Onward with the Thunder top 10. It’s all pretty obvious to everyone who Oklahoma City’s top players are, so there really won’t be any big surprises here. OR WILL THERE BE?
If you missed 18-11 or are too unaware to scroll down just a little to see it, it’s right here. Again, a new player every 30 minutes or so.
10. Daequan Cook | SG | Age: 25 | #NBARank: 286
It’s a tough gig being a hired gun. Cook’s job is to walk on the floor and make 3-pointers. He might get three cracks at them in six minutes. And if he misses two of three? Then it’s not good enough. Imagine that kind of role. You’re coming in cold, you’re trying not to force anything and you don’t have the luxury of warming up or finding a rhythm. You have to be in ready and in rhythm at all times.
All things considered, Cook is a pretty darn good specialist. Nothing showcased it more than Game 5 against the Spurs in San Antonio where Cook, who barely had played in the series, showed up big a spurt of first half minutes knocking down a barrage of triples.
9. Perry Jones III | F | Age: 22 | #NBARank: 306
What’s most interesting to me is what Jones’ place will be at season’s end. Will he be along the end of the bench with Lazar Hayward and Reggie Jackson? Or could he rise to be one of the Thunder top six or seven players? He starts at nine simply because he’s such an unknown. His talent is undeniable. But with only one look at him in Orlando during Summer League and the fact he miraculously slipped all the way to OKC at 28, it’s hard to pinpoint where Jones will fit this season.
It seems to make the most sense to just sort of play it by ear, working him in to different lineup combinations and different situations to see where he fits best. And if he finds that workable slot, come 2013′s #ThunderRank, Jones could be sitting much higher. For now, he’s the Thunder’s man of mystery. An intriguing prospect full of “what if,” who really can only boom, not bust.
8. Kendrick Perkins | C | Age: 27 | #NBARank: 120
Somehow, a defensive-minded, role-playing center has become Oklahoma City’s most polarizing player. There are the Perk apologists, the ones that revere his toughness, his screen-setting, intangibles, his locker room presence, his leadership and all of that other crap. There are the Perk haters, the ones that gripe about his clumsy plodding, about his complete lack of any offensive ability, about how overrated he is as a defender and a rebounder.
And then there’s the middle, where I fall. You always have to take Perk for what he is. If you expect more, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and anger. He’s a bad offensive player that is only useful for a hard screens, easy dunks and an occasional slick touch-pass. He’s a strong bruiser that definitely sets a defensive tone inside and holds teammates accountable. You don’t cross Perk. I’ve seen it up close and in person. You. Don’t. Do. It.
His value comes in extremes. Against Andrew Bynum, Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard, there might not be a better post defender. Against a fleet-footed smallball unit, he struggles. And that’s not on him always. It’s often on Scott Brooks to make sure he’s putting Perk in situations he can succeed in. It’s not fair to take blind man and ask him to find Waldo. There’s an Einstein quote that says, “Everybody’s a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing its stupid.” Applicable to Perk.
Sometimes Perk excels against all odds, like he did the final four games against the Spurs. But for the most part, he’s a specialist, best deployed against a dominant post. Use him wisely and he’s a tremendous asset that few teams have. Just blindly run him out against any lineup with the expectation he’s going to do his job all the same and you’re going to be forced to gripe. The question isn’t about his rebounding or scoring or whatever. It’s about if he contributes to winning. Are the Thunder better off with him on the floor, or without him? That’s the bar you should judge Perk by. The answer? Depends on who he’s guarding.
7. Eric Maynor | PG | Age: 25 | #NBARank: 190
I keep coming back to it to illustrate how good Maynor is. Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, 2011. The Thunder are in a tight one with the Mavs. With Russell Westbrook on the bench, OKC’s offense is clicking, moving the ball and scoring. Building, and maintaining, a lead over Dallas. The problems that plagued the Thunder during the playoffs of the offense stalling and stagnating isn’t happening. So Scott Brooks makes a critical decision to stick with Maynor and leave his All-Star point guard on the bench.
