The fallout from the James Harden – Kevin Martin trade from last season leaves the Oklahoma City Thunder with basically the same roster that reached the NBA Finals 13 months ago, led by Kevin Durant, who keeps getting better, and Russell Westbrook, hopefully back to his old self next season, yet without a third borderline star scorer and playmaker this team needs in order to fulfill the expectations from them – to win an NBA title.
If it wasn’t for Westbrook’s injury, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened. Kevin Martin is no James Harden, especially when it comes to creating plays for himself and others, but he’s just as good of a shooter, and Westbrook seemed to be doing quite well with the added pressure on him as a ball handler. Kevin Durant? He brought on the all-around aspect everyone wanted to see in his game, averaging 4.6 assists per game to go with 7.9 rebounds.
But the Thunder aren’t perfect, and went out too soon for us to know how they would’ve fared against the San Antonio Spurs in a Western Conference finals rematch, or how the series against the Grizzlies would have turned out with a healthy Westbrook on board. It certainly did show that Reggie Jackson (13.8 points per game in the conference semifinals) is capable of putting up points and should be given a bigger role (and he will), but it also proved that Kevin Durant isn’t going to be able to do everything on his own, and he seemed to fall apart as the series went on.
And there are the other issues that put doubts above the Thunder’s hopes of winning the NBA title, something that almost seemed definite during their short-lived big-three era, which got shipped away to Houston due to believing more in Serge Ibaka than James Harden, who might actually be a better player than Russell Westbrook as well. The Thunder cant’ afford so many huge deals on their roster, and had to make a compromise.
Ibaka averaged 13.2 points per game last season but seemed to take a step back in the postseason. Eventually, without players setting you up for it, all the improvement in his mid-range shooting ability isn’t going to help. Kendrick Perkins? Despite his defensive attributes, seeing the Miami Heat and other teams move away from lineups that have one player on them which has no meaning offensively is a sign the Thudner are kind of stuck on this one.
It’s not like they haven’t been trying finding a replacement – Hasheem Thabeet had a few promising moments as a bench player after some D-League boot camp, but nothing will stop him from becoming a Draft Bust for the ages. Nick Collison is a great guy to have off the bench for hustle and defense, but nothing more. Stephen Adams? At the moment, he seems to be another long term project the Thunder are hoping can develop into something more.
So there are two options, maybe three, with Scott Brooks involved. Maybe, just maybe, the Thunder can actually become a team that runs more than two plays of screen-and-pop or an isolation for one of its two stars, but that isn’t too likely.
Maybe Reggie Jackson can become that third scorer the Rockets now have, while Kevin Martin, who made that trade slightly worthwhile, is gone without a trace. Or maybe Kevin Durant has more upside to strive to; maybe Westbrook as well. Maybe these two can be so good that all other deficiencies on this roster, which still probably makes it a top 3 team in the West, can be forgotten.
But the more likely scenario is that the amazing window to reach multiple finals isn’t going to last very long, especially if Durant and Westbrook don’t have the right parts around them to make it work.