By Rob Mahoney
The Two Man Game
Flashing. Flashing. Lights. Soak it up, Thunder faithful; your team is officially big time.
While last year’s squad may have been on a jog that somehow meandered through the 50-win mark and right into the playoffs, this team’s success seems ordained from the start. The Thunder are the next big thing, and unlike many teams in the conference, they control their own destiny.
Houston, San Antonio, and Portland have hinged their fates on injury-prone bigs. Dallas is better than they were a year ago, but has little internal improvement to speak of. Meanwhile, your Thunder? They only have one of the best ballplayers on the planet, a supporting cast that’s often criminally underrated, and a coach that understands how to motivate his team, even if he’s not always great with a clipboard.
Durant is exquisite, but as most of you well know, he’s not the only piece that makes this team go. Russell Westbrook is as dynamic of a guard as we have in this league, and a tantalizing on-ball perimeter defender to boot. Jeff Green — I said his name, that means you guys have to argue in the comment section, right? — in spite of all of his faults, is still a valuable player. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are the kind of bigs that pseudo contenders would kill for.
It doesn’t stop there, either. James Harden? Thabo Sefolosha? Nenad Krstic? Cole Aldrich? Each flawed in their own way, but wonderfully useful within the team concept.
The Thunder have the top-tier talent, the athletic and productive sidekick, the roster versatility, the go-getter coach, the absurd depth, the youth, the inspiration, and now, the appropriate hype.
Put on your sunglasses. This season is going to bring an unprecedented level of glitz to OKC, and the Thunder are quite deserving.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Thunder is that all of the areas in which they were successful last season (contesting shots, creating turnovers, getting to the free throw line, and hitting the offensive glass) seem like locks for the coming year, and the areas in which they struggled (shooting efficiency, turnovers, defensive rebounding, and fouling) seem likely to be hedged. The team’s troubles with shot selection, turnovers, and fouling last season were hardly indicative of some systemic woe; as the roster matures from top to bottom, I think it’s reasonable to say that some of those troubles will, on the whole, begin to vanish. Additionally, as Ibaka’s role evolves and Aldrich is introduced into the rotation, the Thunder’s problems on the defensive glass will be far less pronounced. Ibaka was the team’s top qualified rebounder last season (he led OKC in offensive rebounding rate, defensive rebounding rate, and, naturally, total rebounding rate), and provided that his supposed increase in minutes also coincides with a diminished role for Nenad Krstic, the Thunder could shoot up the league’s rebounding ranks.
Overall, your little ball club has the potential to be a top-10 outfit in both offensive and defensive efficiency this year, which would put them in rather select company. There are few things more difficult to predict in the coming season than the future of the West’s second tier, and I’m not quite arrogant enough to think I can peg one team among the non-Laker elite as any better than any other, so for now, I’ll simply say that the Thunder find a home this season in a huddle near the front.
That said, while teams like the Rockets and Jazz have a high degree of variability in their potential this season, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the Thunder will be right there. OKC still lacks what it takes to make it past the Lakers, but I see no fault with those who prop up the Thunder as the second best team in the conference. The ’09-’10 Thunder may have been an opening act, but this year’s squad is a flat-out headliner. Welcome to the marquee.