Presti said. “The schedule never meant more than this year, because it was like, who was playing against whom, with whom available. 

“The injuries from the last two off-seasons, I cannot underscore that enough.” 

Presti points out the Clippers, who played all season without Kawhi Leonard and some of the season without Paul George. 

“I think the Clippers have probably the best roster in basketball and probably will win a title, maybe multiple times, in the next couple years,” Presti said. “They're really, really good, but they're playing without a lot of their weapons. They still have a lot of veteran role players that are really, really good players, enough to keep them in the conversation, but those two guys are all-world. 

“Golden State had injuries through the year, on down the line. Everyone. But the East had it, too. But I think you've got to see — you need a better baseline than this year to say that definitively because I think it's going on 22 out of 23 years where the winning percentage is higher in the West than the East.” 

It’s not just that the West has had the better winning percentage 21 of the last 23 years. It’s also that the West’s best beats the East’s best consistently. Counting games only matching teams in the top eight of the final conference standings, the West has a better record against the East all 23 years of this century. Usually, significantly better. 

So no. Don’t count on the West being easier for a Thunder uprising. 

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“You cannot flinch in the Western Conference,” Presti said. “You cannot flinch. They're coming at you every night and you have to be able to hold your spots, and we have to be able to do that figuratively and literally over the next several years if we want to accomplish what we want.” 

That’s more ammunition for Presti’s argument that shortcuts lead to shortcomings, in NBA rebuilding. 

Certainly, the West looks in great shape for several years. 

Minnesota, Memphis and New Orleans are up-and-comers making playoff waves. Presti mentioned the Clippers. Phoenix had the league’s best record, by a wide margin. Golden State is Golden State. Dallas has Luka Doncic and Denver has Nikola Jokic. The Lakers have been known to attract talent. 

Even if the Thunder roster improves dramatically in the next year or two, there isn’t much space in First Class. 

Typical Western Conference dominance. 

“I've given up trying to figure out why that is,” Presti said. “I have no idea. If it changes, that's better for the Thunder. But I don't know that that's the case. You just look at the young players that are playing in the West now that are really playing well. I mean, it's great for the game.” 

Not so great for the Thunder rebuilding job. 

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Thunder report card: Kenrich Williams 

Kenrich Williams endeared himself to the Thunder a year ago with his selflessness and style of play, and that didn’t change in Year 2, though his production changed in some ways. 

Our series of Thunder report cards continues with the 6-foot-7 wing from Texas Christian: 

Defense: A. Williams remained a valuable defender. Able to stay in front of most perimeter players. Able to hold up against bigger players inside. Williams is not a shutdown defender. He’s no Andre Roberson or Luguentz Dort. But Williams is a valuable, versatile defender. He led the Thunder in defensive win shares, a complicated formula, by a healthy margin. 

Outside shooting: C. Williams was a breakout player in 2020-21 because of his 44.4% 3-point shooting. But this season, Williams made just 33.9 percent, on more shots. That’s a huge drop-off. Williams’ biggest dip came on corner 3’s. Both seasons, about one third of Williams’ 3-point shots came from the corners, where the bonus line is a couple of feet closer to the basket. In 2020-21, Williams made 59% of his corner 3’s; in 2021-22, he made 35% of his corner 3’s. Big difference. 

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Nov 24, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kenrich Williams (34) celebrates after dunking against the Utah Jazz during the second half at Paycom Center. Utah won 110-104. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Chemistry: A. Williams was hailed as a team leader a year ago, and nothing about that changed. But too often, we focus on Williams’ off-court leadership. His on-court leadership is exemplary, too. For instance, of the Thunder’s top 16 players in games played, Williams ranked 12th in usage rate. Behind players who were much more inefficient, like Theo Maledon, Aleksej Pokusevski, Josh Giddey and Tre Mann. Those are young players trying to develop, but that’s sort of the point. Williams is a steady veteran who tries to smooth their path. 

Offensive explosions: C. Williams was not the offensive force this season that he was last season. Part of that was reduced court time. He dropped from 66 to 49 games played, though his minutes remained about the same (21.9 per game). Part of that was his usage rate and his willingness to be a facilitator. But in 2021-22, Williams scored more than 13 points only once, 17 vs. New Orleans on December 15. Williams reached double digits only 10 times in 49 games. A year ago, Williams twice reached 20 points, five times scored at least 17 points and 24 times reached double digits. 

