2012-2013 Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview
The Oklahoma City Thunder has gone about pursuing the franchise’s first NBA championship via textbook example. The basic theory, simply stated, dictates building a team of quality players, steadily improving each season until eventually, a title is claimed. Following the Thunder’s inaugural 2008-09 season, wherein they posted an unsurprising 23-59 record, the path to greatness seemed neatly laid before them thanks to many favorable draft picks and clever front office maneuvering. With an improving roster, the Thunder tasted the playoffs in their second and third years. Last season (47-19), they jumped to elite status by winning the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Amid projections of winning it all, they fell to the Miami HEAT in the Championship Finals (4-1). Would it be too perfect of a scenario to think the Thunder will take the next progressive step and get that ring this season?
HOOPSWORLD takes a look at the 2012-2013 Oklahoma City Thunder:
Five Guys Think…
The Oklahoma City Thunder are really the darlings of the NBA right now. Even after falling short in the NBA Finals last year, everyone loves them. They get a ton of credit and respect, deservingly so. However, they look poised to take a step back this season. Their toughest competition, including the Miami HEAT, who were already better than them, improved this offseason. Meanwhile, the Thunder’s biggest acquisition was Perry Jones III. Development from within has always been a big part of their plan, but they may be banking on it a little bit too much if they think that’s going to push them past the HEAT and the new-look Los Angeles Lakers. They’re still the best in the Northwest, but they may not be the viable contenders they were last season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
In his time as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s GM, Sam Presti has become the model other teams look at when they think about the perfect way to rebuild. Despite major moves made by other contenders, Presti has stuck to his blueprint of internal development and small roster tweaks as his path to the championship. His method will face its toughest test this season, as the Thunder attempt to return to the Finals while no doubt having to face off against the big-spending LA Lakers and their new core of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, but OKC’s trio of young stars believes they are more than up for the challenge.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Bill Ingram
The Oklahoma City Thunder made huge strides last season and came within three wins of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. Oklahoma City is already way ahead of schedule, experiencing a great deal of success with such a young group. While the Los Angeles Lakers have dominated the headlines this offseason, the Thunder are still arguably the best team in the Western Conference. Not only are the Thunder more experienced from last year’s deep postseason run, they’re also hungrier than ever after coming up short in the Finals. The Thunder didn’t make any splashy moves this summer, but they’ll continue to get better each and every year as their young core develops and realizes their full potential. The Thunder shouldn’t have any problem winning their division and putting together another string of wins in the playoffs.
1st Place – Northwest Division
However good the Thunder end up being this year (answer: very good), there will inevitably be an ongoing media discussion about the future of James Harden, which I can only hope isn’t a distraction for the best young team in the NBA. It’s scary how much better Kevin Durant could still get, and with so much firepower on this team, both offensively and defensively, it’s far from a stretch that OKC ends up back in the Finals again this year. They’ve got stiffer competition now thanks to a revamped Lakers squad, but don’t count the Thunder out. These kids are one year older and one year wiser, which hopefully equates to them being one year closer to winning their first title since the move to Oklahoma.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
The Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated three teams from the postseason, who featured bona fide first ballot Hall of Famers to reach the NBA Finals in 2012, dominating the Dallas Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki) in the first round, dismantling the Los Angeles Lakers (Kobe Bryant) in round two and wearing down the older legs of the San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan) in the Western Conference Finals. The star tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has undoubtedly arrived and the scary part is neither guy has even reached their 25th birthday. On paper there is only one team who can rival the Thunder in the Western Conference and that’s the revamped Lakers, who will enter the season with their own set of question marks. The Thunder have the weaponry and the expectation for this team is another NBA Finals appearance in 2013.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: To say Kevin Durant is the Thunder’s top offensive player is hardly a shock. He was the league’s top scorer last season (28.0 ppg), as well as the season before (27.7 ppg), and the season before that (30.1 ppg). Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan each have seven straight scoring titles to their name (Jordan has a total of ten); Durant, at not quite 24 years old, may well challenge the record. With his insane length and agility, he can put up a shot anywhere on the floor and ranks sixth in the league in true shooting percentage (.610). His .496 in field goal percentage was a career high; in addition, assists (3.5), blocks (1.2) and rebounds (8.0) were career highs. He can shoot the three-pointer, too (ranked third in total threes made), averaging a team-high and career-high two per game. He was fourth in Player Efficiency Rating (26.2), third in Offensive Win Shares and first in total free throws. Need we go on?
