WTLC had the opportunity to talk to Trey Kerby, one of the fine gents who host the NBA’s outstanding program, NBA TV’s The Starters. Kerby offered us some great insight and a look into the early going of this NBA season, and we have it here to share with you.
Will Brewer: What are the biggest surprises of the season thus far in your opinion?
TREY KERBY: The biggest surprise for me would have to be the Denver Nuggets being so good defensively. People expect them to have a good offense. Going back to last season, I think there was optimism that they could at least put together an average defense bringing in Paul Millsap. However, things did not work out obviously right away, because he was hurt at the beginning of the season. They did not really have a chance to jell and could never really get rolling at any specific period of time.
I think it is pretty impressive that they start the season out this year with a defense that looks really promising. Also, it seems as if their young players (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Mason Plumlee) are taking a huge leap forward as well.
The Oklahoma City Thunder started 0-4; what did you see as the main cause to the slow start?
KERBY: I think the Thunder were in a tough spot to start the season. The injuries to Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson so close to the beginning of the year threw a wrench into their plans as a team. It was tough to adjust to have two of their big minute players not in the rotation. They [Westbrook and Roberson] both do super important things for the team and it was really tough to be without that to start the year.
Westbrook is the main driver on offense, making plays for other players, making plays for himself, and he is that transition nightmare for an opposition. Roberson, defensively, can guard a point guard, a two guard, a bigger wing, a large four. The Thunder losing his activity and his deflections really hurts them on the defensive end. It also hurts their ability to turn defensive stops into offensive opportunities.
Since starting 0-4, the Thunder have won six in a row. What do you think has been the biggest difference during the last six-game stretch?
KERBY: I think it is just getting the chance to play together and get familiar with one another. I think Westbrook’s return combined with the Thunder being committed to getting defensive stops has turned into success. The Thunder’s biggest key to success is turning a defensive stop into quick offense. It has been tough in the half-court for the Thunder, but I think turning defense into offense has been major for them.
The Rockets, who OKC is playing tonight have also gotten off to a slow start. What do you think it will take for the Thunder to match or even surpass their success from last season?
KERBY: The main thing to me that has been the problem for the Rockets, has been their motivation. We saw it on opening night against the Pelicans, they just did not seem committed to making an effort defensively. They just have not looked 100% motivated like they did for the entire season last year. Last year, it seemed like they knew they had a chance to beat the Warriors, and they took the Warriors to Game 7. I think coming into this season, they know they’re a good team, they know people are expecting them to be a good team. They need to get that chip on their shoulder of being a team that is determined to beat the Warriors.
The Rockets added Carmelo Anthony in the offseason, after he was traded from the Thunder. How do you think he has fit into the Rockets system?
KERBY: I thought it was hilarious seeing him in the preseason, pump fake, take a step inside the three, hit a long two and apologize to the bench.
We all Melo can score a bucket, he does not move well laterally, and that could hurt the Rockets defensively. Melo’s defense is a downgrade from that of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, who were able to switch every position. I don’t think that the team’s early struggles are because of Melo. However, when you make those changes, Melo is the big name and he will get a lot of the blame from critics.
The Thunder sent away Carmelo Anthony, but got Dennis Schroder in return, also Nerlens Noel was signed to a 1-year deal. What have those two guys brought to this Thunder roster?
KERBY: The Thunder have needed a backup point guard and a secondary creator behind Westbrook for years. I think it is a huge upgrade to play Dennis Schroder over Raymond Felton. Schroder can attack the lane, create shots for himself and create for others as well. The Dennis Schroder era in Atlanta was short-lived but he got the chance to run a team. I think he is more suited for a 6th man role and the Thunder adding him behind Russ is a smart move.
The defensive problems may be there when Russ and Schroder are in together because they both like to freelance. I think the most important thing is the upgrade in talent at point guard.
Noel has been super active. If OKC can get him to rehab his value and his image, he will definitely be able to give the Thunder some big minutes off the bench.
What is OKC’s ceiling with a healthy Westbrook and Roberson?
KERBY: I think they are still middle of the pack in the Western Conference, which I don’t think is a bad place to be. They could end up anywhere from the 2nd seed to the 8th seed. I think the best version of this team, with the pieces they added, is a tough defensive team that is long, athletic, gets a ton of steals, and then is able to run in transition. As soon as they are able to get everybody healthy, defenders like Roberson, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams, Noel ... that is a nice set of guys that can do the things necessary to get stops in the NBA. The Thunder’s identity has to be made on the defensive end, and then the offense comes from there.
You mentioned Jerami Grant, who has moved in the starting power forward spot for the Thunder. What improvements have you seen from him and what do you think he needs to be moving forward to help this team be successful?
KERBY: I think he has to be a knockdown shooter from the corner, which he has shown confidence in his shooting thus far. I think he needs to be a guy that is hitting 37-40% of wide-open threes, that is what the Thunder need from that power forward position. He can guard anybody 1-5, he can move his feet to guard small guys, and also bang with the bigs in the paint. He is a key piece for them because he brings toughness and he does not need the ball to be a threat.
What is your prediction for the Thunder this season? Where do you predict them to land come playoff time?
KERBY: Will, I think they will be a 5 seed. I think it will be a competitive race just like 3 through 9 last season, it came down to the final game. I see a similar situation happening this season, I think the 2 seed is up for grabs. I think we will see more competitive first-round battles in the playoffs this season and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
The Warriors are the clear #1 as of now and should stay that way barring any significant injuries. I do think if the Thunder can get one of those top four spots, playing in front of Loud City could be extremely major.
Many thanks To Trey and his friends at NBA TV’s The Starters for giving us this opportunity to talk. You can follow Trey on Twitter.