Thunderous Intentions co-editors Andrew Kennedy and Mark Bruty took the time over All-Star Weekend to look at some of the biggest questions surrounding the Thunder for the rest of the season.
1. Are the Thunder the favorites in the West?
Mark Bruty: They are currently leading the Western Conference and the league and are doing so without and All Star point guard in Russell Westbrook. They have always been knocked for not being able to shut teams down, lack of experience or lack of depth and this season they have addressed all questions in emphatic fashion. While the top of the West is a tough mantle to claim, the Thunder have proven through 50 games that they are the best and would have to be favourites to take it out even with a fully healthy San Antonio team and Portland squad.
Andrew Kennedy: Yes. I think the Thunder have proven this season that they can beat any of the top Western Conference teams in a series. They’ve had a lot of success against San Antonio, Portland, Houston and the Clippers even with Russell Westbrook out of the lineup. They currently hold the best record in the conference and I don’t think that changes by the end of the season.
2. Who’s the Thunder’s biggest competition in the West?
MB: As mentioned I think that Portland match up very well against the Thunder and of course, all roads to the Western Conference Championship have to go through the ageless and well drilled San Antonio outfit. While other teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors may all be competitive, the Thunder would still have their number in a seven game series. The Blazers and Spurs though are two very tough teams to beat four times out of seven.
AK: Portland seems to match up against the Thunder the toughest. Nicolas Batum can somewhat disrupt Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge has been a killer for OKC this season. But the Thunder still split the season series with Portland, despite not having Westbrook for three of the four games. Durant averaged 38 points and nine rebounds per game vs. the Blazers this season. If it’s not Portland, I’d have to say San Antonio by default because I don’t see the Clippers, Rockets or Warriors playing enough defense against the Thunder to beat them in a series.
3. Are the Thunder the favorites to win the NBA title?
MB: The Miami Heat are still the champs and have been for the past two years. San Antonio came within one jumpshot of dethroning them so those two teams still have to be atop conversations. The Indiana Pacers also play a style of basketball that could see them run away with the whole thing and by adding Bynum, they have shored up the front line. We will have to see how the Thunder look with Russ back in the starting five, but they definitely have to be in consideration as title contenders.
AK: I think they should be but they probably aren’t considered this by most people. The Heat are the defending two-time champions and deserve lots of respect in that sense. Then there’s the Indiana Pacers who have come on so strong this season. A lot of people would put Indiana ahead of Miami and therefore anoint them the favorites, but if the Pacers play the Thunder in the Finals, I’m picking OKC.
4. Will Kevin Durant win the MVP this season?
MB: Yes. With 50+ games already played and so many huge performances this award is almost a lock. He has carried the team to the best record in the league while scoring at an unbelievable rate. His efficiency, improved defense and all-around game should see him win his first of many MVP trophies. LeBron would be a close second but I think his performances are “expected” now and voter fatigue will assist Durant. The team record also has to play a big part in it. Will depend on Westbrook’s impact on his return but at this stage, Durant should have a new trophy in his cabinet.
AK: For the first few months of this season, it looked like LeBron James would once again win the MVP. Then January happened and Durant went to a level he’s never been at. His carrying of the Thunder without Westbrook coupled with the fact that the Thunder still sit atop the standings makes him the clear favorite. Durant’s surpassing of LeBron in PER also makes choosing him a no-brainer.
5. Are the Thunder better without Russell Westbrook?
MB: No. While the Thunder have been brilliant in covering for Westbrook’s absence and while Reggie Jackson has stepped up – the Thunder still need a healthy Russ to get it done. There are times where defences don’t have to respect Jackson and others but this is never the case with Westbrook. Having the ability to run multiple lineups utilising both Jackson AND Westbrook is going to be nothing but beneficial. This time away has just allowed the Thunder to realise themselves without Russ – something they weren’t accustomed to due to Westbrook’s durability. Now, they are going to be even more dangerous and that is plain scary.
AK: Not even close. We have already seen Westbrook’s value this season. The Thunder are 21-4 with him in the lineup, which is a better mark than they are without him. Westbrook’s presence makes everyone better from Serge Ibaka to Reggie Jackson to Jeremy Lamb and even to Durant. All Westbrook will do when he returns is get his teammates even more open shots, increase the overall team’s defensive intensity and return Jackson to the bench where he would have been a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year this season.
6. What’s been the most promising thing about the Thunder’s season so far?
MB: Outside of the Kevin Durant brilliance, there have been a couple of things that have stood out. Serge Ibaka has been wonderful and has turned into a reliable third option on this team. He is becoming increasingly confident and effective on both ends of the floor. The chemistry he now has and confidence in his jumpshot only benefits the Thunder and Serge himself. The play of Reggie Jackson has been a positive but also the development of Jeremy Lamb. Both young guys have great chemistry, work well within the team structures and are efficient and effective. They have more than filled the void left by Harden and Martin and by spreading the responsibility over a couple of players, there is less chance of “off nights”. For the first time in a while, the Thunder bench is a strength.
AK: Definitely how the younger guys have stepped up. Lamb is doing as much as anyone could have hoped for this season. Jackson has taken his game to another level. Ibaka has become the deadliest midrange jump shooter in the league. Durant improving is great of course but the jumps these guys have made has been the most important thing.
7. What’s the biggest concern for the Thunder moving forward?
MB: Keeping everyone is going to be the toughest part. A small market team who has had to wave goodbye to a number of superbly talented pieces because of financial constraints always has a worry like this. They have masked it for the most part by drafting well and developing their players, but Reggie and possibly Lamb are going to command some big dollars. However, if the Thunder manage to win it all this season, it may entice some of these young talents to stick around. Or on the flipside, if they don’t but are close, why would you leave and try win elsewhere? Once the Thunder can move the Perkins contract and start Adams – things get interesting.
AK: For this season, it’s health. While Westbrook’s operations have been become of “minor” setbacks, the Thunder won’t be able to survive without him in the playoffs. If he goes down again or anyone else, the Thunder will be in trouble. But all healthy with the way they’ve been playing this season, there’s not a lot to be concerned about for the Thunder.
8. Will the Thunder make a move at the trade deadline?
MB: I think they might make a couple of small moves. The Thunder are notorious for playing their cards close to their chest so you can rarely get a read on what Sam Presti and the Thunder are thinking. This team is pretty close to being able to win it all though, so I wouldn’t suggest we see any drastic changes. They have an expiring trade exception (from the Eric Maynor deal at last trade deadline) so this might be used, but if any significant moves are to be made, it will likely be during the off season.
AK: I think they are definitely looking to make a move, but it probably won’t be anything too significant. I don’t think it will be a move that really shakes up their rotation. If anything, it’ll be on the same level as the Ronnie Brewer trade last year.