Oklahoma City Thunder: What Each Player Must Improve Upon for Next Season
The Oklahoma City Thunder continued to improve as a franchise last season, finishing fourth in the West with 55 wins while reaching the Western Conference Finals.
Although the Thunder handled the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the team ran into too much experience against the stacked Dallas Mavericks squad. Despite a valiant effort by the Thunder, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks took advantage of the weaknesses of the young Thunder squad and won the series in just five games.
The Thunder undoubtedly have a very bright future ahead of them, and will be serious playoff contenders for the foreseeable future. However, they still have a long way to go before being considered title favorites, and each Thunder player still has plenty of room for improvement.
I have come up with one area in which each member of the Thunder must improve in order for the team to have what it takes to win a championship.
The Rookies and Reserves
These two got very little playing time last season, and will not be breaking into the rotation anytime soon.
Byron Mullens: He should start by learning how to play in the post.
Robert Vaden: He did not appear in a single game last season, so he probably has a lot to work on.
Reggie Jackson (the rookie): As an incoming rookie, the main priority for Reggie Jackson should be to learn the NBA game and become accustomed to chasing around the elite point guards of the league.
Cole Aldrich: Post-Game
Cole Aldrich is a true center with tremendous size, rebounding ability and shot-blocking prowess.
However, he lacks any semblance of an offensive game.
If he hopes to become an important part of the Thunder's rotation, Aldrich must improve his offensive fundamentals and develop some semblance of a post-game.
Nazr Mohammed: Free-Throw Shooting
Nazr Mohammed was a very underrated pickup for the Thunder at the trade deadline this past season. The Thunder acquired the veteran big man in exchange for D.J. White and Morris Peterson, and in doing so scored one of the most efficient big men in the league.
Mohammed has a solid post-game and he managed to rake in 4.9 RPG last season despite playing just 17.1 MPG. Mohammed is a fundamentally sound big man, and at this stage in his career he does not have much room for development.
However, Mohammed would be wise to work on his free-throw shooting. He shot under 60 percent from the charity stripe last season and could stand to be far more efficient on his free throws.
Nate Robinson: Leadership
As a member of the Thunder last season, Nate Robinson found himself behind fellow point guards Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor on the depth chart, and as a result averaged only 7.5 MPG.
Although Robinson is a gifted scorer, he is one of the shortest players in the NBA and as a result has trouble keeping up with the bigger guards in the league. Robinson's playing time is not going to increase anytime soon, so he would be wise to continue working on playing an important role for the team from the bench.
Robinson has shown throughout his career that he is incredibly supportive of his teammates regardless of how much playing time he receives, and should continue to serve as a glue-guy and leader in the locker room.
Daequan Cook: Creating Shots
After winning the NBA Three-Point Shootout in 2009, Daequan Cook continued to stroke it from deep last season, connecting on a career-best 42 percent of his three-point attempts as a shooter off the bench for the Thunder.
Although his spot-up shooting was phenomenal last season, Cook should work on creating his own shot off the dribble to increase his offensive versatility. If Cook can add a pump-fake and drive combo to his arsenal, he could become an even more valuable weapon on offense.
Eric Maynor: Mid-Ranged Shooting
Eric Maynor had a strong year last season as the backup to Russell Westbrook, displaying outstanding court vision and ball-handling.
However, Maynor shot just 40 percent from the field last season, and he needs to become a much more efficient shooter. Maynor's three-point shooting percentage increased significantly from his rookie season, but his mid-ranged game still lacks the consistency the Thunder need from their backup floor general.
Maynor should work on developing a consistent pull-up jumper inside the arc, to force opposing defenses to respect his shot and in doing so open up more room for him to distribute.
Thabo Sefolosha: Three-Point Shooting
Thabo Sefolosha continued to harass opposing star players on the defensive end last season, serving as a lockdown defender for the Thunder while starting at the shooting guard position.
But while his defense was certainly solid, Sefolosha failed to put the "shooting" in shooting guard.
Sefolosha shot just 27 percent from three-point range last season, leaving Kevin Durant as the only player in the Thunder's starting lineup capable of consistently knocking down three-point shots.
