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Think back to October 29.
That was a day after the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston. With the reality of it settling in, that’s when fans and media started the process of readjusting and re-evaluating the Thunder as a title contender. Without the Sixth Man of the Year, with such a shock to the system, what was this team now?
Think to how you felt, how your perspective changed about this season, and this team. Expectations had been altered, perceptions changed. The Thunder had gone from sure-thing contender to… something no one was sure of.
In the Thunder’s case, we only knew that they had three of the 20 best guys in the league, all under 25, all of whom loved playing together. There are no sure things in the NBA, but that previous sentence was about as sure as it gets. Less than 100 hours ago, I thought the Thunder were headed for another Finals and another chance at toppling LeBron and Wade. That’s not happening with Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin. Instead, they made a different kind of history: becoming the first NBA contender that ever jeopardized multiple titles for financial reasons and financial reasons only. It’s never happened before.
They also walked away from the photo that adorns this column, as well as everything I ever thought sports was about. Other than that, the Harden trade wasn’t that big of a deal. You want predictions for the 2012-13 season from me? I have two and two only.
1. Miami is going to beat the Lakers in the Finals.
2. Oklahoma City will rue the day it traded James Harden.
Now, we were ALL wrong about the Lakers. And not to single out Simmons, because there were a lot of previews that read just like his. Even my own, to a degree.
Point is though, I don’t think the Thunder are necessarily ruing anything right now. Would it be preferable to have James Harden on this team? Well, duh. But the Thunder haven’t just done well, they’ve excelled in many ways.
Check just about any season preview. There really wasn’t any that still considered the Thunder a legit title contender immediately after the Harden trade.
Here’s what the Thunder accomplished post-Harden: Won a third straight division title, and are a win away from the 60-win mark and the top seed in the Western Conference.
Seems that the Thunder have handled it pretty well.
I think it’s fair to say that this team has exceeded preseason expectation, and proved a hefty number of doubters very wrong. Which is nice, but as we all know, this team is only going to be remembered for what they do in the postseason. Because failure there, especially before the Finals, and the perspective of a successful season with swing once again.
Note: With this being the last Monday of the regular season, these power rankings aren’t for the week, but for the entire season.
1. Kevin Durant (Last week: 2)
He’s not going to win MVP, or even a fourth scoring title. But Kevin Durant’s 2012-13 season was something special.
To scored better than 28 points a game while shooting 50-40-90 is something only Larry Bird has done. But not just the efficient scoring tallies. It’s the expansion of Durant’s overall game. He’s taken another step as a defender. He’s a better rebounder. He’s a better creator and ball-handler. He had four triple-doubles this season. He averaged career-high assists, and did it by 1.1 a game.
Durant’s 28.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists are numbers done only 16 other times in NBA history, by players like Elgin Baylor, Wilt, Kareem, Oscar Robertson, David Robinson, MJ, Bird, and Havlicek. Not even LeBron, technically.
Plus, the primary reason the Thunder have not only recovered from dealing Harden but in a lot of ways excelled, is simply on the back of Durant. He’s taken his own game to a new level, and with it, raised the play of his team.
Incredible year by KD.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last week: 1)
Westbrook’s (close to) final stats: 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 43.9 percent shooting, 32.2 percent from 3, 24.0 PER.
Derrick Rose’s MVP stats: 25.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 44.5 percent shooting, 33.2 percent from 3, 23.6 PER.
And yet Westbrook doesn’t find his name anywhere near any MVP.
What’s most frustrating about Westbrook — other than those mind-numbing 20-foot pull-ups — is that because of his polarizing style both on and off the court, that his magnificent play gets overlooked sometimes. The discussions about shot attempt volume, about his usage compared to Durant, about how he acts, about his demeanor swallow how brilliant and breathtaking a player he is.
The steps forward he’s taken this season as a leader, as a playmaker, and as a total offensive player are obvious. Like Durant, he’s stepped into the beard-shaped void left by Harden and produced a magical season.
