Exit: dark horse story.
Enter: Bust or Bang—Team of Glory in the Making?
The Thunder are rolling in Oklahoma City, and things are about to get interesting. Fifty-five wins last year and a run to the Western Conference Finals proved the team is on the verge of winning a championship.
But there is no telling whether or not the young core of OKC has the poise (yet) to supplant the veteran Mavericks as king of the Western Conference.
We all know how exciting 23-year-old two-time scoring champion Kevin Durant is, as well as his partner in crime, lightning quick 22-year-old Russell Westbrook. Both, when surrounded by spark plugs like Erick Maynor, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka, become that much prettier.
But depth is most key come playoff time.
As tempos slow and the court becomes a drudgery of physicality and supreme condition, defense rebirths as a primary focal point.
Having the depth to cycle fresh bodies in a Rick Pitino-like disorientation—five on, five off—allows a coaching staff to tinker with sudden offensive styling, like run n' gun three out-guard sets or an offensive rebounding crash sequence.
When it comes to confusing rugged defenses in the West like the Spurs, Trailblazers or the Mavericks, on-the-fly calls with fresh bodies is of the essence.
This means your depth must be equal across the board. A diversified offense-to-defense sublet at each position is even more important.
That means if Scott Brooks needs an instant spark offensively at a guard or swing spot, he can sub in Harden. If he needs a defensive stop he can slot in Sefolosha. Both can play similar positions, but have strengths and weaknesses that balance like an antique jeweler’s weight.
Until last February, the Thunder had everything fixed but one position: center.
Though Nenad Krstic had a nice outside 10- to 15-foot jump shot, his slow moving feet and weak upper frame made him a defensive liability. And though Ibaka has incredible hops, his size and ability to score seemed best suited at the four.
The ascension of Harden meant the Thunder now had a true third option offensively. As much as the franchise beheld Jeff Green as a key building block, Harden's in meant Green's out.
This sudden turn of events routed the team in a whole new direction. Green, who was unhappy to accept a lesser role and had struggled to assume his offensive assignments, could not stay.
A trade involving Green and Krstic to the Boston Celtics for defensive brute Kendrick Perkins could not have been any better. Not only did the team do away with an out-of-sorts defender in Krstic, but rid themselves of a looming headache with Green.
This also meant the team now had a true anchor defensively in Perkins, as well as a big who would give Ibaka the right to block shots on the block while attempting to score out at the 10- to 15-foot face-up game.
Having a rebounding presence in Perkins will further develop Ibaka into a consistent 12- to 15-point scorer, a player much in the vein of Emeka Okafor.
Perkins is the hungry type who relishes more in roughing up an opposing offense than he does in scoring. His lowly 6.4 points per game over the course of his eight-year career prove that point.
Alone, Perkins can be average defensively. Having struggled with numerous injuries on his 280-pound frame, the big man can get into foul trouble by overcompensating and being overly aggressive.
But who can dislike a guy who has an incredible will to win?
This struggle happens only if he is left with a poor defender at the four.
Playing alongside Kevin Garnett and now Ibaka fits Perkins best. He is able to use his wide frame for offensive rebounding and pushing bigs out of the lane, which is the best part of his game.
He alone can clog a lane that allots more defensive risk taking and freedom from star pick-pockets like Sefolosha or Westbrook. This improved amount of forced turnovers means easy scores, which means larger leads heading into fourth quarters.
Having a lead for a young team is valuable. Now that the expectation is the team wins games nightly and competes for a championship, every cushion helps.
Considering Brooks likes to spell his stars at the end of the third or early in the fourth quarter, it is expected that team's will make up some ground. Having that lead in a sense acts like a bank of minutes for Durant.
Ultimately, Perkins acts as a great chain reaction.
He is the face of an explosion that is taking place that helps balance the starters both offensively and defensively. In postseason basketball it is nearly impossible to win it all without veterans who've been there, done that.
And Perkins has.
He is a hard-nosed Doc Rivers prodigy who will be turning up the rocking and shaking in OKC. Expect to see that usual scowl begging for a fight and a glimmering O'Brien peeking from a splash of blood.