The Oklahoma City Thunder should have a bitter taste in their mouths not because of the NBA lockout, but after coming up small in last year's Western Conference Finals.
Led by superstar and gentleman Kevin Durant, the Thunder have a lot to prove in the upcoming 2011-12 season and anything short of an NBA Finals appearance would be a failure. The Thunder have a 66-game schedule ahead of them and also have the players to make another deep run into the postseason. Durant is obviously the big ticket for Oklahoma City, followed by Russell Westbrook, James Harden and tough guy Kendrick Perkins.
The Thunder have reached the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, posting no less than 50 wins during the regular-season schedule over that time, and captured the Northwest Division title with a 55-27 ledger. It appears they are the frontrunners to repeat as division champions, but the rest of the Northwest has improved and could give OKC trouble down the stretch. Durant is coming off a banner year in which he averaged 27.7 points -- just one year after posting a career-best 30.2 ppg. Durant's durability has enabled the Thunder to stay competitive and it doesn't hurt to get help elsewhere.
That's where Westbrook, Harden and Perkins come into the picture.
Westbrook could start anywhere in the league and is fortunate to play alongside one of the best in the game (Durant). Westbrook recorded career highs in points (21.9) and assists (8.2) last season, and has appeared in all 82 regular-season games in each of his three years as a pro. It's no secret Oklahoma City will be counting on its dynamic duo to carry the squad into the postseason once again. Harden, meanwhile, has emerged on the scene and took advantage of every opportunity in 2010-11, when he notched 12.2 points in all 82 contests. Harden is still learning and this year should be even better.
Oklahoma City has earned a right to be mentioned in the same breath as the Lakers, Mavericks, Heat, Celtics and Bulls, and should churn out another 50- win campaign barring injury and any mid-season additions.
2010-11 Results: 55-27, first in Northwest; Lost in West finals to Dallas
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Russell Westbrook SG- Thabo Sefolosha SF- Kevin Durant PF- Serge Ibaka C- Kendrick Perkins
FRONTCOURT: Perkins helped the Thunder advance deep into the playoffs when he was traded from Boston late last season. He dropped about 30 pounds in the offseason to take pressure off of his balky knees and averaged 5.1 points and 7.9 rebounds in 17 games with the Thunder. Perkins appeared in only 12 games with the Celtics because of injury. He plays with a mean streak and head coach Scott Brooks said he enjoys how Perkins plays with an attitude that's not detrimental to the team. Perkins, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first quarter of Game 6 of the 2010 NBA finals with Boston, said he was angry about his performance in the postseason and wouldn't blame his dropoff on injuries. Now that he's much healthier Perkins is eager to prove that he's ready for the long haul. The Thunder signed him to a four- year, $36 million contract extension before he even suited up for them and hope the large contract pays off even more in 2011-12. Power forward Serge Ibaka is a shot-blocking specialist and is entering his third season in the NBA. Ibaka, a native of the Congo, is a major presence inside. Durant will run the show from his small forward position and is one of the best in the game.
BACKCOURT: Westbrook is coming off an All-Star performance and is one of the NBA's most explosive players. He has improved his game tremendously through the years and has been committed to winning even though he's set to be a restricted free agent at season's end. Perhaps the Thunder will square that issue away at some point in the season. A second-team all-NBA selection last season, Westbrook was the worst in the NBA with 3.9 turnovers per game. His points and assists have improved each season and Brooks enjoys having him on the roster. Thabo Sefolosha is expected to start at shooting guard and averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in 79 games last season. Don't be surprised if Harden cracks the starting lineup during the season.
BENCH: Harden is a nice option off of the bench and would probably start on any other team's roster. He is right at home with the Thunder. Oklahoma City added forward Lazar Hayward this offseason in a deal with Minnesota. He was a first-round pick of the Timberwolves last year out of Marquette and he posted 3.8 points and 1.7 rebounds in 42 games. He's hoping to get more exposure with the Thunder and Thunder GM Sam Presti said he appreciates Hayward's size and toughness. Hayward could also play guard if needed. Daequan Cook inked a two- year deal in the offseason and his role grew towards the end of last season. Durant was happy to have Cook back in the fold and said Cook's a hard worker and wants to build off of his energy even more this time around. The Thunder are a very deep team across the board and it helps to have solid contributors such as forwards Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed and guard Eric Maynor. Rookie Reggie Jackson hopes to someday be Mr. June and was selected 24th overall this past summer out of Boston College. Jackson is 6-3 and averaged 18.2 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.3 rpg and 1.1 spg in 2010-11 for the Eagles.
COACHING: Brooks is one of the young and up-and-coming type of coaches in the league and has enjoyed 50-plus wins in each of the previous two seasons. Brooks' no-nonsense approach has captured the attention of his players and under the tutelage of the former NBA guard, the Thunder have qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1997 and 1998. A recipient of the 2009-10 Red Auerbach NBA Coach of the Year award, Brooks was named interim head coach of the Thunder 13 games into the 2008-09 season and was later named head coach on April 15, 2009. He guided the team to a 13-4 mark in the final 17 games last year after landing Perkins from Boston. Brooks is counting on more victories in a full season with his big man and is in the driver's seat for another division title. He is 127-106 as OKC's head coach, including an 11-12 record in the postseason.
OUTLOOK: It must nice for a head coach to have two players averaging more than 20 points per game (Durant, Westbrook). It's also a tease for players when they reach the doorstep to the NBA Finals and are eliminated in five games before that even happens. Enter the 2011-12 campaign. This is the year Oklahoma City plans on extending the season even further and succeeding in that goal will require plenty of sacrifices such as sharing the ball, staying healthy, getting back on defense and administering the right coaching perspective. The only obstacle will be OKC's opponent in the West Finals.