There comes a time when windows of opportunity close and new windows open. The NBA Western Conference might be a perfect example of that this season. The West has been dominated by the Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs over the last few years. Those three teams were the top three seeds in the playoffs just last season. This season the OKC Thunder might be passing the pack along with the Memphis Grizzlies and LA Clippers. Those three young teams are on the upswing, with the old guard having to fight to keep their spots at the top.
Here’s a break down of the Thunder roster that has many experts picking OKC to be in the NBA Finals this year against the Miami Heat:
PG: Russell Westbrook. No one takes more grief for the Thunder losses in the playoffs. For the most part, it’s undeserved. Sure he has some bad plays. Every PG in the league does. Westbrook is one of the few starters who can get a shot whenever he wants one, so that puts him creating shots more often than some people would prefer. It’s perfectly fine with the Thunder players and got him to be All-NBA second team in just his third season in the league. Expect him to be even more reliable, fewer mistakes and better defensively this season. Russ is a bonafied superstar.
SG: Thabo Sefolosha. The most questionable of the Thunder starters and the one backed up my a rising star in James Harden. Thabo will need to improve over last year to keep his spot. He built is starting reputation on great defense for a team that had other scorers in the starting lineup. Now, with Nedad Krstic and Jeff Green no longer scoring for the starters and replaced by weaker offensive options in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, Thabo’s defensive only spot is more glaring. The defense improved with the change, but a shooting guard that doesn’t score puts you behind the curve in the NBA. Fans didn’t want to replace Krstic and Green in the starting lineup, but sure didn’t miss then when they left after seeing the improvement. Thabo is the same type of starter. Harden is an instant upgrade just waiting to happen.
SF: Kevin Durant. The cornerstone of the franchise just keeps getting better and better. The Thunder get by with basically three defensive players in the starting lineup thanks to the offensive brilliance of KD and Westbrook. KD is set up to lead the league in scoring again, first team All-NBA again, and if the Thunder contend for the top playoff seed in the West he’ll be in the hunt for the NBA MVP. Al while being one of the most fan-friendly players in any pro sport. It doesn’t get any better than KD. Now if he just didn’t like the Longhorns.
PF: Serge Ibaka. A great fit at power forward, all Ibaka needs is a little more offense to start getting all-star attention. Young, athletic and hard-working, Ibaka could be the catalyst for the Thunder improvement this season. All the young players are expected to improve and help the team, but if Ibaka brings more offense to the inside to go with his shot-blocking and transition offense, the Thunder take a huge leap.
C: Kendrick Perkins. The third player in the Thunder starting five that fans either love or question. Perkins dropped 30 pounds over the off-season and does look slimmer. The question is how was he, as a leader, ever 30 pounds overweight to begin with last season? He has ground to make up to show he’s more than just a yeller and a scowler. In the playoffs last year, the Thunder was better when he was on the bench. He struggled against Denver, Memphis and Dallas on defense. Now, he’s slimmer and that isn’t going to happen. At least that’s what we’re told. Chris Webber recently called him out on NBA TV for being an overrated post defender. If center brings little to no offense to the table, he better be an anchor in the middle. Perkins has this season to convince the fans. Everyone is optimistic his work ethic will show benefits. Plus, he’s excellent on twitter. Could he even venture to all-star level thanks to the weak crop of centers in the West? Boom or bust type season ahead.
James Harden. He shouldn’t be in this spot for long or at least be getting starting minutes as the sixth man if he is still not starting. Harden has shown maybe the most improvement of all the Thunder players in the preseason. He’s been more aggressive offensively, the low three’s have been rolling, and he’s always fiesty on defense. Harden, along with KD, Russ and Ibaka, also fits in with the athletic young group that loves to run the floor and finish with a dunk over anyone in the way. He’s a legit starter currently on the bench.
Nick Collison. He was missing part of last season and his return sparked the Thunder to a run up the West standings. His defense in the middle saved the Thunder in the playoffs when Perkins was a non-factor. The guy does everything you need him to do to win. Nearly perfect bench player with a great contract situation for the cap.
Nazr Mohammed. The only guy that’s been in the NBA more than 8 years to show the youth of the Thunder team. Nazr bounced around the league some, but in OKC he’s dropped into a great role. He’s not going to score many points, but that’s not expected. He is a 6′ 10″ big man coming off the bench to provide solid defense when Perk sits down. He was just as important as Collison in the playoff run last season. Every team in the league could use a guy like Nazr on the bench.
Eric Maynor. Maybe the best backup point guard in the NBA. Either way, he’s solid off the bench enough to be starter quality on some teams. He’s a RFA after this season, so it might be the last year to have this luxury.
Daequan Cook. Why are the Thunder favorites through a short, condensed season? This is 10 players deep with solid players an almost all of them young and improving. Cook is another player with a great role for OKC. He won’t be a starter in the league, but as a guy coming off the bench to shoot three’s, he’s as good as anyone. If he’s hot, it’s a bonus on top of the other offensive weapons. The more often he’s hot, the more dominate the Thunder offense will be this year.
Cole Aldrich. The tallest player on the Thunder roster and a former lottery pick, Aldrich should be about to emerge as a solid player for the Thunder. Actually last year before Perkins came back from the injury, Aldrich got some minutes and played pretty well against the Clippers for one. If he can follow his fellow KU alum and be a Collison type player off the bench for the Thunder at center, things keep getting better in OKC.
Reggie Jackson. This year’s first-round draft pick hasn’t seen much playing time in the NBA yet and probably will struggle to break this rotation this year. The most minute against NBA talent he’s seen was in KD’s charity all-star game in OKC. He had some moments there and showed the athleticism expected of the Thunder guards. Get him spot minutes, let him develop and he’s ready to cut into Cook or Maynor’s minutes next year.
Lazar Hayward. Doesn’t expect to get much playing time, but will be an athletic young player with potential. The Thunder traded for him, so you never know when Sam Presti might be finding a gem. Maybe he has Byron Mullens’ spot, which is maybe a push with better upside.
Ryan Reid. A rookie behind Ibaka, Collison, etc. at the power forward spot. He might get some trips to Tulsa for the 66ers if the Thunder follow how they treated Aldrich and Byron Mullens last year. All upside that just needs time.
Royal Ivey. Saved him for last on purpose. Seems to be a great guy, but not sure how he fits on the Thunder. This will be his eighth year in the league, He’s not going to get minutes over any of the Thunder guards. He doesn’t have upside to develop. It seems like another young player with potential should be in this spot. Maybe OKC should cut him or trade him to see if he can get to play somewhere else before he gets too old? Maybe he’s a veteran influence on the young players that you don’t see on the court. If he’s the Nate Robinson this year, that’s an improvement.
Topics: Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Eric Maynor, James Harden, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Durant, Lazar Hayward, Loud City, Nazr Mohammed, Nick Collison, OKC, OKC Thunder Blog, Reggie Jackson, Royal Ivey, Russell Westbrook, Ryan Reid, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, The 'Peake, The 'Peake Show, Thunder