The Oklahoma City Thunder fell short of their goal of an NBA championship this season, but along the way, they became battled tested and may have positioned themselves as favorites to win titles in future years to come.
Featuring one of the youngest rosters in the league, whose core nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are 23, 23 and 22 years old, respectively, the Thunder can run and score with the best in the league and play solid half-court defense. Now that Coach Scott Brooks is signed to a long-term deal, the Thunder have the benefit of growing together in order to continue to build team chemistry.
The Thunder's young guns carried most of the scoring load this past season, but the secret to the team's successes were their perfectly fitting role players, Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison.
Perkins and Collison, along with starter Serge Ibaka, helped the Thunder become one of the top rebounding teams in the NBA this season. OKC also averaged the most blocked shots-per-game of any team in the league.
What is so evident about this Thunder squad is that they're a true team: a team that's very fun to watch and produces many exhilarating highlights. The Thunder's crisp passing in their half-court offense created many easy finishes around the basket for Ibaka, Collison and Perkins.
Credit head coach Scott Brooks with devising a free-flowing offense that blends great ball movement, high pick-and-roll action and one that still allows his top scorers to thrive in isolation moments and to pick apart opposing teams' defenders.
Interestingly enough, one complaint during the postseason was that Westbrook was too selfish for a point guard, rather than being more deferential to superstar Kevin Durant. While OKC needed his scoring touch much more than many fans realized, Westbrook did take more shots-per-game in the playoffs than Durant. As great of a talent as Westbrook is, clearly the team would have benefited if Durant took more shots in the NBA Finals.
Concerning the team's young three stars, OKC was able to put these prized pieces together all through early draft picks. The architect behind the Thunder is general manager Sam Presti, who has been in charge since 2007 and landed Durant by way of the draft. Kevin Durant was selected second overall, after Greg Oden, by the Seattle Supersonics in the 2007 NBA draft.
Durant only played one season in the Emerald City before the franchise relocated to Oklahoma. Russell Westbrook was the fourth pick in the 2008 NBA draft following two years at UCLA, in his native Los Angeles. James Harden was the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. Harden is also a native Angeleno who played his college ball in Tempe at Arizona State.
Durant is a rare superstar and elite scorer that lets the game come to him and does not force the issue where other scorers do. Durant shined in the fourth quarter all season long. His late game scoring prowess was on display in the NBA Finals when he caught fire in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and scored 17 of his game-high 36 points. He tied the mark for the most points in the final frame, in an NBA Finals game, over the last 15 postseasons.
Durant had a metamorphosis of sorts this season, turning from a player who was mostly a mid-long range jump shooter into a fearless driver that can get to the rim with deceptive quickness and long, smooth strides. There's no coincidence that Durant's ascent to the top of the NBA world has come with his fearlessness and increased frequency in taking the ball to the rim.
James Harden has made his career as a perfectly proportionate shooting guard, who is equally as happy driving in traffic to the rim for a tough finish as he is showing his smooth shooting strokes from beyond the arc.
Harden had a very solid run in the playoffs up until the NBA Finals. With the exception of a sharp shooting performance in Game 2, Harden struggled mightily, and OKC's top scorers were left with the burden of having to make up too many points. In the end, the Thunder simply couldn't produce enough points to topple Miami.
Russell Westbrook is one of the most exciting players in the league and plays with verve and the superb athleticism that helps him routinely knife his way through defenses and straight toward the hoop. He's coupled his points in the paint efficiency with improved shooting on both his mid-range jumps and three-pointers.
Westbrook did show more discipline as a ball handler, nearly cutting his turnovers-per-game in half from the regular season to the postseason. Westbrook has emerged as a superstar in his own right and is now one of the top players in the league.
The Thunder have a very bright future and an incandescent present. All of the pieces are in place, from the front office to the head coach and to the players. This confident group has taken their bumps and bruises from the last several postseasons and developed into a well-balanced scoring machine with grit, toughness and an imposing defensive presence.
Oklahoma City is primed to seize control of the NBA both next season and in the years to come. Miami will stand in their way as they attempt to repeat, but OKC has time on its side and a core nucleus of players that are only getting better.