Where do the Thunder go from here? That depends on where they want to go.
If surviving into the Western Conference finals is satisfactory, then the team should stand pat. If they truly aspire to win a championship, then radical changes must be implemented.
Forget about any talk of their humbling at the hands of the Mavs providing valuable experience for OKC’s youngsters. There’s nothing positive to be gleaned from their blowing Game 4 and wilting down the stretch again in Game 5. A hard look at the way the Thunder work and play together is much more meaningful than indulging in wishful thinking.
And forget about all the team’s accomplishments in the regular season because the late rounds of the playoffs are a totally different form of the game. Indeed, the dissimilarity can be compared to scrambled and hard-boiled eggs — the same substance in two vastly different manifestations.
With only Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison locked into long-term contracts, the team has a lot of room to maneuver.
Here are the keepers, the losers and the tweaks necessary to make the Thunder a legitimate threat to win the gold.
Kevin Durant is a bona-fide franchise player. To maximize his stupendous skills, however, the offense must be expanded. Running him off high screen/rolls or isolations that end up with the ball in his hands a step above the three-point line puts too much of a burden on KD — plus missed bombs usually become fast breaks going the other way. The Thunder’s defense is too porous to be so vulnerable to easy scores on the run.
Durant needs to post up more, get the ball on the move and be the beneficiary of the same kind of screens — and run the same routes — as Boston’s Ray Allen.
Kendrick Perkins supplies muscle and mass in the middle. But he can’t score with a pencil, has limited lateral movement, is foul prone and is only a mediocre rebounder. The Thunder certainly overpaid for his services, but they’re stuck with him for four more years, so they’re obliged to live with his shortcomings.
What Perkins does best is set heavy-duty screens. This should be his primary duty on offense. If this comes to pass, then Perkins can be a key factor in expanding Durant’s sphere of influence.
Nick Collison is on the books through the 2014-15 season and should be treasured as one of the best frontcourt defenders in the league. However, since his offense is limited, it’s difficult to play him in tandem with Perkins.
Thabo Sefolosha is an excellent role player, a defensive ace who can drop an occasional trey. Given the offensive deficiencies of Sefolosha, Perkins and Collison, Scott Brooks has to be super careful of fielding a balanced five.
The Thunder should immediately exercise their option and ensure that James Harden remains in Oklahoma City through the 2013-14 season. This guy is a dynamic pointmaker who can zip through the slightest seam in a defense or shoot over teams that crowd the paint. Harden also has the passing smarts of a point guard. His primary flaw is his defense. In any event, he should be plugged into the starting lineup.
Not only should Eric Maynor‘s options through 2013-14 be picked up, he should either be promoted to the starting point guard spot or serve as a backup to a more experienced trigger man. Maynor would rather pass than shoot, rarely takes bad shots, is mostly under control and has the know-how and the skills to effectively run a half-court offense. Pairing Maynor with Durant on the first team would be a huge improvement.
Daequan Cook is a fairly reliable zone buster, and a more than adequate 10th man. Trouble is shooters need the minutes to keep their rhythm functional. Still, he’s a useful $3.1M insurance policy at the shooting guard slot.
Serge Ibaka is a bargain at $1.28M next year followed by two option seasons at $2.25M and $3.35M. He’s a shot-blocker with terrific defensive range and, once he got over his playoff jitters, was able to knock down his mid-range jumpers. Yes, he makes mistakes of commission and omission, yet Ibaka is still only 21 and is nowhere near the kind of dominant player he’s destined to be. Among other aspects of his game, his post-up efficiency must be improved.
Will Russell Westbrook ever learn how to play the point? He certainly hasn’t made significant strides in this direction over the course of his three seasons in the NBA. He’s still a questionable shooter who takes questionable shots and continues to take too many ill-advised risks with the ball. His often foolish head-long drives to the rim in the face of stacked defenses leave the Thunder with poor court balance and susceptible to opponents’ fastbreaks. And how many times has Westbrook over-handled and either ignored Durant or dumped the ball off to him with a short shot clock?
His incredible athleticism makes Westbrook a highlight finisher in a broken field, but he’s simply incapable of implementing a half-court offense — and his limited vision makes him a bad fit with Durant.
With only one year guaranteed, Westbrook is prime trade bait.
Nazr Mohammed earned $6.88M for playing limited minutes and producing limited returns. At best, he was asked to block one shot, hit one jumper and avoid embarrassing himself on defense. Bid him good-bye and good luck.
At $4.2M, Nate Robinson was the highest paid cheerleader in history. Hopefully, the Thunder can dupe some other team to assume his guaranteed $4.5M for next season. At the very worst, give Robinson a pom-pom and be thankful for subtracting his money from the 2012-13 salary cap.
Royal Ivey, B.J. Mullens and Cole Aldrich are roster-fill at a combined cost of $4.77M. Ivey is a semi-useful spot-defender at the point, while the other two are D-League All-Stars. All are expendable.
Here’s what the Thunder need to mount a serious challenge for a title:
A veteran point guard (can Andre Miller be had?). A wing who can create his own shots and is willing to come off the bench (J.R. Smith? Wilson Chandler?). A big who can defend, rebound and is somewhat of a threat to score in the low post (Marc Gasol?).
Young bodies with an infantile head never grow wiser as they grow older.