Any time I hear the word halftime, this is the first thing I think about.
We’ve reached the half-way point in this strike-shortened season. Half time, baby! Everyone to the locker room, or as it’s called in the NBA, All-Star Weekend. Coming into the season, I didn’t know what to expect. We were bringing back our entire 10 man rotation, plus a couple young guys that had potential. But with a very short training camp, no summer league, and only 2 preseason games against the same team, it was a little difficult to gauge how the team would come out the gates. Conventional wisdom would say that in a shortened season, a team that experienced hardly any change would benefit the most early in the season.
That thought has not proven to be incorrect when it comes to the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are currently tied for the best record in the league at 25 – 7 and have a 2 game lead in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. If natural progression is the law of the land, then the Thunder are right where they are supposed to be. After finishing 4th in the conference last season and making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder are poised to take the next step in their natural progression.
Individual Grades (alphabetical order): I take into account what was expected of the player before the season started and how that player has fared in this first half of the season.
Cole Aldrich (Stat line: 12 GP, 7.6 mpg, 1.8 rpg, 0.6 blks, 0.4 stls, 2.6 ppg)
After spending last season shuffling between the Thunder and the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League, Aldrich was expected to continue developing into a rotational big man. When Nazr Mohammed was re-signed before the beginning of the lockout, it was an indication that the organization wanted Cole to continue to develop. In the 12 games that he has gotten in, Cole has shown a knack for causing havoc on the defensive end with his long wingspan and penchant for blocking or altering shots. On the offensive end, he has shown flashes of a nice post-up game (hooks, drop step, put back dunks), but has yet to fully assert himself and ask for the ball on the block consistently. He tends to be a bit over zealous on the defensive end and is prone to picking up fouls pretty quickly, especially on pump fakes. Aldrich shows great heart on the floor, though, constantly diving for loose balls. #FreeCole!
Expected Grade – C Mid-Term Grade – C+
Nick Collison (Stat line: 31 GP, 20.5 mpg, 4.0 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.3 blks, 0.5 stls, 4.5 ppg)
The No-Stats MVP. The ultimate glue guy. Collison was expected to continue being the first big man off the bench. A key cog that can be plugged in seamlessly if foul trouble or defensive lapses rear their ugly heads. Collison has not disappointed in his role. He is basically the same guy from last season with more of a willingness to unleash the soul crushing 12-15 foot jumper. A charge magnet, the 2nd unit gets their defensive identity from Collison. One of the smartest players in the league that is usually in the right place, at the right time (and not by coincidence). Future coach potential.
Expected Grade – B+ Mid-Term Grade – A-
Daequan Cook (Stat line: 31 GP (12 GS), 19.7 mpg, 2.6 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.3 blks, 0.5 stls, 5.6 ppg, 34% 3pt FG)
One of the wild cards coming into the season, Cook started last season in a rut that eventually led to him getting over 30 DNP-CD’s in the first half of the season. When finally given an opportunity to play, Cook became the deep threat that the Thunder had hoped for when they traded for him on draft night in 2010. Cook has continued to provide the deep threat for the Thunder this season and has also become a more integral part of the rotation, even starting 12 games in place of injured SG Thabo Sefolosha. He has improved his man on man defense and has involved himself more on the boards.
Expected Grade – C+ Mid-Term Grade – B-
Kevin Durant (Stat line: 32 GP (32 GS), 37.8 mpg, 8.2 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.3 blks, 1.3 stls, 27.7 ppg)
A candidate for MVP coming into the season, Durant has not disappointed. While his scoring may have gone down just a tad bit, his rebounding, assists, and blocks are at career high levels. He is scoring at the most efficient rate in his career and he is starting to be relevant defensively, especially on the boards. He is learning how to get the ball in better spots and how to position himself to get better shots in crunch time. The only negative I can see in his game is the turnovers. The athletic part of Durant is starting to mesh with the cerebral part. And that is a scary reality for the rest of the league.
