For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the still-younger-than-you-think Oklahoma City Thunder.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
This is real pressure, you know. It's usually a pointless exercise to bring intangibles into a conversation that really should be focused on matchups, execution, and eventual production; but the Oklahoma City Thunder are really going to be staring down a whole lot of questions about their makeup as they attempt to win their first title in Oklahoma.
No one has yet to question the team's talent, smartly, and it's not as if the Thunder have let themselves down in any way as they continue this assault on the NBA's top tier. They're the title-holders, though, at least out West. The Lakers very well may have the Thunder licked in several ways, but until Los Angeles (or some other team on that side of the bracket) takes four out of seven from OKC next spring, this will be the Thunder's conference to lose.
And that feeling doesn't always jibe well with people, placeholders included.
Luckily, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has hoards of scorers and game-changers to throw at the opposition. Leading the way per usual is Kevin Durant, owner of a brilliant scoring touch that we wish would middle its way to a spot not unlike the one Dirk Nowitzki took in 2011 on his Maverick team's way to the title. Though Durant only just turned 24 (SMDH), it will be interesting to see if Brooks counters his minutes after a blustery 2011-12 run led almost right into his turn with Team USA.
Russell Westbrook shared a podium, if not a stage, with Durant in London, and he'll be back to flinging his body towards the front of the rim and leaving everyone (from spot-on stat hoarders to shut-up cable TV guys) wondering if he's the best fit alongside Durant; even if the Thunder re-take another top-two spot in offensive efficiency this season.
Also, he's the right fit. If they're scoring more efficiently than just about everyone else in the NBA again, then something's gone right. Although we would like him to use that considerable athleticism to start changing things defensively.
The same goes for forward Serge Ibaka, a strange thought considering his ridiculous second place presence in the Defensive Player of the Year vote. This is a turning point season for Ibaka for a number of reasons — he'll be counted on to continue to change a league-leading amount of shots at the rim, he'll be asked to continue to smooth over his developing offensive game, he'll be charged with turning into a help defender that actually helps his team overall, and he'll be watched closer than ever by the team's front office as they likely prepare to use the amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins next summer.
Perkins disappointed in 2011-12, his offense ranked amongst the worst amongst NBA rotation players, and his defense is only needed during the odd game where the Thunder take on a legitimate big man that likes to finish at the rim. In spite of the NBA's recent moves there are more of those than you think — not just Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum but battles against Nikola Pekovic, Chris Kaman ("likes to finish at the rim," if not "successful at finishing at the rim"), Marcin Gortat, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, and Al Jefferson just out West — but trimming the last two years of his deal trims $17.5 million off their payroll is a necessity even if the team passes on extending James Harden's contract.
Which they probably won't.
Good thing, because this is a special team that has enough in the stable to cash in. And though we begged Brooks to sit Perkins for extended minutes against the Heat in the playoffs last year, there is a sense of urgency that will set in when things become clearer after Harden's October 31st deadline expires. The race will be on to either win with Perkins or Harden in the fold; to take advantage of the Lakers before they figure it out or to catch the Heat just when Miami thinks it has Oklahoma City where they want them. Tall orders, to be sure, but have you seen this roster?
The too-quick end to Oklahoma City's season last year was disappointing, even if it lasted five games into the NBA Finals. Three of the four losses to the Heat came in close games, however, and the Thunder boast the sort of top-heavy rotation parts that postseasons are made to utilize. Despite our worries about Brooks, he has managed to push this team gradually each year, and if the season-to-season histories of past champions in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and Miami are any indication, the Thunder could cash in for good in 2012-13.
The Lakers are sturdier, to say the absolute least, and the Heat aren't going anywhere. They still have to beat the Thunder four times in seven potential tries, though. That's still a significant task.
Projected record: 60-22
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Um, everything? This year's Oklahoma City Thunder return 12 of the 16 players who suited up last season. The four who weren't brought back: 35-year-old backup center Nazr Mohammed, 38-year-old backup point guard Derek Fisher, nearly 31-year-old backup point guard Royal Ivey and Ryan Reid, a 2010 second-rounder who saw 17 minutes of floor time last season and will now play in France rather than return to the D-League. So, naturally, we're predicting a catastrophic decline for the Thunder this season. Hope you enjoyed your brief time in the sun, Oklahomans, because it's time to go back to the drawing board!
The flip side of those four departures: Oklahoma City brings back nearly 91 percent of their total minutes from a season ago, including nine of their top 10 contributors on a squad that turned in the NBA's second-best offense and ninth-best defense in terms of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, took out the previous two champions in the first two rounds of the playoffs and swept four straight in the conference finals from a team that had just won 20 consecutive games before coming up three wins short of a title. It's easy to forget now, four-plus months after that Game 5 shellacking and Miami's subsequent coronation, but Oklahoma City was two possessions away from a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals, held a 10-point second-half lead in Game 3 and was one incredibly costly foul away from having a chance to tie the series in Game 4; things were way closer than the 4-1 margin looks in retrospect. Miami absolutely won the series and Oklahoma City absolutely lost it, but Scott Brooks' team was right there.
In a bid to get the rest of the way this time around, Brooks will rely on continued improvement from his four young aces: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. On one hand, it seems almost greedy to expect additional significant development from players who are already a three-time scoring champion/2011-12 MVP runner-up, second-team All-NBA point guard, runaway Sixth Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up; on the other, they've each improved on both ends of the floor every year of their careers and none of them have even reached 25 years old yet, so, yeah, let's get greedy.
