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We take an in-depth look at some of the biggest questions surrounding the Thunder next season.
Part 1: Zorgon
Last Year's Record: 47-19
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
The Thunder, for all intents and purposes, stood pat. No major deals were in the works, all three of the guys they let go were well into their 30s, and all of their signings were relatively uncontested. However, the roster has changed more than you think.
Both Nazr Mohammed and Derek Fisher were significant rotation players, with Mohammed being the defacto backup center and Fisher lingering on the court late in the game during intense playoff battles. Seeing them along with Royal Ivey go to free agency effectively cuts loose the strongest veteran voices in the locker room. With the oldest player on the roster now Nick Collison (who has spent his entire career with the franchise), the team is now effectively on its' own. They no longer need older guys to teach them the game or how to act in crunch time situations. They've been to the Finals, and they know how things work.
Conversely, the regulars are now going to have to teach a whole new young crop of players, including Cole Aldrich, Perry Jones III, Reggie Jackson, and even Hasheem Thabeet. Whether any of these guys will pan out is an issue for debate, but the Thunder do have the luxury of limiting their minutes. Despite the lack of moves, this year marks an important transition for the Thunder. They're no longer the young guns trying to make a name for themselves. They're now a legitimate contender looking for their first title.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Familarity. I know it seems silly, but the Thunder's rotation has changed very little since the 2010 trade for Kendrick Perkins. The starting lineup has remained the same, and, Derek Fisher aside, all of the new players to come into the rotation since then haven't played for another team. This roster is full of guys who understand the Thunder's system and are willing to work within it without having too big of an ego. That's a fantastic thing to have in today's NBA, and it's the main reason why I actually think the Thunder will be better next year.
Having an ice-cold closer. Yes, I'm talking about Kevin Durant. We all know the Thunder can have their problems with late game offense, especially when James Harden isn't on his game. But regardless of all that, the only person I'd rather have handling the ball with seconds to go is Kobe Bryant. And with Kobe starting to hit the end of his career, the "closer" title will soon pass to Durant. This is a tremendous asset to have, not only in the playoffs, where every point counts, but also in the doldrums of February and March, when the team just doesn't seem to click against an inferior opponent. He can give us those 1 point victories in games that we probably should have lost, which will greatly help us in the standings of the competitive West.
Athleticism. I know that pretty much every player in the NBA is a world-class athlete, but the Thunder truly stand above the rest in terms of how high they can jump and how fast they can run. Serge Ibaka might not have the flashiness of Blake Griffin, but I'd bet you a ton of money that he could jump over the hood of a Kia. His ability to move quickly into help defense and leap to tremendous heights is the reason he led the NBA in shot blocking last year. Normally, big-time shot blockers rely on bulk and height, but the way which Ibaka gathers his blocks is amazing. Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, is like a freight train running down the court, and often it seems like he just wills himself to the basket over three or four defenders. And I can't even remember the last time he was stopped on a fast break. I mean, just look at this image. The guy is insane. And did I forget Kevin Durant? The man who has the ability to throw down powerful dunks and slink his way around the defense like a cobra? There are more skilled and talented three man combos out there, but as far as natural abilities go, these three are easily the best, especially considering their age.
Bonus 1: Is Kendrick Perkins Useless Space?
Though the trade of Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson was lauded at the time, many have come to reconsider the trade's impact. Green looks to be a significant help for the aging Celtics after heart surgery last season, while Perkins has been constantly saddled with minor injuries and has seen a significant production drop ever since he came to town. Regardless, I'm still in the camp that thinks Perk is a necessary presence in the lane.
He might not show up stat-wise, because he doesn't rebound well and can't score on his own. Moreover, the Thunder aren't nearly as good of a passing team as Boston was, so Perk sees less opportunities to score. But off of the stat sheet, he provides a lot of intangible value. He has the ability to take up space and provide an effective last line of defense in the lane, and he has the presence of mind to keep his fouls down. He also is one of the league's best man-to-man defenders when he's healthy, which is absolutely necessary if you're to win against some of the better teams in the Western Conference. If you think we could beat the Lakers, Grizzlies, or Clippers with Krstic still at the center spot, then you're seriously kidding yourself. Lastly, Perk is an excellent pick setter. Sure, sometimes he throws out illegal screens that the refs don't call (much to opposing fans chagrin), but he's a huge help at getting open shots for KD, even if he's ineffective at rolling to the basket. All in all, Perk is one half of the league's best paint defense combos, and Cole Aldrich has some serious work to do if he thinks he's going to replace him any time soon. (Barring injury, of course.)
