They are the darlings of the league. They have a terrific roster of young guys with athleticism and speed who play together. I'm impressed with GM Sam Presti for putting this group together. What makes it work is having a superstar who is unselfish, which means that everybody is going to run with the thought they can get the ball too. When your best player buys into it that way, that puts you more than halfway there.
Kevin Durant has to be the premier 3-man in the West. Put it this way: I would trade Carmelo Anthony for Durant, but I wouldn't trade Durant to get Carmelo. His next step is to get his team into the second round or conference finals -- that's got to be defining for him. If they get to the conference finals and lose, you know that's not the last we'll be hearing from him. He's just going to come back the next year and try again.
Durant rebounds, he gets assists and blocks, he runs the floor, he gets to the free-throw line and he is definitely a good passer. He may be the best shooter in the game. He reminds me of Dirk Nowitzki the way he shoots threes; it's so effortless. He's textbook and he has a very quick and smooth release. To be able to take it off the dribble at 6-9 and to be such a great shooter and be unselfish -- and to do it at his age -- he is such a big threat.
Defensively, he makes the effort and challenges shots. He's going to get overpowered and he'll have to concede things to stay out of foul trouble because he has to do that. He's never going to be a lockdown guy defensively, but he has the length to get up and challenge shots, and he also has ability and the want-to.
Russell Westbrook has the size, athleticism and ability to get to the basket, and he has long arms. He's still trying to develop into a point guard, and he's not really a jump shooter. Westbrook will be on the highlights a lot because he can finish hard or he'll be making plays either on the receiving end or giving end with Durant. The reason he's so successful is he can defend point guards and they've also got Durant handling the ball a lot. When you've got that extra ball-handler -- even Jeff Green is able to handle the ball at power forward -- it takes pressure off Westbrook so he can focus on his strengths.
Ball pressure is the main principle of any defensive team. You've got to pick it up early. That doesn't mean you're going to steal the ball all of the time, but you've got to be there and make the opposing point guard work, and if he fumbles it once, it's yours. You take chances once in a while but you can't pick up fouls. You've got to be smart about pressuring the ball, you've got to be in shape and quick enough. Those are all strengths for Westbrook.
But there are two things to remember with Westbrook. A few years ago, the Bulls thought they had it set up to go far with a young team on rookie contracts -- a lot like Oklahoma City -- but it fell apart and the need for players to get the next contract had something to do with it. On this team, Durant has got his but no one else has been paid yet, including the point guard. The other thing is that the game always slows down in the playoffs and you have to be able to execute and get buckets in need-to situations. I still wonder if Westbrook can deliver that.
The other starting guard last season was Thabo Sefolosha, another non-shooter but a good defender and a decent ball-handler and athlete. He's not a threat outside the foul line. They get around that problem a little bit because their forwards are out there behind the line, so that helps keep the lane open. Defensively, Sefolosha has the necessary size. He's quick and physical, he has the length, but I think they'd rather have him as a backup 2 or 3, and he can even guard the point guards.
James Harden is another incredible athlete. But shooting is not really his game either. He's more of an attack-the-rim, hard driver. He can pass and handle and he will take threes, but you're mainly looking to keep him from leaking out and scoring transition baskets. Here's another way of putting it: Their smalls are athletic drivers more than they are shooters. Maybe Daequan Cook will play some minutes as the anti-Sefolosha jump shooter.
Green starts because he plays well with Durant. The other option is to go with someone bigger and less athletic, but they want to be an athletic team. Green is a small-forward type who doesn't quite have the athleticism to play that position. So now he becomes a face-up 4. On another good team, he probably is a backup to both forward spots. But on this team he's starting, and soon he's going to look to get paid. That's where the chemistry may start to change.
As they advance over the next few years, I think Green is going to be bumped as a starter and become more of a utility player, or he'll be gone to chase more money elsewhere. He's replaceable because they're going to need size at that big spot as they go deeper in the playoffs. They'll need someone to protect Durant because he's on the slight side. But I'm not totally sure about this because Green is a good enough athlete to chase people and yet still hold his ground as a pretty tough kid. And they do have other bigs they're developing at center.
Their most impressive young big man is Serge Ibaka, who has so much room to grow. He's an incredible specimen, gifted with insane athleticism -- his leaping ability, his instincts, timing, activity as a rebounder. He needs to hone his skills to be able to shoot the ball and develop a back-to-the-basket game, but he's got everything else already to be able to play either of the big positions. He's an exciting player to watch.
If Ibaka could find a jump shot, he could be better than Amar'e Stoudemire. He does everything else that Amar'e doesn't do. Stoudemire has that gift for timing, and he has made himself into a shooter. But Stoudemire doesn't chase rebounds or defend like this guy does. In terms of having that explosiveness and ability to finish like Stoudemire, I see that already.
Nick Collison is a valuable backup big man who will guard either big position, a salt-of-the-earth hard worker. He's one of those guys who will take pride in doing his job so Durant can be the star. He has the respect of everybody, and even though he's undersized, he's out there fighting centers.
Nenad Krstic is another versatile big man who can play alongside either Ibaka or Collison. They also drafted Cole Aldrich from Kansas. Is he going to be athletic enough to provide offense for them? The same goes with B.J. Mullens, who has the size and potential but not much else right now.
As for some other reserves, Morris Peterson wasn't moving very well last year, and he's not a great shooter either. Eric Maynor is a very strong backup for them, and a good counter to Westbrook because Maynor is more of a traditional playmaker.
Scott Brooks was a team-oriented player. As a coach, I see him being conscious of making everything about the team and not about the individuals. He has played with stars and yet he has always been a team-first guy, and this team now is kind of a reflection of him. He's a motivator who has gotten the most out of everything he's had to give throughout his career. He has had a hell of a coaching staff, though I think he'll miss Ron Adams [who left for the Bulls in the offseason] as his assistant.
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