Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview: A Dynasty in the Making?

Team Capsule The Thunder were three wins away from winning an NBA title. There top four players are all under 24 years old, and three of them are signed for the next four years. Anyone you look at it, this team has the potential to win multiple titles.

Kevin Durant has won three straight scoring titles. Serge Ibaka was runner-up for the Defensive Player of the Year, never mind if he deserved it or not. Russell Westbrook is a scoring machine and has the ability to take over a game at any time, possibly even more so than Durant. The wild card is James Harden. He is up to become a restricted free agent at the end of the year, and the Thunder have until Halloween to extend him.

Both Sam Presti and Harden have shown confidence that the deal will get done, but with only two weeks to go, there has to be some doubt. It is almost a given that Harden will receive a max contract if he hits the market, which would be hard for the Thunder to match without sacrificing the ability to build a championship caliber team around the three max contracts and another 12.25 million for Ibaka. If the contract talks fall through, this may be the last chance the Thunder have to win the NBA Finals while LeBron James is in Miami.

Throughout the entire season Harden was the X-factor the Thunder, the reason Westbrook or Durant could have an off-night and still win games. When they entered the Finals, Harden disappeared.  He shot a measly 37.5% from the field, and  a true shooting percentage of .529 compared to .626 for the first three playoff series. Harden was supposed to be why the Thunder could beat the Heat, but he was one of main the reasons they didn’t.

It could have been the pressure of having to shine on the biggest stage in basketball at just 22 years old. During the season Harden was one of the best players in the fourth quarter/overtime, with a .683 eFG% in five point games in this situation. This may be a misleading though, because when the game got down to the last two minutes, Harden only took two shots for the entire season, compared to Durant’s 69 and Westbrook’s 34. Even Derek Fisher and Serge Ibaka took more shots in these situations than Harden.

Durant and Westbrook alone can make it a series, but to get over the hump they will need Ibaka and Harden to step up. Another year and some Finals experience will definitely help. It also is worth noting that all four of the Thunders high-profile players participated in this summer’s Olympic Games. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden for the United States, and Ibaka played for Spain. This only helps the team chemistry, which is already seemingly great.

Over the summer, Harden held a party for a friend in OKC, at which Westbrook made an appearance. The Thunder twitter scene is one of the largest  among NBA teams. Durant (@KDTrey5), Harden (@JHarden13), and Westbrook (@russwest44), he tweets much more in the offseason than the regular season), along with Eric Maynor (EMaynor3) and Daequan Cook (DC4Three) are major tweeters. That’s what makes the Thunder one of the most likable teams in the league. Most players make themselves available to the fans whenever possible, and most of all they look like they genuinely love playing basketball. The real life friendships makes it so fun to watch them play, they look like they are, using a huge sports cliché, a true family.

Going into the 2012-2013 NBA season, the Thunder are considered by most to be one of the top three teams in the NBA, along with the Miami Heat and the new-look Los Angeles Lakers. The additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to the Lakers makes them much tougher matchup for the Thunder than last year. In the playoffs, the Lakers did not have nearly enough talent to handle the scoring prowess of the Thunder. OKC were able to use their bench to create deficits the starts couldn’t overcome. The Thunder bench outscored the Lakers version 153-66 over the five game series. Even if you take out James Harden’s 80 points, whom players starters minutes, the Thunder still have the advantage by seven points.

Howard in the lane should slow down Westbrook and Harden’s ability to get to the rim, and helps out an aging Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, and Steve Nash hold the wings down (wow, they are old). The big problem that the Lakers pose for the Thunder is in the front court. A combination of Howard and Pau Gasol will be very difficult to guard. Kendrick Perkins is one of the best defenders of Dwight, whenever he does well it’s generally on a high number of shot attempts. Still, it’s hard to trust Perkins to doing much right, besides get technicals. The more trying matchup may be Gasol vs. Ibaka, Serge has consistently struggled against fours who play outside the paint well. His tendency to bite on pump fakes and poor footwork is a reason for concern. How quickly Dwight Howard can mesh with the Lakers on both ends of the court, and how he recovers from his back injury, are large detriments of how the Western Conference will play out.

The Thunder did make a few moves this offseason, but a key player for the Thunder is backup point guard, Eric Maynor. His ACL tear was not mentioned by the media that often, due to it happening nine games into the season. While Reggie Jackson is supposedly competing with Maynor for the backup point guard job, I believe once Maynor reminds us how he is one of the best reserve point guards in the league, he will be a huge addition to the bench unit that was a major part of the Thunder’s success. With Maynor taking over the ball handling role from James Harden, the floor is spread out for him to do his thing from his VCU days. When the Thunder went small, the lineup was usually Westbrook-Cook/Fisher-Harden-Durant-Ibaka/Collison. Daequan Cook is a 3-point specialist who shoots 34.6% for his career, and Derek Fisher is just a shell of his old self that really wasn’t all that great. With Fisher gone, thankfully, this leaves Maynor and Cook for this final spot. For me, this isn’t even a question, you can have three elite scorers off the ball, with a more than capable ball handler facilitating them. This wouldn’t be a lineup that would be used all too often, but against certain teams it could be deadly.

