2011-2012 Oklahoma City Thunder Preview (Featuring Zorgon and J.A. Sherman)

Hopefully we get to sniff this sweet hardwood once again.

Team Name: The Oklahoma City Thunder

Last Year's Record: 55-27

Key Free Agents: Daequan Cook (Reportedly Staying in OKC), Royal Ivey

Team Needs: A Consistent Third Scoring Option, A Backup Big to Replace the Aging Nazr Mohammed

1. What are your team's biggest needs this offseason?

When you reach the Western Conference Finals, it's generally accepted that your team doesn't need a whole lot of work. But the Thunder are young, and many have been quick to point out their shortcomings, especially when compared to those of the experienced Dallas Mavericks. But the Thunder's needs aren't really needs, but more of wants. It would be nice to be able to rely on someone other than Westbrook or Durant to score in the third quarter. It would be nice to have a legitimate post scoring threat. It would be nice to have someone who was quick enough to defend guards who drive the ball. Other than that, there's no one who needs to be necessarily replaced, assuming we re-sign Daequan Cook. Rather, there are players who could improve over time, or players whom could be upgraded.

Below: Strengths and Weaknesses, Westbrook's Ozarka Obsession, Baron "Woodsman" Davis, and How the Thunder Will Fare in a Hypothetical 2011-2012!

2. What are the team's biggest strengths & weaknesses?

Our biggest strength lies in having two dynamic and consistent go-to scorers. The fact that Kevin Durant holds the modern record for scoring 25 points or more on consecutive nights speaks for itself. Theres a zillion different plays you could run for either him or Westbrook, and they usually find a way of working. The second biggest strength has to be the team's solid post defense. Having Ibaka and Perkins in the post is nothing to sneeze at. Perkins brings the size you need in the post, while Ibaka brings the athleticism. Plus, you have Collison waiting in the wings, and he's really good at taking charges.....and being "tough-nosed", whatever that means. Thirdly, the team doesn't really have an area that isn't covered by one of their many valuable role players. Threes? You've got Daequan Cook. Distribution? You've got Eric Maynor. Defense? Sefolosha. Intangibles? Collison. Exciting rookie? Reggie Jackson. Experience? Mohammed. Personality? Robinson. Pretty much anything you need on the floor at a certain time can be accommodated.

Their weaknesses are obvious to most people who watched them in the West finals. And no, their biggest weakness is not Westbrook's ball hogging. It's the fact that we don't have a third go-to scoring option. You would think Harden would be that man, but the plays he scores on are pretty specific. The same goes for Serge Ibaka. There is hope for improvement, though. Harden, as we've seen in the Summer leagues, is getting more dynamic in his scoring. Ibaka is also learning moves in the paint, even trying a few hooks during his stint with Spain. But we'll have to see the team play again before we can pass judgement on whether either have improved enough. The Thunder also have a bit of trouble guarding players on the perimeter. Obviously, Thabo Sefolosha is a good defender most of the time, but the Thunder have problems with certain players, depending on how the opposing team uses them. Jose Juan Barea killed the Thunder by making soccer-like plays into the paint, Tony Allen killed us by sitting on the perimeter, and Ty Lawson was effective at doing both. It's not really a problem with a specific player or their relative skill set, but it is a problem with how easily we get lured into trapping and how we get confused by any offensive play more sophisticated than a pick and roll. If there was any area where we missed Ron Adams the most, this would be it.

3. If there is no season in 2011-12, how is your team set up for 2012?

No one wants to see the season gone, but if it were to happen, the Thunder would be one of the least affected teams. The only true free agents would be Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed, and both of them are pretty expendable should they decide to leave. Russell Westbrook will be a restricted free agent, but the team would be insane not to pay him at or near the maximum salary, and he should be on board for at least a couple more years. The only potential fear for 2012 would probably be how well the players stay in shape over the long off-season. Nobody wants to see a repeat of what happened to Shawn Kemp. But, Russell Westbrook has a house that consists entirely of Ozarka Water, so as long as the team parties there, we should be okay.

But the team's real concern should be the 2013-2014 season. At the point, we'll have to re-sign both James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and we really don't have the money to sign both to what their market value will be. Durant's "Thunder U" concept may be appealing to some, but money talks.

4. If you could make one change the NBA's new CBA, what would it be?  

 

(Question Below Answered by the Illustrious J.A. Sherman, who also contributes to this blog.)

 

If I may summon the ghost of Colonel Slade and take a flamethrower to the current NBA to make it both more financially viable and more competitive, there is one broad brush stroke that I would use to do both – the hard salary cap.

What do we the consumers really want from our NBA? What I think we truly want is for each NBA event to matter in a way that validates the amount of time, resources, and passion we put into it. We want games that are competitive. Los Angeles and New York will always have financial advantages that Indiana and Charlotte do not, and no matter how drastic the soft cap luxury tax penalties might be, those franchises will simply use those additional financial advantages to absorb the cost and retain a competitive advantage. A soft cap conflates the economic advantage with the competitive advantage; the hard cap bifurcates the two. Under a hard cap system, while Team A may still be able to make more money than Team B, the system means that Team A will only succeed on the court by making prudent basketball decisions, just like Team B. Operating costs will be more restrained, overall competition will rise, and with a better product to offer, demand for the NBA as a whole will increase as well.

In the event that a hard cap is unrealistic, as a second notion I would just fight to have Baron "Woodsman" Davis present at every NBPA press conference, because then at least I’d have something to smile about. 

5. How far do the Thunder go in Year 4? (Whether that be this year or next.)

At some point, every team hits reality. A star player goes down. Drama hits the locker room. Better teams arise. But I just don't see that coming for the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook have both been extremely durable, and the team is one of the most harmonious I've ever seen. Perk's legal troubles over the summer are things that the Jailblazers would laugh at. 

In addition to the stability of the team, the Thunder find themselves in a the middle of a transitioning conference. While the East has some strong contenders who reckon to be around for a long time (Bulls, Heat, and to some extent the Knicks, Hawks, and Magic), the West is wide open. The traditional contenders (Mavericks, Spurs, Lakers) are aging, and the emerging teams (Nuggets, Grizzlies) are teams that the Thunder have proven they can beat. So the NBA Finals is a distinct possibility next season, but whether they can win on such a large stage is another matter entirely.

Yeah, I might be looking at things a bit too optimistically, but that's what hometown blogs are for. Sure, the Thunder might not solve their offensive problem and go down in an early round. Or a new Western contender could emerge in the post-lockout mess. But with things looking the way they are now, this is how I see it playing out.

Predicted Record:

Zorgon: 60-22

J.A. Sherman: 58-24

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