After a season ending just short of championship glory, it's only natural to focus on areas where the Oklahoma City Thunder must improve.
Though there are team aspects that could use some work, the individual performance of the players is often the deciding factor of a team achieving the next level of success. This is fortunate for the Thunder considering how much talent that they have on their roster. However, there is always room for improvement, especially when you are so close to winning the NBA Finals.
With that being said, let's take a look at four players on the Thunder roster who need to make individual improvements to help OKC take the next step.
Jackson was drafted in the later part of the first round in 2011, but so far has had little success in his NBA playing time.
When current backup point guard Eric Maynor went down with a season-ending injury early last season, Jackson had a chance to shine as the new backup. However, things did not go as planned and Jackson struggled to adjust to NBA play. He played in 45 games, averaging just 3.1 points and 1.6 assists per contest in his 11 minutes per game.
The Thunder knew they would need experience in the postseason, and couldn't risk Jackson's shaky play costing them games. So, they brought in 37-year-old Derek Fisher to help, and Jackson rode the bench for the entire playoffs, deactivated.
This season, Fisher is likely gone after finishing his one year deal, third-stringer Royal Ivey has signed with the 76ers, and Maynor should be back from his injury. The Thunder are comfortable running sets with two point guards on the court at the same time, which means, even as a third-stringer, Jackson can still get some minutes. However, if he wants to prove to the team that he should be their long-term plan for a backup (in case OKC can't afford to keep Maynor), he will have to step up his play, or risk another stint in the NBA D-League.
There is no doubt that Westbrook is a deserving NBA All-Star and the second best player on this team. There are still some holes in his game, though, and if he can work on those and master them, this team and Westbrook will be a whole new monster.
He is often criticized for being a selfish player who is maliciously trying to steal the spotlight from superstar Kevin Durant. However, I don't believe that to be the case for Westbrook. Instead, he is just a very aggressive player who can sometimes try to do too much with the ball.
This is where I see room for improvement. Westbrook needs better decision-making when it comes to him holding the basketball. He is not and may never be a pass-first point guard, but that's not always a bad thing. He needs to work on differentiating between good and bad shots. Sometimes, Westbrook wants to score so badly, that he will disregard how low the percentage is for the tough, contested shot he's taking, and try and force it in.
In the postseason, Westbrook had some great performances where he shot the ball well and ran the offense effectively. Games against Miami in the Finals when Westbrook stepped up (27 points, 11 assists in Game 1; 43 points in Game 4) were definite signs of him coming around when his team needed him the most. Though OKC lost the Finals, Westbrook still has tons of room for improvement and he is just 23 years old still. If he continues to play his own game at a higher and more efficient rate, there will be no stopping Oklahoma City and their tandem of Westbrook and Durant.
Perkins is a certified tough and mean player who really changed the mentality of the Thunder on the court after he was acquired at the trade deadline in 2011.
Though he was very ineffective in the postseason against the Heat in the Finals, Perkins was playing through a torn groin, which he recently had surgery on.
When he was healthy in the regular season, Perkins was a pretty good center, and improved from last year when he was playing through injuries. This season, he came back in better shape than ever to help Oklahoma City.
His numbers actually dipped this last season, but between the box score, Perkins was a valuable piece in helping the Thunder to the second seed in the Western Conference.
However, his leadership and toughness can only make up for his meager numbers for so long. Especially considering that Perkins has a pretty high price on him (due to make $7.8 million next season), he may become expendable to make room for contract extensions for Serge Ibaka and James Harden.
The only way Perkins can maintain his starting job with the Thunder is to work to improve his dismal offensive game. His lack of go-to post moves and his below-average jump shot hurts the Thunder offensively when he's on the court. If he can manage to get better in this area, and take care of his body throughout the season, Perkins can prove that he is worth paying to keep as a starting center for a championship contender like OKC.
The Cole Aldrich Experiment is reaching a big stage this next season. OKC has decided not to re-sign backup center Nazr Mohammed.
After the Thunder traded two first round picks (Craig Brackins and Quincy Pondexter) to New Orleans for their 11th overall pick Cole Aldrich, there was faith that this big man could be something special.
So far, Aldrich has not seen consistent playing time for OKC, usually coming in for some garbage minutes in blowouts. But now with the opportunity to be a full-time backup, Aldrich needs to prove he was worth the years and money that the Thunder have invested in him. Besides just being a backup, Aldrich may even see some starts due to the injury-prone Perkins being ahead of him.
He has shown some good signs by rebounding, blocking shots, and scoring in the post in his limited minutes. However, he still lacks an overall feel for the game, and tries to do too much on both sides of the ball at times. Once he gets some seasoning this year and gets used to regular playing time, Aldrich should improve and could become a key in putting the Thunder over the top in their quest for a championship.