Outside Perspective: Chatting With The Oklahoma City Thunder

G'day MMBers. I was recently approached by Dogburt of the OKC blog Welcome To Loud City about doing a little exchange of words so that our blogs could get to know one another. Well you know me, I'm a social kind of gal, so I happily agreed, and we asked each other some questions regarding the teams and our seasons up to this point. I have posted his answers to my questions about the Thunder, and over on their site, you can see my answers to Dogburt's questions about the Mavericks. Hope you enjoy!

LJ: Mavs fans often wish for young legs for our aging team, but there's also something to be said for experience. The Thunder is a maturing team with a lot of upside. Where do you feel their game still needs work, and how much of their failure and success can you attribute to their youth?

Dogburt: I think that the beginning of this analysis, we first need to acknowledge one simple truth. That is, experience is nice and youth is nice, but what teams really, truly need to be successful is talent. I look at a team like the Wizards, and they are as young as can be, and I honestly don't see them going anywhere because they have neither experience nor talent. I look at a team like the Suns, and they are looking at a two year rebuilding process because they don't have youth or talent. So you can find teams that fall on various points of that youth--experience spectrum, but if the talent is not there, then the team is going to be stuck in the bottom third of the league.

The Thunder coaches are both young and extremely talented. I see no fewer than four guys on that team that could make an all-star game: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden. The first two guys have been to the all-star game; the latter two might just get there as they earn more minutes and opportunities to shine. What we've seen so far this season is that the Thunder's talent level has covered up a plethora of inexperience, both from the players and the coaching staff. For example, in the first half of the year, the team's defense was terrible. In the second half, it has been pretty good. What changed? The talent.

Unfortunately for the Thunder, talent only takes a team so far. Eventually, experience must take hold, and that is what we saw from the Mavericks earlier this season when they beat the Thunder twice. When the games grew tight, the Mavs knew how to deal with the situation much better than the Thunder. What we've seen from the Thunder in their last two losses (Trail Blazers, Clippers) was predominantly effected by their inexperience. They simply had never been in a position such as this one: They have achieved their two regular season goals of getting to their win total goal and getting to the playoffs. They don't yet know how to finish the season strong when there is not much else to play for. Inexperience will be the Thunder's stumbling block in this season's playoffs.

 

LJ: When we saw Kendrick Perkins heading to OKC, the general reaction was "Oh great." How has he changed, added to, or taken away from the team since his arrival?

Dogburt: Kendrick Perkins has been a watershed moment in the Thunder's young history. What he brought and brings to the table is championship credibility and quality. It goes way beyond what he represents as either a player or a teammate. Rather, Perkins represents an idea that there is some critical mass of awareness that is necessary for a team to transcend from a playoff team to a championship team.

Yes, Perkins is a guy who rebounds, sets hard screens, blocks shots, and the like. But if I may borrow a story from the annals of Miami Heat history, I look to a motivational tactic that then-coach Pat Riley employed. I'll let Chris Sheridan explain:

Riley once put a large bucket of ice water in front of him and told his team: "If you want to win a championship, you have to want it..."

Stopping in mid-sentence, Riley plunged his head into the water and kept it there for several seconds, which turned into a minute, which turned into even more than a minute. His players sat dumbfounded, watching, until Riley finally pulled his head out of the water and finished his sentence:

"...like it's your last breath."

Perkins learned about that hunger from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. I do believe that without this kind of desire, it is impossible for a team to transcend to the Larry O'Brien Trophy. I don't think the Thunder youngsters want it that badly, at least at this point. With Perkins, they have gained the potential to learn.

 

LJ: The Mavericks have been in Dallas for what seems like an eternity, and Mavs fans have gone through some highs and some pretty intense lows. As a fan of a team that is but a few years old, can you talk about how Oklahoma City has embraced this franchise?

Dogburt: I am probably not the best person qualified to answer this question, since I reside on the east coast and have never been to OKC. I can relay to you a personal story though, and it only happened yesterday.

I was having lunch with a good friend, and this friend's parents happened to be in town, visiting from the mid-west. His parents are of the quality mid-western kind that are soft-spoken, work hard, live earnest lives, and have tried to raise their son the right way. When they found out that I wrote for a Thunder site, even though their lives and mine could not be more divergent, they were immediately excited. They weren't even NBA fans! And yet, because of the quality of people and the culture that exists in OKC, these people are of the type that would still care about a pro team despite no previous vested interest.

If this is the case and there are more people out there like these, then I think the Thunder organization is doing one thing incredibly right - they are building their franchise to be organically interwoven with the fabric of the OKC culture. The players and coaches make a ton of appearances at local functions, they endorse local products, and they all try to embody the same value system with which OKC identifies. As a result, their stadium is filled nightly, and over the course of the season average attendance has been at 99.7% of capacity. Which means on average, they're pulling in about as many people as the defending two-time champion Lakers.

 

LJ: And finally, with the playoffs looming, what or who do you think will be most important in giving the Thunder a chance at a deep playoff run? Who would you like to play? Who do you want to avoid?

Dogburt: I guess "deep run" is a relative term; for example it means different things to the Thunder and the Lakers. I don't think the Thunder are anywhere close to challenging for the title, so I've set my expectations a little more realistically. For me, to consider the Thunder's performance a success, I want to see them win a series and then be competitive in the 2nd round. In a seven game series, I don't think the Thunder are experienced enough to beat the Spurs, Lakers, or Mavs.

I think if you had asked me this question a week ago, I would have said, "Who cares? The Thunder can stay with any of the lesser teams!" Now, after two soul-crushing losses in a row where the Thunder seemed to stop caring about playing hard mid-way through both, I have started to get nervous about the Nuggets once again. The Nuggets seem to be playing with a much higher energy level and focus than the Thunder is right now. Perhaps it is because they are the team trying to chase down the Thunder, and it is still a very real possibility that the Nuggets could catch them. I may become more fearful yet after the Thunder play the Nuggets twice this week. Even so, I rest easy on two facts: 1) the Nuggets have only been playing together with their current personnel and style for less than half a season; and 2) George Karl is not exactly renowned as a great playoff coach.

The other team that scares me in the first round is the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizz won the regular season series 3-1 and proved consistently that even when short-handed, they know how to handle the Thunder. The cornerstone of their approach is the defense of Tony Allen on Kevin Durant. They also apply a tremendous amount of pressure defensively, which makes up for the fact that Memphis is not a great offensive team. The Thunder seems to tighten up against the Grizz, and that is a recipe for an upset.

 

Thanks to Dogburt and Welcome To Loud City. Best of Luck!!

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