As Team USA speeds its way through the World Championship tournament, two undeniable facts are being established: That Kevin Durant is by far the best player on the squad, and that Russell Westbrook’s explosive attacks on the hoop are the keys to the effectiveness of the second unit.
Coupled with the stiff resistance that the Thunder offered the Lakers last spring, the coming of age of both of these players bodes well for the immediate and long-range success of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Here, then, is a preliminary scouting report on the Thunder’s immediate and ultimate possibilities.
Westbrook is simply an irresistible scorer in both the open court and also when the narrowest of lanes have been opened in half-court sets. He’s also developing the kind of court vision necessary to run a championship-caliber offense. If his defense is merely adequate, the most inadequate aspect of Westbrook’s game is his perimeter shooting — only 22.1 percent from beyond the arc last season. However, should the Thunder ever procure or develop a potent low-post scorer, Westbrook would necessarily get more uncontested shots from out there and his accuracy should improve.
In any case, the Thunder absolutely must get Westbrook to ink a long-term renewal. One would think that Durant’s eagerness to re-up with the team might encourage Westbrook to follow suit sooner rather than later.
It’s entirely conceivable that Eric Maynor could become the best backup point guard in the league. He’s quick as a wish, takes good care of the ball, has surprising leadership qualities for such a young player, and his 3-point shooting is rapidly improving.
Both of these guys will only get better as the season (and their respective careers) progress. Rating: B+
Thabo Sefolosha is the team’s best defender. He possesses incredible athleticism and a less-than-optimal ability to knock down treys (31.3 percent).
The primary backup here is James Harden, a streak shooter/scorer who plays virtually no defense.
There’s usually enough offense elsewhere in the lineup to carry Sefolosha, but seldom enough defense to compensate for Harden’s shortcomings — unless, that is, Harden is on a scoring spree. This two-platoon set-up usually leaves a gaping hole on one end of the court or the other, and is a serious weakness. Rating: C-
Durant is about to join Kobe and D-Wade in the pantheon of bona-fide superstars, and might also be on the verge of surpassing LeBron. KD’s understanding of the dynamic of team play is rapidly expanding, his defense is becoming increasingly alert, and there’s never been any question about either his ability to score or his work ethic. In order to increase his defensive capabilities, however, and also to withstand the physical battering as administered by the likes of Ron Artest, Durant does have to increase his strength.
Behind Durant is Mo Peterson, a savvy 33-year-old veteran and a capable, if streaky, point-maker. Since Mo Pete plays best in limited minutes, backing up a 40-minute man like Durant is a perfect fit. Rating: A-
Jeff Green is an erratic shooter who often gets lost in the shuffle. His defense is questionable, but his potential is unlimited. Green needs to develop a post-up game and also to get more comfortable at both ends of the court.
Nick Collison is the epitome of hustle. He defends with a foul-prone fury, is good for at least one unexpected put-back per game, flawlessly executes at both ends of the court, and will even drop an occasional jumper. What Collison lacks is size and athleticism. Rating: C
Nenad Krstic is strictly a one-space rebounder and a proficient mid-range shooter. He’d make an excellent backup. Collison doubles in support of Krstic, but only against relatively shorter foes. Etan Thomas is a relentless banger and little else. Cole Aldrich is an extremely raw rookie.
As things stand, by the end of the season Serge Ibaka should get the lion’s share of minutes at this position. He can hit short jumpers, attack the glass, block shots, and run like a guard. All that Ibaka lacks is experience, and he’s the wild card whose continued development could help the Thunder mount a serious challenge to the Lakers hopes of winning the west.
The primary problem with this group is the absence of a pivotal scorer who can demand double-teams. Without this weapon in their arsenal, OKC’s opponents can afford to stay in touch with the team’s outside shooters. Rating: D with only minimal improvement by Ibaka, C+ with Ibaka eventually superceding Krstic, Collison, and Thomas.
Here’s the overall picture: Phoenix will sorely miss Amar’e Stoudemire. Carmelo Anthony’s desire to move to greener pastures has Denver in disarray. Al Jefferson will give Jerry Sloan a season-long headache.
That leaves Dallas and Oklahoma City as the Lakers’ only viable competition. While the Thunder might have the young legs to outrun the Mavs, their deficiencies at the shooting-guard and center spots, as well as L.A.’s additions of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake, will keep the defending champs out of reach.
Don’t be surprised, though, if the Thunder and the Lakers wind up in the conference final. And with a few astute personnel moves, Oklahoma City just might complete their relocation from the outhouse to the penthouse in another two years.
If you have a question, comment or column idea for Charley Rosen, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and he may respond in a future column.