For about 30 percent of the Thunder roster, this wasn’t your ordinary offseason. Four players spent their summer playing in London for their countries in the Olympics, meaning some of that traditional offseason workout stuff was altered.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t improve. Or work on their game. Thunder players traditionally come into training camp with something improved in their game. What’s it going to be for their top three?
1. Kevin Durant needs to improve ___________.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: In the post. We saw what happened when LeBron became maybe the most dominant post player in the game during the Finals. He passed, he scored, he created. The game changed with him there. And Durant could absolutely have the same kind of impact in it as LeBron. One thing that’s different though: LeBron has no where near the outside touch KD does. So you don’t want to exchange post play for good jumpshots or open 3s. Those are valuable weapons for KD. But adding in a mix of post-up play when a team is defending to take away those things just means KD has one more tool in his already full belt.
Patrick James, Daily Thunder: His passing. Or really, be more consistent in applying the passing ability he already has. Take a look at KD’s postseason statistics. The Thunder were 11-2 when Durant had at least four assists. OKC was only 2-5 when he had fewer than four. It’s easy too read too much into that one statistic, but consider that Durant had by far his best APG percentage of any series against the Spurs at 5.3 assists per game, nearly two full assists better than his regular season average. It’s no coincidence that series was when the Thunder played the best offensive basketball we’ve ever seen them play, especially when factoring in the magnitude of the moment. When defenders have to give more respect to Durant’s passing ability, it opens up things up for him just as much as it does everybody else.
J.G. Marking, Daily Thunder: In the post. Much like LeBron’s criticisms, Durant’s size and skill-set almost demand that he add a legitimate post-up game to his already baffling repertoire of offensive abilities. If Durant can become a legitimate post-up player (not a devastating one, but a legitimate one) then not only does he become pretty much unguardable for almost every single player not named LeBron James, but he would also almost single-handedly solve the majority of the Thunder’s offensive woes almost immediately (no post scoring, spacing for shooters, etc).
Young: His defense. Really, to be more specific, the consistency of it. Because at times, Westbrook can be an incredible on-ball defender. His energy, his effort, his determination. He can completely blow up an offensive possession for another team on his own. Problem is, because he’s needed in so many other ways, he can’t maintain that effort and intensity 40 minutes a night. He’s got to pace himself. But he should be able to differentiate between that hyperintense defender and just sturdy, solid man-to-man stuff. He’s got too much ability and talent not to be an elite defender.
James: His defense. Let’s go back to another Spurs-related anecdote, but not from the playoffs. Remember the regular season game when the Thunder got down my as much as 27 points to San Antonio? Well, the Thunder cut the lead all the way down to two points more than once, but couldn’t get over the hump. And the spark of that run to get back into the game was led by Royal Ivey’s stifling defense on Tony Parker after Westbrook let Parker do whatever he wanted before that point. Westbrook deserves credit for bringing it most nights, but a more consistent defensive effort would do wonders for the Thunder overall. He’s one of the best defenders at his position in the league when he’s at his best, so he should be at his best more often.
Marking: Tempo. The best thing about Westbrook is that his athleticism and constant desire to “search and destroy” the basket mean that he constantly, almost mercilessly, is always attacking the defense. But not every battle can be won by putting your head down and charging full-bore every single time. When your opponent is able to anticipate your move and expects you to go all out every single time (no matter how fast you are), you’re effectiveness is going to diminish. That’s why no matter how high the velocity can get on a fastball, the intermittent change-up can be absolutely devastating. Russ needs to find his change-up.
3. James Harden needs to improve __________.
Young: His mid-range game. Harden basically has two gears: the spot-up 3 or an attack in the paint. He’s a master of the two-man pick-and-roll game, but his preference is almost always to charge the rim looking for free throws or a bucket. A good thing, mind you. But it seems often times Harden turns down an open mid-range jumper in those situations, instead looking to force the ball into the paint. When he scored 40 against the Suns, he utilized that jumper multiple times. He’s a very good shooter, and it should be a weapon for him.
James: His defense, just like Westbrook above. Harden has made his name for himself defensively by his work on Kobe Bryant. The difference between Kobe’s efficiency when Thabo Sefolosha is guarding him and when Harden is matched up with him isn’t very significant. So why doesn’t that kind of effort show up more consistently? No one can have peak defensive intensity and effort every night, but at least it’s easier to control than a bad shooting game. Especially if he’s going to keep playing the lion’s share of crunch time minutes on the wing, which he will, the night-in, night-out defensive effort has to be better.
Marking: On finding ways to affect a game beyond his game, if that makes sense. When Harden’s threes aren’t dropping or he’s not getting to the line or the hoop, he will often times makeup for it by racking up a lot of assists or trying to grab some extra rebounds. But the problem is that too many times when Harden was “off” on a night or couldn’t get in the groove of the game, he would pretty much disappear (improving his defensive abilities/understanding would be a huge boost to this). Now some of that is on Westbrook and Durant to continually try and incorporate him in the flow of the offense, but just as much (if not more) of that is on Harden to impact a game no matter what his offense is doing.