Top Defensive Player: Last season, Serge Ibaka found himself in a tight race with New York Knicks’ Tyson Chandler for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Ultimately Ibaka placed second for the honor, earning 294 first-place votes vs. Chandler’s 311 votes. It was a turning point in re-directing attention from the Thunder’s defensive mainstay, Thabo Sefolosha, to the young athletic player with so much potential. Sefolosha is still the team’s best perimeter defender, but Ibaka earns much respect for his shotblocking ability. He led the league with 3.7 blocks per game last season (including three games of ten blocks or more) and it wasn’t even close. JaVale McGee was next at 2.2 bpg. He was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team and earned an Olympic silver medal over the summer. At an average of just 27.2 minutes last season (9.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg and a .535 field goal percentage, which ranks eighth), we can only speculate what he could accomplish with more playing time. He was ranked ninth in offensive rebound percentage, eleventh in Defensive Rating and landed in the top twenty in Defensive Win Shares. In Per 36 Minutes format, he’s recorded consistent double-double figures, with an unreal 4.8 bpg, since entering the league. Opponents plan for Ibaka now; they rethink usual shots with him around. He prevents a considerable number of potential points from going on the board.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook is the starting point guard for this team. Despite protests that teammate James Harden has superior playmaking skills – and there’s no doubt he can handle the ball extremely well – Westbrook has the job. Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti goes out of his way to acquire players with versatility; Westbrook fits the Thunder DNA and vision perfectly. His uncommon athleticism and ability to penetrate at will makes him one of the league’s most exciting point guards to watch. Check his line from last season: a career-high 23.6 points (fifth in the league), 5.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 4.6 rebounds and .823 free throw shooting. His PER of 22.9 was league-ranked ninth, and his field-goal percentage of .457 was a career high. At just 23 years old, the two-time All-Star is only going to get better.
Top Clutch Player: There’s no guessing here. Give the ball to Kevin Durant when the game is on the line. Though we see it time and time again, his ability to shoot quickly over opponents’ heads at any location of his choosing is still amazing to witness; the only surprise comes when the ball doesn’t go in the basket.
Top Unheralded Player: This is a category in which gritty Nick Collison is usually inserted, but we’re giving it to Thabo Sefolosha this time. The Thunder starter, well-known for his defensive abilities, put his talents on display in the playoffs guarding Kobe Bryant and, more notably, Tony Parker. Down 0-2 in the Western Conference Finals vs. the Spurs, Sefolosha had a career playoff-high 19 points in Game 3 with six steals and four three-pointers, sparking an improbable 4-0 run to capture the conference title. In the Finals, he took on Dwyane Wade and sometimes LeBron James; he was effective on the two stars in Game 1, the Thunder’s only win. Sefolosha missed a chunk of games early in the regular season due to a foot injury, and the Thunder measurably suffered on the defensive end in his absence.
The New Best Addition: Nobody was more surprised than Presti that Baylor standout Perry Jones III was available at pick no. 28 in June’s NBA Draft. Jones carried a medical red flag that kept other teams away, but OKC already did their homework and had no reservations about the “meniscus issue”. He’s an ideal fit in an area in which they need depth. At 6’11”, he can play the three or four position; he can shoot, defend and pass. Presti loves his work ethic and humility. Jones tends to fall on the non-aggressive side, so there’s work to do, but shades of his potential were on display at the Orlando Summer League. In five games at 26 minutes, he averaged 12 points, 1.5 blocks, six rebounds and just one turnover. He may log considerable time in Tulsa with the D-League team initially, but there’s a real possibility he could work himself into the rotation sooner rather than later. The Thunder may have a gem on its hands.
