Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Who knew that potentially the finest part of the 2010-11 NBA season was the way that we were able to forget how bothered we were with the incessant Oklahoma City Thunder hype by the time the team got around to exceeding most expectations and making the Western Conference finals? The Thunder had turned into a saccharine-based supposed antidote to the Miami Heat by the time the season tipped off last year, and it was a little sickening. Upon hitting the WCF, though? That sticky stuff seemed like is was from ages ago.
Sure, general columnists and story-chasing fans may have thought the up-and-comers a good bet for the third round of the playoffs, but most strident NBA observers (while mindful of the team's significant gifts) were still staying patient with the young group. And yet, by May, there they were. A couple of wins away from the Finals. The Thunder.
This has happened before, through no fluke or folly, with young teams finding their way into the NBA's final four seemingly before their time. The problem with the Thunder's inclusion in that list is that 2011 wasn't before their time. The Lakers imploded, ignoring their storied offense as they attempted to match the eventual champs shot for shot. The Spurs, simply, were not as good as the Memphis Grizzlies by April of last year despite the disparity between the two team's records. Denver? Not without Carmelo, apparently. Phoenix? Don't make us cry.
The Thunder? They can do it again. They should do it again, really, just as long as all the important parts don't hold serve. This group would be betraying it's potential if it tailed off now.
And the general columnists were right. Russell Westbrook did need to dial back a bit last year, especially while attempting those runners that he appears to have absolutely no touch on. Statistically, Westbrook is about Derrick Rose's equal, ironic considering their clashing styles (Rose is the master of the floating runner, but never gets to the line; while Westbrook lives at the charity stripe). Kevin Durant's footwork, both in coming off of screens or in the triple-threat position, has to improve. It's not simply good enough for him to be just good on the perimeter "for someone his size," because he's going to have to develop skills that allow him to find great looks without having to rely entirely on size and touch.
(That's me ripping on the NBA's leading scorer, mind you. This is a cheerful time.)
Thabo Sefolosha has to make himself a threat. Serge Ibaka has to continue to refine his offensive game. Kendrick Perkins has to stay on the court. Nazr Mohammed has to continue to deliver after an offseason full of tough training. James Harden has to continue to mix it up, offensively. Nick Collison must keep his wits about him, defensively, and continue to shut pick and rolls down. Daequan Cook has to hit, and Eric Maynor has to steady. And there are 11 players on this team that I would love to give extended minutes to, were I coach Scott Brooks.
This is a team to love, and not because of the feel-good story of the small market club and their superstar that Tweeted news about his contract extension rather than heading to ESPN on prime time first. The old hype? It was a reason to be bored by the Thunder. But this group? Provided OKC settles its offense in the latter stages of close games, it can do amazing things. And it wouldn't be out of order. Not in the slightest, with this talent.
This team is a three-word answer to any barroom kvetch, nasty comment on a blog, Facebook post or angry Tweet from anyone swearing up and down that they're sick about the NBA. I don't care that mainstream media paints them with a white hat -- the Oklahoma City Thunder should be adored by millions even without such broad strokes.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
I'm so excited for you!
Unlike with some other teams we've previewed and will preview -- teams that will, in keeping with BDL's eternal commitment tact and gentility, remain nameless -- the problem with the Thunder is deciding what not to be excited about.
They've kept intact basically the entire team that was good enough to go to the Western Conference Finals last year, and it's pretty reasonable to think that all of their principals might be even better this year just by dint of gaining a year of experience and continuing to grow into their still-early-to-mid-20s bodies. Case in point: Their MVP-candidate "small" forward now reportedly goes something like 6-foot-10 and 235, which should be really fun for defenders.
They've got a power forward and shooting guard who looked like the most dynamic players on the floor for stretches during the postseason, a full (well sort-of) season with a starting center who looks to be in the best shape of his life, and capable-or-better offensive and defensive options at every position. Whether you think that young, fresh legs have an advantage in a shortened season or you believe an established roster and system will win the day, the Thunder have you covered. It's basic and elemental, but the construction of this team, in and of itself, is exciting.
I'm so worried for you!
This is probably where I should talk about the Russell Westbrook thing -- about how the only things that can really derail a team this young, talented and deep would be palace intrigue, internecine struggles and a Romulus-and-Remus recasting that I guess would make Scott Brooks a she-wolf.
But to be honest, the Durant-Westbrook storyline exhausted me last season, and I tend to side with the viewpoint espoused by ace Thunder bloggers J.A. Sherman and Royce Young in a recent post at Sherman's Welcome to Loud City blog -- in the absence of actual evidence of a rift between the two, you've got to regard that talk as baseless speculation. Regardless of whether you think the two young stars are heading for a split, as Sherman wrote, "I am not going to presume any ending." Plus, with the Thunder slated to play 24 games on ESPN, TNT, ABC and NBA TV this season, I suspect we'll have plenty of opportunities to hear all over again why we should be mad at a super-gifted point guard for having confidence in his talents. So why rehash it now?
