OKC Thunder Finds Success On Own Terms
As the Oklahoma City Thunder prepares to battle the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, the “up-and-coming”-type labels tagged to this young team are long gone.
The Thunder has reached success on its own terms. Despite the criticism – and the organization has weathered a considerable amount – the team’s pseudo-mission statements remain unchanged.
Their desires are not ground-breaking revelations or held under lock and key; they are recited ad nauseam to those who inquire. Executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti is focused on building an identity for the team that sustains success. He seeks to maintain a roster full of motivated, high-character players. Head coach Scott Brooks wants defense and more defense, and his mantra “play hard and play for each other” is surely forever etched in the minds of his players.
Not anything too unusual, right?
It’s more the non-traditional way they’ve gone about building this team that sets them apart.
Rather than securing a “true” point guard to solely orchestrate the offense and distribute the ball, they went with a fearless scoring point guard in Russell Westbrook. When analysts hurled accusations about Westbrook’s shortcomings as a point guard last season – “He looks for his own shot! He shoots the ball too much! Point guards don’t drive!” – followed by proclamations of deteriorating relationships with teammates, the Thunder showed nary a concern. They simply kept silent and continued their path of focusing on his development.
Instead of acquiring a low-post scorer, they went with a low-post defender in Kendrick Perkins. Last season, we all heard the criticisms – “They are never getting past the Lakers without a seven-footer! When will they get a low-post scorer? The frontcourt isn’t deep enough!” – the Thunder sat back and allowed Serge Ibaka to develop under the watchful eye of Perkins and encouraged Nick Collison keep doing the dirty work.
Yes, they are a jump-shooting team. Don’t be fooled; the Thunder was ranked tenth in shots made at the rim during the regular season and fourth in field goal percentage at the rim.
The Thunder formula is working and we’ll explore why:
Less than four years ago, the franchise relocated to a city that had never called a professional sports team their own. A roster overhaul was the plan with an eye on maintaining cap space flexibility. Only two players who moved with the team prior to the 2008-09 season still remain on the roster: Kevin Durant and Collison. Westbrook, drafted in the summer of 2008, has played his whole career in Oklahoma City.
Presti wisely recognized the players needed a distinct type of coach. One that could persuade players to buy into a certain system. One that valued fairness and honesty in player relationships over hard-nosed tactics. Brooks was named head coach in April, 2009.
REBUILDING THROUGH THE DRAFT
The Thunder’s three leading scorers were all top draft selections. Durant was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft, Westbrook was the fourth pick in 2008 and James Harden was third in 2009.
Since the Portland Trail Blazers went with Greg Oden for their first pick, Durant was the next obvious choice. Call that a stroke of luck of mass proportions as it certainly could have gone the other way around.
It’s not much of a stretch to say Westbrook and Harden were surprise picks; they were both scouted as compliments to franchise-face Durant. Presti’s ensuing moves followed the same course.
SELECTING PLAYERS WHO FILL ROLES…AND THEN SOME
While the Thunder famously acquires versatile players – that is, players who excel in multiple positions – those with unique skills are valued.
With defense identified as their calling card, a perimeter lock-down defender in Thabo Sefolosha (13th draft pick in 2006) was the perfect pick-up in February of 2009.
After the franchise selected little-known Serge Ibaka (24th pick in the 2008 draft), he stayed in Europe to develop. Presti checked on him frequently and decided he was ready for the big stage one year later. Ibaka’s defense has shown great strides and promise – as demonstrated by his second-place ranking for Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive First Team selection this season – but it’s his game-changing shot-blocking abilities that are jaw-dropping.
Durant shoots the three-ball extremely well, but they needed a dedicated long-distance shooter. The Three-Point Shootout winner of the 2009 All-Star Weekend, Daequan Cook, fit the bill. He’s streaky; but when he’s on, he’s a true asset.
Eric Maynor was acquired in late 2009 as the Thunder needed a young reliable backup to Westbrook. He turned out to be the ideal choice; Maynor is the anti-Westbrook who calms things down and moves the second unit with crisp precision.
After Maynor went down early this season, rookie Reggie Jackson was thrust into the role, but he wasn’t going to be ready for the playoffs. Enter Derek Fisher, the consummate veteran, who has demonstrated his postseason value.
Good decision after good decision. That’s not at all to say Oklahoma City always made roster decisions that panned out – think Shaun Livingston, Byron Mullens, Etan Thomas, Nate Robinson…even Tyson Chandler – but on the whole, Presti continues to make smart moves.
