After falling to the Miami Heat in last season’s NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder enter training camp with more motivation than ever before and once again look like a major threat to capture the title in 2012-13.
This season should be an intriguing one for the Thunder, as they fight to ward off a horde of capable Western Conference teams desperately battling for a playoff seed while facing numerous interior decisions regarding how to keep this already formidable roster at its best.
Here’s how the Thunder look heading into the preseason.
Already a strong contender, the Thunder kept their roster largely intact during the offseason, only making minor additions and subtractions, like drafting Perry Jones III, re-signing Serge Ibaka to a max-contract and allowing role player Nazr Mohammed to walk.
Otherwise, things have been pretty quiet on the Thunder front recently, although James Harden’s contract situation remains up in the air and Kevin Durant has reportedly added some muscle.
Update: Oct. 17, 2012 by Stephen Babb
In case you were worried that James Harden's absence from the latest preseason contest (Tuesday's win over the Charlotte Bobcats) was a bad sign for the season ahead, rest assured that his groin injury isn't troubling head coach Scott Brooks too much (via The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry):
James Harden getting better from his groin injury. Brooks said he did some shooting the last two days and is “coming along.” Brooks also said Harden’s groin is nowhere near Perk’s groin injury.
Given that Perkins recently said he was aiming to return by the start of the regular season (see Oct. 15 update below), Brooks' comments bode well for Harden.
The reining Sixth Man of the Year is still trying to work out an extension with OKC, but he recently indicated he was optimistic the two sides would arrive at a deal by the Oct. 31 deadline.
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Update: Oct. 15, 2012 by Stephen Babb
After having offseason wrist surgery, there's a very real chance center Kendrick Perkins may not make it back for the season-opener. The good news, however, is that the recovery otherwise appears to be more or less on schedule according to The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry:
“Each day it's getting better,” Perkins said. “I'm starting to get more involved in activities on the court. I'm just trying not to have any setbacks and just keep my target for the beginning of the season.”
There's little reason to believe Perkins' return will be delayed well into November, but the Thunder can still take some solace in their newfound interior depth. Holdovers Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka can certainly spend some minutes at the 5, and the sparingly-used Cole Aldrich could use the extra preseason playing time to develop. He's still just 23.
The most prominent benefactor, though, is Hasheem Thabeet—the 7'3" 25-year-old taken with the second overall pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2009 draft. OKC signed the center as something of a reclamation project, and Perkins' brief absence gives him a chance to audition what he can do.
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Update: Oct. 11, 2012 by Stephen Babb
It's not clear what to make of it, but we do know that reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden will miss a preseason game as per a report from The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry:
Serge Ibaka will play tomorrow against the Jazz. James Harden (quad) will not.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) October 11, 2012
Rotoworld notes that this could be a precautionary measure, and we'll know soon enough if it's anything more than that. Regardless, it's a reminder of just how important an injury-free season will be to OKC's hopes of returning to the NBA Finals.
If any one of it's three star scorers go down, the Oklahoma City is in trouble. Though a reserve on paper, Harden keeps the Thunder rolling when Durant and/or Westbrook sits and typically finishes games like the up-and-coming star he is.
He should also be especially motivated this season after struggling against Miami in the Finals.
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Maynor missed most of last season with a torn ACL, but after extensive rehab he looks fully recovered, according to Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman.
Perkins will miss the majority of the preseason while nursing an injured wrist, according to Tom Lewis of SB Nation. However, Perkins should be ready to go for the start of the season and likely won’t be significantly inhibited by any remaining issues.
Sefolosha is also dealing with a minor leg injury during training camp, but the team is likely airing on the side of caution to ensure his readiness for the start of the season. Overall, the Thunder look to be in good health entering 2012-13.
PG: Russell Westbrook / Eric Maynor / Reggie Jackson
SG: Thabo Sefolosha / James Harden / Daequan Cook
SF: Kevin Durant / Lazar Hayward / Hollis Thompson
PF: Serge Ibaka / Nick Collison / Perry Jones III
C: Kendrick Perkins / Cole Aldrich / Hasheem Thabeet
The Thunder should feature an almost identical rotation to last season, with a couple of minor changes.
Most notably, the return of Eric Maynor should significantly strengthen the second unit, as the Thunder will be able to deploy a playmaking floor general off the bench, allowing Harden to act more as a scorer and less as a facilitator. Although Reggie Jackson will push Maynor for the minutes behind Westbrook, Maynor’s superior point guard skills should give him the advantage.
