3 Reasons the Oklahoma City Thunder Will Be in the NBA Finals This Season
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
A man who, at times, resembled an ice-cold killer on the court appeared to be nothing more than a 23-year-old kid crying in his mother's embrace.
That brief, humanizing glimpse reminded us that the NBA's youngest ever scoring champion was indeed mortal.
Despite his best efforts, he along with Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't bring a first ever title to a team formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics.
However, this season, their fortune might be different.
Now, with a new season of opportunity, the Thunder will look to redeem themselves after their disappointing performance in June. Although they fell short, they still have all the pieces needed to go on another title run.
Here are three reasons why the Oklahoma City Thunder will be back in the Finals with a vengeance.
Their Dynamic Duo
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
When you have two of the league's top-five scorers on your team, your odds for making it far in the NBA are pretty good.
Last year was proof of it.
The Thunder's duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook eviscerated opposing defenses. When Westbrook's jumper was falling and Durant was getting his touches, their inside-outside onslaught was very hard to stop.
Although Westbrook's shot selection is at times questionable, there is no doubt that their lethal combination of offensive abilities make the Thunder a formidable force.
Westbrook's primary goal this season should be to establish himself as a playmaker.
Although the Thunder won without Westbrook passing much (they actually had a 29-8 record when he shot more than Durant), when Westbrook's dribble penetration opens up lanes for cutters or shooters, they are a whole new team.
If Westbrook can find a way to seamlessly blend his scoring prowess with a newfound penchant for passing more, the Thunder would be tremendously more effective—especially in halfcourt sets.
Despite their occasional stagnancy in slow-paced tempos, the Thunder were at their best when they upped the pace.
The Thunder averaged 16.2 fast-break points per game (fifth in the league) and were the fifth highest as far as fast-break efficiency.
Durant and Westbrook were both hard to stop if they were going full speed off of turnovers—whether it was a Westbrook dunk or a Durant three-pointer, they were a nightmare on the break. If they can learn to play at both paces with ease, they could essentially run or grind it out with anyone.
Interestingly enough, the Thunder had the lowest assist rate of any team in the league—right behind the Sacramento Kings who had a virtually identical rate of 17.32.
Considering you have two ball dominant scorers on one team, it's no surprise they will consume a majority of the shot attempts.
The Thunder also had the highest rate of turnovers last season, a stat that could be blamed on their two premier players. Both Durant and Westbrook were among the top 10 most turnover-prone players in the league—with 3.8 and 3.6 turnovers per game, respectively.
Despite these stats, the Thunder were still a dominant team (they were also the second most efficient team in the league as far as offense), but if their two stars improve upon their flaws in the passing game, they could be way more deadly as a contingent.
As long as their talented pair of scorers continues to cover up their faults with their brilliant offense, they're still going to have a lot of success as a unit.
A Formidable Frontcourt
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Besides a brilliant guard/forward combo of Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder's frontcourt of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins brings rebounding, defense and toughness night in and night out.
Serge Ibaka, affectionately known as Serge "Iblocka," led the league in blocks per game—part of the reason he made the NBA's All-Defensive First Team last season.
Perkins himself is an outstanding paint defender, despite averaging just over a block per game.
His menacing 6'10", 280-pound frame allows him to man-up against any big in the league, and he changes plenty of shots thanks to his presence in the box.
Ibaka has a dependable outside jumper and has even shown a bit of three-point range in pre-season action. When Ibaka hit outside shots, it added a whole new dimension to the Thunder's halfcourt offense.
Look for Ibaka to continue to develop into an outside marksman who will stretch the floor for the Thunder's offense.
Perkins isn't an outstanding offensive player (he averages a mere 5 points per game), but his game is competent enough to where he can finish close range baskets and occasionally surprise someone with a turnaround jumper on the block.
The only downside to the Thunder's frontcourt is the fact that they cannot really create their own shots—a reason they often struggled in the halfcourt if Durant and Westbrook weren't creating shots for themselves effectively.
However, both Perkins's and Ibaka's combined defensive ability and natural grit make them the perfect complement to the offensive output of Durant and Westbrook.
They helped solidify Oklahoma City as a legitimate defensive team—ranking fifth in the league as far as overall opponents scoring is concerned, despite allowing a 20th-ranked 41 points per game in the paint.
Teams also shot on average about 43 percent against Oklahoma City (they were fifth best) thanks in large part to their ability to change shots.
Considering they match up well with virtually any frontcourt in the league, it's no surprise the Thunder made the Finals last year and will likely do it again thanks to their solid bigs.
A Dependable Bench
Although losing James Harden is a big blow to the Thunder's bench, it's still a solid unit.
Nick Collison, in particular, is a tough, consistent player who brings energy and effort every time he steps on the court. Collison also has the 11th best field-goal percentage among big men in the NBA.
He isn't an outstanding shot blocker, but he is a wily paint defender with the ability to draw charges and change shots. A lot of what he does won't show up on the stat sheet, but he's a solid contributor that helps sustain when the starters are sitting.
The Thunder can depend on Collison to show up, but they also need the rest of the bench to step up in the absence of Harden—especially newly acquired Kevin Martin.
Martin has a reputation for being a solid outside shooter who can get hot on any given night—assuming he's healthy of course. He missed 26 games last season (and has been injury-prone in the past), but if he is healthy, the Thunder will certainly welcome his scoring ability.
The Thunder will also be glad to have point guard Eric Maynor back in action.
Maynor, despite his injury woes last season, has shown signs of being a solid off-the-bench option, and his continued development will be something to watch as the season progresses.
Even second year guard Reggie Jackson has had his moments, but like Maynor, he is still a work in progress.
The Thunder will also have added youth in recently acquired Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Liggins, Perry Jones III and former lottery pick Hasheem Thabeet.
Most of these aforementioned additions are extremely raw and won't see a lot of playing time—especially Thabeet, whose questionable basketball IQ has led to most calling him a bust.
However, these young prospects will get their minutes in due time, and could prove to be valuable pieces down the road. Regardless, the Thunder are going to look for their primary second options off the bench to play big.
If the Thunder's solid starting five continues to get support from their bench like they did last year, there is no doubt they can go all the way.