By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2012 1:54PM
Nothing is guaranteed.
Kevin Durant knows it. In fact, he said it between Games 2 and 3 of The Finals in June.
"People are going to say we'll be here next year or the year after that," Durant said when his team was tied 1-1 with the Miami Heat. "But nothing is guaranteed. With the way this league is going, so many great teams, you never know."
Just a few months ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked like they would rule the Western Conference for years to come. Then, the Los Angeles Lakers added Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to a lineup that already included Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Now, we wonder if and when the Thunder can get back to The Finals. And if they can, we wonder if they can do a better job of handling the Heat, who added more weapons to their arsenal this summer.
The Thunder basically stood pat. But it's not like they don't have the ability to get much better. Durant just turned 24 and Russell Westbrook will do the same in November. James Harden and Serge Ibaka both turned 23 in the offseason. These guys should each be a few years from their peak, and they all have room to improve.
"We have all the talent in the world," Harden said as training camp opened. "But small things, attention to detail, can take us even further."
The improvement has to start on defense. The Thunder ranked second in offensive efficiency and ninth defensively last season. Ninth is good, but not good enough.
"I think offensively we can score with any team in the NBA," Harden said. "But I think what's going to put us over to that next level is our consistent defense. We have spurts where we look very good, and have spurts where we look average."
And, to be honest, spurts when they looked much worse than that. The OKC defense got absolutely scorched in The Finals, allowing the Heat to score a ridiculously efficient 113 points per 100 possessions over the last four games.
The Thunder have what should be a great defensive frontline, featuring Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison. But during the season, they struggled to keep their opponents off the glass, ranking 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage. And in The Finals, they just couldn't keep up with the smaller, faster Heat.
Durant hinted in camp that he'll be playing more power forward this year, which should allow OKC to better match up with Miami's "positionless" lineup. But matching up with the Heat is a lot different than matching up with the Lakers' huge frontline. Thunder coach Scott Brooks feels confident that his team can match up with anybody.
"We're not just a one-dimensional team," Brooks said. "We can score in many ways and we can defend many ways. In order to have success in this league, you need to have that type of offensive and defensive package on your team."
Brooks also believes that his team can get better both defensively <em>and</em> offensively. Though they were the second-best offensive team in the league last year, they isolated too much. They were the only team in the league to assist on less than half of its field goals, and Westbrook's assists dropped from 8.2 per game in 2010-11 to 5.5.
"We have guys that get along," Brooks said. "We have guys that play extremely hard. The next step is to try to figure out ways to get better offensively by helping each other score easier."
Improved defense can also fuel a more efficient offense, because few teams are as potent as the Thunder on the break.
"When we're at our best, we defend the basketball, defend the shot, rebound the basketball and run," Brooks said. "That's when we're at our best offensively. It always starts with a defensive possession, so we can get out and run."
Better defense. Better offense. The Thunder can get there, and maybe their internal improvement can trump the moves made by the teams standing in their way.
"I think we have something special here, a group of guys that's been together for a while," Westbrook said. "We understand each other. We know what it takes to get to where we need to get to."
1. Harden's contract situation brings a measure of uncertainty to the Thunder's future. If a contract extension is not worked out between Harden and the Thunder by Oct. 31, he will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Harden has expressed confidence that a deal will get done, but a more punitive luxury tax is looming. And with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Perkins set to make a combined $54 million next season, working out a deal that works for both Harden and the Thunder might not be easy.
2. The Thunder core is young and durable, but you have to wonder when injuries are going to factor in. Over the last three seasons, Durant (4), Harden (10), Ibaka (9) and Westbrook (0) have missed a total of just 23 games, including postseason. And the 32-year-old Collison has only missed 21 of the 273 total games in that time.
3. If the Thunder do play small more, rookie Perry Jones III may have a real opportunity to play right away and make some teams regret letting him slip to the 28th pick. His coach and teammates talked Jones up quite a bit early in camp.
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LAST YEAR: 47-19, 1st in Northwest
FINISH: Lost in NBA Finals
2011-12 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2011-12 Stats|
RUSSELL WESTBROOK, POINT GUARD
23.6 PPG | 4.6 RPG | 5.5 APG
He's improved defensively from where he once was. While his usage rate stayed high (second in the league behind only Kobe Bryant), his assist rate plummeted.
THABO SEFOLOSHA, SHOOTING GUARD
4.8 PPG | 3.0 RPG | 1.1 APG
OKC's defensive stopper provides little offensively, but he has managed to increase his scoring efficiency in each of the last two seasons.
KEVIN DURANT, SMALL FORWARD
28.0 PPG | 8.0 RPG | 3.5 APG
Became more of an isolation scorer last season. The proof? Only 48 percent of his field goals were assisted, down from 62 percent in 2010-11.
SERGE IBAKA, POWER FORWARD
9.1 PPG | 7.5 RPG | 3.6 BPG
Blocked 107 more shots than anyone else last season, but can still improve defensively. Pick-and-pop threat with a solid mid-range game.
KENDRICK PERKINS, CENTER
5.1 PPG | 6.6 RPG | 1.1 BPG
Strong defender fares best against post players (see Howard, Dwight), but was a big liability in The Finals against Miami's small, athletic frontline.
|Nick Collison||6-10||255||F-C||Has led OKC regulars in per-possession +/- for three straight seasons.|
|James Harden||6-5||220||F||Took on more late-game responsibility as the season went on last year.|
|Eric Maynor||6-3||175||G||His return can help the bench get back to being a defensive unit.|
ADDED: F Perry Jones III, C Daniel Orton, C Hasheem Thabeet
LOST: G Royal Ivey, C Nazr Mohammed
JAMES HARDEN, FORWARD
The Thunder will be in the best possible situation if Harden puts his small performance of the 2012 Finals behind him and returns to the form that won him the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year award. That is, if the business of the NBA doesn't get in the way.
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