While watching this year NBA finals, you can’t help but think what would happen if OKC had gotten this far, and if Westbrook hadn’t gone down in the first round against Houston, they probably would have rolled to the finals. However, even with a healthy Westbrook I think they would have gotten shellacked by the Heat. OKC is just not ready to take down the Heat quite yet. Sure, they have all the talent they need and they really have the experience as well. But, this team is a very different team from the one that advanced to the finals in 2011. It may not appear that way on paper, but they are in fact a very different ball club.
The major roster change that we see is the fact that James Harden was replaced by Kevin Martin. This may not seem like a giant change, but it totally alters how the Thunder play basketball. If Harden was still in OKC, I wouldn’t be saying that all the Thunder need is time. They would have already had a lot of time being in that “Harden era” and they would know how to win basketball games playing as that type of team. But now it is very different. They don’t have to start from square one, but they definitely have to take a step back and survey their basketball team.
They don’t need any high profile free agents, or any high draft picks. This would only slow the process of winning a championship even more. If they added a guy like Dwight Howard, the chemistry would be thrown totally off, and the identity of the team would be lost, and it would take a long time to find it again. With Martin now in the fold for OKC, the way they attack the game is very different from the way they did when Harden was here. When Harden was in OKC, for the most part the game-plan for the Thunder would be to let KD and Westbrook do their thing for the first three quarters of the game, and then Harden would command the fourth. Harden would take the ball up the floor nearly as much as Westbrook did, and he would take control of the offense. Harden was a master in the pick and roll, and he knew exactly what to do with the basketball. He would get KD a lot of open jumpers, and Westbrook was rewarded with a lot of one on one coverage. This tactic worked tremendously for them, and if Harden had been here in 2012, then they would have given the Heat a run for their money in the finals. The reason they would have given them a better series this year is because they would have had time to get even better as a group.
Now that Harden is gone, they have had to seriously adjust the way they play the game. The biggest change comes in the fourth quarter in my opinion. KD is now much more of a distributor and Westbrook has a lot more free reign than he did when Harden was in OKC. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, in fact two or three years down the road I think this will turn out to be a good thing for the Thunder. But as of right now, they still struggle a bit as a team in the fourth quarter. Kevin Martin is a very good basketball player, but he is no James Harden. He is no James Harden in terms of talent, and in terms of how they play basketball. Martin is a very good spot-up shooter, while Hardens game is much more focused on getting the ball to the basket. What this means for OKC, is Durant must take on a much bigger role in commanding the offense and there was definitely a lot of learning curves in 2012. He was used to being just a scorer, and then all of a sudden he had to learn how to be a distributor as well. However, over the year he got a lot better and by the time the playoffs rolled around, I think he really was starting to get the hang of it. But it takes time. Time. Time. Time. Give Durant and Westbrook another whole year of playing without Harden, and I think they will be ready to take down Miami. Westbrook has gotten even better as a scorer, and he has also learned to play much more under control. If Westbrook played in 2012 like he did in 2011, then the Thunder probably are stuck with the three or four seed, because Harden wouldn’t be there to settle down the offense. But Westbrook has learned, and just like Durant, if you give him another whole year of learning to play like that, I think they will be ready to give Miami a good run for their money. Martin is really just a complementary piece to the Thunder’s “machine”. Harden was one of the big cogs in the machine, and the Thunder just have to get used to KD and Westbrook taking most of the responsibility.
The bottom line in all of this,is the Thunder have all the talent needed to beat Miami, but they still need the time to gel as a team, and work out all of the problems that they have. The Miami Heat really are a perfect example. They failed to win the title in 2010, but they came back, learned from what happened and came out a much better team. This is what the Thunder must do, they must recognize what they need to work on, and with time, they will come out as a much better basketball team.