1. What player is going to break out and be big time important this season?
J.G. Marking: My answer is James Harden. I think Harden is finally beginning to understand just how effective he can be at the NBA level when it comes to contributing to an entire box score, instead of just labeling himself “the spot-up three point shooter,” which he seemed to almost shackle himself with the majority of the time last season. I think Harden’s improved understanding of attacking the basket and his increasing defensive ability will get him more and more minutes and see him become the true #2 scoring option the Thunder so desperately need (and drafted him for).
Royce Young: I’d say there are four candidates for such a thing on this list. You could make a strong case for Cole Aldrich, Eric Maynor, James Harden and Serge Ibaka to potentially break out and play a large role for OKC this year. But since I wrote the question and said pick one, I’m going with Serge Ibaka. He’s going to be inconsistent and he’s going to have nights where he doesn’t contribute much. But when he’s plugged in, he’s going to make an impact not just defensively, but offensively as well. It’s not hard for me to see a few night where he goes for 15 points, 12 boards and six blocks. He’s going to win the Thunder a few games this season, I’m positive.
Patrick James: Eric Maynor. The Thunder woke up a .500 basketball team on the December morning the Jazz traded Eric Maynor to Oklahoma City for a bag of chips. That seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
Now, I know that Eric Maynor isn’t the only reason the Thunder exploded over the next five months to scare the bejeezus out of the Lakers and leave sportswriters using thesauruses in search of more superlatives. But he’s a big reason why. How many No. 2 point guards in the league would you take over Maynor? By the end of the season, you could be reasonably asking the same question of No. 1 point guards and not need more than two hands and a foot to count the answer.
I’d like to see a lot of small-ball this year with Maynor at the one, Russell Westbrook at the two, James Harden at the three, Kevin Durant at the four and either Jeff Green or Serge Ibaka at the five, especially when other teams start to go to their benches. Who would be able to keep up with that? I doubt there’s a better small-ball lineup in the league this side of Miami, and if you try to counter it with a traditional lineup, you’re getting your doors blown off after every possession, make or miss. And if there are injuries in the back court this year, Maynor’s stabilizing presence can maximize the roster flexibility and allow the team to move on without skipping a beat.
2. Will Kevin Durant win the MVP?
J.G. Marking: I honestly think so. I think Kobe will be rested even a bit more this year (until the playoffs). I think LeBron won’t have to post otherworldly stats with Wade and Bosh in Miami for them to be successful (I also think he’ll get more rest too after the Heat are up 20 in the third quarter on some poor team), therefore cutting into his stats. And I think Kevin Durant will continue to be the heart of a team that will challenge for home-court advantage, win 50+ games again and show just as much improvement as their leader will, winning his first MVP at 22.
Royce Young: It’s certainly set up for him to do so. His main competition is not only splitting the spotlight and stats in Miami now, but his glamorous image also took a hit. The media’s waiting to hand Durant the award and it’s just a matter as to if he performs or not.
And he will definitely perform. His team will be good, he’ll have great numbers and it’ll be set up for him to win the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. But I don’t think he will. He’s going to come in second in an extremely close vote, but not to LeBron. This time, I think Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul or Dwight Howard just barely edges him for the award. It’ll come in due time though.
Patrick James: Yes. Kobe Bryant looks like he’ll struggle to play all season, much less to put up big numbers all season, especially if he tries to save himself for the stretch run. I think LeBron James and the Heat will need a big chunk of the year to figure things out and hit their statistical stride, although he may be a triple-double machine before too long
Durant, on the other hand, enters the season healthy with most of the same cast he played with last year, and he appears to have only added to his offensive and defensive arsenal over the summer. And more importantly, he’s the leader in the clubhouse before the season even started. Most folks with votes out there have probably already made it Durant’s to lose in their own minds, and I don’t think he will. The MVP contest is a beauty pageant, and KD is the “it” candidate this year with the game to back it up.
