Two games left.
The Thunder are a win — or Clippers loss — away from securing the No. 2 seed, which means what they really are paying attention to is who they may draw. Because there’s not much left to talk about, we’re all focused on which opponent would be best, and which would be worst.
I’d power rank the Thunder’s four potential first round opponents in this order, from most want to see to least want to see:
Playing the Mavericks or Grizzlies is a push, because both present problems in different manners. Memphis has that nasty defense and size inside, while Dallas has their slick offense and Dirk. I think the two recent losses against Dallas stick out in people’s minds, but don’t forget: The Thunder beat them 12 straight times, and the first of those two losses was in a game Russell Westbrook sat. The other, OKC was missing two starters and Westbrook was held down by his minute restriction.
Yes, Dirk is scary and Rick Carlisle is a fantastic coach, but in order for the Mavs to beat the Thunder four out of seven times, you’d have to see them get hot and stay hot from the perimeter.
The Grizzlies honestly don’t match up all that well with OKC, but because of the nature of all the close games against them, and the fact they dealt the fatal blow to the Thunder last season, it seems as if they’d be best avoided. Still: The Grizzlies can’t score, and this Thunder team’s biggest issue currently is the defensive end, not the other. And it’s hard to see the Grizzlies outscoring the Thunder consistently.
The Suns have super smallball in their favor and seem to give the Thunder some defensive issues. It would take a lot for them to shred OKC’s defense four times, especially since that’s a very young and inexperienced bunch. But that series would require some strategy, something that’s not in OKC’s wheelhouse.
And finally, the Warriors. You just don’t want to see Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s 3-point barrage right out of the gate.
1. Kevin Durant
More coming this week on why KD’s the MVP, but here’s a taste: Because he had the best season.
2. Russell Westbrook
A couple with and without stats:
- With Westbrook on the floor OKC averages 110.7 points per 100 possessions. With him off, 106.6. The defense has slipped though with Westbrook, allowing 102.5 with him on and 99.7 with him off.
- Not surprisingly, the Thunder play a lot faster with Westbrook: On the floor, OKC’s piling up 101.4 possessions a game, compared to 96.1 with him off. Here’s what I think we can learn from that: The Thunder play better offense when they’re going fast, but they also play worse defense.
Looking back to the beginning of the season where Westbrook’s health was a bit of an unknown, thinking he’d be out until December, then him coming back, then him going out again, then him coming back, the fact the Thunder are two wins away from matching their output last season is pretty impressive.
Again: Russell Westbrook is going to have missed 36, maybe 37 games this season, and the Thunder are still going to finish second in the West with possibly 60 wins. And it’s pretty obvious they’re a much better team with him.
3. Serge Ibaka
Coming in to the season, the expectation for Ibaka was to take a positive step forward, developing his game not just with a more expanded offensive game, but by becoming a better overall defender and stronger rebounder.
He’s looking at a career-high points per game (15.1) and a career-high rebounds per game (8.6) and has turned in 26 double-doubles, topping his previous best by 11.
I don’t know if I’d classify this season as Ibaka having made the so-called Leap, but he definitely has progressed. Remember: He’s only 24, and the Thunder signed this guy for $12 million less than a full max deal. In January, when he was Durant’s primary sidekick, he averaged 16.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 57.2 percent from the field. He hit 23-58 from 3 this season (39.4 percent) and had 79 assists, 36 more than last season, which was his previous best season.
Again, yeah, his blocks are down a bit, but Ibaka has been a quiet monster for the Thunder. Per SportVU, opponents shot just 43.8 percent on him at the rim, which only a handful of bigs had a better percentage.
Ibaka’s not likely to ever have a massive statistical season of like 20 and, because that’s not the nature of his role. But with the efficient manner in which he scores and the spacing he provides in the midrange, he’s been an entirely vital piece to the Thunder’s success this season.
4. Reggie Jackson
Before the season, I predicted Jackson as Sixth Man of the Year. Not likely to happen, but let’s look at this:
Player A: 12.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 43.6 FG%, 34.9 3P%, 59.8 TS%, 16.42 PER, 26.7 minutes
Player B: 13.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 44.1 FG%, 33.9 3P%, 52.7 TS%, 15.52 PER, 28.5 minutes
Player A is James Harden’s 2010-11 season, his second in the league. Player B is Jackson’s 2013-14 season, his third, but second as a full-time rotation player. Now, I’m not saying Jackson’s about to be James Harden and erupt as one of the league’s best players if/when he goes to another team, because as a full-time starter, I think we all saw the flaws he has in his game.
But in judging what he accomplished this season, I think we can all agree that Jackson has some serious potential left. His jumper has dramatically improved (shot 40.2 percent from 15-19 feet this season, hitting 39-97, up from 34.3 last season, hitting 12-35) and he’s expanded out to a quality distance shooter (39.0 percent, 62-159 from 20-24 feet, up from 30.9 percent, 25-81 last season).
There’s still something to be desired on the defensive end, but hey, maybe that’s just taking the Harden comparison that much further.
Jackson could very likely be a critical part in the Thunder’s championship chase, with the way he can provide added offense and lineup versatility. And after that, he’s eligible for an extension before Oct. 31. He’s clearly starter material, and can see the writing on the wall in OKC that he’s not likely ever going to consistently get that chance. So what happens next is way up in the air.
5. Caron Butler
Kind of starting to feel good about Butler’s addition. He had the 23-point game against the Kings where he hit 6-6 from deep, but I thought what he added against the Pacers in 30 minutes was even better. He had those three jumpers early in the fourth, then hit a 3 late in the game set up from Durant. That’s the kind of punch they need from the guy.
