If the trend set in Oklahoma City over the past two years continues, the Thunder will be hoisting championship trophy next year.
But that cannot happen without some tweaks within the Thunder organization. The western conference is too deep with the likes of the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. The eastern conference holds the defending champion Miami Heat headed by NBA great LeBron James.
So here are five adjustments that need to be made in order to compete for the 2013 title.
1. Russell Westbrook facilitates more
Monta Ellis had more assists per game (6.0) than Westbrook did (5.5) in 2011-12. Something is wrong with that picture. Monta is a prolific scorer not known for being a particularly crafty passer.
As I outlined in this article, a modification to a more traditional point guard role would benefit not only the rest of the team but also Westbrook. Driving to the rim play after play takes a toll on his body. Combine that with the fact that he has played in every single game since the commencement of his NBA career and you begin to get the picture that the injury bug is ready to bite.
This facilitating role is something Westbrook is perfectly capable of and would tremendously benefit his game. He would not have to sacrifice his lethal scoring game but would give the more efficient Kevin Durant a few more open looks during the course of the game; it would also allow Westbrook himself to be more efficient (taking less shots and making more of them).
2. Serge Ibaka steps up offensively
Remember when Ibaka shot 100 percent from the field in a playoff game?
That may have been more of a one-time fluke occurrence than anything else but Ibaka’s mid-range game is promising. It may have a ways to go until it reaches Chris Bosh-type numbers but his shot isn’t as ugly as this.
Ibaka averages almost 10 points a game and with work could possibly reach 12 points per game. Putting any hope in offensive production from Perkins and his 6.2 career points per game average is merely delusional.
He routinely missed easy baskets in the playoffs.
But Perkins defensive presence is valuable which is what led to the duo splitting minutes last season. They cannot go for extended streaks with two players on the court that can often be neglected on offense.
If Ibaka improves his post-game, the Thunder may even be able to deal Perkins and his large contract.
3. Kevin Durant has a larger impact defensively
As an individual, Durant’s defense matters—and a future MVP award depends on it. LeBron James played stellar defense against every position on the floor in addition to his masterful ability with the ball in his hands.
But defense is what wins championships and the Thunder should be thankful that Durant has steadily been improving.
He showed potential against Kobe Bryant in the playoffs, shutting down a perennial all-star and future Hall of Famer. But can he keep it up for 48 minutes of basketball?
If he can become a leader on both ends of the floors, watch out.
4. Scott Brooks can find a new way to motivate his guys
Scott Brooks has pacified the personality of Russell Westbrook and kept the drama in Oklahoma City to a minimum. Whenever one of his players steps up to the podium they give team-oriented responses and support each other without question.
That is a reflection of the coach.
He is one of the classiest coaches in the NBA and earned coach of the year honors in 2010. But he will need to rejuvenate his players after difficult losses in back-to-back playoff appearances.
With players as emotionally invested in the team as Kevin Durant, it shouldn’t be difficult, but Brooks needs to keep his young players from getting distracted and disappointed.
5. Bench plays well enough to allow starters time to rest
Durant, Westbrook and James Harden scored the majority of the Thunder baskets. While that may have gotten them as far as it has the cold hard reality is that benches do matter.
Even the Miami Heat who had the star power of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had a significant contribution from the bench. (Remember Mike Miller sinking seven threes in a historic performance during Game 5 of the Finals?)
Great players can hide a weak bench for a while but eventually great teams will expose it—if injuries don’t.