How the Oklahoma City Thunder Can Get over the Hump
Oklahoma City is generally regarded as one of the most boring cities in the NBA. There just isn’t a whole lot to do out in OKC, and that’s not a knock on the city itself at all, just reality.
In spite of that, however, there is one source of excitement that figures to provide entertainment in the city for the foreseeable future and that’s the Oklahoma City Thunder, a young, talented squad that appears to be on the cusp of accomplishing big things in OKC.
It’s a process which has its roots in both individual and collective failures in the postseason; a process which is fueled by the stinging finality of postseason eliminations of yesterday and driven by the obsessive need for redemption and validation via a championship.
“There are no shortcuts,” as Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert gleefully pointed out in his congratulatory tweet to Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban. Championship basketball is a journey in which failure and pain is both a necessary evil and an obstacle to overcome, and the Thunder is currently in the midst of that journey.
The Thunder began their own process two postseasons ago when, as the 8-seed, they engaged in a highly competitive and hard fought six-game series with the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending and eventual champs.
Last postseason, following a 55-win regular season and a Northwest Division title, the Thunder took an even bigger step in their championship process and evolved from being a playoff nuisance to a playoff threat.
The Thunder popped their playoff series’ cherry by knocking out the Denver Nuggets in the first round, and then showed their mettle by eliminating a tough Memphis Grizzlies’ squad in a grueling, physical seven-game Semi-Finals series.
After that, it was on to the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals appearance against Nowitzki and the Mavs, and for the second straight year, the Thunder was eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual NBA champions.
Needless to say, the Thunder is moving in the right direction. With four of their five starters age 23 or younger and valuable postseason experience already under their belts, the future is very bright and exciting for this Thunder squad.
The next step in their process is getting over the hump and evolving into a championship-caliber team. This will happen sooner rather than later if the following things occur for the Thunder.
Kevin Durant Continues His Progression as an NBA Superstar, Then Dirks It Up
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There are plenty of stars in the NBA, but there’s only a handful of superstars who are capable of putting their teams on their back and carrying them through the postseason to a title. Durant, without question, fits the bill of a superstar and is the catalyst of this young Thunder team.
In order for the Thunder to take another step in their championship quest and become a legitimate championship contender, Durant must elevate his game to another, Dirk-ish level.
Now don’t get me wrong, the NBA’s reigning scoring champion already is one of the best players in the league and he’s only 22. And it’s not like he had a bad postseason last year, either. In his second crack at the playoffs, Durant averaged 28.6 points and 8.2 rebounds over 17 games.
Durant scored 30+ points in seven of those games, which included three 40+ point games. Not to mention, Durant delivered for the Thunder in two closeout games against the Nuggets and Grizzlies as he poured in 41 points and 39 points, respectively.
All things considered, Durant had a pretty spectacular postseason. Still, there’s ways in which Durant can improve his game, and they’re necessary for the Thunder if they’re serious about taking another step closer to a title.
At the top of the list, Durant must improve his ball-handling skills. For a guy that’s 6’9", it’s not like he’s awful at handling the ball, but it certainly is an area which needs some work. It hinders his ability to create good looks when receiving the ball past the three-point line, plus he faces an onslaught of double teams from opponents.
Improving his handle will make him that much more dangerous as a scorer, and he’s pretty lethal to begin with.
Durant also needs to hit the weights and get a little bit stronger, even though he’s proof that it doesn’t matter how many times you can bench press 185 pounds if you’re a straight-up baller. Still, adding some muscle to his rail-thin body will only benefit his game because it will allow him to develop some type of post offense.
When you factor in his length and offensive skill set, this would make him virtually unstoppable to guard. (You listening, LeBron?)
Finally, Durant needs to embrace his role as the Thunder’s closer, much like we witnessed from Nowitzki last postseason. Durant has proven that he’s willing to take the big shot, and also that he’s capable of making the big shot.
He just needs to make sure he has the opportunity because the ball should absolutely, positively be in his hands late in close games.
Also, Durant needs to fight to get the shot he wants instead of settling for the shot the defense permits. This will improve with better ball handling as well as better end-of-game coaching.
The bottom line is the Thunder can go as far as Durant takes them. If he continues his evolution as an NBA superstar and takes his game to a Dirk-ish level next postseason, the Thunder are most likely going to take another step forward as a team and become a legitimate title contender from the West.
