2012/13 NBA season preview: Oklahoma City Thunder
NBA Finals players LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden will play for the USA (AFP)
The athletic Oklahoma City Thunder fell one step short of the NBA Championship last year.
Though they eventually went down to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, they have retained their young nucleus, led by three time scoring champ Kevin Durant, and are primed for another run at the title.
Three biggest questions for the Thunder in 2012/13:
How will the Thunder respond to their NBA Finals loss?
Oklahoma City’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The Thunder are quick and athletic – the benefits of youth.
But youth rarely wins NBA championships. Despite making the NBA Finals and playing better than the 4-1 scoreline suggests, the Thunder’s inexperience was the main factor in them coming home empty-handed.
At crucial times, the Thunder simply made costly mistakes or took the wrong options.
The question now becomes, will they learn from their Finals experience, or are they still a young team prone to brain explosions?
I have no doubt that the regular season will again cause few concerns for the Thunder. As mentioned, they’re young and talented, and they simply run teams off their feet during the regular season.
But as the pace slows down in the playoffs, and teams run more half-court offence, execution becomes more important than simply outrunning teams. This is when the Oklahoma City’s inexperience, combined with its lack of a true point guard and few low post threats, starts to show.
On many nights, they’re still so talented that they can overcome these deficiencies. But the Miami Heat could not be out-talented, and with the LA Lakers’ new All Star roster, the Thunder may not even make it out of the West in 2012/13.
Is Kevin Durant ready to take LeBron James’ MVP trophy?
With three NBA scoring titles to his name at the ripe old age of 24, no one questions Durant’s ability to put the ball in the hoop. Quite simply, he’s a scoring machine. But scoring alone does not win MVP trophies.
Durant has worked hard on the other parts of his game, and is now a very good rebounder, a solid defender and an able and willing passer. He’s also become the premier clutch player in the league, winning numerous games at or near the buzzer for the Thunder.
In another time or era, he may already have had one or two MVP trophies to his name. The problem is, he’s playing during the LeBron James era, a player who just happens to be on his way to basketball immortality. Indeed, James may go down as one of the five greatest players in NBA history.
Worse still for Durant, now that James has the championship monkey off his back, the relief from pressure may see James become even better. And if James goes to another level this season, no one will be relieving him of the mantle of best player in the league.
The only hope for Durant is ‘voter fatigue’, when journalists stop voting for the deserving player, simply because they’re sick of him winning. It happened to Michael Jordan, when Karl Malone was awarded the MVP in 1997.
But I can’t see it happening again. Durant is a great, great player. But James is simply better.
Should the Thunder re-sign James Harden?
Well, they should. But the real question is, can they?
Having already handed out big contracts to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder will struggle to offer Harden a max contract. Whether Harden deserves a max contract is irrelevant, because teams will be lining up to offer him one when he’s a free agent at the end of the season.
The Thunder are hopeful of re-signing him before the October 31 deadline, and are praying that the attraction of playing with friends and building a long, lasting dynasty in Oklahoma will prove more enticing than extra money at a different ballclub.
The other consideration for the Thunder is roster balance. Is Harden a luxury or a necessity? The Thunder’s two main deficiencies are a true point guard and a low post scorer. With so much money tied up in Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and potentially Harden, adding another quality free agent or player is almost impossible.
Which means that if the Thunder want to address their issues, they’re going to need to trade someone.
So who is the odd man out? It’s potentially Harden.
Oklahoma City Thunder Snapshot:
- 47 wins, 19 losses
- Finished second in the Western Conference, and first in the Northwest Division
- Qualified for the NBA Finals, losing 4-1 to the Miami Heat
Statistical leaders in 2011/12:
Points: Kevin Durant (28 ppg)
Rebounds: Kevin Durant (8 rpg)
Assists: Russell Westbrook (5.5 apg)
Career Record: 174 wins, 125 losses
Predicted finish in 2012/13:
- Second in the Western Conference
- First in Northwest Division
- Lose in the Western Conference Finals
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network and NBA Down Under, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.