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Players Who OKC Thunder Most Need to Step Up Next Season

Justin HussongContributor IIIJuly 26, 2013

Players Who OKC Thunder Most Need to Step Up Next Season

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    It would be difficult to look at the current roster of the Oklahoma City Thunder and proclaim that they have improved upon their talent level from last season.

    Gone is Kevin Martin, the de facto James Harden replacement. He leaves behind a big hole on the bench waiting to be filled by any number of offensive talents.

    Russell Westbrook's knee injury derailed any chances of a second consecutive finals appearance in last year's postseason. With him back in the fold, there is little doubt they can make a run for the top seed in the West once again, but will they have enough to get back to championship contention?

    For this to happen, someone will have to step up considerably. The Durant and Westbrook show can only carry them so far.

    Here are the candidates that stand to have huge impacts on this team if they can elevate their games to the next level.

Jeremy Lamb

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    The most logical replacement for Kevin Martin is Jeremy Lamb.

    The former UConn standout was the biggest piece brought in from the James Harden trade, which, as of today, stands as one of the more one-sided trades in recent memory.

    Now is the time for the 21-year-old to give the OKC faithful some return on their investment.

    Lamb scored just shy of 18 points per game during his last season at UConn while displaying a fluid and diverse offensive skill set. During the 2012-13 season, he was relegated to the bench and scored only 71 points total the entire year.

    The opportunity is right in front of him to be the first or second man off the bench in coach Scott Brooks' rotation.

    Lamb scored 18.8 points per game during this past summer league and looked very comfortable taking on a big role in the offense. He now stands to be a crucial part of this team, which now lacks a ton of options offensively.

    Harden and Martin are both out of town. Lamb is next up in the pecking order. It is that simple. If he fails to become a scoring threat, this team could struggle more than we might have expected.

Reggie Jackson

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    Much like Jeremy Lamb, Jackson dominated right alongside him during summer league. Jackson scored 19.5 points per game, including an Orlando Summer League record 35-point game.

    That 35-point game consisted of a jaw-dropping 23-point fourth quarter. (Just watch.)

    If Lamb is unable to seize the now defunct Harden/Martin role of sixth man, this will be the main culprit to blame. Jackson did his best Harden imitation last year in the playoffs after Westbrook went down. Now all he needs is a beard.

    Jackson is more well-rounded than Lamb. Ideally, they will be the first two guys off the bench for OKC and will complement each other well. Jackson's slashing ability combined with Lamb's smooth off-ball stroke would give the Thunder a huge lift without Martin.

    Calling Westbrook injury-prone would be going way too far, but after going down last season, we all saw what Jackson was capable of. He will need to give his team much more of that in order to get back to the top of the West.

     

Serge Ibaka

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    Here's someone you might not have expected to come across on this slideshow.

    The basketball world knew that at some point with the OKC regime, it would inevitably come down to Harden versus Ibaka in terms of who would be traded. Management chose Ibaka, and so far it is looking like the wrong choice.

    Without Westbrook, Durant started playing out of his mind in the playoffs. Ibaka, on the other hand, shrunk. His field-goal percentage dipped by almost 15 percent and he was thoroughly dominated by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the second round.

    In the past (especially after the 2011 NBA Finals), there were so many mutterings of how the team might be better off without Westbrook. His injury showed just how much he means to this club, as they were nearly upended by James Harden's No. 8-seeded Rockets in the postseason without him.

    The reason I bring that up is because without Westbrook, Ibaka was the one who really needed to be more assertive. All he did was shrink, leaving Durant alone to take this team as far as he could.

    Forget that he cost the team James Harden. Forget that he shrunk without Westbrook. Very simply, this team absolutely needs Serge Ibaka to improve even more and develop into a legitimate star on both sides of the ball.

Perry Jones III

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    There was once a time when Perry Jones III was pegged as the next Kevin Durant.

    In this interview from way back in the day with Chris Haynes of ComcastSportsnet.com, Jones even said that Durant is the one he models his game after.

    Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are not big threats on the offensive end in the starting lineup. Off the bench, Hasheem Thabeet and Nick Collison are next up on the front line, and neither brings any sort of clout with them on the low block.

    Jones is incredibly versatile at 6'11" and could spell any of these guys down low. He is also very capable of giving Durant a breather now and again to make sure he doesn't wear down.

    The point here is that Jones had the hype of a future superstar coming out of Baylor, and he fell all the way down to OKC at pick No. 28. He represents an untapped source of potential on this roster.

    Jones scored just 88 points last year and was very much an afterthought. He needs to hone his skills and become more assertive on defense while also improving his jump shot.

    PJIII is definitely the biggest stretch on this list. He could easily sit on the bench all year, but it would be very advantageous of OKC to give this a go. Jones has the ability to surprise everyone and run wild with Durant and Westbrook.

Kendrick Perkins

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    I can't even sugarcoat this or be a typical objective journalist right now.

    Kendrick Perkins is awful.

    How this man has maintained a starting spot in the NBA, nevertheless on two NBA Finals teams, is beyond me. When he won his ring with Boston, he was a noteworthy contributor, especially on the defensive end.

    Now? He is a contractual albatross simply taking up space. His constant angry demeanor has given off the impression that he is a menacing defender and interior presence. Last year's postseason numbers tell the whole story in that department: 24 points, 41 rebounds, 39 fouls.

    I repeat: 41 rebounds, 39 fouls.

    Keep in mind, the Thunder gave up budding star Jeff Green to Boston in order to acquire Perkins. He simply cannot be as invisible as he was last season if this team is going to contend. He was mostly a non-factor last year, especially during the playoffs.

    Of everyone on this list, Perkins is the one most capable of improving upon his play. He had a flat-out terrible season. As the starting center on a title contender, much more is to be expected of him.

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