6. Thabo Sefolosha
Since Thabo came back to the starting five, the Thunder are allowing 99.5 points per 100 possessions, with opponents shooting 43.9 percent from the field, 36.7 percent from 3, and taking 19.8 3s per game.
During the span Thabo was out, the Thunder allowed 102.6 per 100, 43.4 percent from the field, 39.5 from 3, and opponents took 25.4 3s a game.
Now, the sample size is small in Thabo’s return (just four games), but it is pretty clear that makes a significant defensive impact.
7. Nick Collison
Barring something ridiculous over the final two games, your leader for net plus/minus on the season is… Nick Collison. With Collison on the floor, the Thunder had a net rating +12.8, allowing 98.6 points per 100 and scoring 111.3. On the entire season, the Thunder were a cumulative +342 with Collison on the court. He scored a total of 334 points this season.
8. Steven Adams
I don’t think there’s any way to categorize Adams’ rookie season as anything but a smashing success. He’s obviously raw, and has a lot of areas left to develop in, and never quite caught back up to his third game of the season where he dropped 17 points and 10 rebounds on the Pistons, but as a contributing role player, he was terrific.
Areas he most needs to improve: Positioning in defending the pick-and-roll (he lingers on the ball a beat or two too long at times), not fouling, and, um, not fouling. Because as a physical presence, Adams has the potential to really impact games. His playing time was sometimes inconsistent, but per 36, he averaged 8.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.3 assists (and 6.1 fouls). He started 20 games this season, and in his most recent stretch (17 games), he showcased the ability to defend some of the elite players in the league (Dwight Howard, being one) and handle his role well.
The fact I joked that David Stern should’ve handed him a Tulsa 66ers hat instead of a Thunder one on draft night is a pretty good indication of what the expectations for him were last summer. And it looks like he’s going to have only one DNP this entire season. Great season for Adams.
9. Kendrick Perkins
For the season, with Perk on the floor, the Thunder scored 103.0 points per 100 possessions and allowed 100.7. With him off, they scored 110.3 points per 100 and allowed 100.8. He had some good nights, some bad nights, but mostly, in situations where he was obviously valuable, he contributed well. But in other situations where Scott Brooks insisted on playing him despite him not fitting, he hurt the team.
Brace yourselves: The Playoffs are coming.
10. Derek Fisher
Considering the expectations around Fisher when he was signed again last offseason, his farewell tour went amazingly well. He shot the ball wonderfully at times (almost 50 percent from 3 in February) and even when the shots weren’t dropping, he wasn’t noticeably hurting the team. If he hits a couple 3s in these final two games, he could finish shooting 40 percent from deep for the fourth time in his career.
He played good defense, was rarely an obvious liability and I only found myself screaming into a pillow “WHY IS FISHER OUT THERE?” like seven times. That’s a really good season.
11. Jeremy Lamb
It was clear in the offseason when the Thunder didn’t make any significant additions that Lamb was going to have a bigger hand in the rotation. And while he got edged out of it by Butler late in the season, and he only shot under 35 percent since the All-Star break, I think Lamb had a really solid real rookie season. (You see, he didn’t get to play any last year.)
He’s more than just a spot-up shooter, which he was advertized as, and has a lot more to offer in terms of defense and rebounding than previously thought. His biggest weakness is scoring anywhere inside 15 feet, and getting to the free throw line. For example: He’s taken 64 free throws this season; he’s taken 245 3s. On the season, Lamb’s taken 140 shots inside five feet, compared to 163 from 20-24 feet. From 5-14 feet, he shot just just 41 percent, which isn’t great. Lamb never could really get his floater game going, and often had trouble finishing anything contested. The tools are there though. Just got to keep working him.
12. Hasheem Thabeet
He lost his role as backup center, but still found his way into 23 games. And in total, had 13 baskets, 40 rebounds, one assist, nine blocks, 47 fouls and 60 LOLs.
13. Perry Jones III
Coming in to the season, Jones was teetering on the line of “I have no idea what his future is in the NBA.” So the fact he played in 62 games this season, even starting seven, is a big, positive step. He showed a comfort level in shooting corner 3s — 16-38 from both corners combined this season — but has work to do in the midrange (just 7-24 from 15-19 feet).
The biggest issue Jones faces is finding a position — Scott Brooks referred to him as a utility guy, which I don’t think is actually a good thing — as well as playing with athleticism. Jones is 6-foot-11 and can guard both shooting guards and power forward, and has crazy bounce and speed. But he often just blends, and doesn’t use near enough aggressiveness and force. He should be consistently dunking on people, attacking off the dribble and blocking shots from the weakside.
Overall, though, the fact he didn’t see his NBA career start to fizzle is really good. He proved capable of being a rotation player, and may even have a larger role to play at some point in the postseason.
14. Andre Roberson
Considering we all let out a collective “Who?!” when he was drafted and that he started 16 games and appeared in 39 says that maybe he wasn’t a wasted pick after all. Is he capable of being Thabo’s replacement next season (Thabo’s on an expiring deal)? I don’t think so, because while Roberson has obvious defensive chops, his offense leaves quite a lot to be desired.
15. Grant Jerrett
Bad sign: Scott Brooks said something last week about “same thing with Grant” and my first thought was, “Grant Long? Or did he just say Durant?” It took a good 45 seconds for me to remember Grant Jerrett was now on the team.