Enemy Lines: A rival scout sizes up the Thunder
2012-13 Record: 60-22; lost to Grizzlies in Western Conference semifinals
Coach: Scott Brooks (sixth season with Thunder)
You can't begin the conversation about the Thunder without going back to the James Harden trade. Realistically, if Harden were still on the team when Russell Westbrook injured his knee in the playoffs last season, the Thunder would have advanced deeper [instead of losing to Memphis in the second round]. Harden would have given them another primary ball handler who could score and create for others and keep defenses from loading up on Kevin Durant too much. The Thunder team that went to the 2012 Finals had three All-Star-caliber playmakers and scorers, but the Westbrook injury that followed the Harden trade left them with only one.
That said, the wheels won't come off early this season while Westbrook is recovering from his knee surgery. Maybe the Thunder will drop a few games they'd normally win, but the dip won't be significant enough that they can't make it up down the stretch. Westbrook's absence opens minutes and opportunity for other players. That should only expedite the development process for young players such as Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, so that when Westbrook does come back, those guys are even more capable and comfortable.
I don't think there's a player on LeBron James' level right now, but damned if Durant's not a hell of a No. 2. It's one thing to defend smaller players who are great shooters, but you're talking about a guy who's 6-foot-10 with a high release who can go out and just bury threes. In end-of-game situations, teams will try to deny him the ball and take a man off the inbounder and double him, and somehow he still gets it. You may have two guys draped all over him, but he rises up and still hits the shot.
Durant is not just a shooter either. He's one of the few guys who can be the screener or ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, whereas most 6-10 guys just set the screen. As the ball handler in that situation, he can turn the corner to get into the teeth of the defense or pull up for the jump shot.
Many high-volume scorers aren't willing defenders because they don't want to get in foul trouble or feel like they can't afford to. But Durant has always been willing to stick his nose in there. He may not be an All-Defensive-team candidate, but he's an intelligent defender, he has quick hands and he works at it both on the ball and off. He can be better, but he seems to know that to get where he wants to go individually, and for his team to get where it wants to go, he has to continue to improve defensively.
Westbrook is not the prototypical point guard, but the prototypical point guard in today's NBA really is not what everybody thinks it is. That mythical pass-first point guard is a college definition. In the NBA, point guards have to score. If they're not keeping opponents honest with their scoring, defenses can cheat off them and take away other things from an offense.
The criticism of Westbrook is unfair. He looks to score first and he should, even though he plays with Durant. You want Durant to have opportunities, but Westbrook isn't so much below him that that he needs to be that deferential. Westbrook is one of the best at getting up and down the floor and getting into the teeth of the defense. He has elite athleticism and quickness and the ability to get to the rim at virtually any time. That ability does not always mean he has to score; he creates opportunities for his teammates, including Durant, when he breaks down the defense.
With Westbrook out, the playmaking doesn't all need to fall to Jackson. Durant will have to step up, and they'll lean on the experienced Derek Fisher. But Jackson's progress has been encouraging, particularly the way he played in the playoffs last season. When Jackson came into the league in 2011, there were those who thought he was more of a shooting guard. But he's developed into being able to play the point, and he can rebound. He can create for others but also score in his own right. He's going to be a core rotation player for years to come.
Serge Ibaka is unique. He can make mid-range jump shots, then get down and do the dirty work and rebound and lead the league in blocks. You don't game-plan around his shot blocking, but you alert your team to it. When bigs like him come to help, you've got to be prepared to find teammates ducking in or sliding behind the defense, maybe even kick out to shooters. You also talk about trying to draw fouls on him by taking the ball into his body.
Where I see development potential with him is in his low-post game, which is about footwork and fundamentals. All the skills seem to be there. It's a matter of making it a priority and working on it.
The Thunder brought in Kendrick Perkins in 2011 knowing that when they got deep in the playoffs they would have to combat low-post scorers such as Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph. On the flip side, he gets exposed when an opponent is playing small and he's at a quickness disadvantage. As valuable as Perkins can be with his defense and physicality, there are going to be times when the Thunder can't use him, and if they can get some of their young bigs to develop, Perkins will become a very situational player. That transition is going to be important in where they go.
Thabo Sefolosha wasn't much of a shooter when he came into the league in 2006, but he's established himself as a catch-and-shoot guy. That makes him a great fit playing with Westbrook and Durant because of all of the attention they draw and their drive-and-kick ability. On defense, Sefolosha can always draw the opponent's best-scoring wing. He has size and length as well as the quickness and athletic ability to guard multiple positions, including a smaller ball handler.
Nick Collison knows his role and does all the little things well. He doesn't take a lot of shots, but when he does, he makes them count. Like Sefolosha, he doesn't need to be a star. These guys deliver what this team needs: defensive effort and the type of stuff that doesn't show up the box score.
Scott Brooks can be unorthodox at times, and I respect that so much because it opens you up to criticism when you're with a team at this level and with this talent. The players buy into him and respond to him. Brooks has been a big part of cultivating a rare kind of camaraderie that they have throughout the organization.
If they're going to win a championship, then Jackson, Lamb, Perry Jones and their first pick this year, Steven Adams, are going to have to make contributions in the playoffs and not just in the regular season.