With the World Championships about to kickoff and the month of August coming to a close, I think it’s more than appropriate for us to start getting a little excited about the upcoming year (especially now that we’ve seen the schedule). And a big part about the anticipation and excitement for this upcoming season has to do with the natural progression that a young team must make to go from potential contender to a championship reality.
So with that in mind, I’m going to look at five different things over the next few weeks that I’d really like to see happen next year because I believe these are the five developments that will take the Thunder from being a young and promising squad to a legitimate, without-question championship contender.
And no, these are not in any specific order of importance whatsoever.
1. James Harden replaces Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup.
I know this is going to be a source of debate among the Thunder’s fan base but, to me, it just seems unbelievably obvious that for the Thunder to take that next step, James Harden has to win (emphasis on win) the starting lineup job at some point in the next season.
Now the arguments for keeping Thabo as the starting SG are solid. He’s one of the best perimeter (if not the best) defensive players in the league. He anchors one of the league’s best defenses and is that guy when the clock is winding down, the game is on the line and your team needs a stop against an elite scorer.
But guess what, there’s about forty-seven other minutes during a ball game besides the last minute and thanks to the lovely part about the ball being advanced past half-court for the offense on a timeout, most coaches are going to be able to sub-in defensive specialists in late game situations, which is where Thabo would be invaluable.
And that’s really what I think Thabo’s role is going to have to become for the Thunder to escape being just a playoff contender. He’s an elite defender, a below average offensive player and he is not extraordinarily gifted at passing, court vision, dribbling or three-point shooting. And to me, that spells “specialist role player” on a championship team a whole lot more than it does “starting shooting guard” on a championship team.
The Thunder as a whole now are a great defensive team. Did they need Thabo in the starting lineup at the beginning of last season? Absolutely. But do they need him now in the starting lineup to help establish the defensive mindset they need to win? I really don’t think so anymore.
The issue between Harden starting versus Thabo starting really comes down to if Thabo’s defense and below average offense helps the team better than Harden’s offense and average defense does. And that’s precisely why I want Harden to replace Thabo in the starting lineup next season.
The gap between Thabo’s defensive impact and Harden’s defensive impact closed last year despite the reality that Thabo will probably always be a better defender than Harden. But the gap between Harden’s offensive impact and Thabo’s offensive impact only widened with each passing game.
When the opposition did not have a premier wing scorer that needed to be shut down, Thabo was pretty useless (sorry, but it’s true), especially the better the Thunder’s team defense became. Not only that, but Thabo is such a detriment on the offensive end that teams were able to double team Durant and not get punished because of it in any way since Thabo never hurt them with the fact that he was wide open.
Harden, on the other hand, absolutely hurt the other team if he was left wide open from distance or especially if he had a wide open driving lane. The Thunder need that third scorer to take the pressure off of Westbrook and Durant as the somewhat diluted offensive system they run is so dependent on them. Harden can be that third scorer.
Plus, Harden compliments Westbrook and Durant better than Thabo does. Westbrook’s weaknesses get cancelled out with Harden’s strengths. They’d help each other out so much that I honestly think Westbrook would see a nice jump in his statistics (assists, efficiency, etc) playing next to James Harden for 34-40 minutes a game.
And Harden showed major signs of improvement in only his rookie season on the defensive side of the ball after playing only zone at Arizona State. Add on the fact that Harden’s offensive efficiency got better and better, especially after the All-Star break, and I find it hard to believe the argument that Thabo’s defensive ability to stop one other opposing team’s best scorer while hurting the Thunder in almost every way on offense should keep him in the starting lineup.
That is why if James Harden can’t beat out Thabo Sefolosha for the starting spot at some point next season, I will be pretty disheartened. Because you don’t draft someone with the #3 pick if he can’t beat out a role player, even if that role player is one of the elite defenders in the league.