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Bill Simmons Previews OKC Thunder, Western Conference

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Sports_guy_mediumBill Simmons offered up a big two-part podcast yesterday, previewing all 30 NBA teams and their prospects for this season. The podcast is broken down into two parts, each representing a conference.

B.S. Report: Two Part NBA Podcast | Grantland

The entire podcast is well worth listening to, but for our purposes we will focus on Simmons and his buddy Joe House's comments on the OKC Thunder.

(If you would like to jump to their commentary on the Thunder, jump to around 34 minutes in.)

Simmons makes a number of assertions in his commentary (bolded below), so I've extracted a few of them for consideration.

1. OKC probably has the best shot of any team to win 50 games this season.

The three prime candidates for a 50 win season this year are the Heat, Bulls, and Thunder. I actually think the Heat have the best shot though, since they play in a weaker division and will be seeing a healthy dosage of the likes of the Bucks, Nets, and Wizards.

The main reason Simmons and House give for a team to be able to hit that 50 win mark (62 wins in a full season) is a deep bench and fresh legs. While I certainly don't discount those factors, I think there is another factor in play - the ability to win games in the first half. A big reason why The 90's Bulls and the early 00's Lakers were able to ring up such impressive win totals was because they demoralized and dominated their opponents early, so by the 4th quarter, the stars were resting on the bench. Played out over a full season, the stars were almost always well rested, regardless of who and when they played last.

Because of this early dominance factor, I think the Heat probably have the edge because they have the top-end talent that is more likely to crush a team early in the game, leading to a second-half blowout. The Thunder aren't far behind, but they still have some things to prove in the early parts of games (namely, 1st quarter defense) before we start seeing a run of games where Durant and Westbrook are cheering on the sidelines as Royal Ivey and Cole Aldrich close out the win.

2. Brooks is not yet a trustworthy coach who knows how to handle his two young stars and the late game play-calling.

When the talking heads throw their talking points into the nether space about whether or not Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant can co-exist, behind it all is the concern about Scott Brooks' ability to make the coaching leap. He certainly wasn't bad last year per se; he showed good coaching acumen in his ability to run plays out of time-outs as well as the ability to make halftime adjustments. The area he struggled the most though was in managing his young team's focus and composure during close ball games, especially when the Thunder were playing with a lead.

Simmons argues that it was a lack of plays and tension between Durant and Westbrook, but I think House's comment is more on the mark that it had more to do with composure than play-calling. In two of the more dramatic losses that the Thunder suffered in the playoffs (Nuggets-Game 4, Mavericks-Game 4) we saw that the Thunder had a tendency to panic and stop running their plays late in games. To be sure, Brooks' offensive scheme was simplistic, but arguably intentionally so, since his roster is extremely young. He doesn't have a veteran player on the court like a Chauncey Billups who has a full understanding of offensive schemes and can coordinate his teammates into the right spots. Rather, the team was learning as it went along, forever sailing along Magellan-like into uncharted territory.

Inexperience is always a favorite canard to grab onto because there is usually at least an element of truth to it. In the case of the Thunder though, I can't think of a better explanation as to how a more talented team fell short against the veteran Mavericks. Time and time again, late in the games, the Mavericks coaches and players demonstrated that they knew how to handle every situation they faced. The Thunder demonstrated that they had never faced many of those situations before. Hopefully OKC will learn, and it is incumbent on everyone, from coaches, scouts, stars, and role players, to make sure they don't repeat those mistakes of their youth.

3. The Thunder may be due for a let-down and disappointing start.

House asserts that we actually saw this let-down happen last season when the Thunder stumbled out of the gates. While OKC's early season record was not terrible, we viewers could plainly see that the team was not in sync. In the previous season, they had won a surprising 50 games, took the Lakers to six games in the playoffs, and the sky was the limit. Subsequently, when they began last season they looked as if they expected other lesser teams to roll over. The result was some early season embarrassing losses to teams like the Clippers and Raptors.

Because of this past experience, I do think that the team is going to be able to avoid those missteps and be much more focused out of the gates. In fact, given what we've seen out of the entire crew this off-season, I think the team is going to come in extremely driven. The players held multiple player-driven workouts during the summer. Durant was perhaps the MVP of the lockout off-season, playing in any game he could get to. Kendrick Perkins worked his way into the best shape of his life. Serge Ibaka played competitively in Spain, and Thabo Sefolosha did the same in Italy. James Harden made a name for himself as well during the numerous summer exhibition games. All evidence indicates that the Thunder are straining at the bit to get this season going. Now it's here.

No, I don't think they're going to have a let-down because of the high expectations; I think this squad is ready to destroy other teams.

4. James Harden is set to make the leap.

I wholeheartedly agree with this assertion, but the challenge for the Thunder is how to work him into the offense while still making sure Durant and Westbrook are prominently featured. Fans and critics alike have been clamoring for Harden to replace Sefolosha in the starting line-up for months now, but surprisingly, the answer as for how to keep Harden at his most effective might be to keep him with the second unit.

Harden has two skill sets at his disposal - he can run an offense from the shooting guard position and he can offer some exceptional scoring punch. If he is on the court with Durant and Westbrook, the former is the way to go. If he is running the second unit, the latter will carry the team for stretches. If you think about it, there are very, very few players who can perform in such a way (Manu Ginobili, Chris Paul). Yet here Harden is, ready to fill that role as a third year player.

Perhaps the biggest testament though to Harden's ascent as a borderline all-star is if we consider where Simmons stood on Harden a year ago. In fact, this was the subject of my very first post here at WTLC. At that time, Simmons was starting to believe that the Thunder had blown it with drafting Harden and that the blown pick would prevent the team from making the leap from "good" to "great." Now, here we are barely a year later, and Simmons unequivocally sings the praises of Harden's talent and his role on this Thunder team.

"He might be the guy...hey guys, Westbrook and Durant, you can do your own thing...I'm just going to win the game now."

I agree. Harden is the chameleon, and he will be whatever the team needs him to be in order to win games.

5. Win prediction: 48, with a #1 seed.

Sounds good to me.