Be Careful If Underestimating Thunder

VIDEO: The Beat discusses the impact of Russell Westbrook’s return

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.


  1. Bob M says:

    Sure, any team with an injury to their primary stars would have problems with contending for a title. But, for OKC, it is even more of a problem because that team runs everything through those two guys. The Heat and the Bulls are/were defensively minded and had many different players that could step up and make big contributions.

  2. Bob M says:

    I am estimating that if Russell or KD get hurt, they are done! They don’t play great team defense (and don’t quote stats, just watch them play TEAM defense). Adams is a good banger down low, but lacks experience. Ibaka didn’t step up, at all in RW’s absence. The reason OKC is a top tier team is because KD and Russ are impossible to guard. The intangibles of a Jordan Bulls, Magic Lakers, or Bird Celtics are not there.
    Did you notice that Kevin Martin threw jab at the Thunder? He had a point (even though it was a cheap shot). Martin was the third option, but didn’t get the ball enough to be a REAL third option. Harden used to handle rock and make his own points. Martin would run off screens and play off the ball (like Reggie Miller).
    I’m sleeping on the Thunder. When the playoffs come, KD and Russ are going to get banged like pots in an Italian restaurant. The script has been set, they can’t win if one of them goes down or has a bad game.

    • Ray says:

      Couldn’t you say the same if Wade or Lebron went down though? You could almost guarantee if Pippen went down, Jordan wouldn’t be sitting with six rings at the moment.

    • nash says:

      These guys never had bad games, only good games if not very competitve games, they are the the team to watch – very entertaining- as for injury only God knows, man you u should use your head.

  3. kamote says:

    the coach is the only problem.. he doesnt have set plays.. come playoff time when defense is crazy!! he just let them play like streetball.. hope he learned from okc-heat finals last last year..

  4. OKC says:

    So since we have no bench and no center we aren’t a contender? Hmm who else sounds like that.. OH YEAH MIAMI! Surely you are right and neither team has a chance at winning it all @_@.

    How can you not see us going farther than last year? We only lost in the second round due to Westbrook’s injury, we were on track to be back in the finals. We had the 2nd best offense in the league and the 3rd best defense in the league and I expect us to be even better on both ends this season, so I’m sure we will be fine in the post season. What do you mean no one can support KD and Russell? They make it pretty easy for their teammates… maybe you have been reading too many Kevin Martin twits.

  5. justsayin says:

    Wish they could pick up one more SG with more exp than Lamb though. Or at least a redundant floor spacer from a guard rich team.

    It would be worth a pick just to get someone steady if not spectacular to bolster the playoff roster.

  6. okc2014 says:

    I agree Adams seems much more efficient than Perkins. With more minutes, he will only improve. Perkins is the player keeping them back. I’m really liking Collison, Lamb, Jackson and Adams from the bench. They need to waive, amnesty, or trade Perkins ASAP. They seem to be the only team worried about luxury taxes. And they need to get a really good vet when they get rid of Perkins.

    • BenM says:

      No point waiving him. Just leaves money on your salary cap. He has a lot to teach Adams (there is also a NZ connection there with Perk, so that helps with respect). Also, while he is pretty darn bad for a starting centre, he is probably reasonably average or even above average for a backup centre.

      No point trading him. Anyone willing to take Perkins will be dumping something on you that you don’t want. Plus, Perkins can be amnestied. The pieces traded to you can’t be.

      The best thing to do with Perkins is to keep him, swap Adams into the starting lineup within a couple of months (I’d say now, but there really isn’t any rush) then amnesty Perk when they can in the next offseason, which gives them cap room to sign another player.

    • lol says:

      everyone is better and more efficient than Perkins, the guy is in the NBA cause he is strong enough to push and shove people on defence, as for his basketball skills…. even 7 year olds can dribble and shoot better than Perkins. Being tall and strong shouldnt be the only requirements to be eligible to play as center for any team in the NBA, centers gotta have some bball skills too…

    • LBJKIN6JAMES says:

      Boozer for Perkins ?

