Like fine wine, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to keep getting better year-by-year and after reaching the NBA Finals following the 2011-12 season, there is only one more step for them to take if they are to continue on the upward path: winning an NBA Championship. In 2008-09, they finished with a winning percentage of .280. In ’09-’10 it was .610, which included a trip to the playoffs, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. In 2010-11, their winning percentage climbed to .671 and they lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Dallas Mavericks. Last season, the percentage was .712 and of course they lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Here’s some of what to look forward to from the Thunder in 2012-13.
The Thunder’s starting lineup is very top heavy, bolstered by All-Stars and Team USA members Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. As they go, so does OKC. Last season, Durant averaged an NBA best 28 points per game (third straight scoring title) along with a career best eight rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. Durant is quickly climbing the charts as one of the top basketball players in the world and if certain people don’t watch out, he could be the very best very soon. Westbrook also took his game to the next level, averaging a career high 23.6 points per game along with 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. If Westbrook can learn to share the ball a little better and still keep his scoring just about the same, then the sky could be the limit for this team.
Power forward Serge Ibaka is another key component in the starting unit as he led the NBA in blocked shots last season (3.7 per game) and has also improved his offensive game as well (9.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game). If he continues be to be able to knock down 17 foot jump shots and work on his back-to-the-basketball skills, then he would finally give this OKC team a low post presence on offense. Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha round out the starting five for the Thunder and they are there for their defensive presence mainly. Perkins is one of the few centers in the league who doesn’t require a double team on the top offensive big-men and Sefolosha can defend many of the better wing players in the Association.
The Thunder has one of the best benches in the NBA and one of the major reasons is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden. Last season Harden averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and one steal per contest, just barely missing out on being an All-Star, but he received a terrific consolation prize by being selected to the Gold Medal winning USA Basketball Team (along with Durant and Westbrook). If he continues to develop his game, he will definitely be an All-Star this season and could easily average 20 points per night off of the bench.
Nick Collison (4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game) is another key cog off of the Thunder bench. His tough-physical presence along with high basketball IQ provides a great relief for OKC at both the four and five positions. Dequan Cook is Oklahoma City’s sharp shooter off of the bench–every good team needs one–and with Eric Maynor returning from season-ending knee surgery, they stabilize the back court for this young and hungry squad when the big stars are catching a breather.
The bench could get even better if former first round picks Cole Aldrich and Reggie Jackson can continue to develop and improve their complete games. If they can, then there won’t be another team in the league that is as deep as the Thunder, especially if what their front office did during the off-season pays off.
Head Coach/Front Office:
Head coach Scott Brooks has quickly become one of the top coaches in the NBA. He has already been named Coach of the Year (2010) and was the Western Conference All-Star Coach this past season so there isn’t much more he needs to prove besides win a championship, which is more than likely the main goal and driving factor for him this year. With his contract situation already taken care during the off-season, he should be completely focused to lead this team back to the Finals to complete some unfinished business.
General Manager Sam Presti may just be the best GM in the game when it comes to drafting talent at the right positions that will mesh well together. Just look at what he’s done since joining this franchise in June of 2007: selected Durant in ’07, Westbrook in ’08, Harden and Ibaka in ’09, Aldrich in ’10 (still a work in progress), Jackson last season (coming along) and this year, Perry Jones III slipped into his grasp at number 28 in the first round. Presti has completely built this team through the draft and that is one of the most difficult things to do in today’s world of free agent frenzy-friendly, professional sports. Presti also took a smaller flyer (via free agency) on a player that he had his eye on in the 2009 draft, Hasheem Thabeat, who has yet to pan out in the league but a change of scenery maybe exactly what the 7’3″ center needs.
Predictions for the Thunder coming soon in my 2012-13 season previews.