Tonight your Phoenix Sunslook to extend their 3-game winning streak to 4 at home versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Duranthas gone for 40 in 3 of his last 4 games and even tossed in 18 rebounds Vs. the Kevin Love-led T-Wolves. Quick aside: What do Love and Steve Nash have in common? Yup, not All-Stars. Come on David Stern, make the right decision here. Wuddya bet he sticks it to the Suns again?
The Thunder hit the frigid desert winners of 6 of their last 10 and most recently a victory over the New Orleans Hornets. The Thunder have been playing some solid ball and find themselves atop their division. As a BSOTS exclusive, I asked the infamous Dogburt from Welcome to Loud CIty to answer some questions regarding the Thunder:
WC: Are the Thunder going to be active as the trade deadline approaches, or are they pretty happy with the squad they currently have?
DBT: If I could answer the second part first, I'd have to say no, they're not happy with the squad that they currently have, but unfortunately, I think they realize that they're going to have to make it work this year, even if it means they come up a bit short.
The challenge the Thunder face when considering trades is more philosophical than practical, I think. The organization has made a commitment to pursue players that are of good moral character, similar to the way that the Portland Trailblazers decided to remake their image. With that in place, they're looking for long term pieces to their mosaic. They're definitely not going to chase a high priced power forward to simply rent him for a year, because it would blow up their carefully scripted salary cap.
Aside from that, I'm not sure how many traditional centers or power forwards are available right now that can be had. The Thunder's youth core is Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka; I would tend to believe everyone else on the squad is in play. The problem still remains though; if you offer guys like Harden, Collison, Sefolosha, Green, and Maynor, who are you going to get back that has a bright long-term future? I don't see a lot of guys on the NBA landscape at this time that can answer to that need.
WC: How do you see Harden and Sefolosha working out in the long run. Is Thabo the long-term starter with Harden backing him up? Or do you see Harden winning out, and how soon?
DBT: I really don't see Sefolosha as a long-term solution for the shooting guard position. At this level of competition, you need all five starters to possess at least a minimum level of competency when it comes to offense. However, if you look at Sefolosha's game log, you can see that in the month of January, he did not have a single game where he attempted more than five shots. Heck, his shooting line for the entire month was 16-32, which could easily be a single game stat line for someone like Kobe or Carmelo Anthony. In other words, he's not even a threat to score.
Now, of course, his defenders would say that isn't why he's on the team; he's on the team for defense. Unfortunately, his perimeter defense hasn't been great either. He can use his length and strength to defend guys who are more apt to post up than drive, but against most starting back courts his foot speed simply isn't good enough. On this team, he is much more useful as a defensive stopper who comes in for key situations. His ceiling is to become a player like Raja Bell or Bruce Bowen, but offensively, he isn't there yet.
For THIS year, I think Harden is best suited coming off the bench. Too often he has been put in a position playing along side Kevin Durant where the only thing available to him is the spot-up three. This shot is easily the weakest part of his game. Harden is the kind of guy, sort of like Grant Hill is now, who just needs the ball to flow through him on offense. He doesn't take bad shots, he can drive to the rim, he is a decent passer, is long enough to grab rebounds, and is a better than average defender.
However, if he's just a drifting jump shooter, he's going to lose himself amidst the speed of the game which, for the first team, is going to be dictated by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. On the second team though, the offense flows at a much less frenetic pace and he seems much more comfortable there. As a result, the Thunder's bench is one of their sneaky strong assets.
WC: Why do you think Cole Aldrich has not played this season? He seems like someone the team needs.
DBT: Aldrich is absolutely a guy the team needs this year, because they have a gaping hole in the center position. Serge Ibaka has been surprising, Nick Collison always plays well, and Jeff Greenhas tried to hold things together while playing out of position. However, their center Nedad Krstic simply is not physically equipped to deal with the likes of guys like Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan, and Zach Randolph.
So the need is there, and yet it has been frustrating because the reports I keep seeing out of the local reporters is that Aldrich really hasn't tried to assert himself.
I don't think it's a sense of self-entitlement or anything like that, but he hasn't been willing to make the commitment to work hard in practices. So the team has been shuttling him back and forth between the Thunder and their D-League team, the Tulsa 66ers. He was the 11th pick in the draft (drafted by the Hornets, traded to the Thunder on draft day); not a lottery pick, but also not a throw-away pick either. Naysayers tend to gripe about James Harden not having lived up to the #3 pick, but I think Aldrich has been the real miscue. The opportunity and need is definitely there; for whatever reason, he hasn't tried to seize it in the way that guys like Trevor Booker or Patrick Patterson have in their rookie campaigns.
WC: Do you think Russell Westbrook needs to be more of a distributor than scorer? Obviously 22 points per game is nice, but do you think he could or should be getting his teammates more involved?
