Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why this year's version of the OKC Thunder might be its best ever.

Leading up to the 2013-14 NBA season, many question marks surrounded the OKC Thunder and whether or not it could be considered a serious contender for the title. Would Russell Westbrook, coming off MCL surgery, return as explosive and aggressive as the RW0 we were used to, and when exactly would he return? How would OKC account for the loss of Kevin Martin? Would his departure leave a void on the Thunder bench?

So many questions, in fact, when it was announced Westbrook might need an additional six weeks to return to the court, sportsbooks in Vegas dropped the Thunder's predicted regular season win total to a mere 50 games, 10 fewer than the 2012-2013 season.

Well, we are now just past the one-quarter mark of the season and many, if not all, of these questions have been answered in a fashion not even the most optimistic of Thunder fans could have hoped for.
At 18-4, OKC is off to its best start since making the move from Seattle, and is on pace to win 67 games -- blowing away its win total from last season. So impressive has OKC's play been through 22 games, it would not be out of the question to forecast this being the best Thunder product in franchise history.

Westbrook has returned and has shown few signs of rust or lingering effects from knee surgery. Save for a slightly disappointing percentage from the free throw line well below his career average, he appears as aggressive as ever, attacking the rim at will as in seasons past.

Of course it goes without saying Kevin Durant continues to impress, showing improvement in court vision we saw flashes of during the 2013 playoffs, averaging nearly five assists while maintaining his traditional scoring pace that has led to three scoring titles in the past four seasons.

Reggie Jackson
As far as the void left behind by Kevin Martin's departure to Minnesota, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have more than filled it, averaging an encouraging 21.8 points per game combined off the bench. Jackson, who gained invaluable experience filling in for the injured Westbrook during the playoffs last year, seems destined for a major free agent contract following the 2014-15 season. A fact I'm sure Thunder GM Sam Presti is already very concerned with.

Jeremy Lamb
Meanwhile, Lamb, a major piece exchanged in the James Harden trade, has seen a drastic increase in minutes. Starting off the season, the pressure of becoming the wing scorer the Thunder desperately needed off the bench seemed to take its toll on Lamb who struggled early on. However, during the course of December, Lamb has averaged 10.0 points on 52% shooting and 41% from the three point line. Scott Brooks appears to have noticed, as Lamb has seen a drastic increase in playing time during the fourth quarter over the past few weeks. Most who follow me know I am a big fan of Lamb's, and his play of late is only reinforcing that.

And how about the addition of Steven Adams to OKC's front line? Averaging nearly as many minutes as starting center Kendrick Perkins, Adams, although still very young and raw, seems to be the agile big man with reliable hands the Thunder will need to compete in the West, especially if Presti decides to amnesty Perkins following the season. I don't think it would be far-fetched to speculate this could end up being the best Thunder second unit we've seen. You have the attacker in Jackson, the wing scorer in Lamb, and now the low-post presence in Adams.

Of course, the regular season matters very little anymore to fans in OKC, who have their eyes focused solely on winning the West and returning to, if not winning, the NBA Finals. This will be the true measure of how this team compares to the one that won four in a row against the Spurs en route to the Western Conference title in 2012. Can all these new pieces continue to coalesce and finally get the national media off Presti's back for trading Harden? Could this be the best Thunder we've seen in OKC? Something tells me yes on both accounts.