Thursday, October 11, 2012

Winning Three More Games - Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Russ Westbrook, SG Thabo Sefolosha, SF Kevin Durant, PF Serge Ibaka, C Kendrick Perkins

Key Bench Players: PG Eric Maynor, SG James Harden, G/F Daquan Cook, PF Nick Collison, F Perry Jones III

Notable offseason additions: F Perry Jones (28th overall pick)

Notable offseason subtractions: PG Derek Fisher, C Nazr Mohammed

How do the Oklahoma City Thunder win three more games? That's it. Just three more?

With the NBA Finals notched at a 1-0 advantage Thunder, OKC went on to lose an unfathomable four games in a row to the Miami Heat. Each passing game the Thunder seemed to look younger and younger, with James Harden looking more like a petrified kid wearing a Brian Wilson costume than a future All-Star. Kevin Durant and Russ Westbrook still shined under LeBron's total eclipse of the court, but both young stars couldn't do enough to prevent the gentleman's sweep. 

Think about that: it's not just that the Thunder were beaten by the better team: they essentially were swept out of the Finals after being spotted a game. Yes, two of those contests were only decided by six points, but those losses happened because of the superior execution by the more seasoned villains from South Beach. OKC didn't get beaten by coincidence or luck or suspect circumstance. They didn't even "come up just a bit short". They got mauled right out of the Finals. Three more games? Yes, they only have to win three more games. But what they need to close a gap of 144 minutes is far more complicated than just a few more W's. 

Coming into the summer, the Thunder knew how much better they had to get. It wasn't a secret--the youthful exuberance on the faces of the OKC stars was gone, replaced with a humility only served up by such a scalding loss. Lots of wholesale changes were bandied about by the media at large, especially when analyzed financially. The Thunder had secured both Durant and Westbrook to long-term contract extensions, but F Serge Ibaka and Harden remained unsigned beyond 2012-2013. If indeed the core needed some changes to win the NBA title, perhaps the coinciding cap crunch OKC would inevitably fall into could be the catalyst for a major trade.

But the summer came and went, and the Thunder made only a few cosmetic changes in personnel. New to the team is rookie Perry Jones III, a forward with big potential but huge questions about his aggressiveness and true desire in improving as a basketball player. The Baylor forward was once projected as a lottery lock with Lamar Odom comparisons, but after staying in school through the 2011-2012 season, his stock plummeted in accordance with his career comp's. He unbelievably fell all the way to the Thunder, who happily took a top-10 talent at 99 cent store prices. The team also made a change in it's backcourt by letting PG Derek Fisher go through free agency and welcoming back a (hopefully) healthy Eric Maynor to man back-up point guard duties. The team will thus largely come back unchanged.

Is this enough? Is the OKC front office confident that even with very few personnel turnover the Thunder can win 3 more games in the Finals? Or are they looking within the team for the necessary changes to bring the midwest its first chip since the Bulls in 1996? Or is it an in-game philosophy?

To be honest, I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer these questions. So, as per usual, I'm going to turn it over to the expertise of my man and resident OKC Thunder fanboy, Thunderstolt:

Thunderstolt: Going into the offseason after falling short in the Finals OKC knew they didn't need to change much.  Their core four of Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka are progressing every year in their overall individual games and the OKC front office is confident with what is essentially their entire first and second team rotation returning for the 2012-2013 campaign.

Plugging Eric Maynor in for Derek Fisher will not only bring playmaking ability back to the second unit, but also allow for OKC to go small ball late in games if need be.  Maynor has a slightly better than average three point range (35% career and 38.5% in his last full season in 2010-2011 before blowing out his knee 9 games in last season) and has a silky floater off the dribble drive he can drop if teams over-pursue on his outside shots. I would put the Maynor/Harden/Cook/Collison/Aldrich second unit against any in the NBA. To add to that talent, there has already been chatter in OKC that Perry Jones III has looked very good and could supplant Cook in the second unit if he continues to show improvement. Interesting.

The change for the Thunder needs to come on the defensive end for the result next June to be different. OKC will be fine on the offensive end of the floor as they were second in the league in offensive effeciency only behind the Spurs last year. The new "small ball revolution" that the Heat used late in the playoffs last year actually helps the Thunder...because it gets Kendrick Perkins off the floor.

The Thunder needs to be able to defend with their best playmakers on the floor. This means lineups used with less Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha will greatly benefit the Thunder in the playoffs this season (but I want to make one thing clear: OKC needs Perkins to log heavy minutes for one series, and one series only, and that's whatever round they face the Lakers). This isn't to say that either of these guys aren't valuable; Brooks values Perkins and Thabo for good reason.  Perkins' ability to defend in the post one-on-one is a big plus and his ability to free up Durant on his bone-crushing screens gives KD easier looks at the bucket.  Sefolosha almost single-handedly suffocated the Spurs pick-and-roll offense in game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and help spark the four game run that eventually led to the Thunder winning in six. But for  everything they bring to the table on defense, Perkins and Sefolosha almost take as much off on offense.

When you start two players who most of the time turn up very minimal numbers on the offensive end it is very taxing on a team as the Thunder found themselves in 10+ point holes early in way too many games last year in the playoffs.  Defenses are able to key on KD and Russ to start games and Perkins and Sefolosha were not able to make them pay for it.  If the Thunder are able to trot out a lineup of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant, and Ibaka and keep the defensive numbers from taking a huge dip that will be huge for the Thunder this season. Playing five guys who can create their own shot or create for others while also playing solid defensive basketball is what will make this team scary.  It is yet to be seen if this scenario is a reality and if the Thunder slips significantly on defense with their best offensive lineup in the game Brooks will have no choice but to play Perkins and Sefolosha, but in reality if that happens the Thunder will be without a title again come summer. 

Check out our 
NBA season preview gauntlet:

Southeast Division
Atlanta Hawks

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