Coach: OKC Stronger; Valanciunas Breakdown
OKC is More Dangerous Now
Now that the hand-wringing should be complete on the departure of James Harden, some fans may be coming around to the benefits of having a player with the talent and ability of Kevin Martin on their roster. However, any optimism may have been muted by the reports of discord and friction amongst those that remain on the roster.
Reports of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, this team is stronger and more dangerous now than they were last season, for three central reasons.
First, Martin provides them with the kind of ridiculously efficient scoring threat that makes them extremely difficult to guard. While Harden is a capable and, at times, very good shooter, Martin’s reputation and resume make it nearly impossible to help off of him at any time. This puts help defenses in the difficult position of having to distort their rotations to account for Martin while still paying attention to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Martin’s presence late in games has been readily apparent. He serves as a pressure release, drawing defenders and keeping them occupied by moving without the ball and never even needing to touch it to have an impact. When he does touch it, he is so gifted at both drawing fouls and making free throws that defenses really have no answer right now.
A second reason for claiming Oklahoma City is stronger is the reports of discord and friction. Wait, wasn’t that a reason to be worried? Not always. Sure, it could be that there are micro-fractures of team unity at play and this is all heading toward an avalanche of dissension. More likely, however, is that this team is finally displaying the maturity to disagree openly.
I have never been around a successful team that did not get on one another, blast each other’s effort and hold one another accountable. In fact, it is usually the sign of a good team becoming a great one when this happens. This may tell some of the story in Oklahoma City, where the main players are starting to enter the prime of their careers. This is not necessarily a bad thing – and in fact, it can be exactly what is needed for the team to take the next evolutionary step.
Finally, and probably most importantly, Durant is just better than he was last year. It’s kind of amazing to say, but the combined experience he gained in the playoffs and in the Olympics have no doubt left an impact on the long-limbed assassin. Durant is playing much more deliberately, taking full advantage of his arsenal without forcing action. He is reading second-line defenders better than he has during his career, and his discernibly conscious effort to get teammates involved early puts him in a position to take over late.
These three reasons to believe in the continued growth of the Thunder won’t be measured by just a week or two, but will be borne out over months of the season – and may give them the inside edge to the Western Conference Championship for a second consecutive season.
Why I Like Jonas Valanciunas
Young bigs are often the most difficult players to get a true appreciation for. With minds racing well beyond the pace their bodies can accommodate and the action on the court moving even faster than their brains can comprehend, they are typically both frustrating to evaluate and even more difficult to project.
Jonas Valanciunas displays many of these characteristics during his play. However, I see at least two major reasons for optimism as I both evaluate where he is right now and project where he has the ability to end up.
First, he shows absolutely no hesitation or passivity. Valanciunas is aggressive at the outset of games, looking for angles, playing at and around the front of the rim, and is appropriately physical. He is certainly not scared of contact, and initiates contact much more than a typical young big. A key place to see this is in opportunities for offensive rebounds. Valanciunas attacks defenders with his hips and uses the blades of his forearms effectively to create space. These are encouraging signs for the future.
Secondly, the vast majority of his errors are fixable mistakes. Two quick examples include his propensity to attack baseline and his ball placement on post attacks using a dribble.
Valanciunas has a tendency, like many young players, to go baseline first. Younger players develop this habit because when you play against less talented athletes, the baseline is an inviting spot to use strength and athleticism to finish plays. In the NBA, however, the baseline closes up really fast, and most attacks in that direction result in a turnover. By simply re-adjusting his attacks to the middle (and developing a good counter move toward the baseline), Valanciunas will undoubtedly improve his success rate both short and long term.
His other mistake is a very common one that many players, even more experienced ones, commit all too often. In the post with his back to the basket, Valanciunas will often take meaningless dribbles that accomplish nothing. He dribbles first, then starts to initiate his move. This action gives teams a better chance at effective double teams, and it takes away his ability to change tempo by establishing a dribble cadence before a move. Again, drilling this out of his game will result in both rapid improvement and enduring growth.
There is little doubt in my mind that if Valanciunas makes these kind of adjustments, he has big-time potential for many years to come.
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Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Macri is the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of the ASEAN Basketball League (the first regional pro sports league in Southeast Asia), setting and executing a strategic vision for basketball and business development, league operations, and marketing. Previously, Macri served as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, as the business manager at the IMG Basketball Academy, and has coached at two nationally ranked high school programs. The Coach’s Notebook is a weekly feature on HOOPSWORLD.