You know, for the West's No.1 seed who lost after their second-best player tore his meniscus last year, the Thunder don't seem to be getting much respect. This is a team that set historic marks for point differential last season, finished first in points per possession and fourth in points allowed per possession. Oh, and they won 60 games.
Yet their second-round loss to the Grizzlies supposedly indicates some level of proof regarding the James Harden trade. Yes, had the Thunder kept Harden and allowed the beard to depart in restricted free agency this summer, they would have gotten past the Grizzlies even if Westbrook sustained the same meniscus tear in this imaginary universe. But then without Westbrook's speed, athleticism, ruthless attack mode and a passing game that quietly improved by leaps and bounds last season, the Thunder are going down to the Spurs. That's not a hard hypothetical to suss out the conclusion to.
Still, the feeling about Oklahoma City is undeniably different this season. Westbrook's returning from injury. Serge Ibaka folded like a flan in a cupboard in the playoffs. Kevin Martin, a huge scoring force for OKC, departed in free agency. At this point, the return on Harden isn't looking great.
Furthermore, the Thunder improved every year since moving to OKC in 2008, before last season. Did they peak? Is this it? Are we to watch the slow decline of a hypothetical empire reduced to a sad hamlet? Well, no. To put it simply, the Thunder are going to be good. But they want to be better than that; they want to be title contenders. How do they get there with a lesser supporting cast, at least on the surface?
I came up with a kind of checklist for them.
1. Get Russell Westbrook healthy. This one ain't rocket science. Don't rush him back, sit him on back-to-backs if need be, let him come along slowly. Even with Westbrook's smaller tear likely to get him back in uniform well before the turn of the new year, OKC needs to play for May. They need to get their polarizing sparkplug back to as close to 100 percent as they can for when the second round comes around.
2. Develop a bigger role for Serge Ibaka. Did you know Serge Ibaka shot 35 percent from three last year on 57 attempts? It's true. He became a genuine perimeter threat. He also shot a career high from the field and tied his career mark from the stripe while increasing his usage substantially. One problem: Most of this offensive growth came as a safety valve, as a method of capitalizing on the attention drawn by Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder need Ibaka to develop his triple-threat position game, his post-up moves, to become a stronger, if less flashy defender, and to have his own repertoire to turn to.
For years, Ibaka has flourished as defenses panicked over the Thunder's stars. Now Ibaka needs to be a star who can drive attention away from the other threats on the floor for OKC.
3. Figure out that supporting backcourt. Backup point guard Reggie Jackson showed flashes of greatness last year, and was even given minutes over Scott Brooks favorite Derek Fisher. He's an explosive, sleek guard who can get to the rim. He also shot 23 percent from three last year, 30 percent in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Thabo Sefolosha shot 42 percent from three last year, but only took 258 from deep. To put this in perspective, Thabo hit a higher percentage than KD did. With Kevin Martin gone, there should be more minutes for Sefolosha, who was a big part of the Thunder's run to the Finals in 2012. There will be threes open. The Thunder need shot makers.
All of this is beyond the big question of Jeremy Lamb. Lamb was not a disaster last year, he just wasn't immediately good enough to crack time on a Finals contender. It's his second season and the Thunder need a low-usage, explosive perimeter player. Lamb will get a chance, and they need him to seize it.
4. Defense first. The Thunder have ridden superior offense to top-three seedings and a Western crown. What has left them undone each spring is an inability to create stops. Last year, as I said, OKC finished fourth in points allowed per possession. That's a great mark. It has to be higher, and it has to be consistent. They need to learn to win in more ways than just boat races. OKC needs to develop the ability to win grind-it-out games when things don't go right offensively.
It's a subtle shift, hard to isolate in numbers, but the Thunder need a tougher approach and the ability to win on the ground as well as by flying through the air.
5. Pace yourselves and rest up. In truth, the final numbers for OKC shouldn't reflect who they are as much as they have the past three seasons. OKC needs to rest down the stretch. Kevin Durant will be 25. That's still young, but it's no longer spring chicken young. Not when you consider college, the draft, summer league, long NBA seasons, NBA playoffs, international play, and summer pro-ams along with promotional appearances, charity events and business meetings. We see players start to get run down at that age, and keeping a top-heavy team ready for the playoffs means abandoning a premium on the regular season.
OKC's homecourt advantage may be the best in the league. But these guys know how to win on the road, now. They have confidence and ability to close out opponents on their home floor. If the Thunder wind up with a top-two seed, it should be because their early season lead was just too big to overcome and their bench stepped up.
These guys are no longer kids. They need to rest like adults do and think long-term. Fun time's over. From here on out, it's business for KD and company.