Thunder Players Look Back on Season, Ahead to Next Year
Note: Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks addressed the media at 10:45 a.m. on Saturday before beginning exit interviews with each of his players and with the rest of the basketball operations staff. One by one, many of the Thunder players also took some time to reflect on the 2011-12 season, discuss their plans for this summer and look ahead to the upcoming season starting this fall. On Sunday, Kendrick Perkins addressed the media as well.
The big man in the middle is always one of the most philosophical members of the Thunder when talking about team dynamics and what it takes to win. Kendrick Perkins is a veteran and former NBA Champion, so it was to be expected that he had plenty to say about the way the Thunder played all season played out. With a full season with the team under his belt, Perkins is comfortable with his role and with his teammates. After watching the young guys on the team compete hard all season long, Perkins was pleased with the way the squad has grown.
"I think it was a great season, I thought in the Playoffs guys showed a lot of heart and showed that we're trying to get better and we're never satisfied... At the end of the day I feel like we had a good season. If we had won it would have been a great season, but from here on out we just have to make sure we throw this in the past and going forward we all have to get better in the summer time at something."
Perkins said that the Thunder needs to start next season on ground zero and remember that making the NBA Finals is never guaranteed. While this run during the playoffs was exhilarating and rewarding, Perkins believes that the team has the ability to do even better next year and take the next step. He challenged himself and his teammates to come back as improved players next season. He personally wants to get better, and had the line of the weekend when asked about what specifically he wanted to add to his game.
"I have a few things that I want to improve on," Perkins said. "I don't really like to talk about it, I just want to kind of go out there and do it and pop up on you all like, Bam!"
Westbrook was the first player to finish his exit interview and had plenty to say about the season for the team as a whole, his own personal schedule with Team USA tryouts and also the improvements he wants to make moving forward. Westbrook said he believes his leadership qualities have grown, but he wants to improve in that area, adding that he is eager for himself and his teammates to come back even hungrier next season.
Westbrook said the NBA Finals experience was intense and that the guys learned from going through it, realizing that even if they thought they did everything they possibly could, the team needed to find some extra juice or energy to take it to one more level. He believes the team and organization as a whole improved this season.
“We can take a lot of positives out of this year,” Westbrook said. “The group of guys we had stuck together all season long regardless of what happened, how many losses we had or how many winning streaks. We stuck together and fought through everything.”
Durant said it was great to see how much everyone on the team stepped up throughout the year and the Playoffs. Whether it was Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison or James Harden, Durant said everyone played a big role in the team’s success.
Durant said it’s going to take the entire squad to accomplish its ultimate goal and that it can’t take any days off in its quest to keep building and chipping away toward its aim of winning a championship. He believes the experience of going through another Playoff run and the organization’s first NBA Finals appearance will be extremely valuable going into next season.
He said his leadership abilities increased and improved during the season while also praising Westbrook’s vocal leadership and maturity throughout the year. In addition, he took the time to thank his teammates, coaching staff, and the Thunder fans for all banding together to create such a special environment.
“I was just proud of how the guys handled themselves and how hard we worked all season,” Durant said. “Of course we’re going to remember the games we played together, but the best part of this season was traveling on the road with the guys, hanging out with them, coming to practice every single day, laughing and joking. Those are the best memories that I’ve had so far since I’ve been in this league, is with my teammates. Games will be there forever, you’ll always see the highlights of those games, but you can’t get back the memories in the locker room, on the plane, on the bus, stuff like that. Those are not documented. Those are the most fun parts of the year.”
Durant said he wants to continue to work on his body and being a better play-maker. He wants to fine-tune every part of his game, including being a better, easier scorer while also becoming a better rebounder and defender. He half-joked that his hobby is playing basketball, so that it is unlikely that even with Team USA tryouts, he likely won’t take much time away from the game during the summer. Brooks also agreed with that, pointing out Durant is one of the players he feels can improve in every aspect of the game.
“Starting off with Kevin, I think Kevin can come back a much better player,” Brooks said. “The way his mind works, the way he is wired, he is going to come back a better player. He’s proven that every year now for five years that he is much better than the last season. He still needs to continue to get better catches and be able to get his body in a position to get deeper post ups and continue to make plays for his team. I think that was a big jump this year and I’m excited about what he can do in the years to come because you’re not really a great player until you make your teammates great. I think Kevin now realizes and internalized that.”
The one aspect of the 2011-2012 season that stuck out to Nazr Mohammed the most was the summer workouts that the players had that were not team-sponsored. Those types of player-initiated workouts normally don’t happen or usually fall apart in Mohammed’s 14 years of NBA experience. Mohamed credited those workouts to helping develop the team’s bond on and off the court.
In addition, Mohammed believes that throughout this upcoming summer and during training camp it would be possible for the Thunder to add things to the offense, incorporating some of the ball movement and player spacing that it showed against San Antonio into the regular offense.
“You don’t know how hard it is to get 12 guys or 10-plus NBA guys in the gym in Austin in the middle of the summer,” Mohammed said. “Getting them in the gym in Lexington and coming back here to Oklahoma City and working out. … To get together to try to work out together to keep that camaraderie and chemistry coming into the season.”
