The general belief around the NBA is that the Oklahoma City Thunder are a team destined to win a title.
Supporters of the team seem to feel that they simply have too much talent not to succeed and will eventually hoist that Larry O'Brien trophy once their young nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka mature and gain more experience.
In fact, NBA Analyst Stephen A. Smith said that the only thing that prevented them from winning the title against the Miami Heat in the finals was their "lack of experience" which doomed them in Games 2-4, which were decided in the final minutes. He also believes that this team is the favorite to win the title next year after having "gone through the pain of loss" and returning "hungrier" next year.
I find myself strangely unconvinced.
I feel that the Thunder, while talented, are further away from a title than some may believe despite their appearance in the NBA Finals. Here are the five reasons why the Thunder are the league's most overrated team.
1. The Scoring Champion Problem
Many Kevin Durant fans will point to his three straight scoring championships along with his fourth quarter offensive exploits as evidence of his team's greatness. Skip Bayless said he was "the best player in the NBA" who can offensively "score on anybody" and dominate during crunch time.
There's no doubt that Durant's offensive runs can make for exciting drama. But is it possible that the very thing that people praise Durant for could be the thing that hurts his team's title chances?
Over the past 13 years only one team has won a title with the league's leading scorer, Shaquille O'Neal, in 2000. Since that point we've seen great players fill it up offensively and not be able to lead their teams to a title. In fact, before Michael Jordan, most NBA experts believed that scoring title winners couldn't win championships because they would have to carry so much of the offensive load and it would hurt the team dynamic.
Some could argue that Durant could succeed like Jordan and win both scoring titles and championships, but there would still need to be balance within the offense. Can Durant win a title while still leading the league in scoring? Sure, but the rest of his teammates have to contribute more consistently offensively to make that happen.
Honestly, minus Westbrook and Harden, there aren't any other scorers on this team. Outside of the "Michael Jordan exception" the scoring champ has rarely won the NBA title.
2. Lack of a Post Presence in the Finals
Let some of the Thunder's most ardent fans tell it: They lost in the finals because of the no-call on LeBron James at the end of Game 2 or their lack of experience. I would say that an arguably bigger reason the Thunder fell short in the finals was their inability to get offense from the post.
For all the discussion about how talented the Thunder are, one question that has not been asked is: Can they win a title without a single player on their roster with a post game?
I have been looking back in NBA History (2000s Lakers, 2000s Spurs, 1990s Bulls, etc.) and I can't find a single title winner without a post player. It's just a necessity.
Part of the reason why the Miami Heat lost the finals in 2011 was because James failed to provide enough offensive opportunities in the paint. With Durant, Westbrook and Harden lacking post games and Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins barely scorers at at, let alone post offensive threats, where do the points in the paint come from when this team is not getting fast breaks?
3. No True Point Guard
I know how talented Westbrook is. In fact, I have said that even though Durant is the Thunder's best player, Westbrook is their most important player because of his passion and resolve, which is infectious on this team.
But he's not a point guard.
I know he has games where he racks up the assists, but I don't think that he has a true playmaker's eye for the game the way that Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo do. That instinctive way of knowing what is the right play to make during the game is lost on Westbrook at times, and I think that too often the fact that he is playing out of position seems readily apparent.
The Thunder need an actual point guard that can run the offense, get the ball to the shooters in rhythm and make something happen when the offense stalls.
When the Miami Heat went on their runs from double digit deficits during the NBA Finals, the Thunder needed someone who could settle the team down and make sure they got good shots. Westbrook was simply unable to do this, and unless the team recruits an actual point guard to play with Durant and Westbrook, it could be a recurring issue.
4. Durant Needs to Make Strides as a Defender
Most of the championship teams of the last two decades were led by a player that was also their defensive pulse.
Paul Pierce in 2008 played exceptional defense on Kobe Bryant in the 2008 finals, but Kobe defended Pierce well in 2010. Phil Jackson challenged Shaq to improve his pick-and-roll defense and shot blocking in 2000 and his commitment on the defensive end helped the Lakers three-peat in the 2000s.
Kevin Durant is the leader of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He must not only be the leader on offense, but he has to be willing to take the challenge on defense as well. Until he improves on the defensive end of the court, his teams will falter against a team like the Heat.
Say what you want to about LeBron James, but after Game 1 of the finals when he did not guard Durant down the stretch and was met with criticisms of his competitiveness, he went after Durant offensively and defensively the rest of the series. His aggressiveness led to foul trouble for Durant and a nation of Heat-haters to suggest that the referees were biased against the Thunder.
The fact is that Durant does not move his feet well on defense. He's tall, lanky and doesn't have the lateral quickness to stay in front of a guy like James. This is why he was in foul trouble when guarding him. I'm surprised that the media was so silent about Scott Brook's decision to take Durant off of James and put him on Mario Chalmers. Was this an admission that Durant could not guard LeBron?
It's hard to say what was worst—having the "second best player in the league" told by his coach that he couldn't guard the best or having Durant give up 25 points to his new defensive assignment in Chalmers whom many outside of Miami have dismissed as a scrub.
Durant must improve his defense if he wants to have the type of well-rounded game that champions like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have displayed.
5. Their Future without a 2013 Championship
Most NBA experts, including Michael Wilbon, John Barry and Stephen A. Smith, seem to believe that this core of the Thunder will win a title sometime in the near future, provided they stay together.
But we know that in the volatile world of the NBA, there are no guarantees.
The Thunder's future is not quite as assured as the experts are suggesting. After next season, the Thunder management will be faced with a dilemma: Both James Harden and Serge Ibaka will be free agents, but they can probably only afford to keep one of them. Who do they choose?
If you keep Ibaka (who I'm predicting will be their choice), they keep one of the game's best shot-blockers, but they lose their only productive offensive player outside of Westbrook and Durant. Granted, Harden can be replaced with another scorer in free agency, but can they afford a quality backup given how much they will be paying Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka?
On the other hand, they can keep Harden and let Ibaka walk, but now their shot-blocking presence is gone. Unless they can replace the league's leader in shot-blocking in free agency, they face an uphill struggle to replace Ibaka's efforts. Despite how talented Durant and Westbrook are, losing either guy will create a huge crater in their lineup. It's easy to say that the team can just sign a free agent and be fine, but the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks have shown this free-agent season that there are no guarantees that free agents will want to come to your team.
This is not to say that the Thunder are not a very good team. I just don't look at them as a lock to be a championship winning team in the next few years. I still feel that they need a few more pieces, a better defensive philosophy, a point guard and more versatility in their offense.