This is part 2 of the Contender Series, one where I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the best NBA teams, taking into account previous history of play and capability of flipping the switch and getting into playoff mode. In this part I will analyze the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Why they will win:
With the clock ticking on Kevin Durant’s free agency, Sam Presti decided to give Kanter a pretty hefty check and fire Scott Brooks to bring on-board Billy Donovan (2 time NCAA champion). These decisions showed a clear commitment to win now. Kanter, while being over-paid, is still a valuable asset to have, one that can add offense coming off the bench (averaging 12 ppg).
Billy Donovan is supposed to help implementing an actual offense, not just watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook taking turns demolishing defenses. It is still early to say if it was the right move, as Brooks was able to lead a younger and more inexperienced core to the NBA finals, and could have done more had he had Durant and Westbrook healthy in the playoffs at the same time in the past seasons.
Nonetheless the Thunder have gotten off to a nice start, ranking 2nd in offensive rating and posting a 24-11 record. We cannot forget they still have arguably the most dominant two-man punch in the NBA with Durant and Westbrook. After missing the majority of last season, Durant has returned to elite level producing 26.6 ppg and 7.4 rebounds, while remaining the efficient assassin we know (with a shooting splits of 51/41/89). OKC is 11 points better on the offensive side (offensive rating jumps from 105.2 to 116.2 with Durant on the floor) and 3 points better on the defensive end (opponent’s offensive rating goes down from 105.2 to 102.2). Westbrook on the other hand, has remained the demon he was last season. After finishing off a memorable 2014-2015 with eleven triple double showings and a scoring title, we have seen him continue to play at high levels that, while not adding up to the insane stats posted in the final stretch of last season, has translated so far into his highest PER (29.8), assists per game (9.5) and assist percentage (47.6%) while shooting a career high 46% from the field. Add in a fierce defender and paint controller (2.5 blocks per game) who is developing a long range weapon (shooting 39% from deep) in Ibaka and you have a team that is ready to take over the West.
While arguments can be made about the fact that the league’s two best teams in Golden State and San Antonio are out West, it is not incredibly difficult to imagine OKC making its way to the finals. Meeting San Antonio is nothing new for OKC, but meeting them healthy could push them over the edge. While Leonard is arguably the best on-ball defender in the NBA and can be a pest to Durant, that leaves Westbrook without a realistic defender (who could guard him? I’m not seeing Danny Green keeping up with him, much less Tony Parker) and some defensive issues that could be exploited.
If they eventually meet Golden State, now that would be a very interesting game. Westbrook guarding Curry and pushing him to the limit could give a huge lift to OKC. On the offensive end it is possible the Warriors would look to apply a similar defense Durant as they did to LeBron, switching Thompson, Green and Barnes. However that would leave some times where Westbrook was being defended by Curry and, despite his improvements in that area, I do not believe Curry can match up well with Westbrook.
Why they will not win:
Defense is still an issue in OKC. They rank just 16th in points allowed per game. The bench is still mediocre at the best, with their most used unit (Augustin-Collison-Kanter-Morrow-Waiters) being outscored by 18.7 points on average. They clearly overpaid for a PF/C that doesn’t add anything, despite some offensive power from time to time and therefore limiting their ability to add impact pieces in free agency and going forward.
For all that was said about Scott Brooks, he had this team playing with a win percentage of 70 in their primes, and taking away his first season as a head coach (and still counting last season) he had a win percentage of 66%. Donovan, with a more mature and improved roster has them playing at 68% so far. And about that offense? It still seems that Durant and Westbrook take turns, without much of play running going on (despite improving from Brooks situation).
Kevin Durant as returned well from his injury, but he has already missed seven games so far and there is always the fear of his foot injury appearing again. The same can be said of Westbrook, whose reckless play style that always seems to leave players more susceptible to injuries. Just looking at the previous seasons it is obvious the devastating power that injuries can have (let’s just hope nothing of this happens).
There is still the case of shot distribution. For all that is said about them loving each other, it is still a bit strange that Westbrook takes nearly 2 more shots per game than Durant, while Ibaka just sits at 11.7 attempted. While some can be attributed to the lack of play running, it is also clear that there does not seem to be enough shots to make everyone happy, especially with two elite scores like Durant and Westbrook.
Finally the context. Despite what I said earlier about San Antonio I did not make a reference to the defensive side of OKC. They simply are not stopping the Spurs offense (who is one of the best in the league) and as Aldridge and the rest of the team get more comfortable they could reach levels that OKC just cannot reach, even attempting to out-score them (remember, Leonard is perfectly capable of slowing down whoever has the hot hand in OKC, be it Westbrook or Durant). The same can be said about Golden State ball movement and selfless offense. While I referred that it is not hard to imagine them getting through these obstacles, I did not say it was likely. Unless they get some new additions to the defensive end, I do not see them knocking out either of these teams to advance to the finals.
By: Step Back-J