What type of changes should a team make after coming so close to winning an NBA championship?
And that's exactly what the Oklahoma City Thunder did this offseason. The landscape always changes in the NBA, but it will be business as usual for the defending Western Conference champions.
With a vaunted lineup intact for a full season, expectations are at an all- time high for the Thunder. Not much changed for a team that brings continuity, chemistry and depth into the new campaign. Sixth Man of the Year James Harden discussed how important it is to have a cohesive group.
"Most importantly, we have our same team, our same corps," Harden said. "So we kinda know what to expect from each other. Our comfort level is there. We've been together for a few years now."
Bounced by the Miami Heat in five games in the NBA Finals, the Thunder will head into the new season as favorites to win not only the West for a second straight time, but the whole ball of wax. Oklahoma City is one of the youngest and most talented teams in the NBA and it starts with three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. Standing just 22 points shy of 10,000 points in his career, Durant is the seventh player in NBA history to capture three straight scoring titles. Michael Jordan was the last from 1995-98.
Durant averaged 28.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 38.6 minutes through 66 contests last season, and was on the All-NBA Team for a third straight campaign. He is a proven leader of one of the more liked and respected squads in the league right now. Durant has tremendous length and ability, and can hurt defenses both inside and out from the small forward spot. Durant, whose .496 field goal percentage was a career high, was Team USA's leading scorer at 19.5 PPG over the summer.
Russell Westbrook and Harden also earned gold medals at the Olympics, and are two of the top guards in the league. Power forward Serge Ibaka almost took home Defensive Player of the Year, finishing second to Tyson Chandler, and center Kendrick Perkins brings a mean streak to the paint. Add shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha to the mix and there's another recipe for success.
The man who has the luxury of keeping egos aside and chalking up the X's and O's is head coach Scott Brooks. For his efforts, the Thunder rewarded Brooks with a multi-year contract extension in the offseason. It is reported to be a four-year deal worth about $18 million for Brooks, who guided the Thunder to a 47-19 mark and a second consecutive Northwest Division title in 2011-12.
"Continuing with Scott as our head coach is extremely significant for the future of our organization," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. "As we have continually communicated, he has been integral to our success and we have a deep appreciation for his tireless dedication to our players' development. His experiences and core values are invaluable to our players as they continue to grow and improve and we are thrilled to continue our partnership."
It wouldn't be a shock if the Thunder flirted with 60-plus wins this season and they have their big three (Durant, Westbrook, Harden) back to get over that final hump. With room to grow and not much cash to do it since they're invested in Brooks, Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and perhaps Harden sometime soon, the Thunder may struggle with depth. However, they were able to get by with some unknowns off the bench a year ago.
"No matter who we throw out there, we feel we have a good enough team to compete and win every possession," Brooks said. "That's what we strive to be, a team that competes every possession and tries to win every possession."
2011-12 Results: 47-19, first in Northwest; Lost in Finals to Miami
KEY ADDITIONS: C Hasheem Thabeet, F Hollis Thompson, F Perry Jones III, G Reggie Jackson, F Lazar Hayward
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Russell Westbrook SG- Thabo Sefolosha SF- Kevin Durant PF- Serge Ibaka C - Kendrick Perkins
KEY RESERVES: G James Harden, PF Nick Collison, PG Eric Maynor, C Hasheem Thabeet, F Perry Jones III, G Reggie Jackson, C Cole Aldrich
FRONTCOURT: Durant is arguably the best scorer in the league, but LeBron James or Kobe Bryant would most likely choose to differ on that. Durant helped OKC claim its highest year-end winning percentage (.712) for the franchise since the 1997-98 season (.744) and advance to postseason play in each of the last three seasons for the first time since 1996-1998. He combined with Westbrook for an average of 51.6 PPG last season, beating their old mark of 48.2 PPG during the 2010-11 campaign. Simply put, Durant is good and will be for the next decade or so.
Ibaka was rewarded with a contract extension in August and averaged 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and a career-high 3.6 blocks per game last season, his third with the Thunder. GM Presti said the club is excited to have Ibaka in the fold and "continue as a core member of the Thunder for years to come." Ibaka helped the Thunder on the defensive end, as they limited the opposition to 96.9 points on 42.7 percent opponent field goal percentage this past season. OKC was 16-0 at season's end when holding the opponent to less than 90 points. Ibaka is an athletic force at power forward and although he doesn't have great length, his strength and physical presence deters those who opt to drive the lane. Ibaka led the NBA and set an all-time franchise record with a 3.65 block per game average.
At center, Perkins is a nasty player with a high motor and what he lacks on offense makes up for it on the other end. Perkins appeared in 65 games (all starts) last season and recorded averages of 5.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.12 blocks in 26.8 minutes for the Thunder, who led the NBA in blocked shots (8.17 BPG) and went 31-5 when outrebounding the opponent. OKC is 60-23 since acquiring Perkins from Boston during the 2010-11 season.
BACKCOURT: Some argue that Westbrook runs the show in Oklahoma City, but there are plenty of others who think it's Durant. Either way, Westbrook and Durant are a dynamic duo and the former is fortunate to have a talented running mate. Westbrook started all 66 games a season ago, averaging 23.6 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.70 steals. He is riding the longest active games- played streak in the NBA (312 games) and is only one of five players in league annals to register 4,000 points, 1,500 assists and 1,000 rebounds through three seasons. He is quick off the dribble and could be even faster than Derrick Rose, and is always hustling on the floor. Westbrook contributed to the Thunder finishing third in the NBA with 103.1 PPG in 2011-12 and third in field goal scoring efficiency (.471).
Sefolosha played in 42 games -- all starts -- last season and finished with averages of 4.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 21.8 minutes. The flu and a right foot ailment kept him sidelined at times, but the Thunder were an impressive 31-11 with him in the starting lineup. More known for his defensive prowess, Sefolosha can score as well, but that job is left mainly for Durant and Westbrook. With long arms and a tough mindset, Sefolosha dealt with a left quad contusion during the preseason.
BENCH: Harden can start for any team -- even the Thunder -- but is best suited for the bench since OKC doesn't have much in the reserve department. Harden, who came off the bench in 60 of his 62 appearances, lifted the Thunder to a 14-1 mark when he scored 20-plus points and his 16.8 point per game average was tops in the NBA among reserves. Harden also posted 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and many argue that he wasn't used properly during the NBA Finals.
Backup point guard Eric Maynor played in nine games and suffered a torn right ACL in early January. Maynor should be ready to go for the season opener and gives OKC another productive guard off the bench.
Three-point specialist Daequan Cook and forward Nick Collison provide depth, while rookie forward Perry Jones and big man Hasheem Thabeet are other options. Thabeet, of course, is getting a second chance with the Thunder after fizzling out with Memphis, Houston and Portland. Thabeet was the No.2 overall pick in 2009.
COACHING: Brooks is one of the brightest young minds in the league, and it helps to have a talented roster around him. The 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year is averaging 50 wins a season over the previous three years, further proving that he is pushing all the right buttons at the controls. With a 24-19 record in the postseason, Brooks cashed in this offseason with a new deal and said he is eager "to build upon the foundation and culture of this franchise for years to come."
OUTLOOK: Oklahoma City will battle the Lakers for conference supremacy and has what it takes to make it back to the Finals. Staying injury-free and keeping the chemistry going will be key for that to happen. Having one of the top players in the NBA makes it easier, too. The Thunder were left with a sour taste in their mouths after watching the Heat take home the Larry O'Brien trophy and will try to quench that thirst this season. The pressure's on full blast for OKC and it will be interesting to see if it can live up to the hype.