(See what I did there?)
It was brought to my attention that I’ve given lots of my writing attention to the Miami Heat and the L.A. Lakers, but somehow haven’t said a word about Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder. This is a valid criticism, so I wanted to straighten things out by giving these guys their own post.
Lots of people have dubbed the Thunder as the main championship challenger to the Miami Heat for the coming years (although something tells me the Spurs will never be bad, the Lakers have a few years left, and if CP3 stays with the Clippers they’re pretty friggin’ good), and I can understand the reasoning. Their core is young, explosive, and locked into long-term contracts. And more importantly (at least in my opinion), they play the up-and-down, positionally-fluid brand of basketball that I think is the next movement of NBA roster building.
Furthermore, I keep hearing comparisons in which Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the next Bird and Magic (in that order), and I get it. One is perhaps the best scorer in the NBA, while the other is the best pure creator; it makes sense.
Now before I go any further, let me be clear: I am not a LeBron fan (although my earlier writing may have seemed like I am), and I am definitely not a Miami fan, nor am I any sort of Westbrook/Durant/OKC hater. With that said, despite popular opinion, I believe the following about the Thunder:
- (at this rate) Kevin Durant is never going to challenge LeBron James as the NBA’s best player.
- You will never win a championship with Russell Westbrook as your point guard (key word: “point guard”).
- This team (as it is currently constructed) is not at the level that Miami is, neither in talent nor as a cohesive unit.
Pretty harsh, I know; allow me to explain myself here. I’ll go in order.
(at this rate) Kevin Durant is never going to challenge LeBron James as the NBA’s best player.
I think it’s safe to say that at this point, today, LeBron James is the NBA’s best player, and not just because of his crazy numbers. Not since Jordan have we seen a guy control every facet of the game. He’s his team’s best scorer, distributor, rebounder, defender (this is often overlooked – LeBron guards the other team’s best player every single night), and ball handler, as well as his team’s emotional/motivational leader (this used to be D-Wade, but not anymore), and the go-between for Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the team.
The common opinion is that sure, LeBron is all of these things, although Kevin Durant is the NBA’s best pure scorer (as evidenced by his three straight scoring titles). But is he really? I know Durant is an absolutely efficient scoring machine, but here’s the problem: he has to rely on his teammates to score, be it by coming off of a screen, or getting the ball as a defender closes out on him. How often do you really see Durant on a clear out where he breaks a guy down, beats a second defender and scores (that’s Westbrook’s job, right)? Don’t you think that if LeBron James decided to focus less on setting guys up, he could lead the NBA in scoring?
Even if you still want to say that Durant is the NBA’s best scorer, you can’t say that he’s the passer or rebounder that LeBron is (Durant’s numbers are trending upward, but LeBron’s still are too). Even more importantly, Durant is not physically capable of defending at the level LeBron can; he’s not strong enough or athletic enough to guard positions 1-4 like King James.
Let’s make this much more simple. Would LeBron James ever have more difficulty guarding Kevin Durant than Kevin Durant would have guarding LeBron James? Exactly.
You will never win a championship with Russell Westbrook as your point guard (key term: “point guard”).
The most popular way to criticize Westbrook is to compare his shot attempts to Kevin Durant’s, and scream at the top of your lungs, “HOW IS KEVIN DURANT ONLY GETTING 18 SHOTS A GAME?!?!? IT MUST BE WESTBROOK’S FAULT! A POX ON HIM AND HIS HOUSE!” Here’s the problem with that: Durant gets fouled so much that lots of his shot attempts don’t go into the stat book because he goes to the line instead. Yet, using the same logic, shouldn’t Westbrook, who is so good at attacking the rim, have his shot attempts be lowered by fouls too? So really, the question to ask about Russy isn’t why he shoots so much, but why doesn’t he shoot more free throws (Russ is averaging 7.2 FTA per game, while Durant gets 9.3)?
Westbrook is maybe the most athletically explosive 6’3″ basketball player ever, but that doesn’t mean he can run a team offensively. For a guy who can literally get to the rim whenever he wants, is there anything more frustrating than watching him shoot contested pull-ups seven times a game? For years, I’ve said that Westbrook is at his best when he plays off the ball as a slasher/close-out attacker. It’s virtually impossible to run out at him, then react to him as he comes at you. But when he brings the ball up the floor, it’s easy to just sag off and contest him when he eventually shoots off the dribble.
So here’s the solution: Find a distributing point guard you can start, move Westbrook off the ball (in a role similar to Wade on Miami) and watch amazing happen.