Just remember, he’s only 22, so the urgency probably isn’t quite there yet like we saw from Nowitzki last postseason, but the dude is still a serious competitor and baller.
Russell Westbrook Needs to Refine His Role as OKC'S PG
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Westbrook has gotten better in each of his three seasons in the NBA, increasing his numbers in points, assists, and field goal percentage.
Last year, he was a 20-8-5 guy and was selected to the All-NBA second team. Pretty promising stuff, if you ask me.
Then the postseason happened, Westbrook got a bit chuck-happy and turnover-prone, and suddenly in the eyes of a lot of people he morphed into an evil, cancerous Robin to Durant’s Batman.
I mean, people absolutely piled it on the poor guy with their criticism. He’s too selfish! He’s got tunnel vision! KD needs a pure point guard! You can’t have two primary scorers! Trade his ass!
Now, some of that criticism was justifiable. Westbrook did appear to be playing selfishly at times. He shouldn’t have been taking 20.2 shots a game, which is only a tenth of a shot fewer than Durant’s 20.3 attempts per game last postseason.
Still, some of that can be attributed to both the Thunder’s offensive sets and the constant double teams that were being thrown at Durant. And Westbrook did turn the ball over a lot (4.6 per game). But, you know what? People need to chill out. The dude’s only 22 years old.
The Thunder absolutely can win championships with Westbrook as their point guard, and Durant can coexist and thrive with Westbrook as his point guard, as long as last postseason served as a learning experience for the young point guard.
Who cares if Westbrook isn’t a pure point guard? The Thunder doesn’t need one, no matter what anyone says. Westbrook is an explosive, athletic, scoring point guard cut from the same mold as Derrick Rose. Now Westbrook isn’t as talented as Rose, but he’s pretty damn good.
And I wholeheartedly disagree with the critics who believe that Westbrook doesn’t fit with Durant because you can’t have two primary scorers. Personally, I think the Thunder have a luxury with this situation, particularly in the playoffs.
Not only do they have two stars that are capable of taking over a playoff game down the stretch, they have two stars who are eager to – and want to – take over a playoff game down the stretch.
I know for sure that the Heat would have liked to have had that luxury in the Finals, instead of a certain someone hiding out in the corner when things got tight in the fourth quarter.
For the Thunder to take the next step in becoming a legitimate championship contender, they still need Westbrook to do his thing and remain a 20-8-5 guy, but they really need him to simply refine his role on the team.
That doesn’t involve him trying to become more of pure point guard, because that would be taking away from his game. He just needs to take better care of the ball and cut down on the turnovers. And he also needs to get a better feel for the game.
Westbrook needs to understand when it’s Robin’s turn to attack and take over the game, and when it’s time to let Batman do his thing. That comes with playoff experience, which he got a significant amount of last year.
Scott Brooks Needs to Step Up His Coaching Game
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Given the offensive firepower Scott Brooks has to work with, there’s no excuse for how stagnant and frustrating the Thunder’s offense appeared to be last postseason.
The majority of the Thunder’s offensive sets seemed to consist of just one primary option with hardly any secondary options. Brooks needs to get far more creative with his offensive schemes considering the talent he has on the roster.
He needs to preach better spacing and incorporate more backside movement. If not, he needs to take a page out of Celtics’ head coach Doc Rivers’ book and hire an offensive coordinator for his staff, or the Thunder’s offense will be just as frustrating as last season and Brooks will be looking for work.
James Harden Needs to Flourish as a Starter
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Harden turned in a promising sophomore campaign coming off the bench for the Thunder last season. In 26.7 minutes a game during the regular season, Harden averaged 12.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists.
During the playoffs, both his minutes and his production increased as Harden demonstrated why he’s worthy of becoming the Thunder’s starting shooting guard next season.
In 31.6 minutes a game during the playoffs, Harden averaged 13.0 points on 47.5 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists.
He had a particularly strong series against the Mavs in the Western Conference Finals as he averaged 14.4 points on 53.5 percent shooting from the floor, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists, highlighted by a 23-point performance off the bench in the Thunder’s lone victory in Game 2 and another 23-point effort in Game 5.
Even though Harden has only started five games in two seasons, he’s primed to be the second-best starting shooting guard in the Western Conference behind only Kobe Bryant. Harden is a complete shooting guard who can bring a lot to the floor as a starter for the Thunder.
A deceptively explosive, fluid athlete, Harden possesses both a smooth handle and a smooth stroke, skills which enables him to put up points in a variety of ways.
