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Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

Posted on: September 16, 2010 12:08 pm
Edited on: September 16, 2010 12:09 pm
 
Posted by Royce Young

Fall is here, hear the yell, back to school, ring the bell ... The NBA season is right around the corner, and NBA training camp starts in just a few short weeks. To get you ready for the NBA season, we've put together 25 pop quizzes. Pencils ready? We continue our Pop Quizzes with this question...

Is Oklahoma City actually ready to contend for the Western Conference crown?

The expectations started immediately following a rousing standing ovation Oklahoma City fans gave their home team after being eliminated by the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

I was in attendance at that game and while Thunder fans were obviously disappointed not to have forced a Game 7 in Los Angeles, once people started filing out of the then-Ford Center, the chatter began.

"Well, this shouldn't happen again next year," one guy near me said.

"Yeah, next year we shouldn't see the Lakers until the Western Conference Finals," another answered.

Then add in the summer Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had playing for Team USA and the Thunder has maybe moved away from fan expectations to now having a bit of pressure.

The talent is there. It was no fluke OKC won 50 games last season. And they know because of the earlier-than-expected success, expectation to do bigger and better things are there. It's the nature of the hype machine beast.

But forget expectations. Forget hype. The question is, is this Thunder squad actually good enough to contend in the West? Yes, they're fun to talk about and a trendy pick, but they were the youngest team in the league last season. Actually, here's how young they are: In three years, they'll still have over half the roster under the age of 26. So can this young group that overachieved last season take the next step?

Answer, plainly put: Yes. Absolutely yes.

If Durant showed the world anything in Turkey, it's that he's ready. Ready to shoulder the load of having 11 other teammates look to him to bail them out. He's ready to take on the pressure of a tough atmosphere. He's ready to carry a team. He was close to ready last season, winning the scoring title with 30.1 points per game and finishing second in the MVP voting behind LeBron James. But in the playoffs, he didn't play like himself. His percentages were way down, his scoring was down and in the heartbreaking Game 6 loss, Durant went just 5-23 from the floor.

But he hasn't forgot. No way. He talked about how much he learned in that series when he was leading his country to gold in Turkey and he's going to be thinking about that as motivation going in to camp. I almost think people need to be reminded daily that Durant isn't even 22 years old yet. The more he learns, the more hard experience he has, the more dangerous he becomes.

Not to mention the apparent improvement of Russell Westbrook. People don't realize how good Westbrook was for Oklahoma City last season, especially the last half of the year. Against the Lakers, he showcased his versatility and skill. In Turkey, he blew people away with his defensive ability and athleticism. And just like Durant, Westbrook is only 21 and will be entering his third year. He's darn good now, but just wait until he starts to figure things out.

Now OKC has questions. Jeff Green has looked overmatched at power forward. Nenad Krstic may not be a legit starting center. They didn't deal with any significant injuries last season. And of course, they're still young. If you don't want to believe that they can really contend, the reasons are there.

Plus, the West is always tough. The Rockets will be better, New Orleans has Chris Paul back for a full season, the Blazers will be healthy, the Grizzlies and Kings are improving and the old dogs like San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix can still play. But keep in mind: Oklahoma City didn't win 50 last season in a Western Conference that was down. They won 50 in a year that all eight playoff teams hit at least that mark.

Common sense says the Thunder should be better this year. They improved the roster with an inside presence in Cole Aldrich, shooters in Morris Peterson and Daequan Cook and an extra defensive-minded guard in Royal Ivey. And then of course the natural progression of all the young guys. Don't overlook the potential improvement of a player like James Harden who as a role playing rookie put up quality numbers and percentages. With an extra year, he might be a potential Manu Ginobili type player that can make a huge impact off the bench. And I haven't even mentioned Serge Ibaka yet.

Winning 50 seems like it should be a given with some even tossing around 55 or 60 for OKC. And after that once they get into the playoffs, you never know. They got the hard part out of their system last season with their first playoff experience. This time, they should be ready.

Last season, everybody told the Thunder they couldn't. They were too young, too inexperienced, too raw. They weren't ready. And they used that as motivation to prove everyone wrong. This season, all the expectation is there. They've got talent. They've got their star. They've got a great coach. But most don't think they're actually prepared to play for a trophy. Those questions are there. What happens if someone gets hurt? Aren't they still a year or two away? Aren't they missing one more player?

Just keep telling the Thunder they can't. I think they like it.

Comments

Since: Dec 18, 2008
Posted on: September 18, 2010 3:13 pm
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

He is not a lock down defender like D-Wade, Kobe, or Lebron.  He cannot play physical enough to win a very physical 7 game series.  He is an awesome player, but he won't ever lead a team to a championship unless he has some serious help. 



