Is the Oklahoma City Thunder a championship-caliber team?
That, perhaps more than any of the team's other current issues, could now be the most pressing question. Because the answer, better yet whatever GM Sam Presti believes to be the answer, could determine what the Thunder does or does not do in these final hours leading up to Thursday afternoon's NBA trading deadline.
This will be the final opportunity for the Thunder to improve its roster and plug any holes that might hinder it from winning it all. Oklahoma City is widely expected to stand pat thanks to its current stacked roster that is filled with fabulous young players.
But for some, everything from stretches of brutal rebounding to suspect bench scoring to the shaky backup point guard is a question mark that could be addressed. And those areas, at times, give the impression that the Thunder still is a piece or two away.
“I like our guys. I like the team we have,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I know we're not where we need to be. We're going to keep improving and we should. Our guys are at an age where they should keep getting better. I think our staff has done a great job of developing these guys and pushing them to be good players. We have to keep doing that. But I like our chances.”
The Thunder will walk into Thursday night's game at Denver with a Western-Conference leading 32-10 record, which puts OKC on pace to win 50 games and sew up home court advantage through the conference finals.
On paper, all is well.
“I feel like we're good,” said center Kendrick Perkins. “I just don't know what we could go get that'll make this team that much better. With the style of ball we play, it's not like we need scorers, and it's not like we need defenders. So it's kind of hard to see what piece would really fit this team. I mean, I'm comfortable with what we got.”
The blockbuster trade and the splashy free agent signing has never been the Thunder's way. At the deadline last year, the team shipped Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and a first-round pick to Boston in exchange for Perkins and Nate Robinson. Other than that one surprisingly shrewd move, it's been all about player development in Oklahoma City.
Already in its brief history, the Thunder has established a reputation for building through the draft and growing from within. The franchise has become the model for every rebuilding project around the league. And it doesn't appear that the Thunder will deviate from that direction simply because the organization appears to be creeping closer to a title.
From the start, the plan has been to build a team that can sustain success, not construct a team that has one shot at hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. That means the Thunder never will sacrifice long-term assets for a short-term gain. In fact, doing so in such a small market could be a death sentence. Just look at Cleveland and Orlando. Both the Cavs and Magic made move after move only to fall short of the ultimate prize and watch their franchise player bolt or, in Orlando's case, have one foot out the door.
“At the end of the day, to win in the playoffs, you need 70 percent luck, 10 percent talent and (the rest is) superstar play,” said Perkins, who won a championship with Boston in 2008.
Of that recipe, what doesn't the Thunder have?
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have blossomed into perennial All-Stars and All-NBA performers who both can single-handedly win a game on any given night. Throw in James Harden, and the Thunder has the highest scoring trio in the league. In Serge Ibaka and Perkins, the Thunder has the league's leading shot blocker and the player who is widely considered the league's best low-post man defender.
Oklahoma City has incredible depth, too, going two and three deep at every position. There is so much talent in the stable that if a trade is made, the thorny issue of where the incoming piece would even play might arise.
There's versatility as well, which allows for interchangeable parts that foster flexibility in playing styles. In last year's postseason, the Thunder showed the significance of such flexibility when it had to gear up for a fast-paced series against Denver, a more physical battle against Memphis and, finally, a more strategic series against Dallas.
That experience is now expected to propel the Thunder even farther this year.
“Most championships come down to a play or two in a game or two where if they go your way it's your year. If they don't, they don't,” said Houston coach Kevin McHale. “But (the Thunder) put themselves in position, I can tell you that much. They're going to be a hard team in the playoffs.”
If no deal is made Thursday, we then know what Presti believes to be the answer of his team's most pressing question. In the event that happens, the onus would then be on Brooks and the players to shore up the problem areas.
And there are plenty.
The Thunder still is in the process of forming the right habits. In other words, OKC is continually building up a bunch of small things like boxing out, setting solid screens, having good spacing offensively, communicating defensively, rotating, taking care of the ball, making the extra pass and playing with consistent effort and focus. All are traits of teams like San Antonio and Utah and Detroit and the L.A. Lakers that have recently enjoyed a string of success.
“Last year's ability to have success down the stretch in the playoffs and coming together this year where they're growing a little bit more has them set up for a lot of great runs,” said McHale. “Great runs don't always necessarily end up in championships. But they should have a shot at it.”
The Thunder clearly has signed on to have a great run. The necessary sacrifices have been made time and time again, and another possibly will have been made once Thursday's deadline passes.
But what's better? A great run, or one great shot at it?
“It depends on how old you are,” McHale said. “If you're 35, it's one great chance, baby. If you're 22, give me a whole bunch.”