The headlines and talking-head buzz was all about how Brooks “benched” Westbrook. But in reality, it had far more to do with Maynor than it did Westbrook. He might be a backup point guard, he might see sparse minutes at times, but Maynor is no joke. He’s (almost) as much a weapon as his bench counterpart James Harden.
What decreases his value though is that a) Westbrook is a robot and never gets tired or hurt, meaning Maynor hasn’t ever really had a chance to run the team on his own and b) he’s coming off a major knee injury. The word is that Maynor has bounced back entirely from the ACL tear that ended his season early last year. But you never know until he’s back in action and really testing it out live.
Maynor gives OKC a whole slew of options in smallball. Brooks liked playing Derek Fisher and Westbrook last season, but with Maynor, that only makes that lineup that much more dynamic. He’s a backup point guard, which is an NBA luxury, but Maynor is a versatile one. A great floor general, a wonderful change of pace to the frenzy that is Westbrook, and an underrated shooter. Assuming good health, Maynor is quietly one of the Thunder’s best secret weapons.
6. Thabo Sefolosha | SG | Age: 28 | #NBARank: 117
Did you know: Thabo shot 43.7 percent from 3 last season, ranking him ninth overall in the league. The one major gripe about Thabo has been his inability to consistently hit a corner 3, thus making him irrelevant to OKC’s offense. Except he seemed to have taken a very positive step last season. (His previous career-high from 3 was 35.7 percent his rookie season where he took half a 3 a game. In 2010-11, he shot 27.5 percent from deep.)
There’s no questioning Thabo’s defensive chops. He’s an elite man-to-man defender and an absolute terror in passing lanes. He almost single-handily blew up San Antonio’s offense in Game 3. He understands his strengths and weaknesses and is entirely fine adhering to his role. He’s a hard-worker that brings great energy every night and has quietly improved his game. The next step would be a little more consistency from outside, but really, Thabo is what he is and adds a whole lot to OKC’s winning culture.
5. Nick Collison | PF | Age: 31 | #NBARank: 100
No, I didn’t actually consider ranking him first. But I did seriously think hard about moving him to fourth. Say what you want about plus/minus, but there’s no denying that the Thunder are consistently a better team — meaning they score more points than the other team does — when Collison is on the floor.
It’s not just about the so-called little things he does — tipping rebounds, setting screens, taking charges, diving for loose balls. It’s also the big things, like being one of the very best pick-and-roll defenders in the league. It’s not something that necessarily is calculable, but Collison makes the Thunder better. Plain and simple. His work shows up in the standings, not the box score.
It says a whole lot about a player to swallow the pride and desire to be more and instead just fill your role and do your job. Nobody embodies that more than Collison. Don’t forget: This guy was a McDonald’s All-American, an All-American at Kansas and a lottery pick. And instead of trying to bulldoze his way into being a household name, he’s accepted his place and made one just by doing his job. He’s a hardhat player and one that sets the standard for it.
Every teams wants a Nick Collison. And if you don’t have one, you’re looking for him.
4. Serge Ibaka | PF | Age: 23 | #NBARank: 41
The shotblocking is obviously incredible. A hundred more than the next closest guy in the league last season. Almost blocking as many shots as entire teams. He changes things defensively because of his ability to wipe away attacks on the rim. He allows OKC’s perimeter defenders to be more aggressive, to take more risks, to jump passing lanes, because he can often bail them out.
Yes, he’s not a perfect defender even with the volume of blocks. His pick-and-roll coverages are extremely spotty. He still gets lost on the weakside ball-watching. Because of his over-eagerness to swat everything, he bites on simple pump fakes. But come on, he’s just turned 24 and clearly has made incredible strides during his first few seasons in the league.
