5 Reasons the Thunder Are Still the Team to Beat in the Western Conference
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Could somebody please explain why the Oklahoma City Thunder have suddenly been written off? Because they're still here. They're still the team to beat in the Western Conference.
Yes, the James Harden trade hurt them, but does that mean that they're already down and out? That they've suddenly become “fringe contenders”—long shots just to return to the NBA Finals?
Absolutely not. Not while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are scoring on everyone and their mother, and not while Serge Ibaka is volleyball-spiking shots into the 28th row.
Oklahoma City lost one of the league's best glue guys and its best young shooting guard. But the Thunder didn't lose their place among the NBA elite, or the ability to potentially repeat as Western Conference champions. Here's why.
Kevin Martin will spearhead the Oklahoma City bench.
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We'll just get it out of the way right now—the Oklahoma City Thunder bench took a step back with the James Harden trade. They'll definitely struggle out of the gate.
But that doesn't mean that the reserves will be bad all season. On the contrary, they could actually be really good. Head coach Scott Brooks has a pretty interesting mix of talent sitting on the bench right now.
Let's take a look at the trade.
The Thunder lost three contributors—Harden, Daequan Cook and Cole Aldrich—as well as a legitimate superstar in Lazar Hayward (kidding).
Outside of Harden, the loss that looks the most significant is that of Aldrich, since it means that Hasheem Thabeet is the Thunder's backup center. But if Oklahoma City isn't concerned with the drop-off between him and Thabeet, it doesn't speak well for Aldrich's abilities in the first place.
Still, those are some big losses. However, the Thunder are adding a hyper-efficient scorer in Kevin Martin, two lottery-level talents in Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb and the steady Eric Maynor at backup point guard. That's not too shabby.
One thing to remember is that Martin isn't going to be squaring off against the top wing defenders in the league anymore. Not when he's coming off the bench and playing for a team featuring Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
That's a big change and a good one for a player who's already had four seasons with a true shooting percentage of 60 or better. He may be a defensive sieve, but offensively his job is getting a whole lot easier. Plus, he's never played with a frontcourt as good defensively as the trio of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison.
As for the rookies, Lamb may not see many minutes since there's a bit of a logjam at guard in Oklahoma City. But Brooks will find it tough to keep Jones off of the court.
Jones is a freak athlete that could conceivably play the 3, the 4 or even the 5 if it's a really small lineup. The dude has some serious talent, and he showed a budding connection with Maynor in the preseason.
What's also important to consider when looking at the Thunder reserves is that they won't always all be playing at once.
So if a Maynor-Martin-Jones-Collison-Thabeet lineup doesn't look appealing, it's not a huge deal. Throw some combinations of those players in with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka and you're looking at some intriguing options.
How does a Maynor-Westbrook-Durant-Collison-Ibaka lineup sound? Or maybe Westbrook-Martin-Jones-Durant-Ibaka? Obviously, a lot is going to depend on how the new additions play with the old guard, but the Thunder can throw around all kinds of cool lineups this season.
Improving Young Players
Serge Ibaka's growth moving forward will be critical for the Thunder.
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It’s easy to forget just how young the Oklahoma City Thunder are. The team's recent playoff success has almost masked the fact that this team is young and still has tons of room to grow—especially since the additions of Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb.
But even looking at just the top guys, Oklahoma City can expect some big individual improvements.
For starters, Kevin Durant is improving as a playmaker every day. Durant's never had a season in which he had more assists than turnovers. However, he got better as last season went on, ultimately averaging almost four assists per game in the playoffs.
He's looked good in the preseason in this regard as well (21 assists to seven turnovers) and has a legitimate chance at averaging five assists per game this season.
Even more importantly, Durant has bulked up. Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com reported:
From his lower body, through his midsection on up to where it’s as clear as ever, his upper body, Durant has bulked up. As with everything else that defines his skills, Durant isn’t overly interested in discussing the matter. That he said as much as he did hints that he has indeed gotten stronger and is darn proud of it.
A not-quite-so-stick-like Durant means that it will be much tougher for bulldog defenders like Metta World Peace to grab and hold him in an effort to keep him from getting the ball. It also means that Durant will have an easier time guarding opposing 4s in the Thunder's dangerous small-ball lineups.
Westbrook and Ibaka also have the potential for big growth. Ibaka has turned his mid-range jumper into a legitimate weapon (cue the tears from San Antonio Spurs fans) and has actually added the three-pointer to his game, hitting four of his seven attempts in the preseason.
Head coach Scott Brooks said (per Royce Young of DailyThunder.com):
There are going to be nights where he’s open. And we all feel confident [in him], especially in the corners. I think that range, 22 feet, he can knock that down.
