A good friend of mine recently started a blog on our Sunday night opponent called OKC Thunderdome (catchy huh?). Seemed like a perfect chance to learn a little about the Thunder (and give him some props). The Thunder are my flavor-of-the-month favorite Western Conf. team anyway, so it's a great fit. Now if only they could improve that logo ...yuck. Anyway, on to the questions and answers.
1. Kevin Durant has been depicted as the anti-LeBron this summer. He shies away from such talk and is deferential and complimentary towards James. Of course all that does is reinforce the image. Is any of this fair to him? Are we setting him up for failure or is he as close to bulletproof as it gets?
The character arc of young Kevin Durant has been quite interesting, in that we've seen guys like him come before. Certainly not in his space-age model, which is tall, lithe, and equipped with a game that is delightfully simplistic. The two guys he reminds me of right now, at the beginning of their careers, are Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets (for now) and Glen "Big Dog" Robinson back in the day when the Milwaukee Bucks were knocking on the door to relevance (since then, few people have "feared the deer"). Durant is now in his fourth year of play, and like those two guys, has seen his offensive prowess grow by leaps and bounds. However, aside from some nice scoring performances, he is chiefly defined by two things:
- He was drafted behind Greg Oden
- His memorable 2010 summertime Tweet.
In case you don't remember, this was the Durant Tweet that announced his new contract with the Thunder:
Exstension for 5 more years wit the thunder....God Is Great, me and my family came a long way...I love yall man forreal, this a blessing! 11:44 AM Jul 7th via web
In and of itself, it was nothing. Sometimes though, contrast is everything, because it came in the midst of "The Decision." If you add to that the fact that Durant was the US World Championship team's best player, and that he finished behind Lebron last year in MVP voting, the "Anti-Lebron" sentiment makes sense. He is what we the fans tend to want our favorite athletes to be: humble, hungry, and appreciative. He had the fortunate timing proclaiming this to the world (and in a way that didn't actually undermine the testimony) while the reigning MVP was exhibiting the exact opposite qualities.
So that is Durant's perception, but does it mirror reality? Like I mentioned above, he reminds me a lot of 'Melo and Big Dog because of how easy scoring comes to him. Watching him stroke 25 footers like he's frosting a cake makes me envious and a little bit hungry. What I've seen in him so far this year though is that he still seems to think he's playing against his FIBA World Championship opponents. He hasn't yet really adopted his game back to the NBA, and it has hurt him. At his size, he should be able to command double teams and get any shot he wants, yet we frequently see him playing the perimeter game, just like 'Melo used to do ad nauseum. That offensive perimeter game is fine for what it is, but eventually you reach a ceiling.
The one thing that he has shown flashes of is the desire to grind it out when things aren't going well. That to me is a signature trait of great players, and we finally saw a taste of it during their last win against the Blazers. All that to say, no, he's not the anti-Lebron yet, because he offers now only a fraction of what Lebron does. I will say this though - everyone sure WANTS him to be. And now, I'm not even sure I actually answered your question. NEXT
2. Russell Westbrook is often compared to Rajon Rondo because they are both dynamic, young, point guards that have trouble with their outside shots. In what ways do their games differ? What is Russell's upside?
Russell Westbrook currently reminds me a little bit more of Derrick Rose than Rondo (because lets face it, NOBODY is like Rondo), although with a bit more discretion in his shot selection. I think that Westbrook has made giant leaps in his outside shooting this year, although nobody is going to confuse him with Steve Nash at this point. He also doesn't look like he's pulling the ball out of his ear when he shoots, so he definitely has that one over Rajon. I don't see Westbrook pulling out those crazy assist stat lines. When he gets about 8-10 assists per game, that's about what you should be able to hope for from Westbrook. You don't yet get the feeling that he would intentionally shred a defense just so he can dish it off. Like Rose, he will more likely try and finish strong at the rim.
The one thing that Westbrook does do extremely well, which is also a big part of Rondo's game, is rebound from the point position. If my count is correct, he has 35 rebounds through five games, which included a whopping 6 offensive boards in their win against the Blazers. There's nothing more fun than watching a PG snatch a defensive board and then turn around and race to the other end, looking to hit finishers filling the lanes. Jason Kidd's career is defined by this type of play. When game time on Sunday arrives, it will be very interesting to see how Westbrook matches up against Rondo, and who will win that rebounding battle.
