The Oklahoma City Thunder exceeded the expectations of most fans and experts this season by making it all the way to the Western Conference finals. And while their inexperience—and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki— was too much to overcome in the end, this group of amazing upstarts should be a favorite to win an NBA title as early as next season.
But is Oklahoma City’s young class of superstars and phenoms deserving of straight A's for reaching the NBA’s final four, or have there been some C-students and failures on the roster during the playoffs?
It is time to stamp grades on the Thunder’s individual report cards. Who made the honor roll and who needs to work on their shooting, dribbling and defense for the Thunder to reach the NBA Finals next year? Here are my grades.
Durant proved a lot of things during the playoffs. He proved he is only human and can have an off-night. He proved he can bounce back from a bad Game 6 to dominate a Game 7. And he proved that he does not shrink to Spud Webb’s size in the postseason, except sometimes when James Harden is not on the floor to take part of the heat off him.
Durant averaged 28.6 points and 8.2 rebounds during the first three rounds, better numbers than what he did in the regular season, which is pretty impressive since all he did was win the scoring title. As long as Russell Westbrook fed him early and often and as long Durant remembered to attack the basket consistently and not settle for 25-foot jump shots half the time, he had no trouble putting up monster stats.
But Durant got tired and frustrated during the Dallas debacle. Durant stopped scoring like a card counter at a blackjack table late in games and at times seemed to shrivel up and vanish. He needs to work on fighting for better scoring positions on the floor and doing everything in his power to get the ball in his hands when the game is on the line late. Look for him to dominate in next season’s playoffs if he improves on those two things.
Kobe Bryant suffers from Overshooting Disease. Andrei Kirilenko suffers from Overinjured Disease. And Westbrook suffers from Overdribbling Disease.
Westbrook dribbles the ball sometimes like a man who thinks there is no shot clock and he is Hot Sauce on the AND-1 All-Stars. He acts like he is playing keep away with his teammates. Conversely, Kendrick Perkins acts like he is playing hot potato when he gets the ball.
I do not fault Westbrook entirely for how the offense somehow ended up being him dribbling for 20 seconds and then heaving up an ill-advised, off-balance 20-footer. There were too many moments when Westy was dribbling at the top of the key with Durant stationed on the left wing with a guy draped on him while everyone else was standing around instead of screening.
But even with his addiction to holding the basketball too long, you cannot deny that Westbrook was more awesome than awful in the playoffs. 23.8 points, 6.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game, including a triple-double in the deciding game of the Memphis series.
I wish Westbrook would cut down on the turnovers and the bad body language. This guy sulks more than Charles Barkley does after he hits a tee shot into the woods. But Westbrook is ready to turn into a First-Team All-Star if he can keep his emotions in check and run the offense more efficiently consistently
Perkins may be playing on one-and-a-half healthy knees, and his line drive free throws are straight out of the Shaquille O’ Neal School of Foul Shooting, but this pit bull is perfect for the Thunder and their bawdy band of perimeter players.
Perkins is the bouncer at the fraternity party. When too many cheap beers get consumed and the lightweight sorority sisters start catfighting, one scowl from Perk shuts everything down. He is not on the court to help fantasy basketball owners nor is he there to make friends with opponents.
Perkins has his supporting role and plays it like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Do not pay attention to his offensive numbers. They mean nothing. He is out there to bang bodies, intimidate and offer veteran championship experience to his young followers, and he delivered in the playoffs.
Do I wish he got a tad closer to Zach Randolph on certain occasions? Yes. Do I wish he had better finishing skills around the basket? Definitely. And do I wish Calvin Murphy could teach him how to put some arc and touch on his free throws? Certainly.
But Perk is just being Perk. His grade would have been higher if he played in the crucial minutes of these playoff contests, but he normally took a seat in favor of Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, hence the B-.
Ibaka put on a shot blocking display ala Marcus Camby during the playoffs, and his 9.8 ppg and 7.3 rpg were solid, but there were too many times, especially against Memphis and Dallas, where Ibaka disappeared, and Oklahoma City was better off with Collison playing major minutes at power forward.