3. Serge Ibaka (Last week: 3)
Zach Lowe labeled Ibaka the league’s most important player preseason, meaning his impact on both ends could be the difference between the Thunder making a title push, or fizzling out.
And at times, Ibaka looked to be the player we all thought he is destined to blossom into. There have been games of 15-point, 10-rebound, four-block dominance. But there have also been games of six-point, three-rebound, one-block coasting.
4. Kevin Martin (Last week: 7)
Martin was never going to be able to fill the beard of James Harden. But he could definitely come close to replicating his production. So check this:
Harden’s 2011-12 season: 31.4 minutes, 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 49.1 percent shooting, 39.0 percent from 3, 21.1 PER
Martin’s 2012-13 season: 27.7 14.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 45.0 percent shooting, 42.6 from 3, 16.1 PER
Not quite there, but per 36 minutes, their numbers aren’t far off.
Plus, consider what Martin was walking into. Harden’s an All-Star, an Olympian, was the first pick of the franchise, No. 3 overall at that, and reigning Sixth Man of the Year.
What Martin accomplished in stepping into that role was lead the league in 3-pointers made off the bench (he’s not in the top 20 in 3s attempted, either). The three-man lineup of Westbrook, Durant and Martin had an offensive rating of 117.5 and a net rating of +14.3. (The Westbrook, Durant and Harden had an offensive rating of 114.4 and a net of 9.9 last season). The Westbrook, Durant, Martin trio is by far the most productive trio in the league, averaging 113.7 points per 48 minutes. Second most productive trio? Durant, Collison and Martin, averaging 111.1 per 48 (117.4 offensive rating).
Then there’s this: OKC’s offense is the best in the league, and about three points per 100 possessions better than last season.
How has Kevin Martin done replacing James Harden? Pretty well, it seems.
5. Thabo Sefolosha (Last week: 5)
Thabo’s defense is always good. He’s awesome on the ball, he’s awesome off it, he’s awesome disrupting passing lanes and turning the easy play into a really hard one.
He’s always been good at that stuff.
But this season, he’s taken a new offensive step. He shot 48.1 percent from the field, and 42.1 percent from 3. That follows up last season where he shot 43.7 percent from deep. The difference this season is that he’s hitting 1.3 a game on 3.2 attempts, up from 0.7 on 1.7. He had 21 games in double-figures, including a new career-high of 28.
6. Nick Collison (Last week: 6)
In wins this season, Collison was an average +7.4. In losses, a -3.1. In wins, 19.7 minutes a game. In losses, 19.1. In wins, 5.8 points. In losses, 3.1.
What I found interesting, is that I assumed all of Collison’s plus/minus stats would be better last season, largely because he played so much with Harden. Except, in terms of total plus/minus, Collison was a +4.7 this season, and a +4.2 last.
So clearly, Harden was just riding Nick’s coattails the whole time.
7. Kendrick Perkins (Last week: 8)
Last season, the Thunder’s starting five was really kind of a problem. Statistically, it was one of the worst lineups the Thunder had. And the consensus as to the reason for it, was because the Thunder played two bigs together, when one seemed better, and that Kendrick Perkins’ defense wasn’t good enough to make up for his lackluster offense.
This season, OKC’s starting five became one of its best lineups. It was a net +12.3 (109.3, 97.0). The starters played by far the most minutes together (1,307) and against any regular lineup that appeared together in 35 or more games, only one was better (Westbrook, Martin, Sefolosha, Durant, Collison).
Considering Perk was the perceived weak link to the starting group that either means they figured out how to play better together, or Perk has played better individually. His personal stats don’t really bear anything out, but that’s always the issue in evaluating Perk. People want to get caught up in his individual production. As if he should be averaging a double-double or something. Perk knows his role, and knows it well. He knows who his breadwinners are. He sets hard screens and for the most part, gets out of the way on the offensive end. Every now and then they throw him a biscuit, letting him try and post.
Perk receives most of the player criticism in the Thunder fanbase because of how he plays, and the numbers he produces. But the stats do bear this out: The Thunder are better with Perk on the floor, than with him off it.