3. Jeff Green is set to be a restricted free agent next year. He doesn't put up star numbers but he does a lot of things well. How valuable is he to the Thunder? Will they be able to afford him in the offseason?
Jeff Green is an interesting player in that he's got some very marketable tools in his arsenal, but there is this tendency to overlook them (and him) because he keeps a low profile most of the time. You would think that this makes him the prototypical "glue guy," and he might be. Whenever I think, "Boy, not much out of Green lately," there he is carrying the Thunder in the first half against the Clippers, or getting the finger roll to beat the Bulls. That said, sometimes it is simply maddening to watch him drift around and play on the perimeter. I thought Georgetown taught these big guys how to play in the post?
At this point, Green kind of reminds me of a player like Sam Perkins, pre-massive-dreadlocks, or perhaps even a mid-oughts Robert Horry, before Big Shot Rob stopped trying during the regular season. Green just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and responds well under pressure. He's also the quintessential #3 scorer, although the Thunder would be so much better off if he were the #2 guy and Westbrook took a back seat in that department. He absolutely can be a key contributor during a playoff run. The reality is this though - if he plays at any level of competency, he's probably going to price himself out of the Thunder's acceptable range. He's a guy that is great to have, but is also the kind of guy that lesser teams break the bank for and ruin their salary cap, when Green is simply not built to be a primary focus.
4. The Thunder kind of snuck up on people last year - including the Lakers in the playoffs. They won't sneak up on anyone this year. How much of an impact will that have on their record?
I don't know how possible it is to sneak up on a lot of teams when you play 82 regular season games. By game 70, everyone pretty much knows who and what you are. Only late season trades can really change the team dynamic. However, that assessment is subject to change when you arrive in the playoffs and you are suddenly facing the same team for four to seven games. If I may put on my best Bill Walton voice to summarize:
"Kevin Durant is doing things we've never seen from anybody...from any planet!"
I read a stat once that I won't bother to look up now because I am probably misquoting it, but essentially the ability to perform well in the clutch isn't necessarily an ability to make ones self better when it matters most, but to be able to repeat your normal performance at any given time. As a team, the Thunder realized that they could do certain things at any time, and it wasn't simply scoring, but all of the little things that go into a win but are often overlooked in the stat sheet.
One of the reasons why I started my Thunder blog is because of what I saw in those Thunder last year in the playoffs. They were a Spaniard's hair away from tying that series at three games apiece. And the reason why is not because they suddenly got hot shooting from everyone, because they didn't. They actually shot pretty poorly, Durant in particular. The reason why they were in it for so long is because they realized that they could give repeat performances in all the little things. They played aggressive defense. They executed well on the fast break. They rebounded well. They learned how to manufacture points by getting to the free throw line early. It reminds me of a quote by Michael Jordan, when he talked about how scoring 40 points wasn't really that hard. All it takes is making three shots a quarter, and getting to the free throw line 4 times. The little things add up.
Unfortunately, the Thunder are not doing all those little things right now. I am mostly concerned about their willingness to have bought into the offseason hype around them and Durant. When you're expected to win 60 games, you tend to stop thinking that this means you have to actually go out and earn 60 wins. There are no gifts, as their blowout loss to the Clippers proved. 60 wins will be a stretch; I'd look for them to fall in that 53-55 win range.
5. Who should be starting at shooting guard - Thabo Sefolosha or James Harden?
Neither Harden nor Sefolosha are playing particularly well right now, so that's kind of a toss-up. Which one is hurting the team less? You'd probably have to say Sefolosha, since I think the team had much higher expectations from Harden so far. Sefolosha is just kind of floating around out there, which has made opposing defenses have a much easier time on Durant. Harden seems like the ideal kind of change of pace guard that deep teams tend to have. He's a lefty with a quick shot, so he could easily fill up a stat sheet if he just got his game together. Ideally he should still be coming off the bench because this team is not very deep. However, if the Thunder continue to get virtually nothing out of Sefolosha, then it might be worth consideration to bring Harden into the line-up, if only to try to get him on track. Un-tracked. Er, you know what I mean. Sweet beard though.
Great stuff. Thanks Dogburt. I hope to answer some questions for him soon, but time is running out today.
In case you missed it up top, here's the link to his blog - OKC Thunderdome.