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Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Ushering in the Livingston Era

WARNING:  Do not watch the video above unless you have a strong stomach.

I am an amateur General Manager.  Normally, when I make a half-baked roster suggestion, I have no hope that it will ever occur.  When I suggested on a message board last year that the (then) Sonics should take a flyer on Gerald Green or in a column that Earl Watson be traded for a sack of potato chips, they were just the ramblings of a novice.

So when I wrote the following, I had no actual inclination that it would come to light:

Roster Change Proposal of the Week:  Sign Shaun Livingston

As of today, the Thunder's emergency point guard is Kyle Weaver.  And if the team ever succeeds in trading Earl Watson, Weaver would be the primary back up to Russell Westbrook.  Nothing against Weaver, but if he is running the offense, the Thunder will be spending a lot of time playing defense.  The guy just really sucks at dribbling the ball"“and some people think that point guards should be able to do that pretty well.

Even when I wrote this:

Sign Shaun Livingston

Does anyone really think that Earl Watson or Chucky Atkins are doing anything for this team?  Atkins is likely to be cut before training camp next season because only $800K of his salary for next season is guaranteed.  And if we could get someone to trade for Earl Watson, he'd be gone.  So, the Thunder need to be seeking other avenues to shore up the point guard position.

Livingston is a low-risk, high-reward player.  The Thunder would pay him league minimum, or even just sign him to 10-day contracts.  And if it turns out his knee can hold up and he can return to anything close to the player he was expected to be out of high school, they have the inside track on locking him up.  If not, then they cut him.

Apparently, Sam Presti reads my columns.  On March 7, the Thunder-owned Developmental League team (Tulsa 66ers) signed Livingston.  Then earlier this week, the Thunder signed him to an NBA contract and called him up to the team.  He was with the Thunder during Tuesday night's win over San Antonio, although he did not suit up.

Now, as adamant as I have been about Livingston coming to Oklahoma City, I have no visions that he will play a role that will challenge Kevin Durant for the title of the team's best player.  And, he probably won't be the starting point guard for the first Thunder team to win an NBA championship.  He could, however, provide something the team needs.

As a matter of trivia, Shaun Livingston was the first point guard to jump directly from high school to the pros.  When he was selected with the 4th pick of the 2004 NBA draft, the Clippers anticipated that he would be their floor general of the future.  Despite the height of a forward, Livingston maintained an uncanny ability to handle the basketball and fantastic floor vision, aided by the fact that he was a head taller than most players who guarded him. 

His first few seasons in the league were used for development.  Even point guards with four years of college experience typically struggle to come in and make an immediate impact.  Livingston had to learn the game at its highest level, and overcome the frail frame that resulted from the blessing (and curse) his height presented.  After his rookie season, he went under the tutelage of Sam Cassell who started for the Clippers and helped them to become a playoff team.  Shaun showed significant promise during the playoffs of his sophomore season, and was putting up the best number of his career when the wheels, literally, fell off.

If you have the stomach, watch the video at the beginning of this column.  Livingston's knee twisted and bent sideways.  Every ligament in his knee had to be repaired/replaced, and eventually, he had to re-learn how to walk.  The prognosis for ever playing basketball again was bleak.

The thing is, he's only 24 years old.  He has time to recover, and luckily, his primary abilities were not tied to him having freakish athleticism.  The court vision, passing craftiness, and basketball IQ were unaffected.  Just watch the highlight video that appears right after the jump.  Doing his thing does not require him to have freakish leaping ability.

After a two year layoff, Livingston was back in the NBA sitting the pine for the Miami Heat when the season began.  Unfortunately for him, the Heat elevated to a playoff contender leaving little playing time for a guy who was still, again literally, getting his legs back beneath him.  Miami needed a player both more established and more physically reliable.  Shaun was cut to make room for such players.

Of course, the Thunder are not so handcuffed.  Guaranted to end the season with wins somewhere in the twenties, they have plenty of room for a player in Livingston's situation.  Wins and losses are little more than vanity statistics for the team and fans.  Over the remainder of the season, the team has the luxury of trying out players who need experience but have abilities that could pan out in the long run.

That's why Presti sprung to action now.  He could have waited until the Summer League and hoped that Livingston would agree to play for the Thunder, then.  That would have been a risk, though.  With another four months of strengthening done to his knee, Livingston, a player once expected to be a young Magic Johnson, could have been a hot commodity.  With a "multi year" contract given this late in the campaign, the promising point guard is likely earning a pro rated portion of the league minimum and will still have to make the team come training camp if he intends to collect any money from the "multi year" portion of the deal.

If it works out as hoped, though, two of my dreams will be realized.  One, Earl Watson and his overly high expiring contract can be freely shopped.  And two, if Livingston turns out to be capable of logging starter minutes, Russell Westbrook can be taken off the ball.

Don't get me wrong, I think Russell Westbrook is a great talent and should be a valuable part of the team's core for years to come.  All season, I have compared him to a young Tony Parker because few players are as fast without the ball as Westbrook is with it.  The problem is that every time I watch Westbrook charge toward the basket with two teammates trailing him and I see him take a contested finger roll at the basket, I get very little satisfaction watching him head to the free throw line for two.  A point guard, which is what Westbrook masquerades as, would drop it off to one of his trailers for a crowd pumping slam dunk.  And don't get me started on Westbrook's complete disregard for the pick and roll.

Of course, suggesting Westbrook get moved to the shooting guard position (or more accurately, a combo guard role like Speedy Claxton played in the Hornets' first season here) where his playing mentality fits better, gets responded to with derision.  I'm told that the 6'3" Westbrook is too short to play the off guard (ignoring that the just mentioned Claxton played plenty of time there despite being 5'11").  With Livingston and his 6'7" height and 6'11" wing span running the point, though, an undersized shooting guard is not a liability.  Plus, Livingston's skill set is exactly what Westbrook lacks.  They are a perfect yin and yang in the back court.

Then again, none of this is high in probability.  The most likely outcome is that Livingston never regains the form he exhibited prior to the injury, or the Thunder luck into the number 2 spot in the draft and take Ricky Rubio making Shaun's presence unnecessary.  For the time being, though, I like to think this is a genius move.

Here's hoping.

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