OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER PREVIEW 2011
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Western Conference Finals were almost icing on the cake after a 55-win season for the Thunder last year. Losing one step away from the Finals is, of course, crushing, but advancing that deep in the playoffs was probably one, or two, steps ahead of the Thunder's systematic construction plan. A key part of that plan was the midseason acquisition of Kendrick Perkins, the muscle in the middle the team so desperately needed. It cost the Thunder promising forward Jeff Green, but even that worked in the team's favor because it allowed the defensive presence of Serge Ibaka to fill the power forward minutes while Green's offense was easily swallowed by others. The Thunder are as well-rounded as any team in the NBA with the league's leading scorer, a top point guard, a couple of defensive specialists, a tough low-post threat and a strong bench. Factor in last year's playoff-run experience, and the only thing that will qualify as icing this season is a championship parade.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The only interesting playing-time question entering the season is at shooting guard where James Harden looks like a natural to join the starting rotation. Harden, however, is an excellent option in the sixth-man role. He brings an offensive spark off the bench and should have the green light full-time this season. That allows Thunder coach Scott Brooks to leave Thabo Sefolosha's stifling defense in the starting lineup. Either way, both will play about 25 minutes a game, though it wouldn't surprise if Harden's minutes inched upward. Kevin Durant will play about 40 minutes a night with Russell Westbrook at 35-40, spelled by the dependable Eric Maynor at the point when necessary. Down low, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka are good for 25-30 minutes in a 4-5 rotation with Nick Collison (20 minutes) and Nazr Mohammed (15 minutes).
Kendrick Perkins: Perkins was hampered by a knee injury most of last season, but when he finally got on the court after his midseason trade to Oklahoma City he immediately gave the Thunder the extra size and tenacity they needed. Perkins' double-scoring potential is stymied by a lineup with multiple offensive weapons. He averaged 5.1 points in 17 games with the Thunder last season, though that mark should increase slightly with a full season integrated into the offense and a healthy knee. The last part is most important. Perkins needs to stay healthy. An abbreviated 66-game slate should help keep him fresh to play 25-30 minutes a game and probably increase his eight rebounds and a block a game.
Nazr Mohammed: Acquired in a midseason trade last year with Charlotte, Mohammed played a dependable bench role for the Thunder. He aptly filled in at center while Kendrick Perkins was injured, averaging 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game with Oklahoma City. He'll reprise that role this season, joining Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison in a 4-5 rotation that should net Mohammed 15 or so minutes a game. Mohammed is not a huge physical presence in the frontcourt at 6-10, 221, and isn't especially quick, so even if Perkins goes down again, Mohammed probably still wouldn't put up valuable fantasy numbers.
Cole Aldrich: Aldrich appeared in 18 games for the Thunder in his rookie season, averaging 1.0 points and 1.9 rebounds in 7.9 minutes a game. He also started 21 games for the Thunder's D-League affliate, the Tulsa 66ers, where he averaged 10.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in about 30 minutes a game. The Thunder's frontcourt rotation is set, so Aldrich likely will once again find minutes hard to come by. Development, though, is most important, as Nazr Mohammed is on a one-year contract and Nick Collison is 31.
Kevin Durant: Durant was the top-ranked fantasy player last season and should be the first player taken in almost all league formats this year because he contributes above-average stats in virtually every category. He was one of only two players to average more than one block, three-pointer and steal per game last season (Rudy Gay was the other). Durant's also a gamer; it takes a significant injury for Durant even to consider sitting out, and only four players averaged more minutes last season. And for the second straight season, he led the league in scoring. But beyond his gaudy counting numbers, Durant is also efficient with the ball, shooting 46 percent from the floor and 88 percent from the line last season. He's just 23, meaning there's still room for his game to grow. It's legitimately possible that Durant could improve his rebound, assist, steal, block and three-point numbers over the next few seasons.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka cemented himself as a worthy fantasy play in the early going last season with averages of 9.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks prior to the All-Star break, but it wasn’t until Kendrick Perkins came to Oklahoma City that Ibaka truly blossomed. With Perkins in tow, Ibaka was able to slide over to his natural position of power forward. The move paid dividends, as Ibaka averaged 10.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks after the break. His low-post offensive attack remains raw, but Ibaka has shown the ability to hit a 10-15-foot jumper. His field-goal percentage (54.3) remained strong for the second consecutive season, and he showed great strides by improving his free-throw shooting from 63.0 to 75.0 percent. At just 22, Ibaka is nowhere near his prime, and he still hasn’t even seen the type of workload most starters receive. He’s already an extremely valuable fantasy piece thanks to his elite shot blocking ability, but there’s plenty more to like here. Don’t be surprised if Ibaka takes a huge leap in value this season.
Nick Collison: Collison provides the Thunder with steady play off the bench, but his role as a reserve limits his fantasy potential. The midseason acquisition of Kendrick Perkins last year solidified the bench role of the former part-time starter. He'll still get 20 or so minutes as the first man off the bench in the 4-5 rotation, doing the dirty work underneath the hoop. His production fell last season to 4.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, both career lows, as he played in only 71 games thanks to injuries. A shortened NBA season should help keep the role player fresher this season.