Instead, maybe the caution is to not get too far ahead of ourselves. Young talent can be a volatile thing, after all -- while projecting natural progression for OKC's young stars is reasonable, that improvement is by no means assured -- and all the depth in the world won't save you if injuries come for Kevin Durant. (Especially considering that his "backup" once again appears to be the combination of Thabo Sefolosha and Daequan Cook, with perhaps a sprinkle of Lazar Hayward.)
Plus, the Thunder won't play on paper or in a vacuum. Recent salary-cap-motivated reconfigurations aside, the defending champs in Dallas should again be very good. The Memphis Grizzlies welcome back Rudy Gay to a game squad that pushed Brooks' squad to seven games in last year's second round. As ever, you overlook the San Antonio Spurs at your own peril. I don't even know who the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers are anymore, but they're liable to be in the mix. The world outside of Oklahoma City has continued to spin, too.
Still, though: Even with governed expectations, it's entirely reasonable to consider the Oklahoma City Thunder as one of the three or four favorites to win this season's NBA championship. It feels remarkable that they're already here. And I know this is the "worried" section, but man, is it exciting.
I have no idea what to make of you!
Every couple of days since late May, I've thought about Eric Maynor in Game 5, waving off that damn screen and shooting an airball that, for all intents and purposes, ended the Thunder's season.
I've thought about John Hollinger citing it as an example of OKC being "bad at the little things" and about Sebastian Pruiti saying that Brooks, not Maynor, was to blame, and then, as Bassy does, showing his work. I've thought about my old boss J.E. Skeets saying at the 6:50 mark, "That's not your team's best shot," with the emphasis on "That's not your team," a thought shared by many who felt that, in a unit that included Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and James Harden (but, mostly, Kevin Durant), the final shot just wasn't his to take.
I've thought about all that stuff, and how I should feel about it, and whether or not it should make me angry that a civilian stole the narrative out of a superhero's hands, and so on. And all I keep coming up with is that I think I like Eric Maynor even more now.
In a well-covered, going-nowhere set, he saw a mismatch -- Dirk Nowitzki trying to check a point guard 23 feet away from the basket -- and he attacked it. Credit Dirk for defending well, staying home, cutting down the angle and contesting to force a miss, and curse Maynor for missing if you want. But it's not like he just blindly hijacked the possession, did something stupid and indefensible, or turned around and chucked the ball into the stands or something.
His decision made sense, and that he had the sand to make it with a minute remaining in an elimination playoff game, a moment when no one in the world would have blamed him for deferring, even if doing so would have meant forcing a pass to one of his tightly guarded teammates ... as weird as it may sound given the outcome, I respect that. If I was a Thunder fan, as angry as it would have made me in the moment, sitting here a few months later, I think it might actually make me more confident in Maynor's ability to run the team. (I think.)
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Armed Forces"
Bill Simmons is fond of claiming that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might soon see themselves in a situation similar to that of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell in the third season of "The Wire." If you haven't seen the show, do so, because it's great, and also understand that two great friends reach an impasse when, after one goes to jail, they find themselves in a power struggle for control of a criminal organization. It's easy to see how the situation could correspond to that of Durant and Westbrook — they're both uber-talented players who would each claim an alpha-dog role on most every team in the league. It just so happens that they play together and find themselves on roughly parallel career paths. At some point, it might blow up.
Still, we're not quite at that point yet, which makes Simmons' comparison a bit imprecise. As it stands, Durant and Westbrook still get along pretty well, and there hasn't yet been a prolonged absence of one to make the other realize just how capable he is on his own. The animosity is latent -- it has the potential to bubble over but for now acts as an internal pressure on both men.
It's a disagreement similar to those discussed by Elvis Costello on his terrific 1979 album "Armed Forces," which had the working title of "Emotional Fascism." Greil Marcus explained the idea pretty much perfectly in his "Doom Squad," reprinted in the collection "In the Fascist Bathroom," so I'll just quote it here:
On this album, every moment of personal failure or unsatisfied passion is invaded by the cruelty and shamelessness of the political world: the heritage of mass murder our society wants to shrug off and can't; the heritage it pursues, in newspeak. … The secret, unspeakable realities of political life, realities we seem to successfully deflect or ignore, rise up to force a redefinition of relationships between men and women, the essential stuff of ordinary life, on these unspeakable terms.
Durant and Westbrook are not in a sexual relationship, but the general idea here is the same: the realities of basketball politics, even if unspoken, have molded the shape of their relationship.
As in "Armed Forces," competitive drive can manifest itself in what looks on the surface to be a positive relationship. The assumptions of their world, such as the belief that two stars must exist in a hierarchical relationship rather than a more cooperative partnership, organize everything they do on the court no matter what they set out to do. To move on, or reach some kind of deeper understanding, they must acknowledge those underlying assumptions and transcend them. Otherwise, the Avon/Stringer battle will come true. Yet, even then, the emotional explosion will just make explicit the underlying problems that were always there.