Since: Aug 5, 2008
Posted on: September 17, 2010 6:31 pm
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

"What will happen when Westbrook and Green come looking for long term, big money contracts?"


Simple: They'll let Jeff Green walk (which they may do anyway) and use that money to pay Westbrook. Green is great, but you can get guys like him anytime.



Since: Sep 8, 2007
Posted on: September 17, 2010 11:17 am
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

The author does bring up a few crucial points here. The Thunder had no injuries last year, and they definitely were flying under the radar screen. That being said, this team is going to do nothing but get better and better. I hope James Harden has the same leap Russell Westbrook did last year from year 1 to year 2. That will be crucial. Also the same can be said for Serge Ibaka. He made tremendous strides last year from November to May. He hopefully will continue to improve.

Kevin Durant is an amazing human being and basketball player. He can definitely lead the team to a ring some day. As for the poster asking about the payroll OKC can offer, Bennett and Co have very deep pockets, plenty of cap space even with the Durant contract, and the know-how to know that they will need to sign Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal if he performs like he did last year this coming year.

Nick Collison, I believe, is in his last year of his deal. I don't see them resigning him, but as the jayhawk poster asked, he has been a nice mature influence on this young team even back to the Seattle days after Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis left. He is everything you want in a basketball player... hard worker, does the dirty work, and does it day in and day out with no fanfare. Almost like Kevin Durant but no scoring. Nick Collison will sacrifice his body to set a nice pick, get the tough rebound, and has a great basketball IQ. He doesn't seem to get enough credit for the influence he has on the team with all the young guns running around. 

The Thunder won't be flying under the radar this year, that's for sure. But, on the flipside, the Thunder will expect to win... even on the road. They had a nice road record last year. The Lakers and Thunder are hopefully going to turn into a nice little rivalry after what happened last year. I will never forget after Kobe and Co. eliminated the Thunder in Game 6 when Kobe and KD exchanged handshakes and hugs. Kobe left out a huge sign of relief and just extended his arms out to KD. Kobe knows he's going to have to deal with the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder again! They won Round 1, as this was the Thunder's first-ever playoff experience with the unfortunate turn of events that landed them in the #8 position againt the most battle-tested, grizzled team in the entire NBA, but every time Kobe has come to Oklahoma City he has remarked about how great the fans are and what a tough place it is to play. That was before the playoffs. Kobe is one of the greatest basketball players ever, and he is no dummy. He can see the tremendous upside in the Thunder. 

One thing is for sure, no one is going to out-work or out-hustle the Thunder. 



 



Since: Apr 1, 2009
Posted on: September 17, 2010 10:46 am
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

Kevin Durant will never win a ring as the cornerstone of a team.

Huh?  How have you come to that conclusion?



Since: Aug 14, 2006
Posted on: September 17, 2010 10:23 am
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

"Kevin Durant will never win a ring as the cornerstone of a team."

Now that is just crazy because he will be the corner of any team he is on. He is that caliber of player.

Now I don't think they can win until they get a shutdown defender for the Kobe and Wades in the NBA and another scorer because Westbrook is not untl he rounds out his game and not have to rely on that quick first step.



Since: Dec 18, 2008
Posted on: September 17, 2010 8:55 am
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

Kevin Durant will never win a ring as the cornerstone of a team.



Since: Apr 28, 2008
Posted on: September 17, 2010 8:06 am
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

I agree j-Hawk.  Collison is one of my favorite players on this team.  I've watched nearly every Thunder game since they arrived in OKC.  He's not flashy, but he works his butt off and brings it every game.



Since: Jan 19, 2009
Posted on: September 17, 2010 1:44 am
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

So much for flying under the radar for another season...



Since: Jun 1, 2009
Posted on: September 17, 2010 1:37 am
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

I am a Die hard Laker fan but I am a big basketball fan I honestly think the thunder can win the championship this year I am not sure they will cause I still think the Lakers beat them but if they beat the Lakers it wont be a big surprise cause they have two superstars on their team Mr Durant and Mr West brook and I love their style of play and I have a lot of respect for Kevin Durant he is a class act barring injuries this team is gonna be great for a long time Lakers have 2 good years left and I hope we can win one more championship.



Since: Dec 4, 2009
Posted on: September 16, 2010 10:47 pm
 

Pop Quiz: Are the Thunder legit contenders?

If the Rockets don't make the playoffs, or get knocked out OKC is my team. I followed Durant since college at UT and even got to see him play on campus. He is a stand up guy and I cannot wait for him to get a ring before Lebron.


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