Driving: C. Williams’ emergence in OKC a year ago came in part because of offensive versatility. In two New Orleans seasons, Williams was mostly a standstill shooter – almost 60% of his shots were from 3-point range. In Thunder Year 1, only 28.5% of Williams’ shots were deep balls. But that number crept up to 38.2% this season. Meanwhile, Williams’ shots in the restricted area (0-3 feet) fellow from 32.4% to 24.3 percent. His shooting percentage from the restricted area fell, too, from 72.9% to 64.9 percent. The driving Williams is the best Williams. 

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NFL encroaching on NBA, college football 

The NFL has given its television networks the go-ahead to schedule games on two special dates: Christmas Day and Black Friday. 

The former long has been the bastion of the NBA; the latter is a college football stronghold. 

But the NFL machine runs sports. Any network would acquiesce to pro football’s desires. 

The NFL once went 18 years without playing on Christmas, 1971-89. But over the last three decades, when Christmas falls on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday, the NFL has taken to scheduling games. Often two. 

But that is rising to three in 2022, a Sunday Christmas. CBS and Fox each will have an afternoon game, with NBC getting a prime-time game on Christmas night. 

"Christmas, when it falls on an NFL game day, we've had a lot of success there, all due respect to our friends at the NBA,” NFL vice president of broadcasting Mike North said on a Buffalo Bills podcast last week. “If Christmas falls on a Sunday, it makes perfect sense."  

The Associated Press reported that the Packers’ 24-22 victory over the Browns last Christmas Day averaged 28.6 million viewers, making it the third-highest-rated regular season game last season. And the Colts’ 22-16 win over the Cardinals that night was the second-highest-rated game in NFL Network history. 

Next year, Christmas falls on a Monday, and North said the NFL would stage at least two games. At least, he said. 

The NBA has played five games on Christmas Day for 14 straight years and has developed strong ratings. But nothing can stand up to the NFL’s television allure. 

The NFL doesn’t mind crushing the NBA. But the NFL is a little more sensitive about college football, since the campus game provides the NFL with a farm system that costs pro football nothing. 

So the NFL traditionally has stayed away from Saturday games (until mid-December, when the college game goes mostly dark) and Friday night games (to protect high school attendance). 

But nbcsports.com reported that NFL owners last month passed a resolution that allows the league to schedule two more teams for a second short-week game. 

The result is that Amazon Prime, which now has the Thursday night NFL package, has a little more leeway in the schedule, and Amazon Prime has been politicking for a 2022 Black Friday game.  

The day after Thanksgiving long has been the bastion of college football. Several OU-Nebraska games were staged on Black Friday, and other showdowns have followed suit, including Alabama-Auburn on occasion.  

NBC reported that the NFL retains some opposition to Black Friday, and Amazon might not get the deal passed until 2023. But Amazon apparently is offering between $70 million and $100 million for a Black Friday game – the going rate for an NFL wild-card playoff game. 

The Black Friday game would have to be a day game, because of the NFL’s policy of protecting high school and college football. 

And there could be an inventory problem. The NFL already plays three games on Thanksgiving Day. Plus a Sunday night game on NBC and a Monday night game on ESPN. And the league always saves a marquee game for the Sunday afternoon time slot.  

The NFL is quite a show, but does it have enough quality games to fill that many desirable time slots? 

But pro football is America’s pastime. You know me. I’ve advocated for Tuesday Night Football. Heck, with the bye weeks, you could figure out a way to play pro football almost every night of the week and keep teams relatively rested. 

The Christmas Day barrier is down. The Black Friday wall is coming down, too. 

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Mailbag: OU backup quarterback 

OU football has a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and a new energy. What the Sooners don’t have, at least not yet, is a new backup quarterback. 

Tony: “I've read and heard a lot about the Spring Game in Norman, but what I've not been able to glean is how the backup QBs performed? Does there appear to be a clear No. 2? Any nuggets you could share or even pointing me in the right direction are greatly appreciated!” 

Tramel:Our man Ryan Aber wrote about the subject yesterday, but the short answer is no. No clearcut backup has emerged, and the Sooners are in the portal market. 

But that’s a hard sell. OU’s pitch would be something like this: Come in this summer, back up Dillon Gabriel, he’ll likely go pro and you’re in the driver’s seat to start next season. 

