Five questions: OKC Thunder season preview
Oh how quickly basketball season has crept up on us.
Oklahoma City begins training camp next week, with the first preseason game scheduled for Oct. 10th.
And what better way to crank up the NBA coverage than a large Thunder season preview. Five questions for four writers, analyzing the defending Western Conference Champs:
1. When your preseason predictions come out, which of the two (Lakers and Thunder) will you forecast as Western Conference Champs? And why?
John Rohde (beat writer): I’ll go with the Thunder for two reasons: 1. Though the upside is very high with the Lakers, there is a greater chance for some kind of breakdown, whether it be Dwight Howard’s back, Steve Nash’s back, Kobe Bryant wanting the ball, Metta World Peace flipping out and bad overall team chemistry; 2. The Lakers have four Hall of Famers, but there is no guarantee the combination will click. We already know how well the Thunder plays together, and it can be breathtaking at times. However, if everything is “kumbaya” with the Lakers, they’ll win it all — no matter how well anyone else plays.
Berry Tramel (columnist): I’m picking OKC. For a lot of reasons. I think the Lakers are fascinating, but I don’t know that they’ve put together a super team. Miami put together superstars in their prime. The Lakers have put together superstars past their prime. Can Kobe and Nash work together? How much will Kobe and Nash dip at their advanced age? How much does Dwight Howard want to be a Laker and how much does his back hurt? Is Metta World Chaos still a relevant player? Lots of questions about the Lakers. Plus, even if the Lakers mesh, the Thunder is well-suited to counter, with a guy to guard Dwight and a guy to guard Kobe and a bunch of 23- and 24-year-old legs. Plus, I think OKC absolutely would have homecourt advantage in a playoff series, because I think the Thunder will be hungry all season and will post a bunch of wins.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger): In 2005? Los Angeles may have been talking dynasty. You’d have a young Dwight Howard paired with Kobe at the peak of his powers, a healthier Steve Nash dishing to 26-year-old Pau Gasol. And Metta World Peace as Ron Artest, the defending Defensive Player of the Year yet to have his career spiral out of control by the Malace at the Palace. Seriously, that would have been an ALL-TIME starting five. But it’s not 2005. It’s 2012, and things have changed since then. Kobe’s knees are hurting, Pau’s impact is dwindling, Nash’s minutes are shrinking and World Peace’s mental stability is long gone. Adding insult to age, their only starter in his prime, Dwight Howard, is coming off back surgery. Plus, all those Thunder players who were high schoolers back in 2005 have become NBA stars, the league’s new breed of young and hungry players who still have room to grow. Young v Old. In this time period, I’ve got the Thunder.
2. Any worry that James Harden’s lingering contract situation will affect his, or the team’s, play?
Rohde: Absolutely. Look how poorly Harden played against Miami in the Finals. Granted, some shots rattled in-and-out, but he also hesitated. If Harden hesitates, he becomes a very average player, sometimes below average. Doubt crept in and he was thinking too much against the Heat. If Harden doesn’t sign that extension by Oct. 31, he willl be thinking all season long. Harden is a vintage case of don’t think, just play. Having a contract in place would be a load off everybody’s mind, particularly Harden’s.
Tramel: No. I think there’s good chemistry with the team, and it’s not like Harden has to post huge numbers. If he wants a max contract, he’ll get one. Plus, a good number of his minutes are spent with Durant and Westbrook on the bench, so the Thunder wants Harden to have the ball in his hands. So it should be cool.
Slater: As a Thunder fan, recent NBA history should scare you. Carmelo and the Nuggets became an everyday sideshow, then Dwight and the Magic made them look like a toned-down opening act. But Harden doesn’t possess the stature or personality of those two and the stable Thunder organization certainly can’t be compared to the mess in Orlando. So I don’t think it should become too much of an issue. Something to follow though.
3. Who’s your breakout player? Player you think will disappoint?
Mayberry: Can Serge Ibaka be a breakout player? I think he can offensively. He’s got so much room for growth that even last year might just be the start for him. But if he gets more freedom to look for his offense I see him surprising this season. There’s no reason he can’t average 12 to 14 points. Eric Maynor would be the easy answer since he’s coming off injury. And I don’t see anyone on the Thunder capable of disappointing for the bulk of the year, although Cole Aldrich being thrust into a backup role is at risk of being exposed most.
Rohde: Breakout player could be Reggie Jackson, though I’m curious how coach Scott Brooks will divide time between him and Eric Maynor. I don’t want to read too much into the Orlando Summer League, but Jackson shined. Then again, playmakers should excel in summer leagues because of all the freelance and funky lineups that rarely, if ever, play together. The biggest disappointment also could be a breakout candidate – Cole Aldrich, Hasheem Thabeet, Jackson and even Harden (without a contract). It could be feast or famine for those guys.
Tramel: I don’t know if he’s a breakout player, but Eric Maynor is going to be a huge addition. It’s almost like OKC got a solid free agent. Maynor’s injury early last season left a big hole. Maynor is better than Derek Fisher was. The Thunder knows how good he was and how valuable he will be, but a lot of rest forget. Out of sight, out of mind. Disappoint? I assume all the backup centers will disappoint. I’m not crazy about Aldrich, Thabeet or Orton. And frankly, they’re not needed. Except in a possible Laker series.
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