Tuesday afternoon I had the pleasure of talking with Welcome to Loud City founder and main writer J.A. Sherman about the Oklahoma City Thunder. While we all know this team very well, there have been some small changes in the off-season worth hearing about from someone who knows the team well.
1.) Wednesday's game against marks the third Thunder game in 4 nights, kind of strange for pre-season. Who projects to be in the starting line up and are there any injuries we should be aware of?
The Thunder have certainly played enough preseason games this week, and in last night's game (vs Bulls) Scott Brooks opted to sit Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in favor of the bench players, presumably so they don't risk any fatigue injuries against the Mavericks. I have a hunch they'll both be ready to go Wednesday night because we know that ever since Dallas knocked them out of the playoffs 2 years ago, OKC has relished the chance to play the Mavs.
I am sure that Coach Brooks is going to take everything very cautiously though, because it has only been recently that all 5 starters finally found the court at the same time. With the season a week away, it is probably best to protect that asset.
2.) From what you've seen, have any of your high impact players added anything to their games over the summer?
There have been a few noticeable adjustments/improvements that the Thunder guys have made, but so far none as stupendous as Kevin Durant stealing Dirk's one-legged fadeaway in last year's preseason
For Durant, he continues to mold himself into a 5 tool playmaker, so we have seen him assume even more ball-handling duties. The place he is improving in this area is that he understands the flow of the game better so is now more likely to be patient as plays develop, and as a result his turnovers are starting to diminish.
For Russell Westbrook, he is working on adding a low-post game to his repertoire. Previously, Westbrook had two main assets - a) the drive; and b) the free throw pull-up. By adding a basic post game, Westbrook will continue to take advantage of his physical advantages over most other point guards in the league. He is stronger, more physical, and a better leaper than most, so he should always have a matchup advantage. Now it is just a matter of looking for quality shots.
Lastly, I think we're going to see a lot more offense from Serge Ibaka this season, if the preseason has been any indication. OKC is noticeably bereft of a low post threat, and Ibaka is the best option they have. While he is still dependent on mid-range jumpers, Ibaka does have some improving low-post moves that he will continue to develop.
3.) Eric Maynor's ACL tear last season was unfortunate, since he seemed to be a stabilizing influence off the bench. How is he looking thus far?
Maynor has been splitting his time as the backup PG with 2nd year player Reggie Jackson, and it is clear that Brooks wants to see whether Jackson has what it takes to move into that backup role long-term. Jackson certainly has greater upside than Maynor, but as we have all seen, Maynor has the gravitas to run a championship-caliber team when the stakes are high.
He has struggled a bit just getting his timing down, but over his last two games Maynor finally started to show the calmness and patience that mark his game. Rookie Perry Jones III is already developing a rapport with Maynor, and that is always good tidings for a 2nd unit that has high standards to live up to. I was not exactly in my happy place enduring the Derek Fisher era last season, and I'm thankful that Maynor and Jackson are now the guys competing for the job.
4.) The Thunder have a wealth of athleticism. Do you see the team going 'small' more often this season? A conceptual line up of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Perry Jones, and Ibaka is the stuff of nightmares.
The small-ball lineup is always an enticing one because when Durant moves to the '4,' he becomes even more dangerous than he normally is. The team can play faster, finish better, and the line-up has great success when the team needs to come back from deficits.
The place where they get hurt however is in their rebounding. Despite all of their talent and athleticism last season, they were only a mediocre rebounding team for most of the year. Ibaka should be grabbing more than 6-7 rebounds per game, but as long as he struggles in that area, the small-ball line-up is going to struggle when the players start missing shots.
It all may come down to how well Durant and Ibaka can rebound together. Durant was the team's leading rebounder last year, and if he can continue to be an anchor and outlet those rebounds quickly, the line-up can be deadly. If it doesn't work, then OKC has to move back to a slower line-up featuring Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison. As for PJIII, I like what I've seen so far, but it is too soon yet to say if he can be a force on the defensive end.
5.) Which, if any, of the guys on the bench might fight for more playing time this year?
There are three developing areas worth watching:
a) Backup PG - I alluded to this earlier. Maynor is the veteran who knows how to run the offense and has great rapport with his teammates. Jackson is another athletic player with much higher upside. If Jackson can make strides in his game where he isn't running so hot or cold, I could see him taking minutes and making Maynor expendable.
b) Backup center - Perkins is the starter and will normally get around 25-28 minutes per night, leaving lots of time for the backup center to get quality minutes. As of today, Cole Aldrich, the 10th player taken 3 seasons ago, is the backup, but OKC also brought in Hasheem Thabeet to challenge for this spot. So far, neither guy has really made us feel wholly confident in the situation.
c) Perry Jones III - he is Durant's backup. Ergo, PJIII is not going to be getting a ton of minutes. He has a ton of talent and so far has shown good work ethic, but if he wants minutes, he has to seize upon any opportunity presented. I would love to see him dedicate himself to the defensive end and work to become a defensive stopper, thereby potentially marginalizing the less offensively-minded Thabo Sefolosha.
6.) Making the Finals with such a young team has raised expectations considerably. What are the goals this year for the Thunder? Would anything short of another finals trip be a disappointment?
There is only one goal - win a championship.
Everything else is a disappointment.
But you guys have the championship rings. You knew that already.
Thanks for your time. This has been fantastic. For my answers to J.A. Sherman's questions, go here!