Expected Grade – A Mid-Term Grade – A
James Harden (Stat line: 31 GP (2 GS), 31.6 mpg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 0.2 blks, 0.9 stls, 16.8 ppg, 37% 3pt FG)
The glue that holds the “feuding” yin and yang that is Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook together. We all know that the “feuding” part of that statement has proven to be false as this season has progressed. What started as an improvement over the 2nd half of the season last year morphed into calls for Harden to be the starting 2-guard as the new season began. Coach Scott Brooks kept Harden on the bench and he has turned into arguably the best 6th man in the league, providing instant offense off the bench, ala Jason Terry or Jamal Crawford. Along with being the unquestioned leader of the bench unit, he’s also in the game with the starters to close it out in most games. His playmaking ability and penchant for getting foul calls make Harden an offensive weapon to be marveled. While steadily improving defensively, he can still be had by good 2-guards, especially if quickness is a factor. Also, the home/road splits were an issue in the beginning of the season, but have normalized since then. Hopefully that doesn’t come up in the playoffs.
Expected Grade – B+ Mid-Term Grade – B+
James Harden’s Beard (Stat line: No stats can measure the greatness)
Seriously, this needed its own section. We’ve seen this thing grow from when Harden first joined the Thunder in June 2009. It started off so small and has blossomed into something so much greater. Olympic gods now bow in the presence of the Beard.
Expected Grade – A+ Mid-Term Grade – Infinity on a 4 point scale
Lazar Hayward (Stat line: 12 GP, 5.9 mpg, 0.9 rpg, 0.2 apg, 1.5 ppg)
Haywardwas obtained in a deal with the Timberwolves before the season. Hayward’s presence on the team is more as a practice player than as a regular rotation player. I believe, the bigger bodied Hayward has allowed Durant to simulate what its like to go against a stronger defender and to see what works against these types of defenders and what doesn’t. In his time on the floor,Hayward has shown to be a good transition player. He needs to be more consistent with his shot, especially from the 3-point line. Defensively, Hayward is an average defender.
Expected Grade – C Mid-Term Grade – C-
Serge Ibaka (Stat line: 32 GP (32 GS), 7.7 rpg, 0.5 apg, 3.3 blks, 0.5 stls, 8.3 ppg)
Just like James Harden (and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before them), Ibaka was expected to make the big 3rd year leap that we’ve seen from developing Thunder players. At the beginning of the season though, Ibaka seemed a bit out of sync. He wasn’t as aggressive and was settling for jumpers, instead of trying to do his damage from the inside. But over the last month, we’ve seen the Ibaka that we love and that opposing teams hate. In the last 3 weeks, we’ve seen 3 double digit block games, a man’s triple double (points, boards, blocks), and a disruptive defensive force not seen since the heydays of Ben Wallace. He still leaves a lot to be desired on the offensive end of the court as an inside presence. Though he sometimes leave us salivating with Olajuwon like post moves, he still prefers the 15 footer, which he is starting to hit with more consistency lately. His penchant for going for blocks usually leaves a gaping hole in the middle for offensive rebounders.
Expected Grade – B Mid-Term Grade – B+
Royal Ivey (Stat line: 9 GP, 9.7 mpg, 0.7 rpg, 0.2 apg, 2.1 ppg)
Ivey’s role on the team is that of veteran point guard. He’s a defensive minded player that probably pushes Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor in practice. When he has received playing time, Ivey has made a couple 3 pointers and played good defense. He has recently been called to duty a lot earlier in games because of some injuries to players. His defense keeps him in games, but his lack of a true identity (not really a point guard, but not very consistent with his jumper) can be a detriment if the team starts to struggle offensively.