James Harden's development is already threatening Sefolosha's starting role next season, and unless he improves his long-range shooting, he may very well find himself on the bench.
Nick Collison: Post-Game
Nick Collison has long been considered one of the best team defenders in the NBA, largely due to his exceptional ability to draw charges. Collison is a fundamentally sound player who is frequently assigned to guard opposing star big men, like Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Amare Stoudemire.
However, Collison, who averaged just 4.6 PPG last season, lacks any semblance of an offensive game.
Collison should work to develop a go-to move in the post to help prove the Thunder with some much needed post scoring. Although he is unlikely to average double-figures in scoring anytime soon, Collison would become less of an offensive liability by developing some basic moves on the block.
Kendrick Perkins: Staying Healthy (and Happy)
Kendrick Perkins played in just 29 games during the regular season this past year, due to a knee injury he sustained in the playoffs of the prior season. Like many NBA bigs, Perkins has seen his fair share of injury during his eight seasons in the league, and should focus on staying healthy, as he is a key component of the Thunder's title aspirations.
Although injuries are often beyond a player's control, Perkins should work to prevent future injuries to his knees by continuing to rehabilitate and wear knee pads.
It also wouldn't hurt to smile once in a while, Kendrick.
Serge Ibaka: Mid-Ranged Shooting
Serge Ibaka took major strides in his second season in the league, improving his game in almost every category compared to his rookie season. Ibaka established himself as one of the NBA's top shot-blockers and increased his popularity around the league, largely due to his participation in the 2011 Slam-Dunk Contest (which, in my humble opinion, was completely fixed).
Ibaka is well on his way to becoming one of the top power forwards in the league, but he still has much to improve if he wishes to be a star. Although he is a fantastic defensive player, Ibaka's offensive game still needs a lot of work, and he would be wise to begin by improving his mid-ranged jump shot.
Ibaka knocked down his fair share of 15-18 footers during the season, but was fairly inconsistent with his jumper and needs to continue to improve his stroke in order to become a reliable pick-and-pop partner for Russell Westbrook.
James Harden: Consistency
James Harden has a versatile offensive game, a beautiful stroke from three-point range and a Baron Davis-esque beard.
What he does not have is much consistency.
Harden really came into his own towards the end of the regular season last year and was a key contributor for the Thunder in the playoffs. However, he still needs to become more consistent on the offensive end if he wants to finally get the minutes he deserves.
Harden should continue working on his shooting, endurance and mentality to ensure that he can contribute at a high level throughout the entire season.
Russell Westbrook: Shot Selection
In the Thunder's playoff series against the Mavericks this past May, Russell Westbrook seemed convinced that he was the Thunder's No. 1 scoring option, and as a result it was his responsibility to chuck up countless ill-advised shots. Westbrook shot just 36 percent from the field during that series, and saw his APG drop to just 4.8.
Although this was in part due to the Thunder's relatively weak offensive set, far too many possessions ended with Westbrook chucking up a fading mid-ranged jumper that fell far short of its destination.
Westbrook is a dynamic scorer and a major triple-double threat. However, he is still a relatively weak jump shooter, and as a result needs to pick his shots a bit more carefully.
Westbrook should focus on improving his shot selection next season, and continue to hone his point guard skills while allowing Kevin Durant and James Harden to be the team's primary shooters.
Kevin Durant: Attacking the Basket
Kevin Durant led the NBA in scoring for the second consecutive season during the 2010-11 campaign, and continued to light opposing teams up with his unorthodox but lethal jump-shot.
Although his scoring numbers dropped by a slight margin, Durant showed great improvement in other areas, becoming a more willing passer and attacking the basket off the dribble with greater frequency.
Although Durant's drives to the basket often ended successfully, they also frequently ended with Durant losing control of the ball or being stripped by a defender.
Durant must continue to hone his ball-handling skills in order to prevent the ball being stolen when he drives into the lane. His extraordinary length and quickness should allow him to get to the basket in just a couple of steps, but he must improve his ability to dribble into the crowded paint area if he wishes to become an effective scorer off of penetration.