I am happy to say that I was able to do a brief Q&A with out friend J.A. Sherman over at Welcome To Loud City, to get an insider look at the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course seeing as the Thunder are arguably the best team in the NBA right now, I wanted to get his thoughts on whether or not there is a weakness on what seems to be a picture-perfect team. I also wanted to get his take on Russell Westbrook, who has really elevated his game over the past month, and their latest acquisition, Derek Fisher.
Sherman gave us some great insight into a team who if we want to make it to the NBA Finals, we're going to have to get through first. Yikes!
(Note: I also had a chance to answer some Grizzlies questions he had for me, so make sure to check those out HERE)
1.) Watching Russell Westbrook play over the past three-plus weeks, it's pretty clear that he's playing some of his best basketball on the season. He's not only filling it up on a nightly basis, but his shot selection has seemed to improve, his turnovers are down significantly, and, well, the dude just looks pumped to be playing basketball. Maybe it's just that I don't get to see the Thunder play as often as you do, but I think back to our earlier matchups (first week of the season was his absolute worst game of the season, and then in early February he had a "nice" game, but looked stale) and wonder if there was some moment over the past month where it just suddenly clicked for him. Am I crazy here?
It is interesting that you bring up the very first game these two teams played against each other this season. As you mentioned, Westbrook was pretty bad in that one, and he struggled mightily for the first quarter of the season. We can only speculate why; was it the lack of training camp? Was it his unresolved contract extension? Was he just trying to figure out what his role should be? We may never know, because Westbrook is notoriously private when it comes to personal disclosure. What we do know is that by the time the second game between OKC and Memphis rolled around, something started to click for him, and his game has been pretty phenomenal ever since.
Westbrook's emergence this season reminds me of something the Jazz
center Al Jefferson
said earlier this year - "It took me eight years to realize that if I passed the ball [out of the post] and guys hit shots, it opens me up." My point is not merely that Russell's passing has improved, but that, like Jefferson, he has come to realize that by making the game easier on himself and his teammates, he enables everyone involved to play at a higher level.
Westbrook has become much more discerning in the types of shots he takes, the passing angles he accesses, and the speed at which he traverses the court. By making things simpler, he has found he can do everything a little bit better.
2.) From an outsider's perspective, so to speak, the Thunder look like a team that's locked and loaded for the playoffs and, really, with no glaring weakness or deficiency in their game. Thinking about the other title contenders -- the Heat
(depth), the Bulls
injury), the Spurs
(age), etc. -- you can find a struggle, if you will, on their respective rosters. But I just don't see one in the Thunder. That said, can you legitimately point to a weakness or a struggle spot, or however you want to put it, on this team?
The Thunder have two weaknesses, and neither one has to do with their ability to shoot, pass, or play defense.
The first is that the Thunder have a tendency to relax and believe that their talent alone is sufficient for wins. We've seen OKC lose games this season to the likes of the Wizards
precisely because of this malaise. It is easy to understand why; one through 12, they are probably the most physically gifted team in the league. If I were 6'10" and had virtually unlimited range, I'd be more inclined to shoot jumpers all day too, rather than tussle in the mud with guys like Blake Griffin
and DeMarcus Cousins. The problem though is that such a mentality from Kevin Durant
can impact his teammates; if he thinks it's ok to take things easy for a while, then the rest of the team is more likely to follow suit. This facet is the biggest reason why Westbrook is so valuable - he NEVER takes it easy. He's always in attack mode. If Durant starts to play lax, Westbrook kicks it up a notch and forces Durant to meet his aggression.
The second weakness is that the Thunder are still collectively a very inexperienced playoff team. I just don't know how they're going to do if they have to face a team like the Spurs, who have had OKC's number these past two seasons, or even the Mavericks
. Even though Dallas is a bit weaker than they were last season, it is evident that they still know how to slow down the Thunder. If a team like Dallas were to steal a game 1 in OKC, or if the Thunder suddenly find themselves down 2-1 with a game in Dallas, how are they going to respond mentally? It is a question mark to be sure, and it is also a weakness until OKC can prove otherwise.
3.) We had at least toyed with the idea of bringing in Derek Fisher once he was bought out by the Rockets, but, alas, he wound up in OKC. Was that the move your team needed to make, or can was it, as some might speculate, a move made to almost "block" him from going to another contending team?
From a personnel standpoint, the biggest weakness the Thunder had this season was when they lost backup PG to a knee injury. His injury forced the Thunder to insert newly drafted rookie Reggie Jackson into the backup PG spot and learn through trial by fire. It had been a difficult transition. The biggest issue was that Jackson was often way too deferential to his talented veteran teammates, and his job requirement was essentially, "don't screw up this title run." You might concur that this is a lofty and probably unfair assignment for any rookie, but a PG rookie in particular.
As a result, Jackson's performance has been inconsistent as he has learned the ropes. It probably has not helped him much that the season is truncated, because it has meant much less practice time, less minutes, and less time to spend with his teammates. In a different season, Jackson might find himself ready for the playoff grind, a duration of games that is about triple of any one season he played in college. This season, however, his inconsistency could get exposed by an intelligent defense.
The Fisher acquisition is a logical one, as he has the rings, the wisdom, the personal cache, and all that. What he does not have though is his youth. Fisher brings a steady hand, but as we saw when he got extended minutes against the Timberwolves, his contribution does not scale well. Fisher will work well as a 'glue' guy who keeps the ball moving, doesn't turn over possessions, and sets up the right guys. However, if he is put in a position where he must make key defensive stops or stroke clutch jumpers, the Thunder will find themselves in trouble.
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