At the start of the season, maybe the question in NBA circles was how the Thunder would fare minus their 3rd star, James Harden. GM Sam Presti, knowing full well Harden was a free agent this upcoming offseason, shipped the beard south to Houston, in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a few draft selections. Harden, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in only his 3rd NBA season, was OKC’s primary ball-handler in big-time moments, best facilitator and 2nd-best pure scorer. And he was gone, a few days before the 2012-13 NBA season was set to begin.
Harden’s doing his thing in Houston, averaging a career-high 26.5 points per game on a Rockets team that’s primed for a playoff push. But all is well in Oklahoma City, as well; the Thunder are 40-15 and, barring a San Antonio collapse, appear locked into the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed. Harden’s 16.8 points per from last year has almost been entirely replaced by Martin’s 15, though the latter offers a less versatile game.
Oh, and Kevin Durant is, well, Kevin Durant. A 3-time NBA scoring champion, Durant’s 29 points per game leads the Association once again, as KD’s putting up his best numbers since the 2009-10 campaign. Outside of developing the facilitator skills and sheer strength of a LeBron James, there really are holes in Durant’s game. And Russell Westbrook, OKC’s freakishly athletic and sometimes-out-of-control combo guard, is having another stellar season, with his assist totals up almost 3 per game, to 8.1, over 2011-12. Russ supplements Durant’s 29 with 23 of his own on 43% shooting, not quite near Durant’s absurd 52% mark. With Durant, 28.91, and Westbrook, 22.93, the Thunder boast the league’s 2nd- and 11th-most efficient players.
And then obviously there’s the other fixtures of OKC’s success over the past few years: Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha. Ibaka’s offensive development is one of the reasons why OKC’s starting unit is so effective; he’s averaging career-highs in points, 13.5 (up almost 4.5 per over 2011-12); rebounds, 7.9; assists, 0.6; field goal percentage, 55.5%; and FT percentage, 77.5%. His mid-range game is a very underplayed floor-spacer, especially in a frontcourt where Perkins is not at all an offensive threat. Ibaka also remains a preeminent shot-blocker, making up for some risky mistakes Westbrook makes on the outside, averaging a 2nd-best 3 per.
There’s a drop-off, at least in offensive production, from Ibaka to Perkins and Collison. At 25.1 per game, Perkins is tallying his fewest minutes since 2007-08 in Boston. His field goal percentage, 48.6, is his lowest since 2004-05 and about a 13-point dip from his career-high mark. Perkins’ points, 4.6, and rebounds, 5.9, are also his lowest since 2006-07. But one’s man loss is another man’s gain — though Collison is not having his best statistical year, he’s averaging a career-high in FG percentage, 61.5%, and his most points, 5.4, since 2009-10, the team’s 2nd in OKC. And he’s doing this in the fewest minutes, 19.7, since his rookie year.
In 28.5 minutes, the 3rd-most of his career, Sefolosha is putting together respectable numbers across the board — 7.7 points, the second-highest mark of his 7-year NBA tenure; 48.3% shooting from the field, a career-high; and 41.2% from 3, his 2nd-best ever — especially considering his primary contributions come on the defensive end.
The Thunder, not particularly known for their depth, receive meaningful contributions from only 2 others — backup center Hasheem Thabeet, a former No. 2 overall pick and nice 7’3″ filler, and Reggie Jackson, who’s replaced the recently traded Eric Maynor as Westbrook’s backup. (Unfortunately, Sefolosha, 12.7; Perkins, 9.5; Collison, 14.1; Jackson, 12.5; and Thabeet, 11.0, all have efficiency ratings below the league’s 15.0 average.)
Unsurprisingly, depth is the concern I have with this team, especially in a conference with stocked benches like San Antonio and Los Angeles. OKC’s 2nd in the NBA in points per game at 106.3, but more than 75% of that scoring comes from 4 guys — Durant, Westbrook, Martin and Ibaka. Scott Brooks’ bench, at 29.1 points per game, is 22nd in the NBA in scoring, and more than half of that comes from a quasi-starter in Martin. (That said, I really like Thursday’s pickup of Ronnie Brewer, a guy who’s started 34 games this season in New York and has previously scored 13.7 points per game in an 82-game season. If nothing else, Brewer gives Brooks another bench scorer, something he really lacks outside of Martin.)
Otherwise, offense is really not a concern in OKC. Even as their top 3 scorers are perimeter players, the Thunder are 3rd in FG percentage, at 48.2%, and they’re also 2nd in 3-point percentage, at 38.9%. At 26.9, they attempt the 2nd-most free throws of any team, trailing only the L.A. Lakers, whose candidacy is aided by the ‘Hack-a-Howard’ strategy. And even as he takes heat for sometimes dominating the ball, Westbrook is 5th in the NBA in assists. Defensively, even though OKC’s in the middle of the pack in scoring, 16th in fact at 97.7 points per game allowed, they’re 2nd in opponent’s FG percentage and tied for 8th in forcing turnovers.
The return road to the Finals, however, will not be easy. Should they stay in the No. 2 seed, which is likely since they were 3 games behind SA’s pace heading into Saturday’s action, Durant & Co. are looking at a 2nd-round matchup against the Chris Paul-led Clippers to return to the Western Conference Finals for a 3rd year in a row, where they would presumably find the Spurs in a repeat of last year’s 6-game series. OKC is a combined 3-1 against those 2 teams this season, with the only loss coming on a Tony Parker buzzer-beater Nov. 1.
But say they overcome the Spurs once more, a Finals rematch with the Heat is likely, and I’m not just not sure OKC yet has the tools in its arsenal to match the LeBron James locomotive. Time’s still aplenty for OKC, whose core of KD, Russ and Ibaka is locked up through at least 2015-16; nevertheless, Presti’s made clear his wishes to avert the luxury tax, with the Harden deal serving as Exhibit A, so with $66.1 million already on the books for next year, I don’t really see how the Thunder can afford to bring Martin, an unrestricted free agent, back into the fold, unless Presti can find a taker for Perkins’ $17.6 million through 2013-14.
If Presti succeeds in keeping a respectable team together, though, with the strong possibility of Miami’s core breaking up in the summer of 2014, there will no team better positioned to assume the mantle than this one.
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