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.
Slater: Not sure if you can consider Kendrick Perkins a breakout player, especially at this point of his career, but I think he’ll be far better this season. I’m not predicting a big spike in offensive production (he just doesn’t have those skills). But the lingering injuries were a bigger factor than people realized last year and if he can get back to full health (still a big ‘if’), people will be reminded of the kind of defensive impact he can consistently have. Plus, with Howard moving to an in-conference rival, his value automatically rises. Disappointment? I’m with you guys. I don’t have much confidence in any of the backup centers (Thabeet, Aldrich, Orton), but I don’t think it’ll matter. When the Thunder get deep in the playoffs (where we expect them to be), the rotation shrinks and those three become irrelevant.
4. What’s part of Kevin Durant’s game needs the most improvement? Russell Westbrook?
Mayberry: I’d like to see Durant get stronger with the ball, and I feel like I’ve said the same thing the past four years. He still has too many avoidable turnovers caused by getting stripped on drives to the basket, or simply losing his handle when going in the paint. If he could improve that area of his game, it could help him be an even better finisher. Westbrook’s decision-making obviously still has room for improvement. But he’s made great strides. One simple thing Westbrook can do is convert more layups. He misses more layups than any other elite guard I’ve ever seen.
Rohde: Believe it or not, Durant needs to improve his basketball IQ. That’s not to say he lacks intelligence by any means, but he needs to remember he is. He’s Kevin Frickin’ Durant. There are times he should demand the ball, keep the ball, shoot the ball more than he does. Make wiser decisions. Know the proper time to pass rather than shoot, and vice versa. In terms of skill, he needs to get stronger and protect the ball better. He needs to use screens better. There are times he disappears on defense. Ta da, I just made one of the top three players in the league sound like a stiff. That wasn’t my intent, but just think how great KD could be if what I said is true. That’s the beauty of Durant. He doesn’t think he’s “all that.” He always tries to get better and it shows. As for Westbrook, it’s very simple. When his emotional side catches up to his athleticism, he’ll be one of the top three players in the league, an unstoppable force, an MVP candidate. Trouble is, I’m not convinced Westbrook will ever let anyone inside that head of his.
Tramel: I’m going to stay defense with Durant, and it’s not what everyone thinks. Defending small forwards out on the wing. You’re going to see KD play more and more power forward, not just this year, but in the years to come. And when we say power forward, that’s going to mean power forward on defense moreso than on offense, where his role won’t change much. But KD is going to have to guard Dirk some, and LeBron some with LeBron not out on the wing but powering inside. KD might have to match up with Gasol at times. He’s just going to have to toughen up and do it. Westbrook, same thing. Defense. Westbrook has all the tools to be an elite defender and so far he isn’t. If he ever became the defender we all thought he would be (while never dreaming he could be this kind of offensive player), Westbrook would rival anyone for world’s best basketball player.
Slater: Everything Durant does from here on out will be about surpassing LeBron. Last season, he was clearly the best player in the West (and he’ll only get better). But in the Finals he hit an immovable wall. LeBron powered him up in the post and physically affected him on offense (at least as much as you can slow Durant’s silky offensive game). To get past him, Durant will have to toughen up on defense (like Berry mentioned) and get stronger with the ball on offense (like Darnell mentioned). Until he does that, it’ll be hard to wrestle the individual and team crown from LeBron and the Heat. As for Westbrook, it’s the well-documented decision-making problem. He’s going to play his game (as he should). OKC just hopes the turnovers and bad shots continue to shrink.
5. Time for some way-too-early predictions. Give me your MVP, Coach of the Year, Finals matchup/winner and surprising playoff team.
MVP: Kevin Durant (one of these years he’ll get it).
COY: Mike Brown (one of these years I’ll get this right).
Finals: Thunder-Heat; Thunder.
Surprising playoff team: Washington.
MVP – 1. LeBron James; 2. Chris Paul; 3. Durant
COY – 1. Doug Collins (Philadelphia); 2. Mike Brown (Lakers); 3. Vinny Del Negro (Clippers)
Finals – Thunder over the Miami Heat in 6
Surprise playoff team – Minnesota
MVP: Kevin Durant. Thunder figures to have the league’s best record, and Durant figures to have a huge season, so he’s got a decent shot.
COY: Let’s take a flier on George Karl. I think the Nuggets will have a big year. Win a bunch of games. I’m picking Denver for a top-four West finish.
Finals: Heat over Thunder. I think we’ll have a repeat, and until OKC gets a defender who can match up with LeBron, or figures it out has one on campus, I’ll stick with Miami.
Surprise playoff teams: Let’s go Minnesota in the West and Atlanta in the East. In the West, the conference won’t be as deep as usual. You’ll have some teams like Portland, Phoenix, Sacramento, New Orleans and Houston who won’t sniff the playoffs. So the likes of Dallas, Golden State and Minnesota will battle for the final spot. I’ll take the T-Wolves. In the East, the Hawks will find addition by subtraction, losing Joe Johnson. I like the direction of Danny Ferry taking over as GM.
MVP: Durant edges LeBron. The Thunder come back hungry after last year’s Finals, the Heat come back with a trophy hangover. That all KD needs to squeak out his first MVP.
COY: Doc Rivers. The guy can coach and I think he’ll have Boston motivated, even for the regular season, using everything possible as fuel.
Finals: Heat over Thunder. This feels like the second of many meetings. I’ll go with the defenders until they get knocked off.
Surprise playoff team: New Orleans. Anthony Davis is going to make an immediate impact, maybe to an All-Star level, and the Eric Gordon-Austin Rivers backcourt combo will put up plenty of points (not sure about assists though). This young team may be a season or two away from postseason play, but why not go with a too-early squad for our too-early predictions.