  7. Nbafan says:

    Westbrook & Durant is my favorite duo in the NBA. Cute photo of them laughing together on the nba website frontage. Go Thunder!

  8. Ray says:

    Another proud Kiwi and am stoked with Adams start to his NBA career. At the same time I don’t want us to get too far ahead of ourselves. He is still a rookie and has ALOT to learn still. I still think playing behind Perkins is the best thing for him. It’ll continue to make Perkins hungry and Adams hungry for that starting spot. Amnesty Perkins after this season I reckon. He may be average since hes come to OKC but I think having him even as a back up Center come playoff time will be invaluable. If only Phil Jackson was coaching this team, they’d be a shoe in for the Finals. No offense to Brooks.

  9. fabrice says:

    they don’t have bench and a decent center.

    that’s not a championship contender, sorry

    • BenM says:

      Honestly anyone at this point who says OKC ‘doesn’t have a bench’ deserves to be ignored.

      The bench is demonstrably better (through only 5 games, admittedly) than when they went to the finals, and than last year. Including Harden/Martin in that. At this point, the worst someone could say is that they don’t think the bench will keep it up. All signs point to it being the most complete team the Thunder have ever had.

      That should be scaring people. Instead, they seem to think because they have never really watched Jackson, Lamb, Adams and don’t know who they are yet, that means they are not good. Big mistake.

      Lets face it, last year everyone was saying OKC wasn’t a contender because they couldn’t win with Westbrook. Now that this has been proved wrong, people have moved on from it being Westbrook that will cost them, moved on to the next thing. It’s just as untrue.

    • Yasar says:

      Couldn’t have said it better than you did…

      Westbrook’s injury ended their chances last year very early, even where close to an NBA record of Losing a series after Leading 3-0 Against Houston. Perkins is much overrated, very clumsy and no bench can support Durant and Westbrook. I don’t believe that they’ll do better than last years playoff run.

  10. Mark says:

    I had OKC to win the Western conference over GSW at the start of the season & nothing I’ve seen so far has persuaded me otherwise. There is more improvement to come.. for sure! I still believe Steven Adams will have a big part come play-off time. Am looking forward to His Offense improving as the steep learning curve continues. -oh yeah, V.Carter, consider yourself a lucky man… a Very Lucky Man! Do U really think U’d have been walking from the Court if Big Steve had delibrately swung an elbow at U direction? Great character (& Hardness) from the Big Kiwi to shrug of your swipe at him!

  11. Baowarrior says:

    Make Steve starting center!!! You have the best scorer in the game KD and WB.. you don’t really need a third guy.. You just need Ibaka and Steve to rebound and make Screens and play defense … KD and WB off a screen… Nobody going to guard against that! nobody!! and on Defense Steve Adams and Ibaka making defense into Offense!!!!

  12. David says:

    On the adams bandwagon now, cause Id never heard of him. Just watched the draft night video review for the thunder and they were saying that he wouldn’t even make it on the team rotation this year, too inexperienced, and would take a few years to even contribute to the NBA.

  13. Sayote says:

    I think the title is wrong..

  14. jimmy jazz says:

    The 2nd unit is the key to the thunder. Jackson, Lamb, Jones & Adams have all made solid starts to the yesr and should only improve.

  15. Mike says:

    As a New Zealander I feel like I have to support my countryman, so I’m all in on Adams and OKC this year. My biggest question (apart from why they haven’t amnestied Perkins) is still whether Brooks can step up as coach though. He’s grown with the group, and should get credit for the teams development, but they really need a more set offensive system in place, or else I don’t see them going much further than last year, especially with the west being so loaded.

    • BenM says:

      They can’t amnesty Perkins at any old time. They had to do it within a set window, long before they knew how Adams would develop. They may choose to do it next year.

      • Mike says:

        I know. They’ve had two of these windows. They should have done it in one of those. I doubt they would have struggled to find a better replacement.