Four questions for five writers, recapping OKC’s recently completed 2012-13 season and looking ahead:
1. This was a ______ season for the Thunder.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Successful regular season. Five days after trading James Harden, the Thunder embarked on a regular season that ended with the franchise earning its third straight Northwest Division crown, its first 60-win campaign in the OKC era and the top seed in the Western Conference. Add to that, individual improvements were made from nearly everyone on the roster. You can’t ask for any more than what the Thunder did in the regular season. As for the postseason, all bets were off once Russell Westbrook went down.
John Rohde (beat writer) - Successful. Despite how the season ended, I’m taking the glass-half-full answer. The end came because of an injury to a three-time All-Star. If the Thunder had lost to Memphis with Russell Westbrook in the lineup, then I would have leaned toward the glass-half-empty answer. Just can’t imagine how you can call a 60-win season a failure, especially after losing the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - This was a disappointing season for the Thunder. Any time you have a championship-caliber team — conference champion or NBA champion — and you fall short of it for any reason, it’s disappointing. Even if the reason is perfectly valid, which Russell Westbrook’s injury was. The Thunder still has the brightest future of NBA franchise, but that doesn’t mean 2013 wasn’t disappointing. The NBA is a playoffs-driven calendar. College football and the NFL, even baseball to a certain extent, can find much satisfaction in the regular season. But in the NBA, the playoffs have a more bigger impact on the season as a whole.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) - What-if. Kevin Martin used that phrase the other day, and it seems to fit well. Because of the injury to Russell Westbrook, it’s impossible to know how this season could’ve ended for the Thunder. This team seemed destined to make the Western Conference Finals at the worst but instead weren’t able to get by the Grizzlies. We’ll never know how things might’ve been different had the meniscus in Westbrook’s knee remained healthy.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger) – Lost season. As those who play, cover or follow the NBA can attest, its relevant history is largely written in the playoffs. That’s what this year was always about. The 60-win regular season was nice. The individual improvements will help moving forward. But during the six-month trek that started in early November — four months after OKC lost in the 2012 NBA Finals — it was always about what lay ahead, about getting back to the sport’s pinnacle showcase. Those hopes were dashed by a freak accident two games into the playoffs. Tough break, lost opportunity.
2. Fact or fiction: Serge Ibaka was a disappointment in the playoffs.
Mayberry - Fiction. I’m with Ibaka. People (not just the media) want to look at his shooting struggles and say he had bad games. But in each of those “bad games” Ibaka helped to limit Zach Randolph from having a good game. I was actually encouraged by Ibaka’s performance for what he did defensively. We know he’s capable of making shots. We didn’t know he could play the defense that he did.
Rohde - Faction. Serge wasn’t half-bad. The good half was defensively, which can’t be discounted. The bad half was offensively, which can’t be ignored. He’s clearly the No. 3 man on this team and needed to step up with authority as the No. 2 man when Westbrook went down. It was time for Serge to show he’s worthy of $12.25 million per year, which starts next season.
Tramel - Fiction. I thought Ibaka made a couple of big strides that not only gave OKC a chance to win, but also bodes well for the future. First, his defense against Memphis really was good, which was said before Ibaka pointed it out while chastising the media in an exit interview. Second, Ibaka’s recovery from his slump vs. Memphis was impressive. The final two games, Ibaka was aggressive and productive, all after a horrid stretch of shooting against the Grizzlies. If Ibaka plays consistently like he did the last two games against Memphis, the Thunder has a bonafide star.
Carlson - Fiction. Yes, he had some off shooting nights, but his defense was largely outstanding. And I’m not just saying that because Ibaka let the media have it about saying he had bad games just because his offense was off. He could’ve been better — and with Westbrook out, the Thunder needed him to be better offensively — but he still averaged 12.8 points a game, just a bit under his regular-season average of 13.2. Hard to call that a disappointment.
Slater - Fact. And I guess I’m using the term ‘disappointment’ loosely. Because he was great on defense, like you’ve all mentioned and like we should have expected (he was an NBA All-Defense First Teamer). But once Westbrook went down, I expected more on the other end. Seemed like an ideal time for him to spread his offensive wings and flourish in an expanded role. But instead, his production remained level, his shooting percentage went way down and some of his flaws were exposed, with Houston even getting away with putting James Harden on him in the post. Solid young player with a very bright future, but plenty of offensive tools to tweak, particularly with his back to the basket.
3. Fully healthy, is the Thunder still the best team in the West?
Mayberry - Yes. That Spurs series would have been a doozy, though.
Rohde - Yes. Granted, the Thunder roster is top-heavy, but overall it’s in good shape as long as at least eight players consistently contribute. That’s not to say the Thunder doesn’t have company. San Antonio and Memphis are in the Western Conference Finals for a reason. The Clippers and Nuggets are temperamental, but talented. Golden State and Houston appear to have bright futures. The Lakers are funky, always intriguing thanks to Kobe’s mad skills.
Tramel - No doubt about it, the Thunder was the best team in the West, with Westbrook. But with that said, the West is close. OKC was the No. 1 seed. Memphis was the No. 5 seed. That’s a difference of four slots. That’s also the difference in their victory total, over 82 games. The Grizzlies won 56 games. The Thunder won 60. So OKC, Memphis, the Spurs, the Clippers, Denver, all those teams were close. But the Thunder played Memphis tough, without Westbrook. No elite NBA team goes deep with a superstar sidelined. Just doesn’t happen. And that’s because the margin of victory and defeat is thin.
Carlson - I’d say so. The Thunder showed as much during the 82-game regular season, so it’s hard to think it wouldn’t have shown the same in the playoffs had Westbrook remained healthy. He changes so much on both ends of the court, covering up any warts that the Thunder has and exposing the shortcomings that opponents have. Bring that back, and the Thunder’s the best in the West.
Slater – Barring substantial offseason changes to any of the contenders (or a Derrick Rose situation for Russell Westbrook), OKC should enter next season as slight conference favorites. Nothing pre-meniscus injury would tell us otherwise.
4. What affordable and realistic free agent would fit in OKC?
Mayberry - Ronny Turiaf is a name I’ve gravitated to recently. He made slightly more than $1 million this season. He can rebound, play solid defense and bring toughness and a fire that this team largely lacks outside of Westbrook. If the Thunder can get him on a similarly cheap deal, he’d be a great energy guy to bring off the bench to do some dirty work.
Rohde - Whoever is willing to work for $3 million or less and qualifies as a specialist at rebounding, defense or outside shooting. Someone starved for a run at the title and willing to sacrifice his wallet.
Tramel - I think OKC’s best bet for free agency is an aging star who wants to win. A Paul Pierce, for example. I don’t think OKC will get Pierce, but someone willing to play for less in order to seek a title. Something like Ray Allen joining the Heat. Or maybe a step down, into the Derek Fisher family of player. Like an Antawn Jamison. Kyle Korver is probably not to this point yet.
Carlson - I’d say someone like Derek Fisher. A player late in his career who wants to win a title. And he has to play for cheap. A couple million tops. Who fits that mold? I’m not sure, but if he could be a spot-up, knock-down three-point shooter, it’d be a huge plus in my book.
Slater - You’ve all nicely laid out the financial parameters. I’ll just throw out some intriguing names: Matt Barnes, Marco Belinelli, Stephen Jackson, Dorell Wright, DeJuan Blair, Earl Clark, Jermaine O’Neal, J.J. Hickson and Chris ‘Birdman’ Anderson. Here’s a full list.