Scouting the Opposition: Oklahoma City Thunder
For every home game this season, we’ll be gathering some intel on the opposing team from someone who knows them best — a team employee, a rival blogger, beat writer or broadcaster.
His answers are below:
Hawks.com: The Thunder surprised everyone before the season by dealing, principally, James Harden for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. How do you rate that trade so far in terms of its effect on the team this season?
Royce Young: Based on the first 24 games, I don’t see how it could be anything other than a 9 or 10. Not only has Kevin Martin fit in beautifully alongside Durant and Westbrook, but the Thunder don’t seem to have missed Harden’s playmaking or creating. Both Durant and Westbrook have assumed much larger distributing roles this season to make up for Harden’s absence.
Really, that’s probably what made it fairly easy for general manager Sam Presti to pull the trigger on the deal — he knew he was still going to have Durant and Westbrook, which meant by default he was going to have a very competitive team. I don’t think anyone really anticipated a 20-4 start, especially after losing such an integral, close part of the team, but I think that speaks to OKC’s incredible chemistry and ability to take anything in stride.
Hawks.com: It seemed like it took a few games for the Thunder to get rolling, but now they are on fire having won 11 straight games. What has been the biggest key to their recent success?
RY: The most obvious part: the schedule. There’s no way around it but during the win streak, the Thunder haven’t exactly played top tier competition. There are a couple notable wins sprinkled in like the one in Brooklyn and the one Monday against the Spurs. What’s been impressive about the streak though is the dominance the Thunder have shown. They might’ve been playing overmatched opponents, but they’re crushing them. Other than a bad half or two, the Thunder are handling their business. During the streak OKC’s got an average margin of victory of 14.4 points, with eight of the 11 wins being by double-digits.
Hawks.com: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both mega-stars, but are still young enough that their games are still capable of improving. Have you seen them add anything in particular to their respective arsenals this season?
RY: A lot of people are making a big deal about Westbrook’s career-high assist numbers, and while he’s absolutely improved in his floor generalship and creating abilities, a lot of that has to do with the fact he’s back in control of the offense. Last season, Harden was truly OKC’s primary point guard. Westbrook played off the ball a ton and the Thunder relied a lot on isolation. But Westbrook is certainly playing much more under control than ever before and is taking fewer dumb shots and making fewer silly turnovers.
As for Durant, other than rounding out his game well — he’s averaging career-highs in blocks, rebounds, steals and assists — he’s focused a lot on what makes him as efficient as possible. One specific place is in the post, where in terms of points per possession via Synergy, Durant is tops in the league in the post.
Hawks.com: One of the main reasons the Thunder traded Harden was the signing of Serge Ibaka to a long-term extension. How is Ibaka playing this season, and do you think this was the correct decision?
RY: Presti definitely needs to send Ibaka a Christmas card, because he’s making him look like a genius. Ibaka has taken his game to a whole new level, specifically on the offensive end. He’s a legit threat, shooting close to 60 percent from the floor. He’s one of the best pick-and-pop bigs in the league and as his 25-point, 17-rebound performance showed, he can take over a game almost equally as much as Westbrook or Durant.
There’s no denying that Harden is a wonderful, brilliant player. The Thunder would very much prefer to have him rather than not. But in terms of what makes sense for the roster, what fits, Ibaka definitely was the right choice to hang on to. He solidifies the Thunder on the defensive end with his shotblocking, he expands the offense with his perimeter shooting and he’s athletic and versatile enough for OKC to match up with pretty much anyone.
5. Ultimately this team will be judged by its title aspirations. Do they have what it takes to cut down the nets this year?
RY: Before the season, I definitely had my doubts. After 24 games, there’s a restored sense of confidence in them that they can. Durant and Westbrook are better than ever, and only improving still. Ibaka is reaching new levels. Martin has been great off the bench and might fit alongside Durant and Westbrook better than Harden. The question will be what happens late in a critical postseason game when the Thunder need a bucket and Westbrook is having one of those Bad Russell nights. Without Harden, do they have anywhere to go?