Summer Outlook: Thunder

Just a few years ago, the Thunder were viewed as a future dynasty. The core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka, all of whom were under 25 years old, was almost unfairly good. We all know what has happened. Quickly, they lost the 2012 Finals to the Heat, foolishly traded James Harden for some young rotation guys, and bounced out of the playoffs because of recurring injuries to Westbrook’s knee. I am not suggesting, as Bill Simmons did, that the Thunder’s window may be closed, or close to it yet. There is though, a need for a significant change to the Thunder roster. No, I am not suggesting trading Durant, Westbrook, or Ibaka. They are not the problem. No matter how much the media wishes to hi-res-160341099-kevin-durant-serge-ibaka-and-russell-westbrook-of-the_crop_exactportray Westbrook as the problem, that does not warrant trading him. It would be nearly impossible to get even close to equal value in return. The problem is everyone else on the roster. The Thunder received some valuable contributions from Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler at times during the season. In fact, the Thunder were most successful using Jackson as the primary ball handler and Westbrook as the scoring guard. Unless Jackson makes significant and unexpected strides this summer though, the Thunder will still be in desperate need of more scorers. It seems crazy to say that the team with the best pure scorer the league has seen in a long time is short on scoring, but the playoffs showed us that it is simply too easy to double Durant every play down and make other guys beat you.

It’s obvious that the Thunder could use Harden, but that trade has already been scrutinized and criticized from every angle. The Thunder lack any scoring off the bench. Actually, they lack scoring outside of their top three guys. In the draft and free agency, they’ve taken some swings on young guys like Perry Jones and Thabeet. These aren’t awful moves, but the Thunder need veteran scoring off the bench next year. Going through their bench, it’s difficult to even find where the scoring is supposed to come from. Jackson and Butler are okay, but those guys play starter’s minutes. Between Sefolosha, Perkins, Lamb, Jones, and Fisher (who is now the coach of the Knicks), the Thunder are lucky to get 20 points. The Thunder are counting on major strides from Jackson, Lamb, and last year’s first round pick Anthony Roberson, but it’s anyone’s guess whether that is a good idea.

Even if the Thunder fail to improve their team in free agency or the draft, they can still make huge strides if their best players improve. Durant desperately needs to add a low-post game to his scoring attack. Right now, it’s too easy for a strong perimeter guy like Tony Allen to out-physical Durant. Durant may be the best all-around shooter in the league, but his baskets in the playoffs are too difficult. Too many contested and fadeaway jumpers. In effect, Durant needs to do what LeBron did after the 2011 Finals loss to the Mavs. Durant is a much skinnier player, so it’s unlikely he’ll develop the same low-post game as LeBron, but he can still make some improvements. Beyond Durant, the other two members of the big three need to round out their games as well. Ibaka is way too much of a jump shooter right now. He could either work down low, or officially add a 3-point shot. He is capable of hitting 3’s right now, but that’s usually only when he’s wide open, or at the end of the shot clock as a last resort. If he could become what Chris Bosh is from the perimeter, that would add a new angle to the Thunder offense. Lastly, Westbrook needs to continue how to play the point. That doesn’t mean rid his game of its explosiveness, but rather learn how to play under control and improve his basketball IQ. And in term’s of skill, he needs to continue to to improve his perimeter jumper. He shot nearly 32% from 3 this year, but has the confidence of a guy who shoots over 40%. The more the other guys in the Thunder’s lineup improve their perimeter shooting, the more room that gives Durant to post up and go to work.

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