This team (as it is currently constructed) is not at the level that Miami is, neither in talent nor as a cohesive unit.
I just went over why LeBron will always have the advantage in his and Durant’s matchup, and why Westbrook shouldn’t be this team’s point guard, but really, I think an equally important issue lies with the Thunder’s front line. On paper, having Ibaka, Perkins, Collison, and Thabeet (sorry, I couldn’t resist) looks pretty good, but here’s the problem: Chris Bosh can guard any of those guys 1-on-1. OKC has no legitimate inside scoring threat. Ibaka is a great midrange shooter, and an okay offensive rebounder, but that’s about it. Perkins is dead weight. Collison gives me a “fundamentals-boner” every time he steps on the floor, but that’s all. Hasheem Thabeet is Hasheem Thabeet, which is unfortunate for all involved. When Miami is able to play Bosh at the 5 spot (which OKC’s front line allows them to do), they can put their most athletic lineup on the floor and lose little on the defensive interior or on the glass. What the Thunder need is someone who Bosh cannot guard by himself. Until they get that piece, Miami will have the upper hand in every game they play.
Essentially, as they are constructed now, the Thunder will suffer the same fate as the Stockton/Malone Jazz or the Payton/Kemp Sonics (how ironic would that be?).
So how do the Thunder avoid becoming perennial runners-up?
OKC doesn’t have much cap flexibility at all, especially with Serge Ibaka’s extension kicking in next year at the exact same time the NBA’s luxury tax rules become North Korean, but watch me work my GM magic. Here’s my plan:
- Amnesty Kendrick Perkins – Why hasn’t this happened yet?! Despite what Perkins would like us all to believe, he can’t guard Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum by himself, so what other value does he have? When he’s on the floor, the offense turns on to 4-on-5, and he’s not athletic enough to keep up with the “speed/athleticism movement” that has begun in the NBA. Do the deed and save yourself almost 9 million dollars in cap space.
- Trade Serge Ibaka and a 2015 first rounder to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat – By doing this, the Suns get a young, locked-in building block who’s not afraid to do the dirty work underneath (at least that’s how they’d feel) and another pick to add to their future stockpile. Phoenix can absorb the difference in salary because they’re under the cap. The Thunder shed 5 million dollars in cap space AND get Gortat, allowing him to reclaim his role as the best backup center in the NBA. But wait, if Gortat would be their backup center, who’s the starter? Oh I’m SO glad you asked…
- Convince Al Jefferson to sign for a discount this offseason so he can play for a contender – Remember how warm and fuzzy everyone felt last year when Jefferson finally got to play in the playoffs last year? Don’t you think Big Al felt some of that too? He’s already had a big-money contract, so isn’t is possible that he’d rather just win games at this point in his career? I think Sam Presti could make this happen. Let’s say you lock him up for 3 years/30 million, then this happens:
You can play Kevin Durant at the four spot, because Jefferson’s presence hides him defensively and on the glass. Or against really big teams (like the Lakers), you go with Gortat/Jefferson at the 5/4 and let Durant slide back to the 3.
Offensively, Durant/Westbrook get pick and roll pieces who are actually a threat to roll and score, which they’ve never had. All of a sudden those Westbrook pull-ups disappear.
When you play against the Spurs, Tim Duncan is forced to play actively at both ends of the floor since he has to guard Jefferson. If the Spurs try to counter by going big and playing a Thiago Splitter/Duncan lineup, you can go big and force Duncan to still play Jefferson/Gortat or you go small and play Durant at the four. Your biggest obstacle in the west all of a sudden can’t match up with you.
When you run into Miami, they’re forced to play someone like Haslem/Joel Anthony for extended minutes. Even if they try to go small and run, Jefferson isn’t a statue and you’re still so athletic everywhere else that he can hide in transition. Plus, OKC would have such an advantage on the glass that it would be hard to Miami to leak out. Your biggest obstacle in the east all of a sudden can’t counter your size.
- Go after a point guard – I know the Jefferson deal is a semi pipe dream, but even if you don’t get him, you have money to throw at a point guard so you can move Westbrook to the 2, and depending on how much you would have to pay Al, you still might have some room leftover to do this anyway. Possible targets: Jose Calderon (probably too pricey), Jarrett Jack, D.J. Augustin, Jeff Teague.
So, Thunder fans…
Get on Twitter, send emails, write letters, or buy a billboard, but make sure you make it clear to Sam Presti that the Thunder haven’t arrived yet. Otherwise, this team might never become more than a gathering storm in the distance (wow, that didn’t sound NEARLY as corny in my head).