I got the chance to chat with J.A. Sherman of Welcome to Loud City this afternoon. You can read his responses to a few questions I asked below or head over there to see my answers to his questions about the Blazers and tonight's matchup.
Dave: The Thunder are ahead of everyone in the West right now. Do you feel they've reached true "elite" status and are ready to etch their name on an NBA title? If not, what else do they need to prove besides the obvious playoff performance? What do they need to shore up to make you comfortable?
J.A.S.: For me personally, I tend to only throw around the word 'elite' in extremely rare occasions, like when a championship is practically a foregone conclusion. I'd probably only ascribe that moniker to teams such as the 1996 Bulls and the 2001 Lakers. For the Thunder this season, they are probably deservedly in the discussion (along with the Bulls and Heat) about which team is going to have the best regular season and vie for the championship. However, as we saw last year with the Spurs, things can crash in a hurry if a team's flaws are met head-on by a team that can capitalize on them (Grizzlies).
I believe that the first step towards team dominance is by a commitment to playing great defense all the time. When a team plays great defense, it enhances everything else because it leads to defensive rebounding, fast break opportunities, easy scores, and an advantage at the free throw line. The Thunder have proven that they are capable of playing great defense (see: 4th quarter against Grizzlies on 2/3) but too often do not maintain that focus early on. Against both the Clippers and Spurs this past week, OKC was far too soft playing perimeter defense, which led those two teams to get wide open 3-point shots. Once the teams' respective 3-point shooters found their rhythm, everything else became catch-up and led to embarrassing moments like Blake Griffin's dunk over Kendrick Perkins. If the team can commit to better defensive fundamentals early on in games, I think they would find that everything else becomes much easier.
Offensively, OKC is always going to have a non-traditional approach to offense since their scoring revolves around two elite offensive players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both are still young players and are learning to play to each others' strengths, rather than overlap each other and cancel out their individual talents. Such a balance is not easy, as we've also seen in Miami. Unfortunately, I don't see any cure to the situation other than just time spent together. I think both are willing to do what it takes, but they as of yet don't quite know how. We are hoping that by the end of this season, the duo's individual offenses will become complimentary rather than either-or.
Dave: I'm going to say two names to you. Give your assessment of their season so far and how you feel about them. Still in love? Why or why not? Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.
Kendrick Perkins is playing in his first full season with the Thunder after joining the team in a blockbuster trade last season. When he arrived, the words that were tossed around were 'toughness,' 'accountability,' and 'defense.' From the moment Perkins stepped on the court, even in his semi-healthy state, he has brought these elements to the Thunder organization. The play of the Thunder as a whole transformed almost overnight, and Perkins was a big reason why the Thunder went a step beyond where many had predicted them, which was the Western Conference Finals.
Coming into this season, Perkins has again brought those qualities to the team. However, since we have become such a stats-driven sports culture, it is still so tempting to look at Perkins' numbers and come to the conclusion that he isn't playing well. He still only averages about five points and six rebounds per game. I admit it is hard not to want more, since we know that he had better statistics last season and averaged a 10 and 8 during his championship season with the Celtics. The production potential is there. That said, Perkins is still more of a 'defensive tackle' than a 'defensive end.' To consider his full impact, you need to look at the players around him. In this regard, Perkins' performance has been solid. For example, Durant is averaging almost a full rebound more than last season and has recorded five consecutive double-doubles.
Ibaka is a key element of the Thunder's consistency by my eye. He had high expectations coming into this season after earning the starting job last year. During the playoffs, he had some tremendous performances and seemed on the cusp of taking a huge leap. He certainly has the physical skills to do it.
Knowing that the talent and potential is there, it has been frustrating watching Ibaka this season because he has not shown that he's quite mentally ready to take the leap. He started off very slowly both offensively and defensively, often looking lost and disinterested. He struggled to secure rebounds, and even his high percentage mid-range jumper was off. Everything about his game appeared a bit askew and the Thunder were showing signs of missing his production.
The one thing even we the Thunder fans forget though is that Ibaka is 22 years old, still struggles with the English language, and is very far away from his native Republic of Congo and his early playing days in Spain. He, more than most players, needs a great deal of nurturing and mentoring in the Thunder organization so that he continues to grow both professionally and personally. Fortunately, he is on a team that is known for just that. He requires patience, but that patience is rewarded when he erupts for a 20 point game against the Warriors or a 10 block game against Dallas.
Dave: I don't believe in the Clippers one bit. How about you?
J.A.S.: I am perhaps a bit more optimistic than you. I think that the Clippers are a very good team right now and have room for a great deal of growth as time goes on. They can play competitively with any team in the league and with Chris Paul at the helm, are capable of producing great offense when the stakes are high. I have enjoyed watching them quite a bit this season and I look forward to what they can accomplish as the season goes on. The way they got ahead against the Thunder last week was by being patient in their offensive sets and finding their open shooters for 3-pointers. If they can continue shooting well from the outside, they are a formidable match-up for any team.
What I would worry the most about them is that, when it comes down to it, their best offensive player is also their chief playmaker, Chris Paul. I can't say that I would trust anybody else in taking big shots in the 4th quarter of playoff games. Perhaps it is enough to just have Paul assume that job. However, if you consider the other players, the Clips cannot rely on Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan for offense late in games because they shoot so poorly from the free throw line. Chauncey Billups is always ready and willing, but at age 35, he is more or less a spot-up shooter now. Caron Butler could be a play-making guy, but he's never really been in a pressure situation either (he was hurt during the Mavericks' championship run last season).
There are a lot of pieces on the Clippers that I like, but I worry that some of them will come up small when the stakes are highest. I think they're still a year away from making a big push to the finals.
Thanks to J.A. Sherman and Welcome to Loud City for taking the time.