Ryan Reid: Reid is a physical player who looks to have secured a roster spot. He was only a part-time player at Florida State two years ago, but the Thunder thought enough of him to acquire him in a draft day trade with Indiana in 2010. The good news for Reid is the Thunder traded Byron Mullens this offseason, which eliminates at least some competition. Still, don't expect many minutes for Reid.
Lazar Hayward: The Thunder landed Hayward in a December trade with the Timberwolves. Hayward played 42 games with Minnesota last season, averaging 3.8 points and 1.7 rebounds in 10.0 minutes per game as a rookie. He likely won't get off the bench much for the Thunder this season. Although, Hayward is officially the only other small forward on the roster after Kevin Durant, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha will spell Durant at the 3.
Russell Westbrook: Russell Westbrook spent much of last season making the argument that he's neck-and-neck with Derrick Rose for "top young point in the NBA" honors. He spent the playoffs showing how far he still has to go. Westbrook finished the season with a scoring average just less than 22 points per game – second only to Rose among point guards – while racking up 8.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds. And he's got room to improve; bear in mind, he's still just 23 and relatively new to the point-guard position; at UCLA, he mostly played off the ball. That inexperience showed against better competition in the postseason, when Westbrook drew heavy criticism for taking over too much of a scoring role at the expense of his all-world teammate Kevin Durant. Westbrook may continue to develop as a scoring guard and hand over some of the ball-handling responsibility to James Harden or Eric Maynor, or simply learn to pick his spots better. Either way, he'll be a tremendous fantasy value.
Thabo Sefolosha: Sefolosha is a defensive stalwart who started all 79 games he played in last season. His lack of offensive severely limits his fantasy value. But Thunder aren't looking to him for offense. They'll be happy if he turns in another season season of 25 minutes a game with 1.2 steals and 4.4 rebounds from the 2. He averaged 5.1 points and 1.4 assists last season, splitting minutes with the offensive-minded James Harden. The duo will handle the job again this season, though there's a chance Harden could start. Either way, Sefolosha will still get his minutes as a key cog in the Thunder rotation.
James Harden: After showing great promise as a rookie, Harden enjoyed an increased role off the bench with the Thunder in his sophomore season. Harden could join the starting rotaton at some point this season thanks to his inspired play in the postseason last year – 13.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 three-pointers, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks and 1.6 turnovers in 32 minutes per game. But the Thunder like his offensive punch off the bench in a sixth-man role, so expect the defensive-minded Thabo Sefolosha to continue start. Still, Harden should see 25 minutes a game, also seeing time at small forward. It's difficult to get too excited about Harden's potential scoring growth, however, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook requiring so many looks, but he's clearly has the most scoring upside of his remaining teammates and has the green light this year to shoot at will. If he takes advantage of that, he'll likely see his numbers increase. At minimum, Harden should offer well-rounded production with a healthy heaping of three-pointers.
Eric Maynor: Maynor will once again serve as the backup point guard behind Russell Westbrook, a role he filled admirably last year when he averaged 4.2 points and 2.9 assists in 14.6 minutes per game. Maynor is a good ball-handler who posted an impressive 3.09/1 assist to turnover ratio last season. That's the extent of his fantasy value, though, as he's not asked to do much more than manage the offense and play good defense while Westbrook rests.
Daequan Cook: Cook played as a reserve last season and that's where he'll step in again this season. He hit 42.2 percent of his three-pointers in about 14 minutes a game. Unless injuries hit, Cook's fantasy potential is limited. Even then, his upside is limited to three-pointers.
Reggie Jackson: The 24th overall pick out of Boston College, Jackson could develop into the primary backup to Russell Westbrook. Eric Maynor serves that role at the moment, but the Thunder isn't married to Maynor, and Jackson was considered one of the better true point guard in last year's draft. His progress will be interesting to watch, but, at least to start the year, don't expect him to get off the bench much.
Royal Ivey: Ivey was the last man on the bench in 2010-11 and that's likely where he'll sit this season. He's not in the guard rotation, and rookie Reggie Jackson likely will hop him this season.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka developed into a top-10 fantasy power forward last season, but he still looks like a tremendous value. In a full-time starting role this season, he could average double-digit rebounds with 3-4 blocks per game. Offensively, he has good upside even with some prolific scorers playing alongside him. After joining the starting rotation, though, when Jeff Green was traded for Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka increased his scoring average in March to 11.9 points per game. Bet an even more this seasonon, as Ibaka has much potential (though softer hands would help his offensive game). Playing against Pau Gasol in practice this summer with the Spanish national team only helped the 22-year-old's development.
James Harden: We list Harden here only because the perception exists that he will move into the starting lineup this season and get a significant boost in minutes. He might see some time in the starting lineup, but he'll likely remain the sixth man because that works best for the Thunder rotation. And either way, his playing time should remain in the 25-minute per game realm. Further, playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook likely will never allow Harden to become the scorer that many hope for. Don't misunderstand, Harden is a talented playmaker in a pivotal role for a good team, but he might be overvalued a touch in fantasy drafts this season.