Each season is about moments. It’s about the stories. The themes. And the 2011-12 season is going to have plenty of all of that.
Any time a team is picked to be a favorite, there’s a lot to talk about. From little things like player relationships to big things like starting lineup and rotations, the Thunder’s 66-game season is going to be packed with stuff. Here are the top 10 as I see them.
10. Serge Ibaka. What does Air Congo have ready for the 2011-12 season? He gets to start from day one, has been working in the post while in Spain and looks stronger than ever. Could Ibaka averaged four blocks a game? Could he be a double-double guy? Could he maybe sneak into the All-Star talk? Ibaka is a constant man of mystery because his ceiling is still sky high. He’s got to do little things better, but the Thunder have definitely figured out the power forward position.
9. Minutes. Everyone’s talked about the 66-game schedule. I’m sick of it. Every team has to deal with it and whether you’re old or young, it’s going to have an effect on the season. But it’s more a question on how Scott Brooks handles his rotation and minutes. Is it business as usual? Does he cut back? Expand the rotation? Could Cole Aldrich or Reggie Jackson become staples of the Thunder attack?
8. KD’s post game. After practice last Friday, the Thunder worked a one-on-one drill called “two-dribble” where players have to score against an opponent, using no more than two dribbles. KD used his post game almost exclusively during it and three or four times went to the patented Dirk fadeaway where he shoots off one foot. It was sick. Unstoppable. Impossible. It looked like something KD wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but it’s one of the weapons he’s working on. Then KD used it Sunday night against the Mavs, so it’s obvious it’s a real thing he’s adding.
And during the drill, the other thing I noticed is that Durant was not easily pushed off the block. His lower body is much stronger. Serge Ibaka was trying to move him out of the area and KD held firm pretty well. That was always the biggest challenge for KD’s post game last season is that he couldn’t actually get the ball in the post. With a little added strength, I think he can.
7. The bench mob. Big question: With Nate Robinson being waived soon, can Royal Ivey carry the load by himself of acting completely like a fool after each made basket? It’s a major question mark for this team.
6. The starting five. Maybe Scott Brooks already showed his intention to stick with Thabo in the starting five with Sunday night’s exhibition in Dallas. Maybe not. But it’s pretty much universally agreed upon that the Thunder would be better off with James Harden. I mean, it’s hard to argue with things like numbers and facts. If Brooks chooses to stick with last season’s starting five and there are issues, the noise level on Harden starting will go to trade-Jeff-Green type levels.
5. Where does Westbrook take another leap? Each season Russell Westbrook has been in the league, he’s made a huge jump in an area. His rookie season, he went from an out-of-control monster to someone that could score. His second season, he learned how to finish around the rim and run an offense. His third season, he improved his vision, passing, body control and jumpshot. This season I think Westbrook is going to try and cut into his turnovers a bit, expand his game to be a high efficiency scorer, add a consistent 3-point shot and add a little post-up game.
I’ve seen Westbrook try and post a lot so far in training camp during scrimmages and such. He’s bigger and stronger than most every point guard that’s guarding him so it might be a new weapon Westbrook adds to his offensive arsenal.
4. The Western power shift. The Clippers are a contender now. The Northwest Division went from one of the toughest in the league to a bit watered down. The Grizzlies are one of the West’s four best teams. It’s hard to get a feel for what’s going to happen in the West because it’s wide, wide open.
3. Healthy Perk. We’ve all talked about Perk’s remade body pretty much non-stop the past two weeks, but it’s pretty incredible. He’s reinvented himself, looks healthy and because of that, it’s like the Thunder just traded Old Perk for a new Perk. It’s like OKC got a new player. I’m constantly excited to watch him, to see how he’s moving, to see how he looks. And so far, so good. A healthy Perk could be the thing that puts OKC over the top.
2. Playing favorites. Last season the Thunder were just the group with the rising expectations. They were the team that may or may not be ready to compete in the West. They were the group that most agreed were a year or two away still. But with a run to the Western Conference Finals, all that is over. The Thunder are a favorite or maybe even THE favorite in the West. Terrifying.
1. Westbrook and Durant. This ridiculous storyline is going to drive the season I fear. Because of last season’s playoffs and the supposed rift between Westbrook and Durant that only stemmed from field goal attempts and not actual conflict, the microscope will be on these two all season. Every discussion argument, debate, high five, low five, compliment or pass (did Westbrook throw that chest pass too hard at Durant?) will be dissected.
Conflict between teammates makes for a good story. It makes a team more interesting. It gives people something to talk about. But here’s reality: The Thunder are boring. They all like each other. Nothing is going on. It’s impossible to go to a Thunder practice and watch Westbrook laughing with his arms around Harden and Durant and think, “Those guys hate each other.” It’s just ridiculous. But this story will be driving the Thunder bus, especially if OKC struggles. It’s just life as a contender. Kobe and the Lakers have been dealing with it forever. The Heat have had to endure. If you want to be great, you’ve got to be able to block out the excess crap and just do your job. That will be one of the challenges for OKC this season and their success could hinge on how they handle adversity.