It’s hard to complain about the first two months of Oklahoma City’s season — though many do anyway. The Thunder entered 2010 just four games over .500 on its way to a 50-win season, but enters 2011 well above that mark and appears set to win more than 50 games this year.
Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement. The Thunder could and should make, and stick to, several new year’s resolutions in 2011 that could push it to a top-four seed in the West playoffs. Just like many people look themselves in the mirror on Jan. 1 and say to themselves, “I will do (blank) to become a better person,” Oklahoma City would be well-served to look itself in the mirror and tell itself the following:
1. Serge Ibaka will become a better positional defender.
Ibaka is without a doubt the most intimidating interior presence for the Thunder. But as a positional defender, he is far from being the most effective. Most of Ibaka’s highlight-reel blocks come as he bails out a teammate or stands tall against a face-to-the-basket offensive player who is challenging the rim.
But Ibaka has plenty of work to do with his man-to-man post defense. The ability and the effort is there — chances are, most Thunder fans remember his outstanding defense against none other than Tim Duncan in a late-season loss to the Spurs last season, in which he held the Big Fundamental to zero fourth-quarter points. But guys like Luis Scola and Carlos Boozer have made Ibaka look downright ordinary in recent weeks.
To be sure, Scola and Boozer abuse just about everyone in the NBA when they’re playing well. But for the Thunder to make a run in the playoffs, Ibaka needs to combine his own athleticism, strength and size with the skill of someone like Nick Collison. Considering he’s only 21-years-old, I’m sure the improvement will come. The sooner the better for an Oklahoma City team on the verge of true contention.
2. The Broingtons will ride again.
OK, so maybe this won’t really help much in the quest for home-court advantage in the first round. But the fans want what the fans want.
The Broingtons took the Thunder community by storm shortly after James Harden joined the team as a rookie, taking to the airwaves with their own homemade music video versions of popular club-thumpers. And then about the same time the Broingtons T-shirt came out, and Durant told the world about their genesis on his blog, they faded away.
These are the kinds of things that have endeared the Thunder players to the local market, and NBA fans at large. These guys are legitimately friends, which seems to be a rarity in the league. Even though there are no Broington releases of late, the team’s chemistry still appears to be fine. But couldn’t the band get back together every now and then to show the world how much cooler the Thunder is to follow than other NBA teams?
(h/t to DT commenter innocentbystander for bringing this up in the comment section of the Santa column. The Broingtons need to come back, plain and simple.)
3. James Harden will stay aggressive.
Harden’s emergence as an aggressive offensive force has been well-covered in this space and others and well-received by his teammates and coaches. His play in December has practically been the equivalent of an in-season trade — the timid, unsure Harden was replaced by the new version.
Check out Harden’s game-by-game stats. Through the Mavs game on Dec. 27, Harden scored at least 10 points in all but two December contests. That’s by far his best scoring month in Oklahoma City. His 3-point shooting has dipped from a red-hot 44 percent in November to a still-good 40 percent in December, but his overall field goal shooting percentage is up to 45 percent from 40 percent, a sign of taking better shots and not settling. His TS% is up to .588 so far this year and is improving, a healthy bump from .551 in his rookie season.
The improvement he’s shown in December is the kind of improvement everyone wants to see from the No. 3 pick in the draft a year and a half ago. More of this, and Oklahoma City will be more dangerous in April and beyond.
4. Russell Westbrook will cut down on turnovers.
Westbrook’s overall improvement this season has made the Thunder undeniably more formidable, and is reminiscent of the third-year leap Durant made last year. But one troubling statistic stands out: Westbrook’s turnovers-per-36-minutes is at 3.9 as of Dec. 28, which would edge the 3.7 from his rookie season for his career worst if it holds steady through the end of the season.
Westbrook brings a dynamism to Oklahoma City that necessitates heavy minutes. Anyone who argues otherwise hasn’t watched the Thunder play or checked out its record. But the maddening tendency to play just a little bit out of control, and turn the ball over at inopportune times (as if there was a good time…), will almost certainly come back to haunt Oklahoma City at a critical juncture if he doesn’t work to cut turnovers. Sure, more on-ball time will result in more turnovers, but at this point you’d expect some improvement in that area from a third-year player, regardless of usage.
Luckily for the Thunder, Westbrook is a gym rat and a competitive sonuvagun, like pretty much everyone else on the roster. If we’ve noticed that his turnovers are rising, chances are he has too. And chances are he hates it.
5. Someone will replace Durant as the team’s leading rebounder.
Rebounding has been an obvious weakness of the Thunder ever since it arrived in Oklahoma City. Rebounding-by-committee has worked to the point of getting the Thunder to the cusp of the elite, but getting past the cusp will require better rebounding. And Durant’s 6.6 RPG figure shouldn’t even be close to leading the team, but leading the team he is.
Part of that is the frontcourt rotation that splits minutes betweek Ibaka, Collison and Nenad Krstic. There’s a good chance Ibaka, or even Collison, would lead the team if they played starters’ minutes on a consistent basis. So maybe worries over the rebounding statistics from an individual standpoint are overblown.
And maybe the answer is the eventual (we hope) emergence of Cole Aldrich, which won’t happen this season and shouldn’t frighten anyone who pays attention. If he can play starters’ minutes next year, he should step in as the team’s leading rebounder if Ibaka hasn’t already done so. But someone needs to get more than 6.6 boards per game, and that someone needs to play the four or five.