Monday, October 7, 2013

2013-2014 Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

What a difference 12 months makes. Rewind to October 2012; the Thunder were still licking their wounds and studying the silver lining of the 4-1 drubbing the Miami Heat served them during the Finals a few months prior. Yeah, OKC lost, the world seemed to say, but they lost in the NBA Finals, they'd won the equivalent of 58 out of 82 games in the strike-shortened season, they were very young, and they had 4 of the brightest rising talents in the NBA in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. They rumbled over and through the old guard, dispatching the Mavs, the Lakers, and the "West favorite" Spurs in short order on their march to the face the Heat. The Thunder seemed primed to rule the West with a hyper-fast, athletic iron fist for years to come.

But things fall apart.

On October 27th, 2012, OKC's hand was basically forced, and GM Sam Presti pulled the trigger on a move that shipped Harden out for high scoring guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb, setting off the deconstruction of how some view the Thunder. Harden exploded onto the national scene as a legit star in Houston last season. Martin didn't completely fill Harden's shoes in the uber-sub role. Lamb was stashed in the D-League to get meaningful reps. Then Westbrook got bushwacked by the Rockets' Patrick Beverly in the 1st round, ending his season and keeping him out of the early parts of '13-'14. Then the shorthanded OKC squad was throttled (or as the Twitterverse said, "KD got expozed, HE CAN'T CARRY A TEAM!1!!11!!") by the Memphis Grizzlies. Then Martin left as a free agent. A little more than a a year after being the up-and-coming NBA darlings, questions abound about the direction of the franchise.
Fear not, OKC fans, the demise of your Thunder is greatly exaggerated. with all the angst about "who fills that scorer off the bench now??", it seems to be forgotten that Oklahoma City has the best player in the Western Conference in Kevin Durant and the most physically dominant point guard in the NBA in Russell Westbrook. Some of the faces around the 2 superstars may have changed, but look for KD and Russ to keep the Thunder amongst the upper echelon out west.

Additions: Steven Adams, Diante Garrett, Andre Roberson, Ryan Gomes

Subtractions: DeAndre Liggins, Eric Maynor, Ronnie Brewer, Kevin Martin

The OKC brass re-upped coach Scott Brooks  to the tune of a 4 year, $16 million contract just last summer. Armed with a new contract, improvements in the win column yearly since he took over in the '08-'09 season, a '10 Coach Of The Year award, a recent Finals appearance,  a sterling 61.4% winning percentage, and the privilege being the 4th longest tenured guy currently coaching, you'd think Brooks would feel pretty secure in his employment status. You'd think wrong. The rumblings have started, unfairly or not, that maybe, just maybe, Brooks' talents as a coach have reached their ceiling. Some would say that, as fantastic as he's done developing the fledgling Thunder stars and fostering a strong team culture, a new, more tactically creative mind is needed to take full advantage of OKC's offensive weaponry and to do battle wits with the Greg Popoviches and Doc Riverses of the world. The Westbrook injury last season gave Brooks a little breathing room, but if OKC doesn't make deep, legitimate playoff run, watch the sweat start trickling as Scott Brooks' coaching seat heats up.

The fortunes of Oklahoma City (and the future of Brooks in OKC) hinges on the interstellar play of Kevin Durant, the recovery of Russell Westbrook, and the expected emergence of youngsters Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson.

Reggie Jackson

The 23 year old Jackson said "I'm here" this past spring, thrust into the long minutes of the starting point guard role when Westbrook went down in the playoffs. After a quiet 5.3 ppg, 2.3 apg season, Jackson poured in 15.3 points, snatched 5.3 boards, and handed out 3.6 dimes a game over the 9 games he started versus Houston and Memphis. The good? The 6.3 rebounds he hauled in nightly in the 5 games against the grind-it-out Grizz is incredible for a 6'3" guard, and speaks volumes for his fearlessness and willingness to "stick his nose in there". The bad? Jackson has to focus on getting his teammates more involved, he'll have to improve on the 4.4 assists per-36 minutes he posted last year. There's no way you can realistically expect Jackson to duplicate what Russell Westbrook brings to the table, but he's shown the ability to hold his own both offensively and defensively against a large percentage of NBA starting guards. If Reggie can step up his  play-making and show increased accuracy from 3 (he shot a paltry 23%, albeit on only 104 tries, from downtown last season), the Thunder will be in good shape while waiting on RW's return.

