If you were to poll NBA fans and analysts on what the three biggest stories of the season so far are, you would probably receive the following responses: the Dwight Howard trade saga, LeBron James and the Heat, and without question, Linsanity. Those three subjects have indeed been engrossing. Despite all the criticism surrounding his apparent reluctance to take the big shot, LeBron is having a transcendent year, statistically one of the greatest ever. Jeremy Lin’s rise to fame has been equally staggering, garnering much deserved media attention, and of course, where the game’s most dominant center ends up playing has everyone fascinated.
One story that I don’t believe would bring in as many votes in my hypothetical poll, however, is the emergence of the Oklahoma City Thunder as legitimate championship contenders this season. With a record of 30 and 8 and a comfortable 4.5 games ahead of their nearest challengers in the West (The Spurs), the Thunder have distinguished themselves as the team to beat in the NBA’s toughest conference. It seems absurd to think that a team having such a successful season is flying under the radar, but that is exactly what is happening.
Substance Over Style
Partly due to the basketball media’s infatuation with the aforementioned hot-button topics, and partly because of the small market they play in, the Thunder’s success has been met with much less fanfare than is warranted. If the success of NBA teams were somehow correlated by how often they were discussed in the media, the Lakers and the Knicks would be far superior teams to Oklahoma City. That is obviously not the case. Not that any of this makes a slight bit of difference to Scott Brooks and his team. A low-key, business-like approach to the season has been embraced by the Thunder, and in particular by their superstar, Kevin Durant, who is the personification of that approach.
At this moment Durant might just be the league’s best player not named LeBron James. James will likely win the regular season MVP, and deservedly so, but that should not diminish Durant’s achievements this year. He is the best player on the best team in the West, and has consistently come up huge in crunch-time.
That point is best illustrated by the fact that the Thunder are 14 and 3 in games that are within three points going into the final three minutes. In the most entertaining game of the season, the Thunder’s 124-118 overtime win against the Nuggets, Durant scored 51 points and was clutch down the stretch.
The point is simply this: Durant embraces the pressure. He wants the ball in crunch-time. He wants to take the game-winning shot. He thrives on responsibility.
Durant has been the league’s leading scorer for the last two seasons. He recently captured the All-Star game’s MVP, and is currently averaging 28 points per game while shooting over 50% from the field. There is no way this kid is underrated…right?
Well, in a weird way I feel like he is. Perhaps not underrated by NBA coaches and players, but in the public discussion. This may have less to do with his play on the court and more to do with his persona off it.
Durant is not what you would describe as flashy. He doesn’t play in the biggest, sexiest market, and he doesn’t appear too concerned with trumpeting his non-basketball brand. The latter is perhaps what makes Durant the biggest anomaly for a current NBA superstar. Recently Dwight Howard was quoted as saying that he would do what was best for his brand, with regards to which team he would end up signing for. Durant appears more focused on improving his image with his play on the court.
Amidst all the pandemonium of LeBron and Chris Bosh signing for the Heat last year, Durant quietly inked a five-year contract extension with the Thunder, committing to a team that might otherwise have problems attracting big names.
He is a low-maintenance, low-key superstar, and that is perhaps why he is underappreciated in a league full of charismatic, larger-than life individuals.
The Good, Then the Bad
But let us get back to what Durant and his teammates would be more concerned with: their play on the court. What is the likelihood that Durant will be able to parade the Larry O’Brien trophy through Oklahoma City this summer?
It’s a difficult question to answer.
The Thunder are one of the league’s most offensively explosive teams and rank with the league’s best in points per game average. They possess three legitimate scoring threats in Durant, Russell Westbrook and sixth man of the year candidate James Harden. In transition they are a joy to watch, running the fast break as well as anybody. All three players excel at creating their own shots, beating defenders off the dribble and either driving to the net, or pulling up and shooting the jumper.
I could wax lyrical about their athleticism and scoring abilities all day, but unfortunately I have some real concerns about their flaws.
The big elephant in the room is turnovers. The Thunder commit more turnovers on average than any other team in the league. This mainly results from a lack of ball movement, with Durant and Westbrook relying too heavily on 1 on 1 isolation plays, plays that are indeed high reward, but also high risk. Obviously the abundance of turnovers has not hurt the Thunder much to date, but they could be a major problem come playoff time.
During the playoffs the games tend to slow down. The half-court game becomes the norm and the Thunder will not be able to rely on so many points in transition. Also, in an attempt to stifle the explosiveness of Durant and company, teams may decide to play zone defense, clogging up the lane and pushing the Thunder to the perimeter. In such circumstances, ball movement will be crucial in order to open up easy scoring opportunities.
The Thunder also lack a real inside scoring presence. Serge Ibaka is a fantastic shot blocker and Kendrick Perkins is a solid rebounder, but neither man is going to give Scott Brooks much on the offensive end. Again to reiterate, this has not been much of a problem thus far. However, the Thunder will not always be able to rely on Durant, Westbrook and Harden shooting the lights out. If two of them go cold during a playoff game, the onus will be on finding alternate scoring. Right now the Thunder just don’t have that low-post threat they can defer to for the easy buckets when the games slow down. If their jump shooters go cold they will have a hard time scoring in the paint against the likes of the Heat and big low-post teams like the Lakers.
Not Yet, But Soon
Whether Durant and the Thunder win it all this year is going to depend on how they address their shortcomings on the court. As of now I would favour the Miami Heat to beat them in a seven game series. They are a more experienced group and are the one team who will not be overwhelmed by the athleticism of Oklahoma City. All the pressure, however, is on LeBron and the Heat to win right now. That is not the case for the Thunder. They are a flawed team, albeit a very good and exciting one, but given the lack of media scrutiny they face, they have the underrated luxury of keeping defeats in perspective and progressively learning how to get better in the big games.
With a superstar like Durant, who already possesses the intangible qualities necessary to win, and a young, talented core who appear to share that same basketball-first mentality, the Thunder are going to be challenging for many seasons to come. Who knows if their successes will be met with deserved public recognition. One thing is for sure: they probably won’t care either way.