Expected Grade – C Mid-Term Grade – C
Reggie Jackson (Stat line: 26 GP, 12.2 mpg, 1.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.8 stls, 3.7 ppg)
My expectation for the rookie was that he would split time between the Thunder and the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League, gaining valuable experience against lesser competition in preparation to possibly be a regular rotation player next season. But with the injury to Maynor, Jackson was thrust into the rotation as the primary back up point guard. The results have been par for the course for a late first round rookie point guard. Some flashes of decent play sandwiched between lessons from the school of hard knocks. They say that experience is the best teacher, so hopefully this is a blessing in disguise for the future. But in the present, Reggie has shown that he has the athletic ability to play in this league, but is still trying to figure out the nuances of the point guard position. If he is on the floor with one of the three main ball handlers (Westbrook, Durant, or Harden), he immediately defers to them to run the offense. Also, defenses have learned to pressure the rookie into making bad decisions. With all that said, though, I like what I see in Jackson and believe this experience will help him immensely in the future.
Expected Grade – C Mid-Term Grade – C
Eric Maynor (Stat line: 9 GP, 15.2 mpg, 1.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 0.6 stls, 4.2 ppg)
As a third year player, I fully expected Maynor to make that leap from okay player to good player. Already labeled by some to be the best back-up point guard in the league, Maynor’s steady hand at point made him the quarterback of one of the best bench units in the league. Like many players in this condensed season, Maynor’s play at the beginning was a bit careless, as he was averaging less assists and more turnovers. Nine games into the season though, Maynor suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the season. For all intents and purposes, Maynor’s recovery seems to be going ahead of schedule and he will be ready for training camp next season.
Expected Grade – B Mid-Term Grade – Inc.
Nazr Mohammed (Stat line: 31 GP (1 GS), 12.4 mpg, 3.0 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.6 blks, 3.1 ppg)
The old man of the crew. In a room full of 20-somethings, Mohammed is the revered veteran. Mohammed’s role is that of back up center. Last season, he was invaluable as a stop gap until Kendrick Perkins came back from injury and as Perkins’s backup. There have been times this season where Mohammed has looked as spry as a spring chicken. And then there’s been blocks of game where Mohammed has literally looked like he has cement shoes on. That’s what you get with a 14 year vet. You take the good with the bad.
Expected Grade – B Mid-Term Grade – B-
Kendrick Perkins (Stat line: 31 GP (31 GS), 26.5 mpg, 5.9 rpg, 0.9 apg, 1.2 blks, 0.3 stls, 4.4 ppg, 10 technicals)
One of the most polarizing players on the team. Last year, Perkins was coming off major knee surgery and was slowed by bulky knee braces and the weight he put on while recovering. Vowing to come into camp more in shape, Kendrick came in 30-40 pounds lighter and shed the knee braces. But it’s been the same ol’ Perkins; a good post defender who does well against traditional centers, but gets lost if a team has an athletic and/or undersized center. Offensively, Perkins is a turnover waiting to happen. I don’t know if he lost some coordination during his recovery from surgery, but when he puts the ball on the floor, he usually loses it. When he attempts a shot, it’s usually a flat jump hook that is easily rejected. I don’t like to blast on Perkins since the Thunder’s record is so good with him in the lineup, but his biggest asset to the team is that he frees up Ibaka on the defensive end to be the NBA’s version of a roaming free safety. Another negative is the boneheaded technicals that Perkins picks up. He putting himself in a position to get suspended and miss time because of his hard-headedness.
Expected Grade – B Mid-Term Grade – C
Ryan Reid (Stat line: 2 GP, 5.0 mpg, 0.5 rpg, 4.0 ppg)
Every year there’s that one guy that you, as a fan, attach your heart strings to. The underdog. The runt of the litter. Ever since the Thunder drafted Reid in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, I’ve followed his career in the D-League. I was pleasantly surprised when the Thunder offered Reid the final roster spot for this season. This organization rewards “those” types of players that work hard to pursue their dream, even if everyone else has told them they have no chance. Last season it was Robert Vaden. Next season it may be Latavious Williams or Tibor Pleiss. When Reid finally got some run on the Valentine’s Day game, I was texting my brother in law in all caps. Literally, this was my text, “RYAN REID SCORED!!!!!!!!!” Honestly, in his limited game time, he has shown a good mid-range jumper and has shown the potential to be a future glue guy.