Jeremy Lamb

There seems to be 2 distinct viewpoints regarding the Thunder's key haul in the Harden trade: the "If he was THAT good, why didn't he get minutes last year? He won't be that good" side, and the "OKC is great at scouting talent, if they believed in him enough to move Harden, then Lamb will be great", camp. I'm cautiously in the 2nd group; OKC knew he wouldn't get quality minutes to work his game behind Kevin Martin last season, so letting him get reps in the D-League made sense. Watching video of his time with the D-League Tulsa 66ers, I don't see why his primary assets- length (he's 6'7"), athleticism, and dead-eye shooting- won't translate to the NBA game. Will Lamb be Harden, or even Kevin Martin? Hell no. But that's not a bad thing. If Lamb can put up 12-14 ppg, not get murdered defensively, and do some work on the boards, he and Reggie Jackson off the bench will be more than enough to offset the loss of Kevin Martin when Westbrook returns.

Russell Westbrook

The 6'3" dynamic All-star has gone from owning the NBA iron man streak by playing in 439 straight regular season and playoff games, to 2 knee surgeries in a 6 month span. Westbrook missing training camp and up to 2 months of the season, then having to play his way back into game shape, is a big reason some are questioning if OKC has the goods to battle the Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, and Rockets for Western supremacy. But as the saying goes, it's not how you start, but how you finish: if Russ can regain the all-star form he showed pre-injury by playoff time (23.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 7.4 apg, video game-like speed and bounce), seeding may not really matter. A healthy OKC led by Durant and Westbrook will be tough for any team to handle, home-court be damned.

Kevin Durant

It's crazy; in 2001 Allen Iverson averaged 33.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, and 6.7 apg on 40.4%, shooting under 33% in 4 of the 7 games played in the 2nd round versus the Raptors and is lauded for his play. Kevin Durant dropped 29 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 6.6 apg on 42% shooting against Memphis this year for his shorthanded team and somehow the words "exposed", "soft", and "overrated" poke their silly heads up.

With Westbrook slated to miss the 1st 4 to 6 weeks of the season and a few new faces trying to figure out where they fit, more responsibility than ever will rest on 25 year old Durant's shoulders to lead and defend, and playmake. We've watched KD evolve from a one-trick scoring pony to the 2nd best all around player in the league, but to keep OKC within striking distance of the top spot out west, Durant must cut down on his turnovers and perhaps force the action a little earlier than he's used to. While some question the validity of the Thunder as a legitimate contender to make the Finals without a proven 3rd offensive option, I'm of the belief that, in a 7 game series, having a nearly unstoppable player on your side can be the deciding factor.
More than ever will be asked of Kevin Durant, but judging by how his game has evolved thus far, KD will be up to the challenge.

Most Exciting Player To Watch: (*not named Durant or Westbrook) Serge Ibaka

I had high hopes for Ibaka last season when Harden was traded. He's an off-the-charts athlete with good mid-range touch, and with a bevy shots now available with The beard gone, nothing was stopping him from making The Leap into that 3rd scorer role. Nothing except, it seems, himself. Don't get me wrong, Serge had a fine 4th season, with his scoring making a 4 ppg jump to 14.2, hus field goal percentage and rebounding up-ticking, and he unveiled a legit 3 point stroke, hitting the long ball at a 35% clip. His shot blocking makes opponents think twice on every shot in the lane, the "intimidation factor" of him sweeping in from the weak-side to fling a shot into the stands is a huge part of the Thunder's defensive success.
But too often, Serge has long stretches of games where you can forget he's on the court. His on-ball post defense was inconsistent, and too often, his confidence seemed shaken by a few missed shots or on-court mistakes. Here's hoping that Ibaka keeps the crowd wowed with his eye-popping rejections, sky high putback dunks, and feathery mid-range and long range touch, and that last year's humbling at the hands of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have created a Serge with a chip on his shoulder for the '14 season.

Prediction: 54-58 wins

From  a 31.9% winning percentage and 22 wins in 2008-'09 to a 60 win, 73.2% winning percentage year in 5 seasons is nothing short of remarkable, but with the injury to their All-Star point guard, the integration of new key personnel, and the upgrade of several other Western Conference squads, this is the year that OKC takes a step backwards, at least record-wise. None of that matters if OKC gets to the playoffs relatively healthy and gets bounced before the Finals; OKC's swift ascension means nothing less than true contention will be enough.


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