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Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-12 Record: 47-19
Kevin Durant, the '12 MVP runner-up, has won three consecutive scoring titles. (John W. McDonough/SI)
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT ANALYZES THE THUNDER
Miami, the Lakers and other teams that got better, but the Thunder didn't make any moves that will affect their team this year. You could say they're counting on their young players to improve, but I don't know how much better Kevin Durant can get. Kendrick Perkins isn't getting any better. I think Serge Ibaka has hit a ceiling -- even though he's young, I'd be surprised if he gets a whole lot better. And really the same thing goes for James Harden. The one guy who can really improve is Russell Westbrook, in terms of making decision.
On the one hand, they have everything set up perfectly with Ibaka and Perkins as big defenders who are tough and physical, and then you have the great scorer in Durant. You saw all of their strengths last year when they got to the NBA Finals. But then you ask whether they can win a championship, and I don't see how much better they can get. Who knows, maybe I'm wrong, but if it doesn't happen for them, they're going to have to figure out something to improve their roster.
Things didn't go well for Durant in certain situations during the Finals, even though he put up good numbers. But he's one of the top two or three players in the league. I don't think Durant will ever win his matchup with LeBron James, but he's still good enough to win the championship. I'm not necessarily agreeing with the old idea that you have to lose in the Finals before you can win it, but I do think down the line that he'll have a chance to win it and that his experiences last year will help him. It will toughen him up, and I bet you he's working his butt off this year after running into LeBron and realizing there was further for him to go.
Durant could be dominant at the defensive end because he's so long and athletic. He's not going to get sculpted and change his body, but he'll continue to develop naturally and become stronger. Offensively, he's just so smooth. It's so easy for him to score. All he needs is that flick of a wrist to convert from the three-point line, and that's not even his greatest attribute. He's a scoring machine who can shoot. You can do anything with him in your offense to get a basket. For example, you hear a lot of people say what a great scorer Carmelo Anthony is, and they're right to say it, but then compare him with Durant and it isn't even close. Durant is a better shooter and a better scorer overall.
I love Westbrook, but I still don't know if he is a point guard, or if is he someone who needs to take too many shots? They lost to Dallas in the playoffs a couple of years ago and he took the brunt of that blame. They got to the Finals last year and you heard everybody killing Westbrook after they lost at home to Miami [in Game 2].
Every team in the league would like to have him. You put Westbrook on a bad team and he'll make it decent. But obviously he hasn't proved that he can play with the discipline you need to win in the Finals. So this is one of those areas where I think we're all looking for perspective. You compare Westbrook to the other young point guards and it makes you appreciate him. You'd much rather have Westbrook than a guy like John Wall, for instance, because there was Westbrook in his fourth year showing he was able to lead a young team to the Finals. But the bottom line is that I still can't say whether a ball-dominating guard like Westbrook is the right guy to play with Durant.
Another question has been whether they should invest long term in Harden. Is he good enough to get them to the championship as their third star? Or should they look to trade Harden to get a pretty good player who could help them? They're already wondering if they can rely on Westbrook as a championship-level point guard. Are Westbrook and Harden looking better than they really are because they're playing next to Durant? These are the questions they've got to answer.
I do think Harden is in the perfect role as a young player right now because he can come off the bench without a lot of pressure on him. At the same time, he could be a starting 2 and be good. But I also think if he went to another team as a starter, that team would realize that he isn't good enough to take it far into the playoffs.
Oklahoma City is hoping that Harden will turn out to be its version of Manu Ginobili, but I don't see that happening. When Ginobili comes in and the Spurs need it, they're giving him the ball every time. I don't think you see that happening with Harden. On certain nights he gets it going, but I don't see him becoming The Man in the same way that Ginobili has been able to develop in San Antonio. Harden is consistent in his effort but he's a streaky scorer. He's very good but he's no Ginobili.
I love Thabo Sefolosha. He reminds me of another Spur, Bruce Bowen, who would make an open three and guard everybody. Every team needs a guy like Sefolosha, and the fact that he's able to start makes life easier for Harden and allows Harden to take advantage of opposing second units. Sefolosha has great length. Like Bowen, he knows the reason he's starting is because he can guard 1s, 2s and 3s. He makes you realize how good they can be defensively on the perimeter because Westbrook is strong in that area and Durant is long and athletic.
Ibaka and Perkins are not similar players, but they bring the same things to the table. Neither one of them is going to provide a whole lot of offense. Ibaka can score better than Perkins, but I look at power forward as a position where they can get better. Ibaka is a great shot-blocker. He rebounds well and he's extremely athletic. He's improved his shooting, but he's still not a guy defenses are going to be totally worried about.
I love Perkins' defensive toughness. He's the perfect fit for what they're trying to build, and it's a lot like what he brought to Boston. He's excellent in that role. Perkins is that complementary defensive player who doesn't need to touch the ball a lot, which is something you like to have on a team like this. The problem is that Ibaka is that guy, too. What they really need is a big guy they can throw the ball to sometimes.
I love Ibaka and I'd want him starting on my team. But if you're looking to get to the highest level, having Ibaka and Perkins start together doesn't work. We can talk about Westbrook and Harden, but they really need to get better at one of those frontcourt positions offensively. A big guy who was a threat to score would make life easier for Durant. Cole Aldrich [the 11th pick in the 2010 draft] is not going to be that difference-maker.
I used to be down on Nick Collison. I admit I could never figure out why he played so much. But I've changed my opinion. They won that game [the opener] in the Finals last year because of Collison. He is to the Thunder what Udonis Haslem was to Miami five years ago. He can make a couple of shots but the main thing is the dirty work -- he defends, he rebounds, he hustles. Plus, he has a great contract [three years, $7.8 million remaining]. The perfect scenario would be if he played alongside Ibaka off the bench because they had another stud big guy to play in the starting lineup alongside Perkins. But that's probably not possible because they're paying Ibaka so much money [Ibaka's four-year, $49 million extension kicks in for the 2013-14 season].
Daequan Cook is an extra piece as a shooter to play behind Harden. Reggie Jackson is the third point guard behind Westbrook and Eric Maynor, who is back from knee surgery. Those are pretty nice pieces to have.
They're going to be going up against LeBron for a long time, and I don't see the Thunder as they are built today being able to win the championship in the next two years. So if they aren't able to win it, how will they be able to stick with the same group?
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