Oklahoma City Thunder – Better Than Last Season?

    Having the best record in the NBA, still before the halfway line, still doesn’t mean the Oklahoma City Thunder are the favorites to win the NBA title, but with an always improving young core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, might be even better than last season.

    There were questions regarding their ability to make up for the loss of James Harden, moving via trade to the Houston Rockets and becoming an immediate star for his new team, especially when it came to taking the pressure off Russell Westbrook as the only ball handler for the team.

    Nearly three months later, and everyone is pleased, including the Thunder. Kevin Martin is part of the best offense in the NBA, averaging 105.7 points per game and 3.5 points per 100 possessions better this season than in 2011-2012. Martin is averaging 15.3 points per game, shooting a fantastic 44.4% from beyond the arc, doing a great job coming off the bench and being either the number one scoring option (something he knows how to do very well) for the second unit, or a guy that will always find himself open when playing off Durant or Westbrook, easily drawing double teams or creating openings from the screen and shoot moves.

    The offense isn’t much more complicated than last season, something Scott Brooks and Russell Westbrook are highly criticized for whenever the Thunder lose. Those isolation and pick and pop calls make it easy to defend. The only problem is the talent level of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, making it very difficult to handle them, even when you know what is coming.

    Durant has also added the pass as an actual option to his game, and not just because he seems hesitant at times to take over the game, leaving Westbrook the window the run rampant. Durant is scoring just as well as before, averaging 28.5 points per game with 52.3% from the field, but he’s averaging 4.3 assists per game, as he should be averaging for a player touching the ball as much as he does. His defense is gradually improving. His length has always made him a huge potential for a menace on D, but laziness and focusing so much on offense took its toll. He’s only 24, but you can see he’s taking huge steps forward in things that have nothing to do with scoring.

    Russell Westbrook, despite the criticism from time to time, has improved. He’s still not a shot down guard, and despite all of his athleticism, his lack of interest in guarding others, on and off the ball, will always be the minus part of his game. His declining field goal shooting numbers might suggest he’s struggling (41.6% from the field), but his play as a point guard has vastly improved. Not just the assists, leaping to 8.5 per game, but actually looking for passes first many times, and making better decisions later in games on what opening in the defense to use.

    Serge Ibaka becoming much more than just a defensive juggernaut might be the biggest addition to this team. Ibaka is getting five more minutes per game this season, while his scoring average rises by 5.2 points and field goal shooting, especially thanks to his much-improved mid-range shooting (56.7% from the field) ability that has suddenly developed. I also think Brooks is realizing that playing Ibaka is more important than Kendrick Perkins in the case of having to choose on of the two.

    This leads to the Thunder’s defense, which makes them such a good team, topping off all of the obvious advantages on offense. Three keys – Perkins’ ability to block the lanes and defend the pick n’ roll very well, not letting his easily bruised ego get in the way of effort on defense; Serge Ibaka making the right reads and remaining one the best shot blockers in the NBA (2.7 per game) and Thabo Sefolosha being able to cling on to the opponents’ best shooting guard or small forward during his 29 minutes. This makes Durant and Westbrook’s job a lot easier – just staying focused, and stepping in at the right time.

    Despite their high paced game, the Thunder are 10th in the NBA when it comes to keeping their opponents on low scoring numbers, allowing 95.2 points per game. They’re second in the NBA when it comes to opponents field goal shooting, keeping teams at 42.9% from the field, being exceptionally efficient at stopping teams from scoring in the paint.

    Being so young (their top 3 players are 24, 24 and 23) doesn’t make their ongoing improvement such a big surprise, but for a team that reached the NBA finals last season only to lose in five games, the only real improvement will be measured if they finish the season with a title ring on their fingers.

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