Tied for the league's best record with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder are well on track for a return to the NBA Finals. Led by their superstar duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the team boasts one of the best offensive and defensive systems in the entire league.
Possessing such skill as a collective group on both ends makes questions of improvement sound blasphemous. However, one can only wonder if it is possible.
It is indisputable that Kevin Durant is the future of the NBA. Kyrie Irving might make a case at some point, but right now that title belongs to the 24-year-old out of Texas. His play from the small forward position has him in consideration for the MVP award, averaging 28.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists, all the while inducting himself into the 50-40-90 club of shooting percentages. Durant's defense isn't to be forgotten either, as he's posted 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
Reading over such accolades doesn't give much separation for wondering: could Durant improve even more?
With the Thunder's record of 28-8, the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" could not be more true. However, when reviewing advanced statistics of the Thunder's season, Durant's individual numbers jump off the page. When playing at power forward this year, he posts 42.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, in addition to 2.8 blocked shots per 48 minutes.
While it's safe to assume Durant won't be playing 48 minutes each game, those numbers round down to 34.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.2 blocks when modified to fit his usual 39.1 minutes per game. It's worth mentioning that Durant's current 26.9 PER spikes to a ridiculous 37.9 when playing at the 4.
Defensively, Durant's opponent shoots a slightly better percentage. At small forward he allows a stellar 41.3 percent and this raises slightly to 43.1 percent, which is expected as Durant goes up against heavier and more built forwards. In addition, his opponent's PER of 8.3, again stellar, elevates to 10.4, which is an almost negligible difference.
While this is a statistical view on shifting Durant to power forward, it sheds light on the possibility of Oklahoma City employing their own brand of "small-ball" basketball. Inserting Serge Ibaka at the center position would give the Thunder a dynamic frontcourt, despite the possibility of being overpowered by larger, opposing lineups.
Durant has a slowly developing post game, yet already has a solid fadeaway jumper from the low block. In addition, he would not need to handle the ball as much, thereby lowering the amount of turnovers he is unfortunately prone to.
With center Kendrick Perkins on the bench, OKC scores 4.2 more points per 100 possessions and allows an insignificant, but still noteworthy, 0.6 fewer points per 100. This season, Perkins is shooting a career-worst 45.4 percent from the floor, as well as playing just 24.5 minutes a night. While the 6'10" big is certainly a valuable and appreciated member of the Thunder, he may be expendable at this point.
Trading Perkins would not only allow the Thunder to incorporate a smaller, faster and more efficient lineup, but also shed the $25.4 million owed to him over the next two-and-a-half seasons. Oklahoma City still has the option of rotating Nick Collison once Ibaka sits, or Collison in place of Durant.
The Thunder are a much better team offensively and defensively when Collison is on the floor (6.2 more points per 100 possessions on offense, 0.8 less points per 100 possessions on defense, 5.7 percent increase in offensive rebounding), so it is certainly recommended to increase his 19.7 minutes per game.
To shift to such a system and re-tool an already stellar offense could be a risky move for the Thunder, and while it's not a certainty, the option is there to explore and attempt to improve even more. OKC has the muscle and length off the bench to combat the possibility of being overpowered on the front line, an issue the Miami Heat are currently experiencing.
Kevin Durant is a superstar in his own right, but could become even more potent and prolific in a different system. Only time will tell if the Thunder are willing to roll the dice and experiment with the team chemistry, in an attempt to ameliorate one of the more perfect teams in the league.
All statistics are sourced from 82games.com
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