3. Will the roster look the same at the end of the season?
J.G. Marking: The 15 man roster? Yes. The rotational roster…I’m not so sure. I can’t see Presti, Brooks and Co. moving any of the contributors from last year for fear of disrupting continuity (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). But I also can’t see Aldrich not getting some serious run if he can rebound, defend, protect the rim and affect so many plays on both ends of the court with his hustle. I also can’t see Ibaka not getting 26-30 min a game, which means someone’s minutes/role in the rotation is getting slimmed down or cut altogether. So I think (and hope) the 9-man, set in stone rotation gives way to the situation/use our weapons and matchups to our advantage rotation.
Royce Young: I say no. Either Nenad Krstic or Nick Collison isn’t going to be on this roster by the end of the season. I’m convinced. I lean towards Krstic just because I think Sam Presti is going to attempt to re-sign Collison next summer if he can. It depends on Cole Aldrich and if he can handle larger minutes, but Byron Mullens is being groomed to do what Krstic does now. I think the Thunder trades Krstic while his value is high and his contract is attractive.
Patrick James: Yes, with the possible exception of the end of the bench. I don’t see any scenario in which the Thunder doesn’t tinker with the final couple of roster spots depending on what they need in practice or what the injury situation is as the season progresses. They’ll want to get quick looks at guys and shuttle them back-and-forth between here and Tulsa if they’re still eligible. But I don’t see any major roster moves this year during the season.
The biggest trade chip the Thunder has (not including players who obviously aren’t going anywhere) is Nick Collison because of his expiring contract. They could conceivably move him in a package for a nice player to a team that’s looking for cap space next year. But I think the Thunder should be counted among the teams looking for cap space, so I think they’ll hold on to Collison and use the room next year to re-sign Russell Westbrook and (hopefully, in my mind) Jeff Green. The staff obviously loves Collison so I bet they’d like to bring him back without overpaying him, but they’d let him walk if they think they can get the same minutes next year from Cole Aldrich. And somewhere Mrs. Patrick James just threw something because big No. 4 is her favorite player, except for when Thabo Sefolosha is her favorite player. Or Serge Ibaka after she saw the ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue.”
4. In March, who is starting at center?
J.G. Marking: I have no idea on this one, but I’ll go with Krstic, barring any injury. He’s underrated in his positional defending and he and Westbrook do have a great pick-and-pop game.
However I’d like to add that the question is March and not April or May, because if the Thunder get matched up with a Western Conference foe with some bigs who can and do start abusing Krstic down low like the Lakers did, I’d hope the coaching staff would take a long look at starting the guy they traded up just outside of the top 10 in the draft to get.
Royce Young: Well, since I’ve got the team trading Krstic, I guess I’m saying Cole Aldrich is, by default. I don’t think the team is convinced Serge Ibaka can handle it. I’m definitely not convinced of it.
A tandem of Ibaka and Jeff Green on the inside would get mauled. But Aldrich was drafted to play that spot and if he progresses and plays defense and rebounds, he should be able to take the spot with no problem. If I’m wrong, like I so often am, and Krstic is still in OKC, he’ll be starting at center in March.
Patrick James: Byron Mullens. OK, so maybe I don’t really believe this, and if it comes true he would undoubtedly be the answer to the first question as well unless he’s starting by default because of health issues. But this is what I want to happen, and would likely be a sign of great things to come if it happens for the right reasons.
A starting lineup in two more years of well-refined players in Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Mullens would be downright scary if they all are even scratching the surface of their potential by then, allowing Jeff Green to be one of the better sixth men in the league as a sub at the three and four. Size. Speed. Shooting. Defense.
I think we know who Nenad Krstic is. He’s a solid player, an underrated defender and an above-average pick-and-pop post, and that’s what he’ll be for a few more years before age slows him down. But it appears as if Byron Mullens has similar skills with more natural talent. If that comes to fruition sooner rather than later, look out.