One of which being that Ibaka is actually one of the more deadly mid-range bigs in the league. Ibaka shot 45 percent from 16-23 feet, eighth best among power forwards in the league. Better than LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Elton Brand, Paul Millsap, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire and Kevin Love. So if you hear someone after Ibaka drills an 18-footer say, “You can live with Ibaka taking that shot,” have that little stat handy. Because he’s an offensive weapon in the pick-and-pop.
He lacks in the post and definitely needs to develop more of a back-to-the-basket game. With Shane Battier guarding him in the Finals, there’s no reason the Thunder shouldn’t have been able to pound the ball to Ibaka for points and force Miami’s hand.
What’s his ceiling? 12-10-3? 15-12-3? How good could he be? He’s not done improving. He’s got parts of his game to refine, things to get lots better at and things to focus on. Which again, is incredible when you’re talking about an extremely good player already.
There’s been so much talk about James Harden and his future that it seems to be overlooked that Ibaka is locked up as part of OKC’s long-term future. A budding, developing freak specimen that’s 24 years old and just now starting to scratch his potential. Oh, and the fourth best player on the team. Not bad.
3. James Harden | SG | Age: 23 | #NBARank: 26
For a second, let’s put aside the whole contract thing.
I said a second.
I deadline looms large and it appears the team will enter training camp without Harden signed. Will it be a distraction? Probably, at least for a little while. Once the season gets rolling then we’ll know more. The question is, if Harden truly wants to be a max player, how does he handle his role during the season. Does he press? Does he force the issue? Does he maintain the play he did last season? Does he try and assert himself as more of a featured player? Those are the types of things that hang over when there’s a contract up in the air.
But enough of that. I think there’s a small minority of folks that would have Ibaka above Harden. And the truth is, I had to think for just a minute about if Harden should be No. 1 on this list. Which as I’ve often said, tells you how damn good this team is. Outside of No. 1, 2-4 could really be interchangeable night-to-night. Actually, that’s not true. Really, the top four slots can fluctuate because there have been times that Harden has established himself as the best player on the floor (Game 4 against the Mavs anyone?).
The thing you wonder about Harden though that’s different from Durant and Westbrook is if he’s potentially a franchise centerpiece kind of player. It seems like he relishes his role as second or third banana, with the opportunity to jump to the alpha at any point. The pressure is off him to a degree and he can truly just let the game come to him. Put him in Phoenix and I have no doubt he’d be a 20-5-5 guy, or close to. But would he make them a winner as the top dog? I don’t know about that. In OKC, he’s going to have it good for a while. A very rich man playing for a very good team where he has free reign to dominate, or not dominate, any given night.
2. Russell Westbrook | PG | Age: 23 | #NBARank: 9
As a high priest in the Defender of All Things Westbrook cult, yeah, I thought about it. Not that hard though. But you could make a case for No. 1. I think he was the Thunder’s MVP during the 2010-11 season. Durant is a more polished player, far more efficient and in general, way easier to appreciate and watch. But Westbrook is a competitor. Someone that brings his effort and intensity nightly, someone that won’t ever go down without a fight.
Here’s how good he’s been: He’s mostly shut everyone up. No more discussions about his true position. No more talk about if he and Durant can win together. No more talk about him wanting to be the alpha dog. Westbrook silenced it all by a) playing damn good ball and b) signing up with OKC for five more years. Yeah, there are few outliers still championing the silly Westbrook Debate, but for the most part, it’s over. If you watch the NBA and follow closer than just watching SportsCenter, you appreciate the player he is.
The biggest remaining question about Westbrook is where he can go as a defender. He’s not been strong in that area at all thus far in his career, showing flashes of defensive brilliance at times while mostly gambling his way to bad decisions. He has the tools to be an elite defender. But it’s about applying those to the principles and discipline that make it so.
I think one day I’m going to make a documentary called “Dr. Russlove: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Russell Westbrook.” I’ve said it before, I know, but it’s about accepting the fact that Westbrook isn’t going to play the way you think he should. Once you do that, you can take him for what he is. One hell of a basketball player.
1. Kevin Durant | SF | Age: 24 | #NBARank: N/A
So good. So, so good.