Four questions for four writers, analyzing the state of the Oklahoma City Thunder as the defending Western Conference champs get set to defend its crown.
Be on the lookout for these all season
1. Only time will tell if the James Harden trade ends up being the right move for OKC’s organization. But strictly speaking about the 2012-13 season, did this team get worse on Saturday night?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer): Worse? I don’t know about that. Or should I say I don’t think that word will define the team’s entire season. I’ll say “different.” Losing a versatile threat like Harden hurts. And if the Thunder expects to succeed playing the same way this could be a tough season that ends with a short playoff run. But if the Thunder is willing and able to adjust and adapt, the team could be better in many ways. Martin, for example, offers OKC an opportunity to greatly benefit by utilizing an offensive threat unlike anything it has ever had. His skills as a shooter and mover without the ball makes him a constant threat that defenses must beware of whenever he’s on the court. That will free up lanes for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And the trade also could force Scotty Brooks to play small ball more frequently, which would make the team more athletic and guarantee the five best players are on the court more often. It might take some time to implement a new style. But the Thunder should soon figure out how best to reinvent itself.
John Rohde (beat writer): I think they actually could end up being slightly better, more efficient. Perhaps the beginning will look a little rocky. Harden and Martin get their points in slightly different ways. But as long as they get points, what’s it matter? Martin is incredibly efficient, more efficient than Harden.
Berry Tramel (columnist): Yes, the Thunder got worse. But only marginally. Kevin Martin is an excellent replacement, if you have to trade James Harden. Martin is a scorer. Not just a shooter. A scorer. So he should supplement the B team. Now, there are two areas that will be hurt. One is chemistry. It will take a while for the Thunder to get it, and it’s unlikely that the Thunder this season can have the kind of chemistry it had with Harden. The other is late-game situations. The Thunder liked going with Harden in the fourth quarter. Now, Scotty Brooks will have to decide if he wants Martin, or Thabo, or both (going small). So all in all, the Thunder probably is a little worse. But still potent.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger): How about these numbers? James Harden averaged 16.8 points in 31.4 minutes last year, while Kevin Martin averaged 17.1 points in 31.6 minutes. Strikingly similar, despite the two players differing reputations. I know Harden is younger and more efficient (he shot 49 percent, while Martin shot 41 percent), but the offensive drop-off won’t be near as drastic as people think. Martin is a proven NBA scorer, five times averaging more than 20 points per game in a season. The chemistry, especially of the second unit, must be reestablished. But by midseason, I expect this team to look just as potent as last season’s club, even more if PJIII or Jeremy Lamb can provide productive minutes.
2. What (or who) was the biggest surprise in the preseason? Disappointment?
Mayberry: I’ll say Serge Ibaka. His court awareness offensively has greatly improved, and he looks like he could be a big-time contributor on that end of the floor this year. He’s extended his range out to at least the corner 3 spot, he’s making the proper pass, showing decisiveness on the low block and floating and cutting to open spaces to make himself a target. I was really impressed with Ibaka and wouldn’t be surprised one bit if he has several 20-point games this season. As for disappointment, I’ll go with a “what.” No zone defense. That was a major talking point at the end of last season, giving the impression it would be a focal point coming into this year. But so far, we have yet to see it. Of course, it’s not too late to add it. But anybody who is still stumped as to why James Harden was guarding LeBron James in the Finals, or why Serge Ibaka was stuck chasing Shane Battier out at the 3-point line, knows how badly the Thunder needs another scheme in order to succeed.
Rohde: The Harden trade wasn’t a surprise. It didn’t surprise me Harden expected the max, and it didn’t surprise me Sam Presti traded him to a bad team when he knew Harden wouldn’t sign. Careful what you wish for. The Lakers going 0-8 in the preseason was somewhat surprising, and they followed it up by losing their opener at home against Dallas, a team with more new players than them. As for the Thunder, Perry Jones III is better than I thought. Coach Scott Brooks needs to find him some minutes somewhere, somehow.
Tramel: You mean besides the Harden trade? I’d probably say Reggie Jackson. The Thunder seems to love him. Eric Maynor remains the clear No. 2 point guard and should be. But Jackson is giving the Thunder pause to reconsider his status. Biggest disappointment? Among the people left? Great question. If I say DeAndre Liggins, will Rohde and Darnell come and club me over the head? Let’s say Daniel Orton. He only got to play one game. I saw that game, and he played fine. I was surprised he hasn’t been brought back. (Orton has since been called back to the Thunder)
Slater: I’m with you Darnell, Serge’s offensive game looked completely refined. I try not to take much from those glorified exhibitions. But when you see a guy who looked so uncomfortable and awkward at times last year, look so smooth and confident for an extended stretch, you’ve got to take notice. Overall, in six preseason games, he went 41/70 from the field (59 percent) and averaged 16 points per game, scoring at least 12 every game. And how about the newfound range on his shot? He went 4/7 from three, showing a nice stroke from the corner. Whether he’ll implement that into his game (or if Scott Brooks will let him), remains to be seen. But that’s got to be a good sign. And disappointment? I’ll go with my disappointment for the die-hard fans. Only one of the eight preseason games were on TV. The people need their Thunder fix.
3. What’s the main storyline or concern you’re keeping an eye on in the first month of the season?
Mayberry: It’s obviously going to be tracking how this team evolves in light of the recent shakeup. That’s not just going to be the storyline for a month. It’ll be the storyline for the season. Rarely do championship teams ship off a key component. The Thunder was so close to a title that, like it or not, the entire season now will be a referendum on the Harden trade. If the Thunder shows no signs of slowing down, it will be viewed as a great trade. If not, we’ll forever ask ourselves one simple question: what if OKC had Harden this year?
Rohde: How long will it will take the Thunder to jell with Kevin Martin, which is a wide range of focus.
Tramel: Kevin Martin. How will Kevin Martin assimilate into the rotation. How will he be used. How good of an offense player is he? How bad of a defensive player he is? That will be fascinating to watch.
Slater: As you guys have stated, Kevin Martin assimilation into the lineup remains the key storyline in OKC. But what about across enemy lines? How the Lakers star-studded starting lineup (and no-name bench) mesh together will have as much impact on the Thunder as anyone else. If it takes time, or injury woes hit some of their veterans, the Thunder may cruise to another West title. If the Lakers can put it together in Year 1 of the experiment (and look like the league’s most dominant team), OKC may be forced to improve at the trade deadline. Either way, with that team in that city, it will be interesting to watch.
4. Is there another team, besides Oklahoma City, Miami and the Lakers, that you believe can win it all?
Mayberry: Boston and San Antonio come to mind. They’re veteran squads that have been there before. They know what it takes and are watching their respective windows close. Both also matchup well with their chief competitors in their respective conference, Miami for Boston in the East and the Thunder and Lakers for the Spurs in the West. If there’s one team I’d pick outside of Miami, Boston and the Lakers to win it all it would be San Antonio.
Rohde: San Antonio and Boston, maybe the LA Clippers. Not Denver and definitely not Houston.
Tramel: San Antonio and Boston can. I don’t think they will. Both are a little old. But both are capable.
Slater: Is it short-sighted if I say no? I guess things can happen (like health problems to all the big teams), but I really see this as a three horse race. Miami’s going to win the East, I really don’t see anyone as a legitimate threat there. And OKC and the Lakers are on a collision course for a late May date in the Western Conference Finals. Those three talented squads make up the top tier, then there’s a clear drop-off before the league’s second group. But if we’re sitting there in June, laboring through 87-84 Boston-San Antonio slugfests, feel free to remind me about this definitive paragraph.