Who We Like
1. Reggie Jackson: Jackson found himself in an unexpected position last season in his rookie year. The third-option point guard was thrust into the limelight after primary backup Eric Maynor suffered a season-ending injury during the ninth game last January. Suddenly Jackson was on the floor trying to orchestrate things when Westbrook rested. For the first couple months, Jackson was averaging 12.2 minutes at 3.7 ppg and 1.7 apg, and his field goal percentage was a dismal .324. The criticism was harsh and not undeserved. Derek Fisher’s mid-season acquisition effectively ended Jackson’s run, and he saw garbage time for the remainder of the season. He’s the first to admit the mental aspect was a huge challenge, yet he handled everything with maturity and saw redemption of sorts with his solid performance during the Orlando Summer League. In four games, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds and an improved .412 field goal percentage.
2. Kendrick Perkins: This team ached for a tough-guy post defender and they have it in Kendrick Perkins. He doesn’t answer all their needs, but the effect he has on his teammates is incalculable. From bringing the right attitude night after night to his impressive screen-setting talents, he’s a respected, influential leader. Though faltering against Miami in the Finals, he was plenty useful in the beginning rounds of the playoffs, particularly against the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum. It was only after the Miami series that the true extent of the postseason injuries he sustained was revealed: a ligament tear on his wrist and a partially torn groin, both of which required offseason surgery. During the playoffs, he uttered nary a complaint about his plight; he just proceeded with a get-the-job-done mindset though his on-floor contributions were minimized.
3. The Oklahoma City Thunder training staff: They must be doing something right as injuries have simply not been a factor for most of the core players. Westbrook, possibly the most active and fearless player on the court today, has not missed a single NBA game in his four-year career. That sentence bears reading again. Durant has missed just four games over the past three seasons due to injury while Harden was sidelined for ten. Ibaka has played in every game over two seasons; he logged 73 in his rookie year by coach’s choice. OKC’s head athletic trainer, Joe Sharpe, joined Team USA in a prominent role with the training staff during the Olympic games. That speaks volumes.
4. James Harden: We venture to say most players with James Harden’s caliber of talent would not be content coming off the bench. He would likely be a starter on any other team, but Harden has embraced his role with the Thunder. He’s thrived in it, and his excellence in the role won him the league’s Sixth Man of the Year title last year. The crowd goes crazy when he checks in, and it’s not because of his, admittedly, cool look. They know the game is in secure, capable hands. They know the ball has a great chance of going in the basket when he hoists it. Harden ranked second in the league in both true shooting percentage (.660) and effective field goal percentage (.582). He has the third highest Offensive Rating and sixth-highest Win Shares. To come off the bench and give an average 16.8 points, 3.7 assists, 4.1 boards, not to mention 1.8 three-pointers, was critical to the Thunder’s success. The across-the-board improvement last season was nothing short of remarkable. True, he displayed poor shooting in Games Three and Four of the Finals, going a combined 4-of-20 in field goals for 17 points and 1-for-9 in three-pointers, but he found other ways to contribute. Now with more experience under his belt, plus a shiny gold medal from the summer Olympics, the 23-year-old should continue improving.
5. Kevin Durant: He remains the league’s most likable player for reasons both on and off the court. He’s humble, still on the shy side and stars in a family-friendly Hollywood movie. He’s an Olympic gold-medal winner (and Team USA’s leading scorer at 19.5 ppg), three-time All-Star and earned All-NBA first-team honors the last three years. The reigning scoring champion was a viable contender for the league’s Most Valuable Player. In fact, he’s been working out with MVP LeBron James in Akron, OH. We think we’ve got him all figured out. However, a more focused and steely Durant may be on display this season. He admits he’s entering his prime, and he’s tired of waiting. He wants it now. Durant certainly has put in the work. Is it his time?
6. The Thunder’s schedule: There are many things working in the Thunder’s favor when looking at the 2012-13 schedule. Aside from the season opener in San Antonio on November 1, the rest of the month isn’t particularly daunting, plus 11 of the total 17 games are played on the Thunder’s home turf. They have, comparatively, a low number of back-to-back games scheduled (15). Of particular note, Oklahoma City Thunder games will appear on national television on 25 occasions (and five NBA-TV appearances) this year, which ties with the Miami HEAT for the highest number.