Mohammed said that the Finals experience will be great because guys are focused and there is a good core and great coaching staff in place. He said that teams don’t inherently get better by getting to the Finals, but the older players get the better they will play if they continue to work hard. Mohammed also added that playing in the Finals helps a player realize the difference in that level of basketball, other Playoff games and the regular season.
Emphasizing the unwavering support that the Thunder fans give to their players and the team, Nick Collison said that that type of positive energy has been a major boost over the years. That nurturing environment helped the team grow and propel it to its first NBA Finals appearance. It should come as no surprise that Nick Collison was introspective, intelligent and thoughtful when reflecting about the season as a whole.
“I think for me I always remember the Playoff runs,” Collison said. “Our San Antonio series was really special for us because we played at our highest level and we were down 0-2 and came back from that. … The good thing about it is that we’ve had so much continuity it just feels like we’re in the middle of a process.”
Collison said he will rest for a bit like he normally does in the summer, but he wants to play a lot of live basketball in the summer in order to be at basketball speed once he gets into training camp. The most important thing will be staying healthy, but he also believes that there is another level that the Thunder can reach as a team heading into next year.
“I think for us that level comes mentally,” Collison said. “We’ve done really well, we’ve come such a long way, but the next step for us is being able to sustain longer periods of just that mental sharpness to where our only thing on our mind is playing this possession the best way for the Thunder, for our team. The more we can get to where that’s just who we are, the better we’ll be. We’re a really good team, we had a great year, but to go where we want to go, that’s what we can be better at most.”
James Harden is one of the guys in the locker room who always seems to be enjoying his time with his teammates, so it was easy for him to reflect on the season that he spent with the guys. One of his closest friends on the team is Eric Maynor, who Harden said he is excited to have back heading into next year. The group as a whole really loved working, traveling and playing together throughout the season, finding quite a bit of success along the way.
“It’s been a wonderful, amazing season start to finish,” Harden said. “These guys, some crazy times this season, but it was all fun and it was for the better of us. It didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, but for the most part we had an amazing time.”
Harden has taken leaps in his skill set during his previous two summers in the NBA, and one thing that he wants to focus on heading into next season is finding other ways to impact the game when his shot isn’t falling. There was a major learning experience for everyone on this Thunder roster as the organization made its first NBA Finals, including that idea of making positive plays in many different facets of the game. Harden was candid about the nature of Finals basketball in comparison to other NBA games.
“Obviously the regular season and the postseason are different, but then that Finals is a different season,” Harden said. “It’s another level that you have to play at, not just physically, but mentally. You have to think the game at another level as well. It was a learning experience for us. There were a couple of games that we have to realize every possession counts.”
He said he loves it in Oklahoma City and the team is like a family and the players are like brothers. Harden was confident that it isn’t possible to find another team atmosphere like this one. He will be with Kevin and Russell for Team USA which will be helpful, but he will continue to work on his weak hand, finishing and midrange shooting. It will be a busy summer but he’s just trying to improve and be better for the team.
“Just take another step forward,” Harden said.
Thunder fans will remember Game 3 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals as “the Thabo game”, when Thabo Sefolosha had a big offensive outburst in addition to making the big switch defensively onto Tony Parker, leading the team to victory. When Sefolosha addressed the media he said that night and the Thunder fan base’s amazing, warm welcome are two things that he will remember from this season, in addition to the big picture focus of how the Thunder developed.
“For me I just look back and look at the experience that we gained from it,” Sefolosha said. “It was a great experience and looking back it was a good season overall. We can only be happy about that… I think my teammates, I just enjoyed being around them, being a part of the team is a lot of fun. That’s what I will take back from the whole season and the whole playoff thing, just being in that battle with them.”
He thinks that throughout the Playoffs everybody stepped up and brought something to the team. They didn’t quite get it going in the Finals, but he believes that in order to have success everyone on the team needs to have their moment where they positively impact the club.
“I expect everybody to grow from it (the Finals) and take it as motivation also,” Sefolosha said. “This whole summer, I’m sure guys are going to work hard with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, saying we went there, we want to do even better. Obviously it’s going to take all of us to play better if we want to get there again and have a chance to win it. Personally I take that whole thing as motivation for myself to go and have a big summer.”
Heading into next year, Sefolosha will continue to work on shooting the ball and adding offense to his game. He is not sure if he will compete with the Swiss national team, but hopes to participate in Basketball without Borders, in South Africa where he has a lot of family and an after school program that he likes to help out with.
Whether it was the way he bottled up Pau Gasol or when he shot 11-for-11 in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, Serge Ibaka made a major impact on the Thunder throughout this Playoff run. Although the team fell just short of its ultimate goal, Ibaka said he was happy with the way the team has continued to grow and develop, using the NBA Finals experience as a learning experience.
“I think after the Finals, now we know how to do it,” Ibaka said. “We know what it takes to finish. It’s great for us… We know we can still get better. I know my teammates will keep working hard this summer to get better.”