Savvy quarterbacks — and do you want any other kind? — will know a few things. They’ll know they can find other schools where playing time comes immediately. They’ll know that Gabriel absolutely could return to the Sooners in 2023. They’ll know that OU has true freshman Nick Evers on campus and has secured a commitment from Texas plum Jackson Arnold of Denton Guyer. 

The odds of a portal quarterback this summer ever becoming the Sooner starter is not great. 

OU’s best hopes out of the portal is a veteran who is a solid quarterback but not a great prospect. Perhaps a Division I-AA quarterback who knows his National Football League chances are slim, but he would like to be part of a storied national power. A Joey Halzle type; Halzle backed up Sam Bradford and eventually went into coaching. He’s on Josh Heupel’s Tennessee staff. 

Beyond a transfer, the Sooners will have to settle for the likes of Evers, who looked a little shaky in the spring game, befitting a guy whose senior class has not graduated high school; non-scholarship Ralph Rucker, who was the third-team QB a year ago; and Penn State transfer Micah Bowens, who was below Rucker on the depth chart a year ago. 

Rucker did the most in the spring game: 5-of-9 passing, 62 yards. Bowens teamed with Jayden Gibson on a 95-yard touchdown pass, but Bowens’ other two passes were incomplete. Non-scholarship Ben Harris was 2-of-4 for 20 yards; Evers was 0-of-1. 

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The List: NFL Draft busts 

The National Football League began the common draft in 1967, when the NFL and the American Football League agreed on an eventual merger. Since then, the overall No. 1 pick has become quite the big deal. 

The 2022 draft begins Thursday, and there is no clear consensus on who will go No. 1. Sometimes, when there’s no consensus, major mistakes can be made

Here are the 10 biggest busts from the overall No. 1 slot in common draft history: 

1. Jamarcus Russell, Raiders 2007: The quarterback from Louisiana State never grasped the position. He went 7-18 as the Raiders’ starter, with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, then was out of the league after three years. 

2. Bo Jackson, Buccaneers, 1986: Jackson was not an NFL bust. But he was a Tampa Bay bust. Jackson played only four pro seasons but ran for 2,782 yards, with some scintillating highlights. But those four years were with the Raiders. Tampa Bay picked Jackson No. 1 overall in 1986, but Jackson was angered at the Bucs, after team owner Hugh Culverhouse flew Jackson to Tampa for a pre-draft meeting, which cost Jackson his eligibility to play baseball at Auburn. Jackson vowed to not sign with the Bucs —and he didn’t. He signed a baseball contract with the Kansas City Royals. Tampa Bay held the rights to Jackson for only a year, and the Raiders took Jackson in the seventh round in 1987.  

3. Ki-Jana Carter, Bengals, 1996: The Penn State tailback played seven NFL seasons but made just 14 starts. He rushed for at least 100 yards in a game only once. Carter only thrice reached 100 yards in a season. His best year was 464 yards on 128 carries in 1997. 

4. Steve Emtman, Colts, 1997: The defensive lineman from the University of Washington played six NFL seasons, made 19 starts and only once had more than 40 tackles in a season (49 as a rookie). 

5. Walt Patulski, Bills, 1972: The defensive end from Notre Dame wasn’t a bad player. He made 49 starts his four years in Buffalo, then played one more year as a Cardinal backup. He had 21½ career sacks. 

6. Ricky Bell, Buccaneers, 1977: Bell was a good NFL tailback. He rushed for 2,988 yards his first four seasons, including 1,263 yards in 1979, when the lowly Bucs stunningly made the conference championship game. But Bell was suffering from dermatomyositis, a disease that caused weight loss, aching muscles and skin problems. In 1981 and 1982, he combined for just 32 carries, then retired. He died in 1984 at age 29. 

7. Aundray Bruce, Falcons, 1988: The linebacker from Auburn was a starter his first two NFL seasons, then was a backup his final nine years. 

8. Courtney Brown, Browns, 2000: The defensive end from Penn State played just six NFL seasons. He made 60 starts but had just 19 sacks. 

9. Tim Couch, Browns, 1999: The quarterback from Kentucky played five years and made 59 starts, going 22-37 for the expansion team. Couch was not good, but he also wasn’t as bad as legend has it. He threw 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions. Couch remains a cautionary tale (David Carr is in the club) about sending young quarterbacks into the expansion-team cauldron. 

10. Kenneth Sims, Patriots, 1982: The Texas defensive end made 64 starts over eight New England seasons. He had 17 sacks. Not a terrible career, but certainly nothing befitting a No. 1 overall pick. 

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.