This is the first of our Contender Previews, in which we look at challengers to the Lakers' throne in the upcoming season. Today, we discuss an up-and-coming rival in the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Denver are good. San Antonio are good. Phoenix are good. Utah are good. Houston are good. Portland are good. They're all Western Conference contenders, per se. However, one crucial aspect separates the young Oklahoma City Thunder from their counterparts, and that is quite simply their youth. Every other Western Conference contender, even the Lakers, have virtually reached a standstill in terms of developing homegrown talent and are thus either in stasis or regression barring infusion of talent via free agency (which, courtesy of GM Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers have done ever so well, once again) or trade.
The Thunder, however, are almost a personification of the 'young superstar' in a team form. Aside from a few solid veterans, the entirety of the team's core is young and oozing with potential. From record-breaking 21-year-old scoring champion Kevin Durant, to best-point-guard-on-Team-USA Russell Westbrook, to sophomore #3 draft pick James Harden, the Thunder have an already dangerous core that will only improve with time. There are also solid role players in Jeff Green (who may be overrated, but can still function as a role player on a contending team), Eric Maynor, Serge Ibaka, defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha and rookie big man Cole Aldrich.
These guys were the Lakers' toughest opponents in the West last season.
And exceptional circumstances barred, not one of them will regress next season. In fact, they should all improve.
These 'young superstars' have something that many individual young talents do not. They have maturity, chemistry and poise. Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti has truly moulded this team in the model of his mentor Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs, with solid coaching on the bench and an undisputed leader who, while young, is without a doubt deserving in Durant, star of Team USA and MVP favourite for the coming season.
Defensively, this team is tough, with a Defensive Rating of 104.6, good for 9th in the league last season and just 0.9 worse than the Laker's dominant D. This team does not have a multitude of well-known defensive stars, although Westbrook is one of the premier point guard defenders in the league with his combination of size and athleticism; Sefolosha has become known for holding his own against many of the league's premier wings in his role as the Thunder's defensive specialist, and Ibaka is a shotblocker with monster potential. These three defenders are supplemented by strong team defensive schemes and effort.
The primary blemish on this team defensively in previous years was, surprisingly, Durant himself. However, he showed improvement on the defensive side of the ball last season, and his Team USA experience should only further improve his D. This improvement by Durant, coupled with the added size in Aldrich, should make the Thunder stronger defensively.
Offensively, the Thunder have numerous viable options in Green, a versatile scorer from the high post and midrange; Westbrook, a lightning-quick guard with the ability to finish, and Harden, a solid floor-spacer. Aldrich was also known to be an efficient scorer in college, though how he fares against NBA competition is yet to be seen. And of course, the elephant in the room is reigning NBA scoring champion Durant. He scored 30.1 points per game last season on 48% shooting from the field, 90% from the line and 37% from three (a significant down season compared to the season before). Considering that's only his third year in the league, it is reasonable, albeit scary, to assume he can and likely will improve on those numbers in some way shape or form in the upcoming season.
The Thunder have good floor generals leading both units, keeping their offense organised, resulting in a 108.3 Offensive Rating for the prior season (only 0.5 less than the Lakers), good for 12th in the league. With another year of experience and coaching under their belts, there is nowhere for the Thunder to go but up. A key to the Thunder improving offensively is the progress of Durant. While he is quite often the best option, and no one will be complaining if he shoots, if he looks to get others involved in the Thunder offense just a little bit more, it could result in a measurable improvement. It would also be beneficial if Aldrich proved able to score in the low post in the NBA, and if the Thunder developed some more floor-spacing either through trade or internal development, as Durant and Harden are currently their only good three-point shooters.
Matching up with the Lakers, the Thunder have a glaring advantage at point guard, which was shown early on in the teams' first-round playoff series last year. However, as Kobe aptly demonstrated by switching onto Westbrook, as long as Sefolosha starts at the two guard for Oklahoma City, the Lakers can simply switch Kobe and Derek Fisher's defensive matchups to contain Westbrook. As such, if the Thunder wish to be able to truly exploit this advantage, Harden must develop more as a multidimensional offensive threat of the type he had the potential to be coming out of college. This would be particularly dangerous, as it would mean the Thunder would have weapons at all three perimeter positions, which the Lakers could only effectively combat with unconventional lineups.
Obviously, the Thunder are Durant's team, and they will go as far as he takes them. Whilst many are predicting upticks in scoring and rebounding, I would look for two primary things from Durant that would signal his continued development. First, and most important, is an uptick in his assist numbers. For all Durant is praised for his scoring ability, he is still not seen as as much of a distributor as other stars of his caliber. Particularly this season, now that defenses will be more focused on him than ever before, Durant must be able to effectively distribute the ball.
Second, Durant experienced a significant regression in terms of three-point percentage last season, from 42% to 37%. Now, while he did take an extra three per game, and variation is to be expected year to year, such a drastic drop is remarkable for a player with the stroke and skills of Durant. Undoubtedly, some of this drop was due to defenses adjusting to Durant and his having to create more shots for himself; but nonetheless it is an exception, not the norm, and his three-point percentage should see an uptick this upcoming season.
I've seen many predicting a season shooting 50% from the field for Durant, for the mythical 50-40-90 line that very few have ever achieved. I don't see that as likely as some others do, simply because Durant's role is as a scorer, not a shooter, and thus he will take too many shots, many undoubtedly tough or even 'bad' shots, and to achieve 50% from the field in his role as primary scorer would certainly be remarkable. Durant's game is not like LeBron's or Wade's, centred around getting into the lane; instead it incorporates a vast perimeter and midrange component. Even with Durant's silky stroke, to expect 50% from the field from a perimeter-oriented player who shoots the volume that Durant does is unreasonable. (Generally the perimeter players who achieve such a figure are either pure shooters, not scorers like Durant; or ones who do not often look to create their own shot, like Steve Nash.)
Whilst moderate upticks in scoring and rebounding are to be expected, and the increased three-point percentage will improve his overall shooting numbers, I find it hard to see Durant averaging more than 32 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game on 49% from the field, 41% from deep and 92% from the line; good enough for a regular-season MVP, All-NBA first-team selection and an opportunity to lead his team deep into the playoffs. All in his fourth year in the league.
Whilst Durant is far and away the best player on the Thunder, their future, and a potential rematch with the Lakers, also depends on the potential of Aldrich. Durant will get his, nonetheless hindered by Artest, and Kobe will get his, similarly bothered by Sefolosha, the Thunder still have no way to even compete with the Lakers' frontline. Aldrich by himself is unlikely to fully resolve that issue, but if he can morph into a decent post scorer and defender he could at least make the Laker bigs break a sweat during a playoff series.
All in all, the Oklahoma City Thunder are probably the Lakers' prime competitors in the West. However, I do not think they are good enough to beat LA yet. I see them needing a few more years' of development from Aldrich and Ibaka to form an offensive and defensive tandem to work in conjunction with Green to have any shot at hindering the Lakers' frontline and defeating the Lakers in a series.