Coming off a 2012 Finals loss to the Miami Heat, the Thunder felt the pain but they were confident about bouncing back. They did just that as they cruised to a 60-22 record to sit atop the Western Conference. Panic emerged as Russell Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus, forcing him to miss his first career NBA games. Basically, OKC confirmed the obvious fact they weren’t the same team without Westbrook as they were overpowered 4-1 by the Grizzlies in the second round. OKC is back and ready for more action, but Russell Westbrook isn’t just quite yet. Let’s look ahead to OKC’s 2014 campaign, in which they’ll have a few big obstacles to overcome:
Guards (A-): Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, Jeremy Lamb, Russell Westbrook (IR)
Recent reports are suggesting Russell Westbrook could be back as early as two weeks. That would sure be a sign of relief for OKC as the two superstars could finally get back to doing business. I don’t anticipate Westbrook having much of a problem returning to his usual form. All that said, I think young guard Reggie Jackson will start comfortably settling into a sixth man role. Jackson’s only been around a couple years but clearly shows starting point guard potential. Expect to see OKC more often utilize a lineup consisting of Jackson, Westbrook, and Durant. The Thunder prefer to give Sefolosha heavy playing time as a defensive specialist and he’s also improved his spot-up shooting ability over the last couple years.
Forwards (A): Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Ryan Gomes, Nick Collison, Andre Roberson
You really don’t need much depth behind Kevin Durant. It’s more about what you have around him and that’s something OKC needs to do something about. Ibaka has been a highly valuable third piece on this team as a dominant shot-blocker. He’s also become a player you don’t want to leave open from the mid-range area. And Nick Collison is mostly recognized for his hustle plays. OKC needs to add a little something extra to satisfy Durant a bit more. James Harden would have been perfect, but oops……
Centers (B-): Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams, Hasheem Thabeet
So there was a pretty popular stat being thrown around the league last year. I think it said OKC’s defense was actually better without Perkins on the court. That’s not very good considering Perkins gained his status as a bulldog of a defender on his Celtic championship team. Perkins lost weight but that should have made him better conditioned. Even without the body mass he used to have, Perkins’ defense on Boston was marked by his ferociousness and hunger. Perkins just needs to play like he’s hungry; hungry to stop post players from scoring. Word is rookie center Steven Adams showed a little something in the preseason. Maybe OKC needs some young, fresh legs to split time with Perkins. Or maybe the Thunder should stick Ibaka back at center and play small ball (Durant at PF, Sefolosha SF, etc.) The Thunder have a few different options in their rotations but could use a few more worthy individual options.
Defense (A): The Thunder’s defense hasn’t been a main issue for the team. As Durant and Westbrook matured, they learned how to utilize their defensive skillset to the fullest. The two superstars along with a lockdown defender in Thabo and two effective post defenders in Perk and Ibaka, OKC’s defense isn’t what’s holding the team back.
Shooting (A-): OKC’s big three (KD, Westbrook, Ibaka) accounts for most of it’s shooting. Otherwise, it’s Durant or Russ being doubled and kicking the ball out to an open Sefolosha or Jackson. There’s no problem to fix in OKC’s shooting attack. However, there are sharp shooters that could eventually be added to the squad. Kevin Martin was supposed to be that guy but never meshed well with the rest of the guys and looked stagnant in the offense.
Experience (A-): The young and the experienced. Durant and Westbrook are both of those.
Standing – 3rd West: One thing really stands out to me about Kevin Durant: he never stops…he just keeps pushing. Enough isn’t enough for Durant who will carry his team to victory by any measure. I think Durant has started to hint some frustration as there isn’t much complementary help outside of Westbrook and Ibaka. Something needs to be done before Durant starts to express hard feelings toward the organization.