ESPN NBA analyst Tim Legler took time out of a busy schedule to talk Thunder and give his impressions on one of the league’s most surprising teams at the quarter point of the season. Legler, who enjoyed a 10-year playing career, is one of television’s best NBA analysts and is high on what is taking place in Oklahoma City.
In a Q&A, Legler talked about the Thunder’s hot start, how Chris Bosh would fit in a Thunder uniform and whether Scott Brooks and Thabo Sefolosha are viable candidates for respective end-of-the-year awards, Coach of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. It’s a lengthy chat but one that I promise you is insightful.
DM: What are your impressions of the Thunder’s start. Through 21 games the team is a surprising 12-9.
TL: I’ve been extremely impressed. Going back to the preseason when I wrote up my preseason previews for the league, I had them right on the fringe of making the playoffs in the Western Conference. I said if everything broke right and they stayed healthy and got maybe a couple of contributions from some guys that they expected I expected them to be able to fight for the last one or two spots in the conference. So they haven’t really surprised me because I expected them to be this good. They may be getting there a little bit quicker. But they’re a team that’s got everything that you want. They’ve got a dominant go-to offensive machine in Kevin Durant. They’ve got the guy that I picked to be my breakout player of the year in Russell Westbrook at the point who is a future All-Star and a triple-double threat every night. Once he figures out that he can be, he’s a triple-double threat every night. Then you’ve got James Harden, who’s a perfect sixth man for that team. You’ve got offense off the bench. And then Jeff Green, who’s Mr. Consistency, Mr. Solid. So around those four guys you’ve got a little bit of everything you need to compete. And I’ve been extremely impressed with them. It’s great for the league. I said the other day during a piece when asked to pick any player in the league, take him off the team he’s on and put him on any other team who would you pick for a Christmas wish list? And I said I would take Chris Bosh off the Raptors as a free agent and I would put him on Oklahoma City next year and you would have a team that could contend in the Western Conference every night. If they had a power forward that could help up front with more scoring in the paint and help them on the boards and help them match up better with other teams, that’s the only thing right now that they lack. A little bit of size and athleticism up front. They will be the next buzz team in the Western Conference, the team that’s going to be thrown into the mix over the next couple of years. And it’s good for the league because we need some new blood up there. We’re tired of talking about, as analysts, the same five or six teams all the time. It’s nice to see another team break through at that level, and Oklahoma City is that team. They’re the ones that will make that journey and get up to the top shelf over the next couple of seasons. It’s going to be fun to watch.
DM: You mentioned Chris Bosh. Do you think a big-name free agent like Bosh could be convinced to sign in a market like Oklahoma City?
TL: There are certain guys that I don’t think there is anyway Oklahoma City as a market would have a chance to land a player like that. I don’t think Chris Bosh is in that category. He just spent his whole career up in Toronto. Toronto’s a great city, but in terms of NBA marketing appeal it’s not up there. It’s in Canada. He’s been up there and he’s been happy for the most part until this year. So I think Chris Bosh is a little different. His character and the things that are important to him are not the same things that’s important to some of the other marquee players. So I don’t think it’ll be out of the question that Oklahoma City can make a run at Chris Bosh. I know they’re in a good situation as far as the cap. They’re not going to get LeBron James. They’re not going to get Dwyane Wade. You have to start thinking about who else could have the kind of impact on our team that we need that can get us over the hump. To me, Chris Bosh is the perfect fit. If I were them I’d do everything I could to target him. I’m not saying you’re going to get him. Everybody’s saying he’s going to end up in Miami. But you never know. I think he could fit in well in a market like Oklahoma City and be happy there.
DM: Is Scott Brooks a realistic Coach of the Year candidate?
TL: Oh definitely. No question. He’s on the short list. Every year there is only four or five guys and Scott Brooks is definitely on that list. I’m real happy for him. I’ve known Scotty a long time. There were people that thought when he first started coaching when P.J. left that he was in over his head and maybe wouldn’t be able to do it. I really believed that he could. And it’s been great to watch what he’s done with that team. The thing that impresses me about them, and this point directly to coaching, is they play hard every single night. They come and they compete every night. And the fact that Kevin Durant has evolved as quickly as he has at his age, they points directly to coaching and talent. He’s got the talent, but the coach is who brings that out of him, particularly the young players. They’re responsible for the development of those players, and Scotty Brooks has done a phenomenal job of maximizing all of these guys. Their learning curve and their potential is on an upward track and that’s exactly what you want from a coach. So you’ve got to give them all the credit in the world because they compete and everybody knows that. When you play Oklahoma City, whether it’s home or away, you’ve got to come and be ready to play hard because they are going to get after it on every play.
DM: Thabo Sefolosha, Defensive Player of the Year candidate?
TL: Yeah. That’s a good one actually. I haven’t heard his name and it’s early for those awards, for us to start talking about those kind of awards. But that makes total sense. That’s what they brought him in for, and the guys that he has matched up with this year when they’ve played the marquee wing players he’s done a great job of making those guys work and slowed them down. So that’s a very underrated acquisition. People don’t really talk about that because Durant and Westbrook and those guys get all the attention. But Sefolosha has bee key to what they’ve done so far.
DM: How hard is it for a young team like the Thunder to maintain this pace?
TL: That’s the one thing that you don’t know about a young team is do they have the stamina and the sustainability. I personally think that they do because of the things that I mentioned earlier. There’s not a glaring weakness on this team. I don’t think they’re playing over their head right now. Everybody that they have fills a need and they all kind of come together to form the puzzle that you need to compete every night in the league. So I don’t think there’s going to be a significant drop off if they don’t have an injury. They are young and what you’re going to see out of a team like this is there is going to be a time when they’re going to lose four or five straight games at some point over the next couple of months. And when that happens, that’s when you’re going to learn a lot more about the Oklahoma City Thunder. How do they respond to that? Do they stay confident? Do they start to point fingers? Do they start to crack a little bit? That’s when you start to look at a young team and find out how they handle adversity. Because right now it’s great. They’re 12-9. A lot of people didn’t expect them to be 12-9 and they’re loving life. But at some point they’re going to hit a rough patch. The schedule’s going to get tougher and the Western Conference is loaded. So it’s how they respond to that that’s going to give you a better indication of how long they can keep this up. But I personally feel that they’re a team that is going to be a .500 or better team this year. And if that’s the case, they’re going to be right there into the hunt going into the last couple of weeks of the season for the playoffs.