Since the last time we cleared out the ol’ mailbag, the Thunder clinched a spot in the playoffs, won a franchise-record 14 games in March and, most recently, suffered two frustrating losses after stalling out in the second half.
Now, the Thunder finds itself in a race for the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. The plot thickens with just seven games remaining.
But a six-pack of questions in this week’s mailbag is focused heavily on Thunder guard James Harden. There seems to be two factions of Thunder fans. One side strongly believes Harden should be a starter. The other side sees nothing wrong with his role coming off the bench. We also get into Kendrick Perkins’ technical foul tally and the Thunder’s best possible opponent in the first round.
As always, you can join the discuss next week if you’d like.
You say it’d be a mistake not to start Harden next year. I agree that it is time. But where does this leave Thabo? Isn’t instant offense more valuable in a 6th man than defensive prowess? Could we see Thabo get shipped out? How does Nate Robinson factor in? – Jeff F.
Jeff, I wouldn’t say that instant offense off the bench is more important than a defensive-minded player. Most teams employ a scoring sixth man because it balances out the roster and prevents having too many scorers in the first unit. And, yes, that’s important to have. Because it’s incredibly difficult for any team’s best scorers to be in the first unit together and still be effective. Boston has gotten away with it because its big three has sacrificed and agreed to play their roles without worrying so much about who gets the shots. But I think Thabo has a role on this team no matter what. Every contending team has a defensive stopper, or a player who can turn it on defensively and hound the other team’s best scorer. Thabo is that guy for the Thunder. Two examples would be Memphis and Portland. Those teams have two of the league’s best perimeter defenders in Shane Battier and Nicolas Batum. Both come off the bench. Both continue to wear out the other team’s scoring threat with fresh legs. Obviously the difference between Batum, Battier and Sefolosha is Batum and Battier can score. But if Harden can prevent a guy from going off early, Sefolosha can come in and continue that effort. And that steady dose of defense would then be just as critical as having scoring off the bench. Plus, Harden could still play with the second unit if the rotation is used properly. It could be a win-win. As for Robinson, I don’t expect him to have a prominent role in hardly any lineup during his time in OKC.
What is Perkins technical foul count at? I know he didn’t play much for Boston this year, but I was just wondering how many he had to this point. – Jason H.
Jason, he has eight total. That includes games he played at Boston this season. He’s picked up four with each team this year.
Hey Darnell. I was thinking a good article (either in the playoffs or right before the draft) would be to go back and find some of the actual quotes made about OKC drafting Westbrook. Both what Sam Presti and the owners said, but more importantly what all the ‘draft gurus’ were saying (during the actual draft and in the days following in their critique of every team’s draft). And if you could find them, those same ‘draft ‘gurus’, what they are saying about Westbrook now. Maybe there could also be stat comparisons between the other guards taken in the first round that year and the effect those players have had on their team’s records. When I’ve seen stats like the only players to have 3000 (?) points and 1000 (?) assists and 300 (?) steals in their first 3 years are Oscar, Penny, Chris Paul, and whoever the other guy is, I think people would enjoy seeing the facts about how smart Presti, etc. turned out to be. Anyway, just a thought. — Russ M.
Russ, thanks for the suggestion. A lot has been written about how wrong the so-called “gurus” were. Westbrook has proved the Thunder’s front office right. But I think you’re having a slight case of selective memory. I seem to remember a whole lot of fans grumbling the night of the draft and in the days after. I can’t remember a single person who said to me then that they liked Westbrook with the fourth pick in that year’s draft. What Westbrook has been to fill up his bandwagon, though, has been pretty impressive to see.
So what are your plans in case of a lockout? The Thunder/NBA are a pretty big part of your job are they not? Will there be more time for you to reach out to players just with less provided access to them perhaps? Just curious. Daniel R.
Daniel, the Thunder is my job. But I’m still not sure there will not be a 2011-12 NBA season. It seems inevitable that a lockout will take place this summer. But whether we’ll see missed games come November, that I’m still not so sure of. If so, maybe you’ll see my byline on a lot of Class 2A girls golf and tennis events.
You seem to be very certain that James Harden will and should take over the starting 2 guard spot when the next season begins. But why does he have to? Yes, he’s playing like a starting shooting guard, but I believe keeping he and Thabo in their current roles is key for this team. Thabo gives the starting unit great wing defense, while Harden provides a good defensive bench with scoring. Also, several teams keep great players on their benches to help their teams (Jason Terry, Jamaal Crawford, Ginobili once upon a time). Am I missing something? What’s the problem here? – Aaron H.
Aaron, I think Harden has to because Sefolosha has yet to prove he can be an offensive threat. And it’s just one more thing that’s handicapped the starting unit. If you’ve noticed, Sefolosha’s defender barely pays attention to him on the perimeter. The defender generally keeps one foot in the paint or spends his time floating around the court like a free safety, looking to help whoever needs it or disrupt and discourage penetration. That can’t continue. With Sefolosha and Perkins, and to a degree Ibaka, all on the court at the same time, the Thunder is not very difficult to defend. That starting unit has only one perimeter shooter in Kevin Durant and almost no one else who can stretch the floor. Ibaka is improving in that area. It’s all about having players that complement each other. And right now, even though the Thunder needs his offense off the bench, Harden complements the starting unit better than Sefolosha, especially since Harden’s defense has improved. And it’d be unwise to compare the Thunder to the Spurs or Mavs, or even the Hawks in this regard. Those three teams have veteran players who, for the most part, have played together for years. In Duncan, San Antonio has the luxury of having one of the league’s best low post scorers and defenders. He forces double teams on the block, which opens up the floor for shooters. The Thunder doesn’t have that. In Dallas, the Mavs have one of the best playmaking point guards of all time in Jason Kidd, as well as a lethal scorer in Nowitzki. Dirk’s able to score pretty much whenever he wants, and Kidd can get anybody else a high-percentage shot. As talented as the Thunder is, it still doesn’t possess that one-two punch. And the Hawks have three of the best scorers at their position in Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. The Thunder doesn’t have that. Jamal Crawford isn’t going to start of Johnson. But the pile of evidence in OKC is growing higher and higher in support of Harden starting over Sefolosha.
Best possible first-round opponent? I’m thinking the Hornets but I don’t think they are good enough to get in to 5th. What are our prospects against teams like Denver, Portland, or even Memphis? — Jeckson K.
Jeckson, the Hornets are the best possible opponent and it’s not close. Although Carl Landry has been a Thunder killer for quite sometime. That probably would be different, though, not that Ibaka is the starting power forward. But like you said, the Hornets aren’t like to climb high enough to get the Thunder in the first round. Memphis doesn’t concern me as much as others. Yes, Memphis is 3-1 against the Thunder this season. Yes, the Grizzlies are talented. And, yes, Tony Allen and Shane Battier could combine to do a number on Durant. But the Thunder is still the better team. And in the playoffs, the better team generally wins a seven-game series. I can’t say for certain that the Thunder is a better team than either the Blazers or the Nuggets. The first step for the Thunder needs to be securing home court advantage. I don’t like the Thunder’s chances against any of those teams without home court. With home court, the Thunder will just have to play smart and together. That hasn’t always been the case this season, even in wins.