DBT: Westbrook for better or worse is a combo guard who is probably going to struggle throughout his career to find the right balance between his offense and the offense of his teammates. It is hard to fault him though because he is so freakishly athletic and can do things most point guards cannot. It is almost like, from a pure point guard perspective, he is a victim of his own talents. He is not in the same mold as a guy like Chris Paul and Deron Williams, or even Rajon Rondo.
Paul and Williams are an extremely rare breed of point men that fully understand how to run a team. Rondo plays set-up man because he has to, by force of fact of who he is playing with and since his offensive game is still rudimentary. Westbrook though doesn't have that problem, and so he's going to spend a career trying to figure out how to dial back his need to attack the rim. Right now, he plays the game like Dwyane Wade; he needs to learn to play it like Andre Miller.
There is hope though. I think the guy he is most similar to is Derrick Rose. Rose is better defensively and Westbrook is a better rebounder, but from a pure scoring standpoint I think they're at similar places in their respective careers. And this year we've seen Rose begin to figure out how to be a true point guard and not an offensive vortex. It is, however, a long-term learning process.
WC: How far away do you think the Thunder are from being part of the Western Conference Elite? That is, do you think your squad is close to challenging San Antonio and LA for WC supremacy? What is it going to take to make a deep run in the postseason?
DBT: If you put a t-shirt canon to my head, I'd tell you that the Thunder's ceiling this year is most likely the second round of the playoffs. If the Thunder stay at their current pace, they'll likely wind up at the 4th spot playing against a team like the Hornets, which is a very winnable series (Thunder won regular season series 3-1). After that though, the Thunder are looking at facing either the Spurs, Mavericks, or Lakers.
Regardless of whether they have home court against any of those teams, they are still not mature enough yet to be able to deal with any of them in a seven game series. They might compete well and take a game or two, but the Thunder haven't yet learned the resolve to play with the intensity and focus it takes to beat one of those teams four times. It will, however, give the Thunder a necessary set of lessons on how to become that kind of team next year.
The time of the Thunder will come when one of those three teams (Lakers, Spurs, Mavs) slips. Unless the Lakers pull off another ridiculous Pau Gasol-like trade/steal, I think the Lakers will be the first to slip.
WC: How guilty do Thunder fans feel about young Russell Westbrook stealing Steve Nash's All-Star spot?
DBT: My official Loud City answer to this question is, not at all of course. ;-)
My NBA fan answer is, I really care more about the enjoyment of the game vs whether a player got snubbed or not. Occasionally you will get a decent guy who is just having a phenomenal year (guys like Caron Butler or Al Horford), and it is good to see him rewarded with the selection. With a guy like Westbrook though, it's obvious that, barring serious injury, he's going to have multiple chances to play in the game. So it takes me back to the question of, "which players will make this game worth watching?"
Under that lens, it's easy to conclude that the presence of Steve Nash on the court would make the game improve by leaps and bounds. You'd have Nash and Chris Paul trading off, not caring a lick about their own offense, and working hard to set up guys like Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, and Kobe. Hopefully Nash will still get the nod when Yao's replacement is named.
Check out this for my insight on the Suns.
Game Day Thoughts:
Don't get me wrong on this but, this one is an excellent test for the Suns. Okafor was destroying the Suns before he exited with some phantom hip injury. The Celticswere playing shorthanded. Both squads were playing second nights of back to backs. Now, the wins still count and the Suns played well, so I'll take them. But tonight the Suns are taking on a squad running on all cylinders (Sefolosha is questionable).
Stopping Durant is a near impossibility. Slowing him is possible, but book him for 35-40. The real problem the Suns face is keeping Russell Westbrook from getting to the rim and distributing to teammates. As is always the case, it's OK to let one guy beat you, but the Suns have to rotate and get a hand in the grill of Jeff Greene-keep Ibaka/Krstic/Collison off the boards. The Suns need Gortat and Lopez to bring it, they need VC to put the cookie down and pick up the ball, or whatever it is that can potentially motivate him.
Think Steve Nash is pissed about missing the All-Star game? Probably not. With all the travel-sitting and whatnot he usually returned with an aggravation of his back condition. So perhaps he isn't so upset about about the logistics. But the competetor in him mustbe pissed. And to be facing a kid who took his spot so soon after the snub? I look for Nash to have a more than typically huge game.
Game Day Links:
"Transition defense is the key. Pick and roll defense, I think we have to do a great job. Gortat is playing unbelievable basketball. Playing like one of the best centers in the league right now. Since he's been here his game has kind of blossomed," the budding super-star said.
Durant also had praise for a childhood hero, "Grant Hill is playing unbelievable for his age. He's playing great. He's playing like a 22-year-old."
"I kind of looked up to him as a player. It's cool to see how well he's playing at such an old age. Sorry to put that in there."
Thunder vs Suns coverage