As the NBA regular season approaches, we preview the upcoming campaign with the “Highs and Lows” system — predicting the respective ceiling and basement for each team.
Added: Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson
Lost: Etan Thomas, Kyle Weaver, Kevin Ollie
Ceiling: Western Conference Finals
It’s easy to see why so many people are so high on the Thunder, and a lot of it has to do with Kevin Durant. He is the MVP front-runner, a safe bet to lead the League in scoring again, and has that scary combination of limitless potential and already-elite production. Durant (30.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg) has committed to improving his defense and playmaking, but he knows his role: This team only goes as far as his ratchet can carry them … After KD, Russell Westbrook (16.1 ppg, 8.0 apg) had a breakout summer with Team USA and is now considered one of the 10 best point guards in the League, and Jeff Green (15.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg) rounds out OKC’s version of a “Big Three” … The Thunder had two significant areas of need going into the summer, and took care of both: Trading for Daequan Cook and Mo Pete to get some pure shooters on the roster, and getting Cole Aldrich on draft night to bolster the front line. Not to mention the continued development of James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Byron Mullens helps address the shooting and size concerns. And while a lot was made about OKC’s front line because their season was ended by a Pau Gasol tip-in, the Thunder actually weren’t a bad rebounding team; they finished sixth in rebounding differential … The Thunder’s appeal as a title-contending dark horse was born during last year’s playoffs, when they stretched the Lakers to six games in the first round. And OKC’s chances look even greater now that the West no longer has a clear-cut, second-best team. The Nuggets, Mavs, Spurs, Rockets, Jazz and Suns could just as easily lose in Round 1 as they could advance a couple rounds. The Thunder are in position to take advantage of a weakened field and make a power move in the West.
Basement: 8th seed, Western Conference
At the same time, the basketball world may need a collective dose of Settle Down when it comes to the Thunder. Durant is going to get his 27-30 points a night for the next decade, and his teams will always be dangerous. But we’re still talking about a defending 8th-seed without a true power forward or proven low-post scorer in the rotation, and a point guard with an shaky jumper. Could Durant, Westbrook and Green lead the Thunder to a 2-seed and the conference finals? Sure. Could they also fall behind the Lakers, Mavs, Spurs, Nuggets, Rockets, Jazz and Blazers in the standings and go into the postseason as an 8th-seed again? Absolutely … Of the 2010 playoff teams, only the Bobcats and Jazz averaged more turnovers per game than the Thunder. Westbrook is a year older and is still learning how to be a true point guard, and Durant also needs to cut down on the turnovers he commits when he tries to do too much offensively … Green puts up numbers, but he’s prone to disappear for long stretches, particularly in big games. For half of the Thunder/Lakers series, Jeff was playing like Tom Green … The core group is talented and plays together, but the bench/role players consist of too many specialists or players with holes in their game. Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha are all-defense, no-offense. Nenad Krstic, Cook and Mo Pete are all-offense, no-defense. Aldrich, Harden and Eric Maynor are still learning the pro game. And even with his Coach of the Year trophy in hand, Scott Brooks is still making his was as an NBA coach. In a seven-game series against Jerry Sloan, Rick Adelman, Nate McMillan, George Karl, Rick Carlisle, Gregg Popovich or Phil Jackson, do you put your money on Brooks to walk away from that fire alive?
*** *** ***