And they do have room to improve. Durant's made big strides defensively, ranking 91st in the league in points allowed per possession last year, according to Synergy Sports Technology, but with his length and quickness, he could become an elite wing stopper. Westbrook could become an even more dangerous scorer by extending his now-steady midrange stroke out to 3-point land (just 31.6 percent last year). While DPOY voters sure loved Ibaka's shot-blocking, he's got a long way to go in terms of positional discipline and serving as a low-post anchor. And after a nightmarish Finals, standing on the brink of a major payday, Harden's got more to prove than anyone.
Beyond that big four, though, Brooks will also rely on advancements from non-stars, including the welcome return of arguably his best facilitator. While some of our crustier brethren might have loved the "veteran leadership" that Fisher offered after his midseason addition, we're pretty freakin' stoked to see his 407 regular-season minutes go to comeback triggerman Eric Maynor, whose January ACL tear removed a key contributor -- and, with his more traditional pure-point-guard style, an important change-of-pace element with which to attack defenses fresh off getting a heavy dose of pell-mell Westbrook -- from the Thunder's second unit.
The 25-year-old point man is getting his legs back under him and preparing to rejoin Harden and steady screener/defender Nick Collison in anchoring a solid reserve corps; if designated corner gunner Daequan Cook and second-year guard Reggie Jackson can shake last year's subpar shooting marks, and 2012 first-rounder Perry Jones III proves to be the draft-night steal so many called him, Oklahoma City's bench could be exciting. (If nothing else, watching Cole Aldrich and the immortal Hasheem Thabeet vie for backup center minutes will be must-watch TV.)
In sum: They're young, they're deep, they can score, they can defend, their once-embattled coach has now shown a capacity to make important adjustments late and in big games, they're not done growing and, after a five-game Finals loss, they've got something to prove. The Thunder should scare fans of every team they play this season.
What Should Make You Scared: The chance that 4-1 is as close as you'll get. By itself, having amazing, versatile, progressing talent guarantees nothing; recent NBA history's full of great, fun young teams that got close, but never actually grabbed the brass ring. Webber's Kings, Nash's Suns, KG's Wolves, Sheed's Blazers, the Malone-Stockton Jazz, the Kemp-Payton Sonics ... it's a common tale. Oklahoma City fans rightly have faith in a front office that has made multiple good decisions, but with one title chance squandered, a return trip to the Finals is anything but assured. An apparent behemoth rises in Los Angeles, an impossible to dismiss offensive beast still looms in San Antonio, and dangerous teams like the Grizzlies and Clippers lurk. Matchups contain multitudes; injuries to players more integral than Maynor may at some point rear their ugly head; luck can run cold.
Also, great young players get expensive. Durant's heading into the second year of a five-year, $85 million extension; Westbrook's five-year, $78.6 million extension kicks in this year; Ibaka this summer received a four-year, $48 million extension that will go into effect in the 2013-14 season. Adding Harden at a max -- or even near-max, if he takes a bit less in salary, as Westbrook and Ibaka both did -- level would put the Thunder well over the luxury tax threshold for just four players, locking the team into cutting eight-figure checks for multiple years when the current collective bargaining agreement's new, more punitive luxury tax penalties go into effect after this season.
The Thunder have until Oct. 31 to give Harden a contract extension; if they don't do it by Halloween, he'll eligible for restricted free agency after this season, and will certainly receive a max-level offer from a team with gobs of cap space desperate for All-Star-caliber talent at shooting guard, a position where relatively few bankable options exist in today's NBA. Most likely, as Zach Lowe predicts at Grantland, they'll get a deal done at a bit under that max level, take another whack at a ring this year, then figure out what their next move is (amnestying Kendrick Perkins, who makes a lot of money for a guy who shouldn't have been on the floor in the Finals, seems like a reasonable start). But if they don't -- if they decide to let Harden head into the season without a long-term extension -- could their valuable sixth man's game suffer as a result? Could it become the kind of off-court distraction with which this young, ascendant team has not yet really had to deal? In a West this competitive, even a slight bump in the road could give hard-charging challengers like the Lakers, Spurs, Grizz and Clips an opportunity to help add OKC's name to that unfortunate list of much-loved also-rans.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
The Thunder have accomplished a lot in the past few seasons, but during that time they've largely played as upstarts rather than part of the established ruling class of the NBA. A young squad supposedly learning how to win, OKC had to develop into a contender with various milestones on the way.
That process, however, is pretty much over. After last spring's run to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are the class of the West, challenged only by what should be a very good Lakers team and an aging but potent Spurs squad. The last step on Oklahoma City's journey is an NBA title, and now anything less will seem like a disappointment.
The Thunder are presumably ready for that change in status — they have several stars, at least one superstar, plenty of quality role players, and plenty of resolve. But that shift does mean their failures, if they have any, will be seen in a new way. When the Thunder lost to the Heat last June, their season was still a clear success, just as it was when they fell to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and took the Lakers to the brink a year earlier. Those achievements represented significant progress. Now, though, the only available progress is winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
What that means, in effect, is that a franchise that has moved only forward since coming to OKC could begin to experience its first negatives. That might not happen, of course — the Thunder are good and young enough to become a dynasty — but the potential for great but insufficient seasons exists. For those reasons and others — don't forget the impending restricted free agency of James Harden and the question of whether or not to pay the luxury tax — life for the Thunder is about to get a lot more complicated.