Expected Grade – D Mid-Term Grade – C+
Thabo Sefolosha (Stat line: 18 GP (18 GS), 20.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 blks, 0.9 stls, 5.2 ppg, 48% 3-pt FG)
Another polarizing player on the team. While he is one of the best wing defenders in the league, his offensive inefficiencies can sometimes lead to the Thunder playing “a man down” on the offensive side of the court. The clamoring for a change in the starting line-up only got louder as last season’s playoffs pushed forward, and teams began corralling Durant and Westbrook. The thinking was that Harden, as a floor spreader, would allow Durant and Westbrook more room to operate on the offensive end. Hypothetically, this would seem like the correct way to go. But, as this season has shown, the value of a great wing defender should never be lost in the search for more efficient offense. The game is played on both ends of the court. As an added bonus, Sefolosha had shown signs of being more offensively efficient this season. He had begun to drive the ball more to the basket and was shooting the 3-pointer at a 48% clip. Not that he shot that many, but of the few that he did shoot, he was making almost half of them. I still cringe when I see him lead a fast-break, though. Unfortunately though, Sefolosha has been battling foot issues and has been limited this season and is expected to miss one more month.
Expected Grade – B- Mid-Term Grade – B+
Russell Westbrook (Stat line: 32 GP (32 GS), 4.8 rpg, 5.5 apg, 1.9 stls, 23.4 ppg)
Probably the most polarizing player on the Thunder. Last season, ironically, Westbrook’s 3rd, he went from good player to superstar. He, along with Derrick Rose, became the new standard for point guards: hybrids that could score 25 ppg and dish out 8 assists per game, while constantly breaking down a defense and doing their damage from the paint. You knew that Durant could score and that all he needed to do was refine the finer points of his game (rebounding, playmaking, etc). But you didn’t know where the learning curve would take you with Westbrook. Because of the criticism that Westbrook was receiving in last season’s playoffs and in the off-season, and the upcoming contract extension, I didn’t know what to expect from Westbrook. In the first 2 weeks of the season, it seemed like Westbrook was in the funk of all funks. His shot wasn’t falling, his assists were down, and there were rumblings of a true feud between he and Durant. Thankfully, things seemed to turn around in the middle of January (coincidentally once Russell signed his new contract) and Russell has been playing great ever since, garnering a couple Western Conference Player of the Week awards along the way. With Derrick Rose’s injury woes this season, Russell Westbrook has taken the role of premier point guard with his driving ability and consistent mid-range jumper. He still turns the ball over way too much and doesn’t always work to involve his teammates, but what I’m seeing from Russell this season is surprising because he’s still improving at a tremendous clip.
Expected Grade – A- Mid-Term Grade – A
- It’s amazing how important a real training camp and 4+ preseason games are to players in their preparation for a season. I noticed that in many of the Thunder players’ performances. They didn’t really take off until after the 2nd week of the season, which in actuality, would be the same amount of time as training camp and preseason games in a normal regular season.
- I kept hearing about how injuries would shape this season because of the condensed schedule. But I had no idea it would be this bad. The Thunder have never experienced many injuries in their 4 season in Oklahoma City. An ankle sprain here. A pulled hamstring there. But this season, we’ve seen Maynor go out with a torn ACL, Sefolosha miss significant time with foot issues, and other players miss 1-2 games with general soreness.
- The schedule gets tougher from here on out. We play the Lakers 3 more times, Miami and the Clippers twice, Chicago, Philly, Dallas, and San Antonio once each, and 6 more games against division rivals. We have a 3 game East coast trip after the All-Star break and a 5 game West Coast trip close to the end of the season. Needless to say, if we stay at the top the Western Conference, we would have definitely earned it.
- Possible trade targets – Since the trading deadline is on March 15, I looked a possible trade targets for the Thunder and their struggles on the bench:
- James Anderson (Spurs)
- Tracy McGrady (Hawks)
- Stephen Jackson (Bucks)