Coach Brooks had plenty to say about Ibaka’s personal improvement between when he joined the team three seasons ago to where the 22-year old is today. The NBA Defensive Player of the Year runner-up was the league’s leading shot blocker, while he also worked on other aspects of his defense throughout the season. Guarding stretch fours like Dirk Nowitzki and Gasol became part of his arsenal, and something he hopes to continue to get better at moving forward.
“He can guard multiple positions and I think he made a bigger step this year,” Brooks said. “I think he has to make a bigger step next year guarding shooting four’s and we even switched him up on smaller players in the San Antonio series. His defense is on a high level, it can improve a little bit more just from the experience, the knowledge, the rotations and instincts will get better with time.”
On offense, Ibaka’s shooting was a major facet of his daily regimen. Brooks said that Ibaka would often come into the Integris Health Thunder Development Center to shoot on off-nights. In addition to rebounding better on the offensive end, the consistency with which Ibaka knocks down that jumper will be important moving forward. Ibaka plans on working more on his game, including his turnaround jumper, during the summer, even while he and Cole Aldrich participate in Basketball Without Borders in South Africa together.
“His offense, we’ll really see the peak of what he’ll become,” Brooks said. “I don’t think he’ll become a 20-point scorer, but I think he can score a little bit on the block and his midrange game, I say this all the time, is as good as anybody on our team. We just have to do a better job of finding him opportunities. I think with his upside, I think he has two or three more jumps in him.”
Eric Maynor went down with a tough ACL injury in early January, but was with the team every step of the way. Although he said he will be ready for training camp to start, he is still in the rehab process in terms of getting back to full strength. Maynor credited the Thunder’s Playoff run for helping him through the rehab process because having his teammates at the practice facility every day with him motivated him and cheered him up.
“Just being around these guys made it better,” Maynor said. “For us to make that big Playoff run made it a whole lot better. I was coming in here every morning excited to see them, excited for games.”
The third year guard believes that this team has matured and begun to understand what it takes to be successful. It showed throughout the year that hard work and talent is great, but throughout the Playoffs, sometimes it’s about even more than that. That extra quality of mental focus and intelligence is the next step that Maynor, who felt like a coach during the season, feels the team can take. It was clear that this Oklahoma City Thunder organization provides an environment that Maynor loves being a part of. Using the word "sacrifice", Maynor emphasized the special atmosphere the players have created for this entire team.
“It’s just great being around everybody around here- the fans, your teammates, your coaching staff,” Maynor said. “On the road, we’re always together. When we’re home, we’re always together.”
This will be an important summer for Cole Aldrich as he continues to develop his post-up skills, defense and rebounding abilities. His development into a player that can be used in the rotation is a goal moving forward that starts with the way he attacks his development in the NBA’s summer league in Orlando, along with the time he spends in Oklahoma with his teammates and coaching staff. Aldrich is using the same process-based, professional approach that Collison has seen out of him for the past year or so.
“I think the way I approach it is the same way that I have the past few summers,” Aldrich said. “Continue to stay in shape, work hard, work on the things that the coaching staff has let you know they want you to work on. And just stay focused and know that you have to have a good summer this year and go into summer league with a very focused mind.”
In addition to his hard work this summer, he will also be attending the Basketball Without Borders program in South Africa. He thinks it’s going to be a great time with Serge and potentially Thabo being there. He said Thabo is a big deal in South Africa because they do a lot of work down there, and to experience Africa and to see some of the things that Serge went through as a child will be really eye opening.
“I’m really excited about it,” Aldrich said. “It would not only be a good experience for myself, but help other people around the world that don’t have the things that I have. To be able to go to a part of the world, and Africa in general that is struggling… That’s just part of my DNA, I love doing those little things, I love doing our Thunder FIT and things like that.”
It’s not easy being a rookie in the NBA, but Reggie Jackson handled it all with class, effort and professionalism. From coming into an uncertain situation in a condensed, shortened season to being injured in training camp, to stepping into the backup point guard role then learning under the tutelage of Derek Fisher, Jackson saw it all.
“I was just trying to be a professional and learn as much as I could from those guys, keep playing better and get healthy,” Jackson said. “You have to have something in between. Those who kind of perfect that do well. Russell has worked on it, you see how well he’s playing, Kevin is a freak at it, so it definitely helps.”
Jackson acknowledged that making the Playoffs isn’t guaranteed in any year, so it was an exciting and incredible experience to be a part of a group that did so in his first year. He thinks that that trip will be positive reinforcement for all of the guys to come back even stronger next season after a summer of improvement.
“I felt like a part of something special,” Jackson said. “Being a rookie, making the playoffs, some people go their entire career without even cracking that. … I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We’re all going to come out and work this summer and try to get better.”
In less than a week the Thunder will likely have a new rookie draft pick, so Jackson will no longer be the junior member of the squad he has come to share a strong bond with. He took some of his rookie duties, like wearing funny backpacks or carrying around a stuffed animal, in stride and joked about it on Saturday as the media session came to a close.
“Rookie stuff doesn’t bother me, I’ve been wearing a cartoon backpack since middle school. The big bear also,” Jackson said with a laugh. “Just getting to know these teammates, it’s a great group of guys.”