HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS —It’s okay to admit it now, to say it out loud.
We were worried about the Oklahoma City Thunder a few weeks ago. The James Harden trade rocked the locker room, altered the way the defending Western Conference champions played and tinkered with championship-level chemistry at a time when the Thunder’s young core was still in the developing stages.
But they’ve emerged from that fog to resume the position most expected them to — being at the top of the conference standings along with the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs.
If there is still a lingering bit of uncertainty about this team, it’s not coming from inside OKC’s locker room. In fact, veteran center Kendrick Perkins has never been more sure of his team’s ultimate fate than he is now, after they’ve run off eight wins in their past 10 games and have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a groove.
Perkins is convinced the Thunder is ready for finish what they couldn’t against Miami last year in The Finals, telling HoopsWorld‘s Alex Kennedy:
“On a scale of one to ten, I’d say we’re about an eight,” Perkins said of this year’s Thunder. “We have a lot of new guys and a lot of young guys so we’re just trying to build our chemistry one game at a time. The thing is we lost a lot of veteran guys. We have a lot of talented guys, but they’re not as experienced. We just have to make sure we follow the process and keep getting better.”
“We’re all growing together,” Perkins added. “We have to be a better defensive team all-around. We have to do a better job of cutting down on our turnovers. We have to do a better job of executing our offense. We have to get better at the little things like talking on defense, setting good screens, cutting even when you’re not getting the ball so that someone else gets an open shot. Those are the things that don’t show up in the box scores, but those are the things that help teams win championships. Those are the things that we’re striving to get better at.”
Bluster or not, Perkins does have championship experience that cannot be ignored. His time in Boston provided him with insight into the inner workings of a Celtics championship team in 2008 that only a dozen or so active players around the league can match. So he might know a thing or two about a team’s championship mettle when he sees it.
If he says Kevin Martin is more than up to the task of replacing what Harden gave the Thunder in production and intangibles, then maybe we ought to listen.
If he believes that the Lakers, Spurs, Grizzlies and even the Los Angeles Clippers don’t pose the imminent threat to the Thunder’s dominance that we happen to think they do from our view here at the hideout, then maybe it’s worth a little more deliberation.
But we’re betting Thunder coach Scott Brooks isn’t nearly as confident in his new-look group just yet. Fourteen games are a limited sample size for making lasting prognostications about any team, even one as talented and accomplished as this Thunder crew. Their tussle with an upstart Charlotte team tonight (8 ET, League Pass) will provide another glimpse into their basketball souls.
The Thunder played with a chip on their collective shoulder last season, scratching and clawing for respectability every step of the way. There have been times this season, however, that they didn’t exhibit that same sort of edge. Part of that comes with the journey they’ve been on as a group. Part of it has to do with the fact that they’ve gone, in three short seasons, from the hunter to the hunted.
There is an attitude adjustment that comes with that change in dynamic. Perkins knows all about it, having toiled for a Celtics team that served as a league punching bag before the Big 3 showed up and guided the franchise to a championship in their first season together.
That thin line between confidence and arrogance has to be navigated carefully, especially so early in what the Thunder hope will be a long season.