OKC Thunder Have Fallen Behind in Western Conference Arms Race

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 17, 2013

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The Oklahoma City Thunder haven't made themselves a Western Conference power by looking outside the organization for help.

Of the 11 players in coach Scott Brooks' 2013-14 rotation, seven have been drafted by the franchise. Another (Jeremy Lamb, acquired prior to the start of his rookie season in the James Harden trade) has never donned a different NBA jersey.

In a time defined by major-market manufactured dynasties, the budget-conscious Thunder have managed to survive and thrive alongside the league's biggest spenders.

It's inspirational to watch, a testament to the prophetic genius of this front office.

It's also the reason Oklahoma City could be looking at a second consecutive premature playoff exit. The Thunder might have a new batch of prospects pumping through the pipeline, but the rest of the Western Conference elites have already strengthened themselves with proven performers.

Is patience really a virtue if it costs this club a spot at the championship podium?


Two-Man Game

If an offense is going to revolve around a two-headed attack, there are few players more capable of filling those spots than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The 25-year-old Durant has three scoring titles already under his belt and could be headed for a fourth crown this season (29.3 points per game). Westbrook is still shedding the effects of a pair of 2013 knee surgeries (40.4 field-goal percentage), but he did orchestrate a masterful 31-point effort (13-of-20 from the field) against Golden State on Thursday.

Looking past that pair, though, there's a lot of potential and hope. On a rebuilding team, that wouldn't be a bad thing, but this is a franchise that's carried championship dreams into each of the last three seasons.

Harden's replacement has never surfaced, and a reliable No. 3 option has proven to be just as elusive.

Ideally, that third scoring role would fall on the broad shoulders of Serge Ibaka. With good size (6'10", 220 lbs), athleticism and a soft shooting touch, he has some intriguing credentials for the position.

But his skill set hasn't consistently translated to the stat sheet. This season he has a pair of 20-plus-point efforts but also three games with single digits.

He has the body for the post, but he lacks the polish to live on the offensive low block. With the slashing games of Westbrook and Durant, there's more than just an undeveloped post game pushing Ibaka out to the perimeter.

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 25:  Kevin Durant #35, Serge Ibaka #9 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder face off against the Sacramento Kings on January 25, 2013 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

But he's still a water-faucet shooter, and his performances reflect those fluctuations. Missing his pick-and-pop partner Westbrook at the start of the season didn't help, but a good third option should have more control over his own production.

Moving further down the offensive pecking order alleviates none of the consistency concerns. In fact, they only grow more ominous.

Reggie Jackson might be filling Harden's old sixth man spot, but he has neither the size (6'3") nor the shooting touch of the bearded baller.

He's an excellent athlete and a decent slasher. But defenses are going to continue to seal off the interior against him until the career 22.1 percent three-point shooter forces them out to the perimeter.

Jackson's shot chart via NBA.com.

Jackson is also more of a scorer than a setup man. When he's sharing the floor with either Durant, Westbrook or both, it's hard to give him too many touches given his current 22.5 percent turnover rate.

In a perfect world, Lamb would mold into that super-sub role. He's long (6'5"), athletic and hits the hardwood with a certain grace to his game.

But his fundamentally sound shooting stroke has yet to show up on the stat sheet (40.7 field-goal percentage). The 21-year-old deserves some benefit of the doubt—he has just 31 career appearances under his belt—but at the same time, he's a rotation piece for a championship contender.

Oklahoma City has taken its time with Lamb, but that's no longer a luxury this team can afford.

Rookie Steven Adams looks like a nice find (5.8 points, five rebounds). But the fact that he's played better than Kendrick Perkins says more about the veteran than it does the 20-year-old.

Having Durant and Westbrook will keep the Thunder in this Western Conference race, but climbing up the ladder will be tough without some external assistance.


Help on the Horizon?

No, not soon enough from the young guns at least.

To solidify their conference standing now, the Thunder will need to take an uncharacteristically long look at the trade market.

Oct 30, 2013; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat (4) before the game against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN.com's Joe Kaiser (insider subscription required) said the Washington Wizards might be willing to field offers for Marcin Gortat if they can't get out of their funk. Gortat could bring the offensive post presence that this team lacks and form an intriguing frontcourt tandem at the opposite end with Ibaka.

Rumors linked the Thunder to Gortat around the last trade deadline, via Paul Coro of the Arizona RepublicOklahoma City reportedly dangled Perkins, Lamb and a first-round pick for Gortat and then-Suns teammate P.J. Tucker.

While Coro later dismissed this a "league rumor" and not "actual trade talks," it feels like there could yet be fire behind a part of this smoke. Gortat fills plenty of needs for the Thunder, and he's a relative bargain with just one year and $7.7 million left on his deal.

Omer Asik's days also appear to be numbered with the Houston Rockets, as Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reports Houston has talked to "multiple teams" about its backup big man.

If you've picked up on a pattern with these names, then let me be the first to say well done. If not, I'll peel off the secrecy and let you in on something—the Thunder need bigs. Badly.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 3: Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks downcourt during the game against the Phoenix Suns November 3, 2013 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Thunder defeated the Suns 103-96. NOTE TO
Brett Deering/Getty Images

Any trade bringing one in would certainly coincide with the exit of Perkins and the remaining two years and $17 million left on his contract.

But obviously trade partners won't give up Asik or Gortat for Perkins straight up.

It might go against every fiber of Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti's being, but future assets will have to be sacrificed. Lamb and Jackson are likely safe, but sophomore Perry Jones might be had for the right price.

He doesn't play a large enough role (11.3 minutes per game) to disrupt the team's chemistry, and his red-flagged knee might lower his ceiling. But his combination of size (6'11") and skills might be intriguing enough for Oklahoma City to avoid letting go of a future draft pick.

If Jones is too hard for Presti to move, then rookie Andre Roberson and a future first-round selection could take his place.

The Thunder have the perimeter game to match up with any Western Conference contender. But they simply can't stand next to the frontcourts of the Los Angeles Clippers (Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan), Golden State Warriors (David Lee-Andrew Bogut), San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan-Tiago Splitter) and Minnesota Timberwolves (Kevin Love-Nikola Pekovic).

Standing pat won't stop this team from having a strong postseason showing. But without making the right move, the ending to Oklahoma City's story won't change.

The Thunder have the makings of a championship core with Durant and Westbrook. It's time to reward that duo with a supporting cast built to get them over that hump.


*Unless otherwise specified, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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