This team is loaded with enviable offensive prowess. They averaged 103.1 points last season; only two teams had higher averages (Denver and San Antonio). They were third in field goal scoring efficiency (.471). They led the league in free throws made and efficiency (.806). So many players can score that it didn’t particularly matter that they had the lowest assists. It may come as a surprise to learn the Thunder was ranked fourth in defensive rebounds and sixth in total rebounds; that’s the beauty of having versatile players. They also were fourth-best in opponent effective field goal percentage (.460).
One of the Thunder’s top weaknesses has been its lack of experience; suddenly, that very thing has morphed into a strength going into this season. The top four young cornerstones of this team – Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka – have each logged 43 playoff games over the past three seasons. Not only that, all four became Olympic medalists last month. What they learned playing alongside of seasoned veterans during the summer will surely spill over to the new season. They needed the big-stage experience gained during last years’ playoff Finals for a more confident bid.
While other teams scrambled to improve, the Thunder appear more than content to ride out another season with roughly the same group. The chemistry they already possess is off the charts, but it’s about to go even higher.
Time will tell if this is a strength or not, but you have to hand it to Presti for at least taking a chance on Hasheem Thabeet for a song. Remember when all the talk centered on Thabeet vs. Harden in the 2009 NBA Draft? How ironic the Thunder winds up with both of them. This is surely the 7’3” player’s final chance to make it in the league; if anyone can help him reach his potential, it’s this team.
We know these core players are young and energetic, but any professional player would be worn out after a whirlwind 66-game season and 20-game postseason run, followed by a drawn-out Olympic experience. We hope they managed to squeeze in some rest somewhere.
The Thunder said good bye to such veteran leaders as Nazr Mohammed, Royal Ivey and, presumably, free agent Derek Fisher. This team has a history of responding favorably to experienced veterans. Remarkably, Nick Collison, 31, is the team’s oldest player.
Obviously the ball is handled by the teams’ best players, Durant and Westbrook, with great frequency, but they’ve got to limit the turnovers. The Thunder is ranked first among all teams in total turnovers. Offensive rebounding (ranked 19th in the league) is another area in which the Thunder needs to make a concerted effort to improve. And, of course, they still have little in the way of a low-post scoring threat.
What Needs To Be Said On Opening Day….
We can’t afford to put the past behind us, men. I want every man in this room to remember back to what it was like to lose in the Finals last year. How helpless you felt – how much you thought we should have won it all. Let that feeling drive you. Let that thought inspire you to work even harder over these preseason preparation weeks. Kevin, Russell, James – there are no excuses for us being young anymore. We’ve moved beyond being that immature group that needs time to get seasoned. We’ve arrived. The pressure is on for us to perform each and every game, and we need to set ourselves up for the postseason yet again. I’m not going to lie, it won’t be easy. We have a target on our backs and everyone believes we are the team to beat, no matter what they may claim about LA. Let’s take care of business and show everyone that we have not only arrived, but we are here to stay.
- Anthony Macri and Brett Koremenos
The Burning Question
Will the Thunder win the 2012-13 NBA championship?
The Thunder ran through the first three playoff rounds last season with great success; their solid win in Game 1 of the Finals seemed to seal their fate, yet it all came to a screeching halt as Miami won the next four games. It should be noted that Games 2, 3 and 4 were won by a margin no greater than six points. The lessons that had to be learned during that highest-level experience were vast. They should return this season hungrier than ever and eager for a different ending in their quest. The question becomes…can they implement what they learned last year and play their game under the severe pressure and worldwide glare?
Another worthy burning question: Will the Thunder extend Harden’s contract? Ibaka was given a four-year extension last month, and many believe news of Harden’s extension will be announced by the October 31st deadline. From all indications, Presti intends to keep the primary players together. It may come down to a matter of insufficient dollars, but in any case, they are primed to take on another season with the core group.