Oklahoma City Thunder: 5 Players Who Must Do Better This Year
After making it to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have one goal in mind for the offseason: get better.
As soon as the lockout ends, the free agency frenzy will begin, but the Thunder likely aren't going to play a huge role in it. There have been very little rumblings or rumors flying around about the Thunder, and they look like they will just keep their entire roster intact.
Most would say this is a good idea. The Thunder have been built almost perfectly by GM Sam Presti, and their hopeful increase in experience and maturity is bound to catch up to their youth and athleticism.
If the Thunder want to make that statement true this year and get to the NBA Finals, some guys on the team are going to have to step up, play a bigger role and put in a lot of work.
Here are the five guys that need to do something in order for the Thunder to get better.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
After all the criticism Russell Westbrook took during the playoffs, I feel like I was the only one sticking by the guy's side.
As an avid follower of the Thunder, I was given the opportunity to witness all season how Westbrook plays. So when I saw him taking jump shots early in the shot clock and driving to the rim instead of dishing out to shooters, none of this was new to me.
That was the problem. The playoffs were likely the first time the majority of people had the chance to see the Thunder play on a consistent basis. Everyone knew Kevin Durant was the go-to scorer, so when Westbrook tried to do things on his own, people got really upset.
Westbrook needs to understand his mistakes and improve on his obvious weaknesses, which are: outside shooting, basketball IQ and decision-making. But for the amount of hate he received from both critics, fans and outsiders just now tuning in on the Thunder, you would think the guy murdered somebody.
Speaking of "murdering somebody," has anyone else not noticed that Westbrook is the only player on the team with killer instincts? He gets to the hoop when nobody else will, and when things are bad, he wants to put the team on his back.
People got mad because that should be Durant's job, but Durant stood by Westbrook like a good teammate the entire way. Durant doesn't possess the same level of desire and intensity that Westbrook does.
Also, Westbrook always got criticized for holding the ball too long and then making bad decisions after the shot clock would run down. While it's easy to blame Westbrook for this, a lot of the blame needs to go on head coach Scott Brooks.
Brooks can't call offensive plays to save his life. He relies too heavily on Durant's scoring capabilities and Westbrook's athleticism. That's why if Durant couldn't get open, it was up to Westbrook to do something with the ball.
With all that being said, Westbrook definitely needs to improve his decision making if the Thunder want to be less turnover prone.
That's just hard to do when you're only playing with one other guy who can score.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Speaking of guys who can't score...
Thabo Sefolosha is the Thunder's best defender, but after he made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team two seasons ago, I think his importance for this team may have been a bit inflated.
Don't get me wrong, Thabo definitely shows signs that would lead one to believe that he could be a reliable scoring option. He slashes well, can finish at the rim and hits the occasional corner three-pointer, a la Bruce Bowen.
The problem is that he doesn't do this enough. Thabo shot 28 percent from deep during the regular season—which isn't a good number for a guy who relies on that shot more than anything when it comes to offense.
To make matters worse, he shot 15 percent from deep in the playoffs. 15 percent! He has to improve his scoring. There are times when the Thunder have to have him on the court to defend somebody, but then it's almost like playing four-on-five on offense (or three-on-five if Kendrick Perkins is out there).
The best thing would be to bring Thabo off the bench as Kevin Durant's backup. That way he can play spot-minutes for the Thunder when they really need a solid defensive possession.
Most believe that James Harden played well enough to earn a starting spot, and while that is true, Scott Brooks hasn't shown any intention or hinted at the fact that Harden will indeed be a starter next season.
For what it's worth, Thabo may be the starting shooting guard again while Harden remains the spark off the bench.
Whatever the case, he has to get better. Drastically.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Serge Ibaka is really a work in progress, so the fact that he needs to get better is a given.
Ibaka has been steadily increasing his offensive output while remaining a defensive powerhouse, but he still doesn't have a post game.
Even though he can hit 10 to 15 foot jump shots when he's open, he has to develop some sort of inside game so he isn't a liability with the ball in his hands.
He still can't dribble very well, so when he gets the ball at the high post or at the free throw line, he has to either shoot or quickly pass off to a teammate. He rarely posts up, but when he does it is just agonizing to watch.
Developing a post game would also give Ibaka more of a chance at offensive rebounds. He averaged 2.6 offensive rebounds per game last season, and that was with no post game at all. Being in the paint would give Ibaka more chances to score and more opportunity to out-jump guys for loose balls.
There's no doubt that Ibaka can block shots and be an intimidating presence on defense, but like Sefolosha, he has to keep developing offensively if the Thunder ever want to run any good offensive possessions.
What really needs to happen is that Ibaka needs to be Kevin Garnett. He already is comparable defensively, so if he can work on his post game and a turn-around jumper, the Thunder would be set.
Especially because of the guy on the next slide.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Serge Ibaka needs to be Kevin Garnett because that's how Kendrick Perkins was best suited to operate: with a power forward who could score in the post.
Garnett's ability to score in Boston gave Perkins the green light to just be a garbage man. He would get rebounds, put up missed shots and dunk the ball when Rajon Rondo would find him sitting wide open.
Because Perkins is a great defender, his ability to provide absolutely anything on the offensive end of the ball in Boston was a blessing. This is because Boston had three good scorers to go through and a budding Rondo who could get into the lane at will.
That's not the case in Oklahoma City. Westbrook may be more offensively-gifted than Rondo, and Kevin Durant may be more offensively-gifted than Paul Pierce, but the two of them do not outweigh Pierce, Garnett, Rondo and Ray Allen.
This is another reason why James Harden has to start if Perkins is going to be out there.
Perkins admitted that he was still not fully healed while he was playing for the Thunder last season, but even if that's true, a 100 percent healthy Perkins compared to a 60 percent healthy Perkins won't make a huge difference on offense.
Sure, he might get more offensive rebounds which lead to more put backs, but that's really the only upside. He has no post game. He can't dribble. He can't shoot jump shots. He is really only out there to guard big guys and be intimidating.
The Thunder are in desperate need of a post who can actually score in the paint. Perkins and Ibaka need to get better, because one of them has to be the guy who can do it.
Also, Perkins really has to stop getting so many technicals. He had 11 in only 29 games played last season. I understand that that's his personality and his intimidation factor, etc., but it's only going to hurt the Thunder in the end.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
You can see the pattern now, right? Of course the five guys who have to step up and play better for the Thunder are their starters, and that even includes Kevin Durant.
Durant has been the league's scoring champion for the past two seasons. He has developed his offensive game to a level that wasn't there during his rookie and sophomore campaigns.
On top of the scoring, Durant has become a better rebounder, a better passer and a better defender. He has also solidified himself as one of the best player's in the game, while remaining as humble and as good of a teammate as a superstar can be.
With his around the world hoops campaign this summer, Durant has basically become the poster boy for the NBA.
So what else does he need to do to possibly get better? Maybe we should ask Kobe Bryant if he stopped working hard when he became one of the best. How about Michael Jordan?
The point I'm trying to make here is to be the best, you have to keep working. Durant knows this. He loves the game of basketball, that's why he continues to play even though the lockout has been keeping everyone away.
Durant will continue to get better while everyone else sits at home and waits for the lockout to end.
If there's one thing that he needs to improve on more than anything else, it's his killer instinct. When the game is on the line, Durant is going to take an off-balanced 20-foot jumper. That's what history tells us, at least.
He can get to the rim at will, and if he gets fouled than that's just as good. He's a great foul shooter—so why does he take jump shots?
Because Russell Westbrook is the only one on the team with a killer mentality...so far.
Durant will get there, and when he does...