The Oklahoma City Thunder entered NBA All-Star weekend on top on the world—the basketball world at least—with the best record in the league. Considering that Russell Westbrook has only suited up for 25 of those 55 games, the Thunder front office and coaching staff has to be thrilled with how the first portion of the season has unfolded. But what does the future hold?
Can Kevin Durant continue this ridiculously brilliant level of play? What happens when Westbrook returns? Will OKC finish the year atop the standings?
Those questions (and a few more) are answered in the slides that follow. These aren’t “bold predictions” that are supposed to be controversial and grab headlines but are ultimately meaningless. These are realistic predictions for what awaits the Thunder in the last third of the 2013-14 NBA season.
Note: All player stats are courtesy of ESPN.com and are accurate as of Feb. 18.
Perry Jones III was once considered a surefire lottery pick and NBA difference-maker. Unfortunately, his college career at Baylor didn’t pan out like everyone anticipated and he fell into OKC’s lap at the end of the first round in the 2012 draft.
But Jones still has the tantalizing athleticism and versatile skill set that made him a coveted high school recruit (he was a 5-star recruit and the ninth-ranked high school prospect in the country, according to Rivals.com), and he’s starting to put it all together for the Thunder.
He’s shown the ability to consistently knock down three-pointers, but his value comes on the defensive end—something that head coach Scott Brooks has taken advantage of more frequently as the season progresses.
Earlier in the season, Brooks told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman that he viewed Jones as his “utility defender.”
Jones’ defensive versatility is going to be critical for the Thunder’s title aspirations, and he’s going to see more playing time toward the end of the season—if Coach Brooks knows what’s good for him.
It seems that you can’t keep Russell Westbrook off the court for too long:
Kevin Durant says Russell Westbrook to return Thursday vs. Heat http://t.co/mm3MSOQAMj— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) February 18, 2014
The enigmatic point guard is set to return after a string of knee surgeries and missed games, but when will he really be back?
Based off his performance to start the season, we can expect Westbrook won’t play timidly or with less relentlessness in his dizzying attacks to the rim—but Westbrook wasn’t Westbrook to start the year. Not really.
There were flashes, but the rust was evident. He was only shooting 42 percent from the floor and turning it over a career-high four times per game. He wasn’t quite in sync with the rest of the offense and it looked like he hadn’t played NBA basketball in a while.
So what can we expect this time around? Pretty much exactly the same thing.
Westbrook won’t be tentative. That gene got knocked out of his DNA a long time ago. From the first minute he’s back on the court, he’ll be slashing to the rim showing off his trademarked athleticism.
But that jump shot? Those point guard decisions?
That’s going to take some time. It’s going to take him a while to adjust to changes in pick-and-roll defense and learn when the trap is coming. It’s going to take him a while to learn how to play with Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams. Heck, it’s going to take him a while to learn to play with his newest teammate—the Slim Reaper.
Let’s be real folks: Westbrook isn’t going to get back to peak performance until close to the end of the season…and that’s alright.
As long as he’s ready for the playoffs, that’s all that matters.
Not only does Westbrook’s return add an All-NBA player to the starting lineup, but it pushes Reggie Jackson back to the bench—where he thrived to start the year.
Jackson has made some significant strides this season—just listen to what San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had to say about the young point guard, according to Anthony Slater of NewsOK.com:
He's a confident young man. He's taking no prisoners, he's not deferring to anyone, he's not doing it gingerly, he's being aggressive and he's playing to win. That's impressive. And then secondly, he's made pretty darn good decisions. A young guy can come out, try too hard, try to do too much on his own, not find open people, but his decision making has been really good.
That decision-making has been the biggest change, as Jackson isn’t forcing things and is letting the game come to him. That patience will serve him well as the leader of the bench mob.
Moreover, that starting experience will do him wonders on both ends of the court. Coach Brooks talked to Anthony Slater of NewsOK.com about how he’s improved since he’s taken Westbrook’s spot in the starting lineup:
I think he's improved in that area as far as managing the game. Understanding who's hot, who's not hot, who needs a bucket, who's open and just making sure he continues to make the right decisions. He's done a great job when Russell has been out.
With less pressure, Jackson is going to return to his Sixth Man of the Year form from earlier in the season.
This prediction has two separate parts: the OKC factor and the rest of the West factor.
Let’s start with OKC. The Thunder are No. 1 right now, and they’re about to add one of the 10 best players on the planet to their lineup. Even if Westbrook is rusty, he’s one of the 15 best players in the world.
Then you see how Kevin Durant is playing, how Serge Ibaka has stepped up his game and how well the young guns (Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams) are developing. Is there any reason to think the Thunder are going to do anything but get even better as the season wears on?
Aside from Westbrook’s return catastrophically vaporizing all the chemistry which results in a Thunderous implosion (pun totally intended), there really isn’t a solid argument for why the Thunder will be worse over the last 27 games of the year.
Then, you look at their competitors. Right now, the Spurs are in second place and are four games behind OKC. Those aging Spurs are extremely banged up (currently without Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green) and they also just lost their best player, Tony Parker, for the “foreseeable future,” according to Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney.
All those teams have some serious shortcomings to go with their championship potential. The Blazers are woeful defensively, the Rockets aren’t much better and rely too heavily on the three-pointer while the Los Angeles Clippers suffer from a startling lack of frontcourt depth.
Every sign points to OKC grabbing home-court advantage, at least in the Western half of the bracket.
We’re officially at the point where Kevin Durant is the favorite—not the challenger—to win the Most Valuable Player award. At the start of the season, Durant was a trendy pick to win the award because everybody knows that “voter fatigue” is a real malady. Excellence is exciting, but long, sustained excellence gets boring.
Most thought that Durant would win this award because the voters would be tired of crowning “King James.”
They were half right.
Durant is going to win this award, but it’s because he’s had a better season than LeBron James and totally earned the trophy on his own merit.
He’ll need a serious cold spell to lose this year’s scoring title, and he’s posting career highs in points and assists while coming dangerously close to a second 50-40-90 season.
Durant went head-to-head against LeBron James in South Beach and beat him—handily. He’s been an all-around force (his defense is being severely overlooked) and leader for the best team in the league up to this point.
As of the date of this publication, he has a PER of 30.99, according to ESPN; that would be the 11th-best single-season PER in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference.com, behind some guys named Jordan, Chamberlain and James.
MVP! MVP! MVP! Let the chants begin, OKC fans.