Part 2: J.A. Sherman
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Up until this very moment, we could leave this one at 'inexperienced' and be done with it. However, now that the Thunder have had three consecutive runs through the playoffs, culminating in a Finals appearance last year, 'inexperience' doesn't really fly anymore. The Thunder leaders have acquired all of the experience they materially need in order to understand how to navigate through both the regular season and the playoffs.
With experience though comes the expectation that the team will learn from past mistakes. The three areas of concern that have plagued the team over the past 2 seasons are:
a) Defensive rebounding
There is no worse way to play a lesser opponent than by allowing them to collect hoards of offensive rebounds, thereby minimizing the talent discrepancy by allowing said lesser team more opportunities to score. In particular, teams like the Kings, Warriors, and Wizards have used this strategy to steal wins against the Thunder in the past, and they will continue to do so unless the Thunder address their rebounding focus.
To be sure, the Thunder have sufficient talent to control the boards. Between Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, and Nick Collison, there should not be a team in the league that consistently outworks them on the glass. However, it is not necessarily the talent, but the lack of focus on fundamentals that kills OKC. They often fail to box out and lose their man when the ball goes up to the rim, which allows a multitude of additional opportunities for their opponents. Better focus, bette fundamentals are needed.
Turnovers are always going to be a problem when a team features a number of playmakers on offense, because there will be a tendency to try to make the spectacular play rather than the mundane/correct one. What is surprising though is that even tough OKC was one of the worst turnover offenders during the regular season, they were one of the best teams in the post season. Why such a big difference?
I think that a big part of it is that the playoffs force teams to slow down, and this slower pace actually helps the Thunder players. Durant and Westbrook in particular sometimes move faster than their decision-making processes allow, so by reducing the amount of possessions in a playoff game, they are more likely to play at a pace that enhances their skills the most. Westbrook in particular stupefied analysts by playing near-perfect point guard during their playoff run.
All this to say that cutting down turnovers during a regular season game is well within this team's abilities.
c) Defensive intensity
This team is not a classically built defensive team like the erstwhile Howard-led Magic, but more like what the Chicago Bulls did yesteryear as well as what they're about today. OKC has the player personnel to cover vast amounts of floor space with their length and quickness. Between Durant, Westbrook, Sefolosha, Ibaka, and now Perry Jones III, this team has the athletic potential to be a shut-down defensive team.
The problem is that OKC has a tendency to lose focus on the defensive end, and perhaps this is the area where their new experience will help the most. In the Finals, it got to the point where they were actually losing LeBron James (it's not easy to lose LeBron) on defense. They must continue to show better communication and fundamental positioning so that their defensive intensity is not a weakness, but rather an asset that they can always fall back upon when the shots are not falling.
4. What are the goals for this team?
There are plenty of intermediate goals to be sure: the #1 seed, the best record in the NBA, etc. However, all of these pale in comparison to the only thing that matters now - the championship. OKC must (and probably will) take a page out of the Spurs playbook this season. Everything is about being fully prepared to play in the Finals.
The championship is it. Nothing else matters.
Bonus 2: What do the Thunder have to do to ensure that James Harden re-signs?
Aside from paying Harden a max contract?
I believe that if Harden is not re-signed by the beginning of the season, his future with OKC will rest on one of two outcomes. If the team can get back to the Finals, win or lose, then Harden will feel compelled to stay. He has said that he loves it in OKC, he's happy there, he loves his team, and that is worth more to him than money. However, I think that comes with the expectation that this is a team that is going to compete for championships year-in, year-out. If OKC can get back to the Finals and be competitive, than he and the organization will conclude that the nucleus must stay together because they're good enough to win it all.
However, if OKC cannot get back to the Finals and struggles with these newfound expectations, then the pressure may mount on the team and Harden to take a different path. If the team struggles and Harden becomes unhappy with his role, then suddenly a home in Phoenix with a max paycheck becomes a lot more appealing.
I believe that OKC has what it takes, both in their psychology and in their performance, to make a run at the title for years to come. However, the balance is delicate, and Harden is ever approaching the exit door until he is convinced to sign on the dotted line.
Zorgon's prediction: 58-24 record, #3 playoff seed
Sherman's prediction: 60-22 record, #2 playoff seed
How do you think the Thunder will do next season? Vote in the poll, post a comment!
Where do you think the Thunder will end up this season?
As NBA Champions! (35 votes)
Losing in the NBA Finals. (9 votes)
Losing in the Western Conference Finals. (15 votes)
Losing in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. (1 vote)
Losing in the first round. (0 votes)
Out of the playoffs. (0 votes)
60 total votes