8. Reggie Jackson (Last week: 4)
Since the All-Star break, Jackson has averaged 6.7 points, 1.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds. That’s in still just 17.0 minutes. So per 36, Jackson averaged 14.1 points, 3.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds.
He’s emerging. A rising bench star.
Problem is, he’s still seen as a “backup” point guard for some reason, instead of a combo guard. It’s fine if you want to label him a point guard, but Jackson can really be a poor man’s Harden in a lot of ways, especially in captaining the second unit. He’s an explosive offensive attack, a player that finishes at a ridiculous percentage at the rim (better than 70 percent). He uses both hands, he’s strong, he’s athletic and he has a soft touch.
Jackson’s role next season will be extremely intriguing to watch, because he seems to provide the Thunder a little of what they’ve been missing at times. Keep in mind, he’s only a second year player, and he’s just now in a stretch of knowing he’s getting regular time on the floor.
9. Hasheem Thabeet (Last week: 9)
Considering the preseason expectations of Thabeet, which were essentially “try not to embarrass yourself if you get to play,” it was an outstanding year for him.
10. Derek Fisher (Last week: 10)
He’s played 23 games with the Thunder in a little more than a month. That’s two more games than Jeremy Lamb saw all of this season.
In those 23 games, Fisher is shooting 34.5 percent from the field and 36.5 from 3. And really, when you look at lineup combos, he’s been in some really productive groups.
Still, the logic behind giving him 14.3 minutes a game and not spreading those out more between Thabo, Martin and Jackson, or letting DeAndre Liggins or Lamb have a shot, is unknown. Other than of course, Fisher has been in the league a lot longer which somehow permits him a long leash.
11. Jeremy Lamb (Last week: N/A)
When Lamb was acquired, I don’t think anyone really expected him to be a regular contributor. His role was up in the air, his contributions unknown.
But there’s no doubt that the way this season has gone, with him relegated entirely to the bench and bouncing between the D-League and the NBA, has been a disappointment. Not Lamb’s fault though. He was only given a shot in two games — TWO! — as a regular rotation player. One of those games, his first, he looked like a child lost in the mall on Black Friday. He was confused, scrambled and nervous.
The next time, in five second quarter minutes against the Hawks, hit 2-3 from the floor for five points. He’s lit the D-League on fire showing off his effortless scoring ability. I don’t know what the future holds for Lamb in OKC, if the organization sees him as someone that will eventually step in and get time, or if he’s the latest “asset” that’s trapped between the bench and I-44. But the kid’s got talent. He can score.
12. DeAndre Liggins (Last week: N/A)
One of the most pleasant surprises of the season, mainly because he seemed like the longest shot to make the roster in training camp. But with his bulldog hustle mentality and an ability to hit an open 3, Liggins has shown he might be a decent spot contributor when given the chance.
Keep in mind, Thabo’s contract is up after next season. Can Liggins replicate his production, at a cheaper price? Maybe, which I think says a lot about the progress he’s made.
13. Perry Jones III (Last week: N/A)
I personally expected a little more of a role for Jones, or at least more of a chance at one. When he fell into OKC’s lap last draft, it seems like a massive steal. A supremely talented athletic specimen to add to the Thunder’s already full stable.
The challenge of finding his way onto the court was always going to stand in the way, but still, talent finds a way. Jones saw a little time here and there, but mostly was carpooling with the Tulsa Four back and forth. Still, he’s a bit of a project player and has the look of a potentially capable stretch 4. He needs some bulk, he needs some confidence and he needs some seasoning. But Jones can play.
14. Ronnie Brewer (Last week: 13)
He contributed nothing since being acquired at the deadline, but there’s always the postseason.
15. Daniel Orton (Last week: N/A)
I don’t know what the future holds for Orton, but I’m rooting for him. He’s such a well-spoken, smart, friendly young man. He’s personable and polite, and speaks what he thinks. Can he play consistently in the NBA? Dunno, but I hope he does.