And of course, Ibaka is sure to improve as a defender, particularly as a one-on-one post defender.
Westbrook, regardless of the flak he took, looked much-improved as a distributor in the playoffs and has also recently become a threat to pull the trigger on treys.
No other contender in the Western Conference, not even the Denver Nuggets, can expect to see the kind of individual growth that the Thunder can this season.
Westbrook's durability is basically superhuman.
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Along with the Oklahoma City Thunder's youth comes durability.
Outside of Kevin Martin, there aren't too many players on the Thunder squad that could be considered “injury prone.” Martin missed 26 games last year thanks to some shoulder problems, and (excluding his rookie season), he's played in less than 50 games in half of his eight seasons in the league.
Martin appears healthy now, which is a great sign for the Thunder. But what's even more encouraging is the fact that their best three players—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka—rarely miss games.
Neither Durant nor Ibaka have ever missed more than eight games in a season, and Westbrook actually hasn't missed a game in his entire career.
The security of knowing that your best guys won't miss games barring freak injuries (knock on wood) is a huge advantage and a luxury that most of the Western Conference doesn't have.
If you take a look at the three teams in the West that have the best chance of dethroning the Thunder—the Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Denver Nuggets—you'll see some big injury concerns.
For the Lakers, it's Steve Nash. Nash has been pretty durable throughout his career, but he's 38 and there are some serious questions about how his body will hold up now that he's left the Phoenix Suns.
Nothing was done to relieve those concerns when he exited Wednesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers with a bruised leg. To make matters worse, head coach Mike Brown can't afford to sit Nash because his starters need time on the court to gel.
As for the Spurs, Manu Ginobili is always a question mark (and missed the season opener against the Thunder), and the Nuggets' Danilo Gallinari has had some issues with injuries in the past (and is banged up now).
As health goes, the Thunder are in one of the best positions in the West. And sad as it is to say, injuries can make all the difference in the world come playoff time.
(A sincere apology to any Chicago Bulls fan who read the last sentence and broke into tears.)
A High-Powered Offense
The Thunder's offense won't slow down as much as you might think this season.
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Take all of the improvements that were already mentioned and what do you get? An offensive fiesta.
Yes, again, the Oklahoma City Thunder are going to miss James Harden. Last year, they scored 107.1 points per 100 possessions, second in the league behind the blistering San Antonio Spurs offense (per Hoopdata).
But no team boasting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could ever be bad on offense, and once you throw Kevin Martin, a more consistent Serge Ibaka and a healthy Eric Maynor into the mix, you're looking at a very dangerous offense indeed.
Martin in particular could carve defenses up this season. It's already been mentioned, but it bears repeating—he's going to be seeing most teams' third best perimeter defender this season. He was efficient when he was up against the best defenders in the league. What does that mean for him now?
He might not have Harden's ability to get to the rim, but he's actually a good pick-and-roll player, and he's vastly better than Harden from mid-range.
Plus, Martin's clearly excited about the prospect of playing with Durant and Westbrook. He knows exactly what their presence is going to do for his game. It's why he's been gushing about them ever since he got to OKC. He told Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com:
I've been wanting to play on a team like this for a while, with two other big-time scorers. I knew I was going to have an opportunity someday. I'm glad it came this soon.
Harden played a huge role in the Thunder offense, but he wasn't the only player that made it tick.
Eric Maynor is going to be throwing alley-oops to Perry Jones, Westbrook is still going to be hitting that weird leaning pull-up from the elbow, Ibaka is still going to be dunking on people, and No. 35 is still going to be putting the ball in the basket from everywhere on the floor. It's just what they do.
A high-powered offense defined the Oklahoma City Thunder last year. It'll do so this year as well.
Apparently this Kevin Durant guy is pretty good at basketball or something.
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The Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant. No one else in the Western Conference does. That's it in a nutshell.
At just 24 years old, Durant is already the best player in the league not named LeBron James. And he continues to get better.
If that's not scary enough...I think the Finals loss hardened Durant.
The great ones always have to experience some heartbreak before they make it to the top. Michael Jordan was knocked out of the playoffs by the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons for three consecutive years before his Chicago Bulls finally broke through in 1991.
LeBron James melted down in the Finals two years ago. He came back stronger last season, and the Miami Heat won the title, breaking Durant's heart in the process.
It may have hurt, but the Finals loss will help Durant in the long run.
You think he wasn't in the gym this summer hoisting up jumpers until his arms felt like they would fall off? That he didn't spend every day thinking that if he was just this much better, that it would have been him hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy?
Of course he was and did. Durant's wired differently. He's like Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant and yes, like Jordan. He's a killer.
With or without Harden, Durant is not going to concede the Western Conference so easily. He's not built like that.