The Oklahoma City Thunder are the epitome of a growing and promising sports franchise. Moving to Oklahoma City in 2008, the Thunder have drafted extremely well, been coached even better and have quickly become one of the best teams in the NBA.
In 2007 came Kevin Durant and a rookie of the year campaign.
In 2008, the Thunder welcomed Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
In 2009, James Harden joined the team.
Since coming to Oklahoma City 6 years ago, the Thunder have been to the playoffs 5 times, including a 2012 finals run against the Heat. They have the MVP, one of the best point guards in the NBA and arguably the best rim protector in the league as well. Because of the firepower of mainly Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder’s flaws have often been masked, thrown to the side and forgotten. Why shouldn’t they? They have an MVP and when your top two players are combining for 56 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists per game, its easy to neglect the bad. Especially when you’re winning, and winning consistently. However, it’s clear, especially clear in this year’s playoffs that the Thunder will never win a championship with their current roster.
In the 1st round against the Grizzlies, the Thunder won in 7 games. In all those 7 games, everybody not named Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook scored an average of 46.7 points per game. The Thunder consistently play 8 other guys besides their superstars so if you break it down even further the Thunder were getting an average of 5.8 points per game.
In round 2 against the Clippers, everybody not named KD or Russell Westbrook scored an average of 44.5 points per game, giving their role players an average of 5.5 points each.
In both of those series, the Thunder won out. The first reason was because Serge Ibaka was in the middle protecting the rim and stopping easy baskets. On the other hand, the explosive superstar duo averaged 51 points per game combined against the Clippers and 55 against the Grizzlies.
But now, against the Spurs, the most fundamentally sound and smooth offense in the league, the Thunder cannot match the offensive production. Sure, losing Serge’s 15 points per game hurts, but this meltdown has been one in the making. The Thunder lack two-way players. It’d be ok if their roster had a moderate blend of both shooters and defensive minded players like the Heat (see Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole) but the Thunder don’t. The Thunder’s role players are defensive minded big men like Kendrick Perkins who has become a liability in the area he’s supposed to excel in, Steven Adams and Nick Collison. The latter two are solid defensively and rebound well but offensively have little to offer besides moving the ball, and getting putbacks around the rim. Their role players are also guys like Caron Butler who has become more inconsistent and unpredictable then Dwyane Wade’s clothing choices and then there’s Derrick Fisher and Reggie Jackson, the only guys who really can produce offensively consistently, and if Fisher isn’t hitting open threes than all the Thunder have to rely on is Reggie Jackson. This is an issue. It’s a big issue. The Thunder cannot rely so heavily on Durant and Westbrook. It works, it sure as hell works, but there is a limit to how far they can go with this current team. There is a ceiling, while teams like the Heat and Spurs both rely on a system that has no limit to their success and that’s all attributed to their well roundedness. Durant and Westbrook are two of the most explosive offensive players in the league and probably the best scoring duo in the NBA but like LeBron and Wade need shooters and other guys who can help carry the load, so do they.
Right now against the Spurs, the Thunder are being embarrassed for two reasons. The first is the gaping hole in the middle of the paint usually occupied by Serge Ibaka. Without his length and athleticism guarding the rim, the Spurs are getting easy buckets whenever they want. The Spurs scored 54 points in the paint in Game 2 and 66 in Game 1. Meaning in Game 1 54% of the Spurs points were scored in the paint, followed by 48% in Game 2. So yes, a lot of the Thunder’s struggles DEFENSIVELY are clearly a result of not having Ibaka.
Offensively, however is a whole different issue. Ibaka does make things easier, yes, but only marginally with 12-15 points per game. The Thunder are getting nothing from anybody offensively and as a result the Spurs are able to focus solely on Durant and Westbrook. They each scored 15 points in Game 2. The Spurs don’t have to worry about anybody killing them from beyond the arc because the Thunder simply don’t have the type of players that are legitimate threats from long range. But on the other side of the court, the Thunder are having to guard everyone because everybody is a threat and unlike the often stagnant offense of the Thunder the Spurs are constantly moving, setting screens, cutting to the basket and moving the ball. Everybody on the court is a threat offensively. The Thunder don’t have that. In Game 1, the Thunder had 5 points from the other three starters combined! Why do the Spurs have to pay attention on defense to a Nick Collison or a Thabo Sefolosha if they’re not doing anything offensively? The answer is they don’t. The Spurs can stand around and stare at Westbrook and Durant, crowd them, pack the paint on them and if Durant or Westbrook want to kick the ball out, it’s to a player who is either not an offensive minded player (Sefolosha, Perkins, Collison) or someone who isn’t a consistent shooter (Butler, Lamb, Fisher) That in itself is causing Westbrook and Durant to keep the ball in their hands more. They don’t trust their teammates offensively, thus their offense gets more stagnant and defense becomes a lot easier for the Spurs. It’s a vicious cycle all stemming from the fact that the Thunder’s roster is constructed in a way that puts too much pressure on Durant and Westbrook. What happens on the off chance that one of those guys doesn’t play well like in Game 2? Well then they’re absolutely screwed.
I won’t say the door is closing on the Thunder because Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are so young but very soon the Thunder could find themselves 5 years down the road, still without a championship even though each year they are among the best teams in the league. The roster needs to be tweaked. They need more shooting threats – more guys to help them spread the floor, more options for Durant and Westbrook to kick to. They need players who actually attract consistent attention from defenses. The Heat are the model that they should try to emulate. LeBron and Wade are surrounded by shooters and defenders not just defenders.
The Thunder won’t win this series, meaning Kevin Durant will once again fall short of a championship. Next year could be different or it could be the same, but the formula the Thunder have right now isn’t working and waiting longer and longer, and resting on the fact that they are consistently a top 2 seed in the West isn’t going to work. Oklahoma City has become, because of Durant and Westbrook an appealing place to play, Sam Presti needs to figure out a way to move this roster around, and add some pieces that aren’t one dimensional, but players who can play both ends and help out offensively. If not, who knows, but maybe in a few years when Durant’s contract is up he might look at his age and not like the situation he’s in and I’d hate for the Thunder to lose him because they couldn’t surround him with the right sort of team.