Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Burning Question #10: Are the OKC Thunder ready to make THE JUMP? How do they handle expectations?

ThunderStolt has been known as many things over the course of his life, including an arrogant Oklahoma Sooner fan and alumnus, a heartbroken Rangers fan, a frustrated Cowboys fan and most importantly, a loyal fan and friend of MAMBINO. Once we lined up our 20 Burning Questions for the upcoming NBA season, we knew we had to have him grace our little blog.

“Our team got all the pieces nothing less than a championship or it a bust season I love my team and coaches.” – Kendrick Perkins tweet following the Thunder’s preseason win over the Mavs Sunday night

When I read that tweet from Skinny Perk it made expectations very real.
From its inception into the Sooner State, the Thunder has been free of grand expectation. In year one with a record of 23-59 (20-62 the final year in Seattle), only buzz of the team that mattered. Wins and losses were the same it seemed, even as a young team in the "blow-it-up-and-rebuild mode" played mostly bad basketball. Then all hell broke loose; a 27 win improvement to 50-32 in the '09-'10 season and the 8th seed against the eventual champion Lakers. Again this was a “we’re just happy to be in the playoffs and if we don’t get swept by the Lakers it’s an unimaginably successful season” type of expectation.

The turning point for the franchise (when I talk to my fellow Thunderers) had to be during a run in game 3 of that series: Down eight with just under two minutes in the 3rd quarter of game 3, OKC went on an 8-0 run and finally delivered a counterpunch of their own, and sealing the victory.

The Thunder would go on to eventually lose the series (though nearly tying Game 6 on a last second heave that was only a little off by Russ Westbrook), but the tone was set going forward into the '10-'11 campaign that this team would fight and claw its way no matter the circumstances.

The next year's goal was a little different: to win one playoff series. It was the natural next step in the process that I believe every Thunder fan would have been perfectly content with. After 55 wins the Thunder snagged the 4 seed and played a very talented and difficult matchup in the Denver Nuggets.

Earlier in the season, the Thunder traded for Boston Center Kendrick Perkins; without him, I do not believe the Thunder win two series in the playoffs last year, let alone one. An overweight, slightly hobbled, around 60% healthy Perk gave Nene fits for two weeks straight. This allowed Serge Ibaka to play his natural position at power forward (Serge regularly played the five severely out of position, though his being freakish athlete made up for it) and check Kenyon Martin fairly well. The Thunder were able to win the series in 5 behind a fantastic close-out game from KD (after which Kevin promptly told everyone whose team this was).

Perk again played a huge role in defending Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the second round against the Grizzlies and helped give the Thunder a veteran presence in the locker room to help cope with the up and down nature of the postseason. In the Western Conference Finals Dirk and the Mavs were too much and the rest is history.

The next step in the Thunder's evolution is, of course, getting to the finals. However, if Perk’s tweet is any indication of how the rest of the organization feels (I’m pretty sure it is) then from here on out until Kevin Durant retires this team will be competing for a championship and all the expectations that come with it. When GM Sam Presti laid out his plan for this team, he did it by always reminding everyone this is a long term plan. His favorite word is sustainability. He uses it constantly when talking about the future of this team. That is what he has built.

Where we go from here:

At least in the context of this 66-game jam packed season, the Thunder has an answer for all the questions before us. Backs on backs on backs? They have fresh/young legs and if the first preseason game is any indication they want to RUN. Fitting in new players? EXACT same rotation of guys who were part of the playoff run (sans the biggest cheerleader on the sideline, Nate Robinson). Everyone in shape? Refer to previous picture of Perk as well as how much the Thunder got out in transition last night and I have no worries they’ll be fine.

Bench play? Now here is where it gets a little tricky. Lots of people are clamoring for James Harden to start, though I don’t think it is the best thing for this squad. More often than not last season the Thunder bench extended leads or made up deficits because of how deep they are. I still think Harden comes off the bench this year and anchors a second five unit of Harden-Maynor-Cook-Collison-Mohammed.

I like Harden in this role for many reasons. In this lineup, he is the number one scorer and everyone knows it. He has the ability to take over games in stretches (Game 5 of the WCF for example) and usually will have a subpar defender on him when running with other bench players. Also, the chemistry he has developed with Nick Collison on pick and rolls and back cuts/screens is a thing of beauty. Moreover, this also allows Thabo Sefolosha to open the game defending the other team’s best offensive wing and hopefully causing a frustrating start to their night.

So now we come back to that word: "expectation". Expectations mean you can be massively disappointed or greatly justified. Make no bones about it, this is a damn good basketball team in Oak City and I am excited for this season. This, however, is the first time I will put them in the championship or bust expectation bracket I have with my alma mater the University of Oklahoma football team.

How will they do this? The Thunder have to get better defensively and execute better offensively in crunch time. Scotty Brooks is a fantastic motivator and by all accounts one of the great guys in the league, but his crunch time play calling is less than desirable. One of the biggest reasons the Thunder made a 27 game improvement in the 09-10 season was they locked down with subpar defenders (I’m looking at you Jeff Green, Nenad Kristic, and even KD). Something was missing last year before the Perk trade and it was Ron Adams, who for all intents and purposes was the Thunder’s defensive coordinator on Brooks staff. Adams left to head up to Chicago to join Tom Thibodeau last season and early on it showed they didn’t have the same tenacity on the defensive end of the floor.

Kendrick Perkins is the key cog in the Thunder's defensive transformation. In Perkins, the Thunder has one of the best low post defenders in the game, calling out defensive signals and getting everyone lined up properly. With him back 100% healthy, the Thunder will be able to utilize his skill set to switch up their defensive looks and can really tinker with their schemes. After watching the first preseason game against the Mavs on Sunday night, you could tell Perk felt good. He just looked incredibly active and his body was able to do what his mind wanted. He hedged well on screens and was able to rotate quicker and more efficiently.
If this team is able to get back defensively or better to what they were in '09-'10, with the added continued development of Russ and KD on the offensive end of the floor, this team will be scary. Brooks is always preaching their best offense is their defense. When this team gets stops look for them to push almost 100% of the time. They feel that their young legs and continuity from last year can give them an edge early on this season while teams feel themselves out with their new acquisitions and new coaches.

I sincerely hope that Scott Brooks can get crunch time figured out because it was their one nagging issue that kept appearing last year. Getting KD, Russ, and Harden in space and in good positions to score late in games it will make a world of difference for this team.

If OKC can be top 5-8 defensively and get a better crunch time plan the rest will take care of itself. From KD to Royal Ivey the players on this team know what every man has to do to meet expectations and they all genuinely love playing with each other and in Oklahoma City. There is a love affair between team and fans unlike anything I have ever seen and it keeps growing year after year. Of course that can all change when expectations are not met and things get messy. I don’t see that happening but that is what lies ahead now that it’s a ‘ship or bust in the heartland for years to come.

Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:

NBA Season Preview: Burning Questions for teams you don't care about
#20: Can Sacramento keep their Kings?
#19: Will the Rockets finally make a blockbuster trade?
#18 - Will we be able to see Mark Jackson make “Hand Down, Man Down” pantomimes in the Warriors’ huddle this year?
#17 - When Will Joe Dumars be Fired?
#16 - Dwight, Deron, CP3: Who gets traded?
#15 - Did the Cavs take the right guy with the number one pick?
#14 - Where do the Blazers go from here?
#13: Will the Mavericks title defense resemble that of the 2006 Miami Heat?
#12: Who is Ricky Rubio?
#11: Who becomes irrelevant first, the Spurs or the Celtics?

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