The NBA’s Western Conference has certainly enjoyed an interesting first couple weeks of the season. We start it off with Oklahoma City trading James Harden and then the Los Angeles Lakers firing head coach Mike Brown. Then the bigger surprise of the Lakers not replacing Brown with Phil Jackson, and instead opting for Mike D’Antoni. TheSportsNotebook took a closer look at the Lakers last week, and the fundamentals of what was written remains the same. It’s just the offensive-minded D’Antonio rather than the defensive-oriented Brown who will be overseeing what needs to be done. Today let’s look at the other Western Conference power in transition, and that’s the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I picked the Thunder to win the West—which I am very confident in, and also to capture the NBA title—which I’m at least 51-52 percent confident in. And I liked the Harden deal from the moment it was announced. It was my belief that Kevin Martin could step in and fill Harden’s role of instant offense off the bench. In the games played since the trade, you may have heard about Harden going off for 37 or 45 points. You may not have heard that Martin is doing exactly what he did for Houston last year—averaging 17-18 points a game, and he’s hitting better than 50 percent from the floor and behind the arc.
Ultimately though, Oklahoma City needs to find some reliable offense from someone other than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or their sixth-man guard. There are candidates for offensive improvement. Thabo Sefolosha is the starter at the two-guard spot and with his athleticism he’s a huge asset on defense. He also shoots 43 percent from both the floor and from trey range. The latter is a good number and perhaps Sefolosha could give the offense a jolt with a couple three-pointers at big spots.
Another possibility is Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City’s big weakness is a lack of offense in the post, a reason they could not capitalize on Miami’s weakness in that area in last year’s Finals. Ibaka is the frontcourt version of Sefolosha—he’s there for his defense and the power forward gets eight rebounds and averages four blocks per game. At age 23, there’s still reason to think he can upgrade his offensive game.
Kendrick Perkins is at center and is a pure defender and rebounder. There’s not much reason for thinking he’ll be more than that, but if his noted ability to guard Dwight Howard holds (a reputation developed when Perkins was in Boston and Dwight in Orlando), that will be more than enough for the Thunder.
When we look for offensive upgrades, we’re certainly not looking for a lot. Durant and Westbrook are the driving force of this offense, averaging 28 and 23 ppg last season. Westbrook’s streakiness is notorious, but Durant is the opposite—a steady hand on the wheel, as he hits shots from all parts of the floor, including behind the arc and leads an attack that ranked 2nd in the NBA in offensive efficiency a year ago.
Oklahoma City also plays defense—with three of their starters known primarily for their defensive skills that’s no surprise. If anything, we have to wonder why they only ranked 9th in efficiency—remember, efficiency is a stat that adjusts for pace, so it’s not because OkC pushes the tempo. As important as adjusting the offense is, I’d like to see this team become a top-five defensive unit and I think as they grow together they will become just that.
Head coach Scott Drew has two more X-factors off his bench. Veteran Nick Collison only plays 20 minutes a game, but he’s good for some rebounding help. And backup point guard Eric Maynor is now healthy and gives the offense a real playmaker to either run alongside the shot-oriented Westbrook, use in three-guard sets or just give Westbrook a rest.
OkC took some tough media coverage early on, with Harden’s monster games to start his Houston career, and the Thunder’s opening-night loss to San Antonio. But Oklahoma City is still off to a 5-2 start, they still have a deep bench, they still have young legs and their principal rival is in turmoil. I like the way things are shaping up for this team. You can watch their post-Harden transition process continue the next two Wednesday nights on ESPN (home games with Memphis and the LA Clippers) and the Friday after Thanksgiving on NBA-TV, when they go to Boston.