It seems crazy that a player with the talent that Perry Jones III has, slipped so far in the draft. His injuries are still a concern, but all looks great so far. Jones has showed off his athleticism with some solid preseason performances. Even Harden said Jones is the most athletic player on the team. That is insanely scary, if he’s telling the truth. If this transfers over to the regular season, the Thunder will have yet another solid scoring option, and some. According to sources, many of the Thunder players have taken special interest in Jones’ development. Durant has made sure to matchup with him during scrimmages, which gives Jones a chance to practice defense against maybe the toughest basketball player to guard, in the world.

At 6′ 11″, Jones could potentially guard four positions, which would be a major help for Ibaka and Durant. All of his potential makes it hard to not want him to be the player he can be, immediately, but being realistic, Jones will give Thunder fans a look at what the future entails and that’s about it. Don’t count on him to be a factor this season, but the possibility that he is a major piece in future Thunder championships is enticing.

In conclusion, Perry Jones III is looking awesome, Perry Jones III may very well be awesome, Perry Jones III is young, developing, and inexperienced, so the Thunder should be careful with how they handle him. The biggest problem with preseason is that we can put off the negative as “it’s just preseason”, and take the positive as indicators of the future. Take everything with a grain of salt, but be excited.

Oklahoma City is chomping at the bit for another chance to take down King James and his South Beach buddies. An 82 game season and three tough playoffs series lie between the Thunder and their rematch. They will have to get by the Spurs, the Lakers, and the rest of the Western Conference. OKC is up for the challenge, let’s enjoy the ride.

Biggest Strength: Scoring Options/Youth

Two of the most exciting games of the lockout shortened season were the Thunder playing the Timberwolves, and them playing the Nuggets. Both games have many things in common. Both games went into overtime,  Westbrook and Durant both scored 40+, there was a triple double and a 50 point scorer, and the Thunder won. If you were to watch Westbrook play in the second overtime of the Wolves game, you would have no clue that he had already played 45 minutes of basketball. His lungs might have well been the size of Texas, because there was no sign of him slowing down. For the first five periods, everyone was focused on the Kevins, Durant and Love, going back and forth with clutch shots. What makes the Thunder special, is that at the end of the game, no matter what, they have three players that can take over the game. Durant is struggling? Give the ball the Westbrook, he’s struggling? Give it the Harden. They all have the skill and energy to play fast-paced, contested games, that may tire out older teams.

Biggest Weakness: Size/Post play

For the first play of nearly every game, Scott Brooks called for the ball to be thrown down to Kendrick Perkins in the post.  It was incredibly frustrating, knowing that having the ball with Perkins in the post is the worst possible offense for a team with almost an unlimited number of ways to score. While Perkins is not known for his offense, his typical game of five points and six rebounds is not going to cut it. Serge Ibaka is a little bit better in the post, but is still very raw, down low. If the jump shots are falling, he can’t be relied on to take the ball, and score with any ease. Cole Aldrich is getting better, and could very well play big minutes at the center position of Perkins. The Thunder added Hasheem Thabeet, hoping he can be at least a shadow of his #2 overall pick status.

Player to watch: James Harden

It is more of his situation, rather than his play that makes him the player to watch on the Thunder. In the case that he does not get his extension in time, it could become a huge distraction for the team. The question will come up about whether OKC should consider trading Harden, so they don’t lose him for nothing in free agency. Do you mess with a title contender to make sure you reap the benefits of having a player everyone wants?

If the deal gets done, Harden should not have a problem continuing to improve on last season. His efficiency was historically great last season, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep that up. He should get a few more minutes per game, and probably will get more focus from opposing defenses. I would like to see Harden make a solid jump on the defensive end. He has the athleticism and mentality to be a great defender, he just needs to learn and put it all together. James Harden could either become the best shooting guard in the league and an elite scorer, or continue to just be a piece of the puzzle. Either way, he is one of the most fun players to watch in the league, personally, and it should be interesting to see how this season turns out.

Also, there is the question, should Harden eventually start over Thabo Sefolosha? He basically plays as many minutes as he would if he were to start, and he finishes games. I don’t think it’s a big deal, but people will be pushing for it.

2011-2012 Record: 46-20

Coach: Scott Brooks (174-125 career)

Key Additions: Perry Jones III, Hasheem Thabeet, DeAndre Liggins

None of the new Thunder players will have a great effect on the season, as only Jones and Thabeet will get any significant minutes. Thabeet has talked about how much better of a situation he is in, maybe he can prove to be a solid role player for a team that lacks true size. He is a true wild card for Oklahoma City and his signing could pay off, but it is likely that he is just a minor piece.

Key Losses: None

Team Trajectory: Rising

It’s hard to go any higher that this Thunder team did last season, but all of the featured players get another year under their belt, and more playoff experience. The bench has the potential to be the best reserve unit in the league, and will definitely win some games for the OKC. They are one step away from the top, this could be the season they put it all together to win the NBA Finals

Projected Record: 61-21

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About Blake Potash
I am online, I use the interwebs, I like sports.

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