Is it Time for OKC to Panic Yet?
Posted by shawnintheflesh on October 4, 2013
The following is a timeline of events for the Oklahoma City Thunder over the past 12 months:
October 2012: OKC trades James Harden and others to the Houston Rockets for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and two first round picks. Widely seen as a justifiable and necessary move to avoid the luxury tax, especially with the youth and assets in tow. Besides, it’s not like they traded Harden to a contender in their own conference or anything, right?
November ’12 – April ’13: Oklahoma City rolls to a 60 win season. Durant has an MVP year in a Lebron James-less world, Westbrook has a career year, Reggie Jackson emerges as a force off the bench, and Kevin Martin replicates 85% of Harden’s production. The loss of Harden is minimized and they are once again the favorites to win the West. Just like they drew it up, right?
May ’13: *cues ominous music* Westbrook tears his meniscus in the first round against the Rockets. At the time, Westbrook’s injury is seen as one that doesn’t carry over into next season. After surviving the Rockets, OKC falls to a Memphis team that loaded up on Durant and forced his undermanned teammates to step up. The loss is seen as plainly bad luck, as a healthy Westbrook would have definitely swung the series in OKC’s favor.
June ’13: OKC uses one of their first round picks on Steven Adams, an admittedly raw prospect from Pitt. At age 19, and with their frontcourt already fairly crowded, Adams is not expected to contribute this season.
July ’13: Kevin Martin signs with the Timberwolves, a departure that surprised exactly nobody. Dwight Howard annoys the media and blogosphere for a few weeks before finally signing with the Rockets.
September ’13: Deandre Liggins, another promising prospect, is arraigned on a disturbing domestic violence charge, and consequently released by the Thunder.
October ’13: Remember Westbrook’s meniscus tear that was fairly minor and had zero chance of carrying over into next season? Well, it’s carrying over into next season.
To review, the Thunder has gotten one year of Kevin Martin, a player who spent 2/3rd of the previous season in the D-League (Lamb), and a late lottery pick in what may be a historically weak draft (Adams) for what turned out to be a top-10 player in the entire league. To make matters worse, that same Top 10 player influenced another Top 10 player (Howard) to join their team, instantly creating another major contender in a Western Conference that already figures to be a bloodbath. In other words:
It’s quite jarring to watch a team transform from one that was supposed to rule the conference and contend for championships for the next 5-7 years into one that will be fighting to the death for a home playoff series next season in less than a calendar year. In the short term, have you SEEN the Thunder’s roster outside of Durant lately? There are multiple question marks that flank the death-and-taxes like brilliance of Durant, and those questions only become magnified with Westbrook out for the first 4-6 weeks of the season. Who will be able to score for them consistently? Although Serge Ibaka is developing into an elite defender and a big man who can stretch the floor from 17 feet (shot 45% on jumpers last season), the ceiling of his overall production offensively is still in doubt. It’s entirely possible that Ibaka is a very good complimentary player who won’t be able to take over a game for stretches to relieve the pressure from Durant and Westbrook. A common response I’ve heard from Thunder fans is that the emergence of Jeremy Lamb will compensate for the loss of Harden and solidify their bench. But, how do we know that Lamb will turn into that guy? He’s only played spot duty in 26 games last season for OKC while spending the majority of the season in the D-League, and Scott Brooks didn’t look in his direction in last season’s playoffs when they sorely needed a scoring punch outside of Durant. Although he averaged 19 PPG in this season’s Summer League (as if that’s a reliable barometer of how someone will perform against legitimate NBA competition), he did so on 41% shooting and didn’t show much in the way of passing, rebounding or defending. How realistic is it for Lamb to go from that into a premier rotation player in four months? Yes, it is possible that Lamb fulfills his promise and becomes the player that makes everyone forget about Harden, but it’s premature to state this as a certainty.
In the long term, the Thunder will be competitive at the very least as long as Durant exists and Westbrook’s knee doesn’t take a tragic turn for the worst. Unfortunately, merely staying competitive wasn’t anywhere in the plans for two elite players entering their respective primes. The top of the West has strengthened around them, with the Clippers improving their roster and coach, an already superb Memphis team improving their one glaring weakness (perimeter shooting), the aforementioned Rockets becoming contenders with a healthy (and presumably happy) Dwight Howard, a suddenly terrifying Warriors team, and the Spurs being ageless zombies. One can easily make the argument that OKC has a worse roster than any of the ones I’ve just mentioned, and with the exception of San Antonio, all of these teams have stars in or approaching the prime of their careers. There isn’t much relief on the horizon unless the Thunder can acquire another solid player via trade, since they don’t have the financial flexibility to explore the free agent market at the moment. They’ll have some flexibility after they use the amnesty provision on Kendrick Perkins (this absolutely has to happen), but there is a real ceiling on the quality of free agents that OKC can attract since they’re so adverse to paying the luxury tax. Much of the championship potential of OKC hinges on Reggie Jackson (who I think is very good), Lamb, and Perry Jones III to produce consistently on both ends of the floor, and I’m not quite sure that it will happen.
In retrospect, a lot of people underestimated just how important Harden was to OKC, and his effect resonates beyond raw numbers. Although Kevin Martin managed to produce roughly as many points as Harden last season, he was never a threat to absolutely take over a game for 5-6 minutes, and he wasn’t nearly as effective in creating shots for himself or others, a trait that becomes even more important when your offense heavily relies on isolation. People were so fixated on Harden’s performance in the Finals that they forgot how valuable he was for the previous 90+ games. There are a precious few players in the entire league who can change the course of a game at any given time, and a small percentage of those guys are willing to come off the bench. I’m not implying that OKC is a bad team without Harden; in fact, they’re still very, very good. But they don’t seem invincible anymore, and that aura of invincibility is one of the most important qualities that a budding dynasty could have. As a Spurs fan, I’ve often wondered how well Manu Ginobili would fare being the best player on another team in his prime, but was always thankful that it never happened. After watching how the OKC/Harden saga has unfolded so far, let’s just say that I’m glad to avoid experiencing this firsthand. Thunder up.