HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Because James Harden and Kevin Martin left Oklahoma City within a year means Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook somehow emerged weakened?
Write off the Thunder and the championship mettle of their unguardable duo at your own shortsightedness. Is there plenty to prove? Heck yes. And why shouldn’t there be? But as you close that window on a title run, watch those fingertips.
The most driven second fiddle in the league, Durant is again side-by-side with his thoroughbred point guard Westbrook, leaping and bounding and spitting fire since his return from a torn meniscus in his right knee. They could be about to go gangbusters on the Western Conference.
Midway into the second week of the season, bowed-up West contenders in L.A. and Houston have proven they’ve got work to do. Hell, Barkley’s already read Dwight’s Rockets and Doc’s Clippers their last rites on live TV. That leaves the immovable San Antonio Spurs, galloping Golden State and perhaps an undetermined dark horse to keep the Thunder from recapturing their 2012 glory.
Yet some are already writing harbinger headlines of Durant’s exit for the big city three summers removed — an eternity for team stability in today’s NBA. The truth is this Thunder team, with a core of Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — could quietly be at their most complete since hitching up in OKC.
Even if the offense takes time to integrate new bench players (and it has yet to fire on all cylinders), defense separates the Thunder. Flash-quick and long, it still seems overlooked even though they’ve been among the most disruptive forces in basketball. Top three last season, OKC ranks fourth in the league in defensive rating (allowing 95.2 points per 100 possessions) and is allowing the seventh-lowest effective field goal percentage (46.2 percent, adjusted for made 3-pointers being more valuable than a 2-point shot). That’s with Westbrook missing the first two games.
With the trigger-switch Westbrook, key reserve guard Reggie Jackson just shakes his head at the possibilities.
“The pressure that we put on people with our defense can be hard to explain,” Jackson said prior to the season. “Russ, the way he jumps lanes, the way he’s so tenacious on defense; me, K.D., just the length of the team, it’s something scary.”
The perceived weakness is the bench the bearded Harden once ruled. His individual offensive versatility served the Thunder well, all the way to the 2012 Finals before he petered out in what would be the swan song for OKC’s Big Three. Martin, while erratic last season, was a proven veteran scorer. This season the Thunder brass is undeniably placing faith in newbies to fill out a bench unit still captained by ever-steady power forward/center Nick Collison.
But look what’s happening. Coach Scott Brooks is going deep, using 11 players for at least 13.0 mpg through the first four games. The combo-guard Jackson has started slowly, but is quick, fearless and opportunistic, a breakout candidate on a number of preseason prediction lists. Jeremy Lamb, the lanky 6-foot-5 second-year wing with so much outside pressure foisted upon his shoulders, has erased a shaky preseason by averaging 10.3 ppg in 18.8 mpg. His 38.5-percent shooting from beyond the arc has fueled games of 13 and 16 points.
Rookie center Steven Adams (4.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg in 17.5 mpg) could prove a hugely significant addition and a gift to Thunder fans low on patience with Kendrick Perkins. The armor-clad Stevens is just scratching the surface yet his all-business approach is already validating the front office’s expectations when they nabbed him with the No. 12 pick. Thunder fans initially raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I think we probably got the steal of the draft in my opinion,” said Perkins, the man Stevens will eventually replace. “A lot of people probably don’t know too much about him, but he can play.”
OKC’s forgotten 2012 first-round pick, 6-foot-11 forward Perry Jones III out of Baylor, is logging 13.0 mpg. Derek Fisher, the ultimate safety valve, can return to on-call status with Westbrook back.
Brooks will find out what works and what doesn’t, and will eventually tighten the rotation. But gaining experience now for young players will help later. There is skepticism, and demands for Thunder general manager Sam Presti to prove he’s still got it by making a trade for veteran know-how by the deadline. Give it some time and he might not have to. This club is poised to make a run this season, and positioned to keep Durant happy well into 2016.
“I like the progress of individuals, how everybody came back and made their games better,” Durant said on the eve of training camp. “I’m excited for the season. I’m excited for the opportunities our new guys are going to get. I’m excited for the opportunity I’m going to get as a leader, [to] step into a different phase as a leader, and just see what happens.”
It’s not a popular prediction at the moment, but who knows, a parade might happen.