Latavious Williams, Larry Owens and the rest of the Tulsa 66ers are headed to the D-League finals. How'd they get there?
The D-League Finals begin Sunday at 5 pm eastern, with the #2-ranked Rio Grande Valley Vipers facing the #8-ranked Tulsa 66ers. Because we have a few days before they begin, Scott and I have several preview posts planned to discuss who exactly these teams are and how they got here. Yesterday I took a look at the regular season games between the two teams. Today: a look at Tulsa's season as a whole, to see how they got to this point.
Finding a coach
You could argue that Tulsa's current season really started about a year ago, when they fired Paul Woolpert as head coach. Woolpert has won multiple CBA championships, but the 66ers tied for the worst record in the D-League last season at 15-35 and a change was made. There were a lot of pretty good coaching candidates available last offseason, and the 66ers hired Nate Tibbetts, who at the time was head coach of the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Tibbetts has considerable ties to South Dakota (having attended the University of South Dakota and working for the Skyforce for four years and the University of Sioux Falls before that; in fact he still lives there in the offseason), but Tulsa had their eye on Tibbetts for at least a year prior.
We at RU liked the hire at the time, calling Tibbetts "a great, up-and-coming coach that knows the minor league system." Over the course of the season, Tibbetts has done a good job helping young players like Mustafa Shakur, Latavious Williams and DeVon Hardin develop their games while managing to keep the team winning throughout a variety of roster moves (assignments, recalls, injuries, etc.)
The 66ers made noise early in last year's D-League draft by taking high school player Latavious Williams in the first round. I had some questions about the move at the time, and it's true that it took Williams a little while to get consistent playing time, but in retrospect Tibbetts and the 66ers handled the situation well. They also were able to draft Mustafa Shakur in the second round, a scoring PG who had been playing in Europe after coming out of the University of Arizona, and who was eventually called up by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The only other draft pick still with the team is third-rounder Cecil Brown. Brown has been a very good three-point shooter for them, alternating between starting and coming off the bench (he's been starting in the playoffs.)
Retrospective draft grade: B+; This probably should be an A since they got significant contributions from their first three picks, though they could've snagged some pretty good D-League players later on in the draft (Mike Gansey, Darren Cooper) but didn't.
I'll review their regular season after the jump.
The 66ers got off to a bit of an uneven start to the season, going 7-6 over the course of the first month or so. Scheduling had something to do with that, as 10 of their first 13 games came against eventual playoff teams. Minor league roster turnover being what it is, that means a little less than it would in the NBA, but it's still a bit daunting. They were getting some inconsistent contributions from forward Keith Clark (who, in fairness, was waived at one point due to injury), but otherwise they were getting solid contributions from their starters but not much from their bench. Clark was traded to Los Angeles for Deron Washington, and Oklahoma City's D.J. White was assigned to the team.
Tulsa's competition remained stiff, and they went 6-6 in January playing teams like Austin, Iowa and Sioux Falls (with a few against Erie and Albuquerque thrown in). D.J. White was dominant for the first few games before being recalled to Oklahoma City, but the 66ers were able to acquire Chris Richard, who had played for the team last year and who went to training camp with the Chicago Bulls. One interesting note is that Latavious Williams started while D.J. White was in town, but moved to the bench when he was recalled. Moses Ehambe played well this month, averaging 15.4 points a game, as did Mustafa Shakur, although Shakur's scoring wasn't always efficient.
The 66ers had an excellent month, going 6-3 and rattling off a five-game winning streak, their best of the season. DeVon Hardin was starting at center at this point and not giving the team much, although he did have his best game of the season against Reno on February 28, collecting 18 points and eight rebounds in a losing effort. Williams also was back in the starting lineup and had some monster games, including games of 13, 13, 12, 10 and 19 rebounds. He had a double-double against Utah and came close several more times. Deron Washington also played pretty well, averaging 12 points a game, and he had a 24-point game against Springfield where he shot 13 free throws.
This month saw the (re-)assignments of Byron Mullens and Kyle Weaver from the Thunder. D.J. White also was assigned, but for just five days. The Thunder also called-up Mustafa Shakur mid-March, although they kept him on the Tulsa roster for a few more weeks. The 66ers picked up Wink Adams to fill the newly-opened roster spot (since Shakur no longer counted against the 10-player limit), who played for the Knicks in Summer League.
The 66ers had a six-game losing streak following Weaver's recall. Washington was inconsistent, although he had a weird game where he had eight points on nine shots, but also nine assists and 11 rebounds. Larry Owens had a good month, including scoring 34 points with nine assists and five rebounds against Rio Grande Valley, 15 points and 10 rebounds against Austin and 18 points on nine shots with nine assists and four steals against Bakersfield.
Tulsa closed out the season with a pair of blowout losses to Iowa and Reno, though by this point they were incorporating JaJuan Smith and Marcus Lewis (who was on the team earlier in the season then missed significant time with injury). Williams was once again rebounding very well, this time off the bench, and he was growing a lot more confident in his offense with mixed results.
None of the top-3 ranked playoff teams wanted anything to do with the #8 seed 66ers, in part because there were rumors that Thunder players would be assigned for a playoff run. That turned out to be true, but D.J. White only played one game (which was in Tulsa). Kyle Weaver and Byron Mullens were around for the entire first round series, however. Tulsa beat the Sioux Falls Skyforce in three games behind stellar performances from the trio of Weaver, Mustafa Shakur and Larry Owens.
Tulsa then moved on to face the top-ranked Iowa Energy, whom they also beat in three games. Oddly enough, Tulsa lost their home game which featured their several NBA assignees, then won the next two games after Weaver, Shakur and Mullens were recalled to Oklahoma City. Wink Adams stepped up in game 2 with 24 points on 14 shots, by far his best game since joining the 66ers. Deron Washington also played well in the two wins, if you call "repeatedly getting to the free throw line" playing well. Larry Owens turned into Tulsa's go-to scorer in this series, while also showing off his versatility with 24 rebounds and 12 assists over three games.
And that's Tulsa's season. Overall they've played a lot like a team that finished two games over .500 - pretty good, and winning more than they lose, but not totally unbeatable even with a raft of NBA talent. I'd like to say that they've come together as a team in the playoffs and have a good chance in the finals, although the last semifinals game ended rather controversially and could've just as easily been won by Iowa. Still, the 66ers have been resilient throughout the season and should make this a close series.