Ibaka twisted his ankle a couple times and got himself into foul trouble a couple other times, both of which hurt his minutes. But Collison was the better defender against Randolph and Nowitzki, and that probably dented Ibaka’s playing time the most.
Ibaka is only 22. He will get better at hitting open jumpers when Durant is double-teamed and staying out of foul trouble. He should become an important role player for the Thunder down the road.
Maynor has his moments both good and bad. Sometimes he stroked threes like Reggie Miller used to when Spike Lee was hazing him. And unlike Westbrook, Maynor distributed the ball judiciously and quarterbacked the offense smoothly in his minor minutes.
But there were moments when Maynor was so terrible, though, that Westbrook barely had time to get a game of tic-tac-doe in on the bench before he had to re-enter. And Maynor waving off his teammates only to shoot an air ball with the game on line at the end of Game 5 against Dallas was downright comical.
Maynor’s 37 percent shooting from the floor was unacceptable, although it was offset by his 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio, which was best on the team and no surprise since this group of Brett Favres has no qualms about turning the ball over.
Maynor is a steady backup point guard and a refreshing change of pace when he replaces the frenetic Westbrook at the end of quarters. Thunder fans wish “The Rock” yelled, “Know your role!” at Maynor before that untimely air ball, however.
There are moments I wish Harden was the point guard and Westbrook was the shooting guard, because Harden seems to out-dish W-Brook on the perimeter. When he drives the lane he normally makes the right decision on whether to keep it and score or to send it to a three-point shooter.
You can argue that Harden is the most important player on Oklahoma City. The Thunder need him to be a consistent third scoring option with Jeff Green bouncing balls off his feet in Boston, and on those nights when he scored 15-25, the Thunder are unstoppable.
Harden should have gained himself an A grade, but I cannot ignore him scoring in the single digits six times in 17 playoff games, nor can I turn a blind eye to his fouling out in Game 5 of the Dallas series, which helped the Mavs pull off one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
Harden will be a fantasy hoops force next season and will undoubtedly become a full-time starter. He still has some work to do on that learning curve, though, and his inexperience cropped up at many inopportune times during the postseason.
Sefolosha has less offensive skill than Adam Morrison, Jim McIlvane, and any fourth-line goon in the NHL. He cannot connect on open three-pointers, is no playmaker with his passes, and his drives regularly do not produce fouls or points, just groans. His job on the team has gone from defensive stopper to the guy who keeps the floor warm for Harden.
Sefolosha plays a major role (at times) for the Thunder because he can lock up premier shooting guards. The problem was that Denver, Memphis and Dallas did not have any Kobe Bryant types for him to cover, so having Sefolosha on the court was a lot like bringing an electric guitar to “Acoustic Night” at your local watering hole.
Sefolosha will not be a starter next season unless coach Scott Brooks is stubborn or Harden decides to opt for a career in mixed martial arts (his faux mohawk-like hair is somewhat scary). He can still be useful because of his Darrelle Revis coverage skills, but he was not helpful at all at crucial moments for the Thunder in these playoffs.
Collison is the unsung hero of the Thunder. He plays stout low-post defense, gets timely rebounds when Ok. City plays its small lineup and he is the center, and he can tip in misses, make short jumpers, and hit his foul shots when need be. He made 63 percent of his shots from the floor and 78 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
Sure, Collison kept mistiming his defense on pick-and-rolls and took terrible ticky tack fouls, and he did not light up boxscores or scoreboards with his 6.7 ppg. But if you watched every minute of all 17 of the Thunder’s playoff games, you know how special Collison was throughout.
Nowitzki was on a magical roll that Michael Cooper, Bobby Jones, and Dennis Rodman combined could not stop, let alone Collison and his smothering man-to-man defense. Collison did a little bit of everything in every series, and the Thunder’s best five-man group every game always had Collison as a part of it.