There is a recent commercial featuring Kevin Durant promoting the NBA on ESPN Playoffs. In the 30-second clip, Durant sits among the rafters in his home Chesapeake Energy Arena, contemplating raising a banner in that very arena. As he concludes, “I see a team that’s ready to make a statement.”
So, the commercial painstakingly begs the question: Can Durant and the Thunder win the NBA Championship this season? I have full confidence that the Thunder’s time will come, and that it will come very soon. But this year?
OKC has a team built for a championship. Durant as the superstar, Russell Westbrook as the sidekick and James Harden as a third scoring option. And the Thunder is as deep and balanced a team as anybody in the league. Down low, the Thunder is one of the few teams that can match-up with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol of the Lakers in the West with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. Thabo Sefolosha is a capable wing defender, and Derek Fisher brings leadership and a steady veteran hand as backup point guard.
I have full faith in Durant as the budding superstar of the league and as the best player on a championship team. If the Thunder does not win a championship this season, it will not be because of Kevin Durant. It will be because of another team and/or player’s greatness. Sometimes you just have to wait your turn. Jordan didn’t win his first championship until his seventh season. LeBron, in his ninth year, is still waiting. (Don’t you worry; we will get to LeBron and the Heat later this week).
Last season, before OKC lost to eventual champions Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals, Durant averaged a playoff-high 28.6 points per game. The problem last season was a still young and inexperienced Westbrook running the point during crunch time. It’s okay that Westbrook is a scoring point guard. That is what makes him so great; his athletic ability and relentlessness on the break and attacking the basket make him a matchup nightmare for 90 percent of NBA teams. Scott Brooks needs to pound it into Westbrook’s head that, at the end of close games, it is okay — nay, even preferred — that he defer to one of the best scorers in the universe.
Westbrook, in his fourth NBA season, is not a natural point guard. Drafted out of UCLA where he played a combo-guard alongside Darren Collison, he has slowly begun to grasp the role of a point guard in Oklahoma City. Sure, Westbrook turns the ball over a lot, but so does Steve Nash. So does Deron Williams. So does every great point guard in the league because they have the ball in their hands all the time. What is concerning is not Westbrook’s turnovers, it is when they occur. Late in games, early in the shot clock and on one-man fast breaks. That is where Westbrook needs to learn how to be patient, run an offense and defer to Durant. If he can do these things, OKC’s chances to win the title double.
On Sunday evening, in a tough away game against the Los Angeles Lakers in a playoff atmosphere, Oklahoma City lost in double overtime. Kobe outshone Durant, and Westbrook struggled mightily in a 3-for-22 shooting performance. The team had a chance to win. But for OKC, the result is not nearly as concerning as the injury sustained to Harden when Ron Artest (there is no way a man named Metta World Peace could have thrown a vicious ’bow like that) introduced his elbow to Harden’s temple, sending the bearded guard to the ground with a concussion. If Harden is not 100 percent by round two of the playoffs, the Thunder will lose.
While Oklahoma City certainly has a good shot at reaching the NBA championships and even winning a title, the odds may be stacked against this up-and-coming squad. The verdict: not this year, but maybe next.