I recently read this very good piece by Royce Young on how the Thunder are suddenly flying under the radar and are, improbably, underrated. I have to say I agree. With the Clippers, Rockets and Warriors making big splashes this off-season, some people seem to have forgotten how good OKC was last season when healthy. You should read the whole thing. It's not long and it's good. That being said, I have a little problem with this part.
I think that's one of the more overlooked things about this Thunder team. Kevin Durant will turn 25 soon. Russell Westbrook is 24. Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson are 23. The reason the Thunder have gone from 20 wins to 23 wins to 50 to eventually 60 last season hasn't been because of offseason moves or by signing players. It's been because their young players have gotten better. And guess what: Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, Jackson and all those young guys are going to be better next season.
That's not an irrational thing to say. Young guys tend to get better. But make no mistake here: there is no certainty any of those guys will actually get better. Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka made huge strides in past years and it's hard seeing them make yet another huge leap. They can get better, but not likely a lot better. They are simply too good already to expect them to improve significantly. And the other young guys could either be stars in the making or out of the league in a couple of years. Martin is out and that tertiary scoring role hasn't been filled. If the Thunder are relying on potential to be considered elite, then they simply shouldn't be. At least not until we see how that plays out in real life.
It's not uncommon to fall into this type of thinking. People fall in love with potential, and speculation on what could be devolves into disregard for what's likely to be. In other words, it's more likely that next year's good teams will be those that don't need any players to get markedly better from one year to the next. If a team needs Reggie Jackson or Jeremy Lamb to make up for what James Harden or even Kevin Martin produced, then its future is far from certain and it's fair game to wonder just how good they will be. I don't think that's OKC but I'll get back to that. Let's use the Rockets as an example instead.
With the addition of Howard, they have championship potential. Lin/Harden + Howard pick and rolls will open room for shooters and both Harden and Howard are elite at creating and converting their own shot. Parsons and Howard can defend and they still have a fantastic trade chip in Omer Asik. Imagine if the Turkish center gets them a starting caliber power forward like Jason Thompson or Ersan Ilyasova and maybe one other piece. That's a great team, on paper.
But they need to get Howard to buy into their pick and roll, pace-and-space offense instead of trying to force his way into post touches in the half court. Can Lin space the floor or will help come immediately when Howard posts up? Is Chandler Parsons going to get better or has he reached his peak? How will Harden react if too many of his touches go to Howard? Is the bench going to step up and benefit from Howard's presence or will it stunt the development of their other bigs? Those are all legitimate questions. It's easy to see how the Rockets could win it all if everything goes well, but it's also easy to see how things could unravel.
You could bring up the Warriors or Clippers at this point. How about the state of Golden State's bench? Can Bogut make up for David Lee and Marreese Speights' notorious defensive deficiencies? Is Klay Thompson going to learn how to get to the line? As for the Clippers, none of their bigs is even an above average defender, never mind elite. They came up well short the last two seasons and unless you think J.J. Redick was the missing piece, they will need to count on huge internal development to really be a legitimate threat.
Maybe both teams go small a lot and it works great. Klay Thompson figures out how to finish at the rim and his offensive development truly frees Iguodala to cover for his teammates on defense. If that happens and Bogut stays healthy, the Warriors become a top five defensive team. The Clippers could rain threes on everyone while Griffin dominates inside. Deandre Jordan reaches his poor man's Tyson Chandler potential and Barnes and Dudley lock down the perimeter. It could all happen but it's hard to see any of those teams catapulting past the teams that dominated the West last season without a whole lot going right.
That doesn't mean potential is meaningless. Even the staunchest of the front office's supporters would admit that the Spurs didn't raise their ceiling as a team so far this off-season. You could make the case that if OKC, the Clippers, the Rockets and Warriors achieve their full potential there's nothing the Spurs can do. They just have too much talent, youth and athleticism. If any of those teams has it all working to perfection the Spurs' best would likely not be good enough. But hardly ever teams reach the highest highs, especially after big changes, and it seems that to truly surpass San Antonio, those teams need to.
Sure, OKC mostly stood pat, hoping for development from their young players, who can definitely get better. You can't beat Westbrook-Durant as a one-two punch and Ibaka and Sefolosha are great defenders. But maybe the Harden-sized hole left at guard is too big for anyone on this roster to fill, in which case that über-talented core is simply not enough. The Grizzlies don't have Lionel Hollins roaming the sidelines and who knows how that will impact some of the more volatile locker room guys. Meanwhile, the Spurs didn't make huge changes and will likely maintain their level. And that reasonable (not ideal, but reasonable) level is high enough that it would take a serious skid for them to eliminate themselves.
Now let's get back to the Thunder; they're definitely the team that is most likely to challenge the Spurs and Grizzlies for the West's supremacy. Not because Reggie Jackson will necessarily take a step forward, mind you, but because, like Young puts it, "As long as No. 0 and No. 35 are playing, the Thunder have a very good chance." This is a great point: the Grizzlies, Spurs and Thunder don't need a lot of things to suddenly go perfectly well in order to be great; they are already great. While other teams need things to change dramatically to have a shot, these teams only need for things to not go badly. No injuries, no chemistry issues and no unexpected or precipitous declines. So it's hard to see anyone other than the Thunder, Grizzlies or Spurs coming out of the West, at least at this point. And that (not the potential development of players that might not really be as good as some think) is what separates them from the pack.
So while I'll readily acknowledge that there are teams out West with more potential than the Spurs, I'll wait to see how things work out before agreeing that they have a better chance to make the Finals than the guys in Silver and Black. Sure, the Thunder (and the Grizzlies, for that matter) have been underrated so far, due to a lack of interesting off-season moves. But no team seems to be as underrated as the Spurs have been.
While everyone else in the West seems to be relying on some great leap forward, the Spurs only need for nothing catastrophic to derail their season. As boring as that sounds, I wouldn't trade it for all the potential in the world.
More from Pounding The Rock:
- NBA offseason Power Poll, Part 3: From 4 to 1 - including an epic rant on the Heat
- Wrapping up the Spurs' Summer League action
- NBA offseason Power Poll, Part 3: From 7 to 5
- J.R. Wilco talks Summer League and free agents on the Phil Naessens Show
- Waiting for Greg Oden's decision means the Spurs' 15th roster spot is dangling