It’s hard to say the Oklahoma City Thunder are a “flawed” team.
They enter the 2013-14 season as the favorites in the Northwest Division and have two of the best players in the league in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They probably would have advanced further in the playoffs if the latter had not been hurt.
That does not mean that there aren’t a few weaknesses in the O.K.C. roster. Westbrook is an elite player, but the team could use a reliable pass-first point guard who can play substantial minutes throughout an NBA season. The Thunder has lingering questions about who will take over at the shooting guard position, and you have to wonder about Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins when it comes to big men.
Durant and Westbrook got a taste of the NBA Finals two years ago and are talented enough to get back there with the right personnel, but the team is still missing James Harden’s presence and lost Kevin Martin to the division-rival Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.
The difference between a deep run and an early exit will come down to how well the Thunder are able to plug some holes in their roster either before the season starts or during the season.
Questions at the Shooting Guard Position
James Harden is gone, and that’s a bummer for Thunder fans, who do not have to pay the luxury tax. He’s a missing piece that was traded away in large part because a small-market team like Oklahoma City can’t be tossing truckloads of cash into the parity pool like Los Angeles, Brooklyn or Boston can, which is what they would have had to do in order to keep Mr. Harden.
It is going to be tough to replace a talent like Harden, but at the very least, they need a serviceable starter at the 2.
With Martin playing in Minnesota next season, the two in-house options are Jeremy Lamb and Thabo Sefolosha.
Lamb is still pretty green. He has a decent outside shot and can finish at the rim. He could be an elite defender in his prime, but he needs to add strength and sometimes goes on autopilot—meaning he is unlikely to be highly productive next season.
Sefolosha, on the other hand, is in the middle of his prime and is a great defender and rebounder, but he makes absolutely asinine decisions on offense. He is even less likely than Lamb to provide offensive production from the shooting guard position.
A Need for a Change-of-Pace Backup Point Guard
Westbrook is unlikely to get injured again, but why risk it?
Everyone knows that No. 0 was an iron man until he sustained his knee injury in last year’s playoffs, but even if he remains healthy throughout the season, adding a pass-first point guard who can play substantial minutes in the NBA would be a wise investment for Oklahoma City.
The knock on Westbrook is that he hoists up too many jumpers of his own and takes away opportunities from Durant. While the Thunder want to avoid becoming the LeBron James Cavaliers and depend solely on one player for production, they also don’t want to fetter Durant.
In general, these guys have to find a balance among themselves, and for the most part they have. But adding a point guard who is looking to move the ball rather than shoot it or drive to the basket is a small move that could have a big impact on the team’s success next season.
Has Serge Ibaka Plateaued? Is Kendrick Perkins Declining?
By all means, Ibaka and Perkins could play well next season—and there will be no worries about the “beef” on this team—but Ibaka did not show a lot of improvement last season, and Perkins may be in decline despite being only 28 years in age.
Ibaka was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics back in 2008, and at age 23 he should continue to evolve as a player. He’s one of the best shot blockers in the game, but he's overrated defensively, and his post game and offensive instincts still need work.
As for Perkins, he appears to play in slow motion near the basket, and it does not look like he will put up the numbers he did back in his days as a Boston Celtic.
The most troubling part of his game, however, may be the physical side. After years of flattening players with picks and battling it out with other heavyweights, it looks like he may be feeling the grind. The years of wear and tear on his body may be catching up to him.
If Ibaka has truly plateaued and Perkins has too many miles on him, Oklahoma City is going to need a little more—ahem—thunder down under to compete with the beefier teams in the league.
The Thunder are going to be a competitive team next season. The difference between a team that goes to the playoffs and one that makes a serious run, however, may come down to their backup point guard, starting shooting guard and how Ibaka and Perkins play next season.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.