Harden can run the floor and finish in transition, slash to the hoop, and can knock down both a mid-range and three-point jumper.
For his career, he’s a 36 percent shooter from downtown. Additionally, and maybe even vital to the Thunder offense given the pieces they have in place with a scoring point guard like Westbrook and the NBA’s reigning scoring champion in Durant, Harden is an above-average facilitator with a knack for making the right basketball play. Harden has the potential to serve as a calming influence for the Thunder’s offensive attack.
All in all, Harden should significantly benefit the Thunder in a variety of ways. A 15-5-5 line from this Cali dude would be totally cool.
The Thunder Need to Find What's Missing in Their Frontcourt
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For the most part, I like the Thunder’s trio of Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins because they provide the Thunder’s frontcourt with a little bit of everything.
Ibaka, who’s just 21 years old, is a developing, high energy, athletic power forward who provides the Thunder himself with a little bit of everything in terms of scoring, rebounding, and defense.
Offensively, he is a solid fourth scoring option who doesn’t require designated touches to be effective. Last year, Ibaka averaged 9.9 points in the regular season and 9.8 points in the postseason.
While he doesn’t have much of a post game to speak of, Ibaka relies on his quickness to take his defender off the dribble and is considered by head coach Scott Brooks to be the team’s best mid-range shooter.
There’s no doubt Ibaka prefers his mid-range game with 39 percent of his made field goals coming off jump shots. According to NBA Playbook, Ibaka shot 50 percent (55-of-110) on uncontested jump shots.
In terms of rebounding, Ibaka is solid in that aspect as well, having averaged 7.6 rebounds during the regular season and 7.3 in the postseason last year. Overall, Ibaka accounted for 12 double-doubles in the regular season and 5 in the postseason.
However, Ibaka’s calling card is his defense, where he has the potential to become a defensive force. Last regular season, Ibaka ranked third in the league in blocks per game with 2.4 and upped his average in the playoffs with 3.1. In addition, Ibaka is considered to be a terrific help defender.
Ibaka has a lot of room for growth, and the key for him is consistency and confidence, which is sure to come as he continues to mature and refine his game.
Collison, on the other hand, serves as the Thunder’s solid veteran role player which every serious contender needs. He’s not that skilled offensively but manages to contribute on the offensive end with garbage points and always plays within himself and never does anything crazy or selfish.
Defensively, he’s a terrific defender who played surprisingly great defense on Nowitzki even though he still got 40+ points dropped on him.
Like Collison, Perkins is another excellent role player who plays within himself and embraces his role on the team and understands what it takes to win a championship from his days as a Boston Celtic.
Now a year removed from knee surgery, Perkins should be fully healthy and able to get back to bullying, physical style of defense and provide the Thunder with the toughness they need in the paint.
No matter how much I like this frontcourt trio of the Thunder, I still feel like they’re missing a piece down low to contend with the Lakers and Mavericks of the Western Conference.
I don’t believe they necessarily need a big man they can feed the ball to down low to go to work, given the scoring punch they have on the perimeter in Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, but I do think they need something else to legitimize them as a championship caliber frontcourt.
Perhaps it could be the development of second-year center Cole Aldrich, who played sparingly last season. If Aldrich is able to somehow develop into the impact player he was at Kansas with his athleticism and defense, that might be the missing piece they need down low.
Bench Guys Need to Perform Their Roles
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The Thunder is in desperate need of a three-point shooter and a perimeter defender. They thought they had both last season in the duo of Cook and Sefolosha, but neither fulfilled those roles when it mattered most in the postseason.
Cook shot the three-ball well during the regular season, as he connected on 42.2 percent of his long range attempts over 43 games of action, but his stroke went south in the postseason as his percentage dipped to 34.8 percent in sporadic playing time.
Meanwhile, Sefolosha is considered to be a fairly good perimeter defender, but I can’t recall him locking down anybody last postseason.
If the Thunder is to take another step towards becoming a legitimate championship contender, they desperately need the duo of Cook and Sefolosha to come off the bench and hit big shots and defend. If they’re unable to fulfill these roles, the Thunder need to look elsewhere.
All things considered, the Thunder is an extremely talented, young team certainly in the midst of the often painful, grueling process which leads to championships in the NBA.
If the Thunder is able to accomplish the six aforementioned things in the near future, I’m all but certain Durant and Co. will have their Dirk moment and give Oklahoma City something to be excited about.