The Thunder should also get a boost from rookie Perry Jones III. Jones enters the league with a number of question marks, but his talent is undeniable and he should be a solid role player at both forward positions, with potential to become much more than that given the opportunity.
Russell Westbrook has absorbed a lot of criticism over the course of his young career, but after a stellar postseason during which he averaged around 23 points and six assists per game, he may finally be off the hot seat for the Thunder.
Instead, the Thunder player under the most pressure to perform next season will be Serge Ibaka. After landing a major extension of four years and $12 million, Ibaka clearly has the full endorsement of the Thunder organization, and he will need to respond with a career year.
With the kind of money he’s commanding, Ibaka needs to be more than a shot-blocker for the Thunder. While he’s shown flashes in his offensive game, it still needs great improvement and he must make more consistent use of his increasingly deadly mid-ranged jumper. Furthermore, Ibaka must hone his performance on defense by focusing less on crowd-rousing blocks and more on altering attempts and grabbing rebounds.
Ibaka has improved steadily through his first three seasons, but in 2012-13 he must earn full starter’s minutes and average a double-double if the Thunder are to achieve their full potential.
The Thunder are clearly a formidable offensive team, as they were third in the league in scoring last season and feature two of the league’s most dynamic scorers in Durant and Westbrook.
However, the offense has a clear flaw: The low volume of assists it generates. The Thunder finished dead last in assists last season with just 18.5 per game. That already weak number fell to 15.8 per game during OKC’s Finals matchup with the Heat.
During those Finals, the Heat played like a highly cohesive unit, sharing the ball selflessly and trusting one another with big shots. This was particularly evident in the championship-clinching Game 5, in which the Heat had a combined 25 assists en route to a 15-point victory over the Thunder.
In comparison, OKC often relied on isolation plays to stimulate offense while leaning almost exclusively on the abilities of its big three to put up points. And while the Heat certainly ran the majority of their offense through their superstars as well, Miami did a much better job of involving its role players.
In their only win in the series, the Thunder roster dished out a collective 22 assists (Westbrook contributing 11 of them). In the other four games of the series (all losses), the Thunder averaged just over 14 assists per game.
If the Thunder are to have any chance of taking down powerhouse teams like the Heat and the Lakers, they absolutely must play as a unit, and that means passing the ball and setting each other up for easy baskets. While Durant, Westbrook and Harden may be able to carry OKC through the regular season, they cannot win a championship without involving the rest of the roster.
Leading scorer: Kevin Durant
After leading the entire league in scoring for the past three seasons, it seems pretty likely that Durant will at least continue to top the scoring chart on his squad.
Leading Rebounder: Serge Ibaka
Durant led the Thunder in rebounding last season, but Ibaka wasn’t far behind. With increased minutes, Ibaka should average at least nine rebounds per game as the Thunder’s leader in that category.
Leading Assist-man: Russell Westbrook
Westbrook isn’t a pure point guard by any means, but he is the primary facilitator for the Thunder’s offense and will therefore continue to lead the team in assists. Harden is a more natural facilitator and Durant is steadily improving, but Westbrook should lead this category by default.
The already very competitive Western Conference grew even more stacked this offseason, and the Thunder will have no easy time fending off their conference and division rivals, many of whom will be competing fiercely for bottom playoff seeds.
Despite the competition, the ever-improving Thunder should maintain a similar win-loss ratio to last season while finishing amongst the top three seeds.
The Thunder should advance to the Western Conference Finals for a second consecutive season in 2012-13. However, they will not advance past that point.
The Lakers dominant big four will prove to be too much to handle as the Thunder struggle to contain Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol on the inside.
Though the Thunder will likely fall to the Lakers in 2013, they have the long-term advantage, as Nash, Kobe and Gasol only have so much left in the tank.
The Thunder’s biggest storyline heading into 2012-13 centers on their ability to keep the big three of Durant, Westbrook and Harden intact.
While the former two are locked up for the foreseeable future, Harden’s contract situation remains very much in the air as the Thunder scrounge for a way to keep the dynamic 2-guard on board at a fair price.
Though Harden would undoubtedly attract a maximum contract upon entering free agency next summer, the Thunder have the opportunity to extend his contract before October 31st and will do everything in their power to keep The Beard in the fold.
Fortunately for OKC, Harden has made it clear thus far that money is not the only priority and that his heart remains with the Thunder. Harden has formed strong connections to his teammates and clearly enjoys being a key member of a top contender, so he may turn out to be the rare young player willing to take a pay cut to keep his colors.
The good will between Harden and the Thunder brass is evident, and in all likelihood Sam Presti will find a way to keep his core both happy and intact.