Heartbreaking though it was to bid farewell to Jeff Green (Presti choked up at the related press conference), it made sense.
LET PLAYERS SHINE IN WHAT THEY DO BEST
This is key.
“We can play different ways, different styles of basketball,” Brooks said recently.
Durant, second in MVP voting this season, can play the one, two, three or four position depending on matchups. He’s a master scorer as evidenced by his third consecutive scoring title this year. What may not get sufficient attention is his improvement on the defensive end. His length and quickness allows him to get shots from anywhere on the floor, plus defend top players. Kobe Bryant can attest to that. Is Durant turning into the league’s top clutch player? He’s racking up game-winning shots at an alarming rate. What separates him from other elite players in this area is the fact he wants the ball to win close games.
Westbrook is the starting point guard, but with so many players able to create their own shot, the Thunder lets him shine in a multitude of ways on court. Like Durant, Westbrook’s defense has reached a high level.
The NBA’s 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, is a shooting guard, but his playmaking skills rival some of the leagues’ top point guards. He drives, passes, scores, rebounds and defends. He’s the quintessential NBA everyman.
At any given time, any given game, any one of these three players can put the team on his back and get a win. It’s part of the Thunder’s new identity of being able to close out games.
“If you want to be an elite team in this league right now, you have to have two or three guys that can just go off at any time,” explained Dirk Nowitzki following the Thunder’s first round sweep over Dallas.
Perkins had a scoring game in his arsenal when he was with the Boston Celtics, but in Oklahoma City, he gives them an intimidating physical force under the rim and sets incredible screens.
“To me this is a completely different team if you take Kendrick Perkins out of the equation,” said Lakers coach Mike Brown to Mike Whicker of The Orange County Register just prior to his team’s postseason elimination. “He is like the heart and soul. What he is basically is the right offensive guard. Durant is the quarterback, Westbrook the running back, James Harden the receiver. But what Perk brings to the table, you can’t replace.”
Presti recognized that in addition to what Perkins brings on court, his championship experience and veteran voice were critical to a young team.
“A lot of guys on the team look up to me like a big brother,” Perkins recently noted. “I try to set an example. I try to bring the right mindset and toughness on the court every game and try to encourage guys whenever they hang their heads when things are going bad for us. They never know, but sometimes I look up to them too.”
That’s the cherry on top. The guys are happy to share the spotlight. Not one player demands the star treatment over another.
SIGNS OF SUCCESS
Last year, the Thunder was eliminated by Dallas in the Western Conference Finals. Can they push further this season and capture a Finals appearance?
“This team is extremely explosive,” said Kobe Bryant after his Lakers were defeated by OKC in the Western Conference semifinals. “It just takes a couple possessions and all the sudden, they go on an 8-0 run. They’ve really grown tremendously, I think. Westbrook can shoot, Durant obviously can shoot, (Thabo) Sefolosha overall has been an excellent shooter for them, Ibaka can shoot, Perkins obviously is great addition. They’ve all made tremendous strides.”
An amazing feat that has caught everyone off guard is the Thunder’s low postseason turnovers. They led the league in turnovers in the regular season (16.4 per game), yet they’ve averaged 10.7 in the playoffs.
“We’re in a groove. I think guys are playing at their peak,” said Harden. “We’re playing at another level as far as not turning the ball over, our defensive mind-set and offensively moving the ball.”
“We move the ball and give everybody a chance to play,” added Fisher. “We’re a special team.”
Knocks on Brooks’ coaching decisions last year were plentiful. This season is a different story.
“Scott Brooks (is) one of the best coaches in the game,” proclaimed Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle after the Thunder ended their season. “I hope Sam’s got enough money to sign him because he’s going to be in high demand if they don’t get it done. The thing that impressed me the most about them is that they have a certain look in their eye right now, not just that they belong but that this could be their time.”
“They deserve this moment,” said Metta World Peace in the locker room after the Thunder’s semifinals win. “This is their moment.”
The word “trust” is used with great frequency among Thunder players this season.
“We’re a group that’s been together for four or five years,” said Durant. “We know each other inside and out. We’re still learning each and every day, but we’re getting it. We’ve got to continue to keep growing. Over the season and over the years, that’s what we’ve been doing is trusting and believing in each other.”
With the team’s successes coming by their own design, it just may be their time.