Thunder Storming

Westbrooke & KD are both playing lights out!

Westbrook & KD are both playing lights out!

The Thunder’s season ended last year after game 5 of the NBA Finals. Anyone who watched that series immediately knew two things. First, Lebron James is the most dominant player in the NBA and the current king of basketball and secondly, the Thunder would be right back in the finals for years to come.  The tears and frustration that came with losing would fuel the Thunder to continue their growth. Every fan of any team in the Western Conference kissed their dreams of a Finals appearance good-bye (except stubborn Lakers fans with their newly assembled super-team). With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder just had too much potential. They had three all-stars under the age of 25, including the best scorer in the league. Then came the Harden trade and everyone who was not a Lakers or Heat fan collectively sighed, as it seemed obvious that one of those two teams would win the 2012 title.

In the age of the super teams, the idea of trading away an all-star seems like it belongs in one of those AT&T commercials involving spastic little kids asking if three is better than two. Three all-stars must be better than two! Who was going to take over for Westbrook when he went through his shooting funk? Who would come off the bench to keep the scoring going? How would the Thunder compete against the super teams of the league? The Thunder have answered all of these questions through their play this year and are looking like one of the most complete teams in the league. If you look at any power rankings on any site, odds are the Thunder are in the top spot and if not, find a new site.

The Thunder are off to a NBA-best 30-8 start while putting up a second-best 105.11 points per game. Most impressive about their team play is that they have a league-leading +9.16 point differential per game. Not only are they beating teams, they’re dominating them. So how is an offense that loses one of its main offensive threats doing this? It involves multiple reasons but it starts with Durant. While Kevin Durant is not leading the league in scoring at the moment with 28.9PPG, his shooting percentages are 52/40/90. A shooter can’t get more offensively efficient than being part of the 50/40/90 club. If Durant can keep this efficiency up, he will join Steve Nash, Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller and Dirk Nowitzki in this exclusive fraternity of sharpshooters.

While everyone knows that Durant can score, he’s spent a good deal of time improving other facets of his game this year. Durant is currently averaging career highs in assists (4.2) and blocks (1.7), while grabbing a solid 7.6 rebounds per game. It’s scary to think of the level Durant can reach. In the past year, Durant has played in the finals, improved his game immensely the following season, and even starred in the feature film Thunderstruck! He’s having an MVP campaign and the ceiling seems non-existent. However, Durant is not doing everything by himself.  Westbrook is putting up a stellar 2012 campaign as well. Against the Phoenix Suns on Monday, the duo combined for 77 points and Durant introduced Marcin Gortat to Perkins and Mozgov in the ‘Embarrassed/Posterized 7-Footers Club’.

Westbrook is having one of the best seasons of his career and has really stepped up in the absence of Harden. Not only has he stopped going into those funks where everyone yells “Westbrook! What are you doing?!”, but he is averaging career highs in multiple categories. Westbrook is logging career highs in minutes (36.1), 3- point attempts (4.1), 3-point percentage (35.7%), rebounds (5.3), assists (8.4) and steals (2.1). While we all know Westbrook can put up 30-plus points on any given night, with his improved ability to get surrounding teammates, he can contribute immensely even when his shot goes cold. Critics of Westbrook won’t be able to find a problem with his current game, but at least they’ll always have his wardrobe.

The entire Thunder team’s improvement cannot be denied. With the departure of Harden has come the emergence of Serge Ibaka. While Ibaka has long been recognized for his blocked shots, even been referred to as ‘Iblocka’, he has evolved into a top power forward. He’s shooting a career-high 56% from the field along with 79% from the line. Throw this in next to career-high 8.4 rebounds and 14.3 points per game and it’s evident that Air Congo has taken off. What is most impressive is that he’s done all this while being the fourth option behind Durant, Westbrook and Kevin Martin. By improving both defensively and offensively and transitioning into a versatile power forward, the Thunder still have three elite players under 25 despite losing Harden.

One of the biggest reasons we have not seen a fall off from the loss of Harden has been the smooth transition of Martin into the Thunder offense. It can even be argued that the loss of Harden and introduction of Martin improves the Thunder offense. Martin is averaging 14.9 points per game, but more importantly is the role he plays in the offense. Martin is a catch-and-shoot player, he doesn’t demand the ball like Harden. If Martin doesn’t have the shot, he dishes it back to either Westbrook or Durant. One of the most frustrating moments for Thunder fans is when Durant doesn’t have the ball in his hands when he clearly should. By removing a player with a style of play that demands the ball and introducing one who simply catches and shoots at a consistent rate with solid production, the ball goes to Durant more. And with Durant playing at the efficient level he is, you want the ball in Durant’s hands.

I think we can safely say that every member of the Thunder, from the coach to the players, are doing everything in their power to ensure they’re smiling instead of crying when the confetti falls in the NBA finals this year. They seem to have taken the slogan ‘Thunder Up!’ to heart, as entire team has upped both its production and expectations. The Thunder are young, fast, talented, and hungry and expect nothing less than an NBA championship. Astraphobia is the fear of thunder, and every NBA team should develop it. Only halfway through the season the Thunder look like a championship team, and expect to see them back in the Finals.

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Tye Masters
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You’re Doing It Wrong

The Phoenix Suns top players are nothing to brag about.

The Phoenix Suns top players are nothing to brag about.

 

In an era when NBA franchises have realized they need at least two or three superstars to compete for championships, the Phoenix Suns, for several reasons, have taken an unconventional approach, and are dearly paying the price.

 

The Suns sit second-to-last in the Western Conference (only ahead of New Orleans) and hold the fifth-worst record in the entire NBA at 12-25 after losing a close game to the Boston Celtics Wednesday night. Last season the team pushed to make the playoffs in what fans knew would likely (and later proved to be) Steve Nash’s final year with the franchise, but the team came up short. This was the beginning of a string of bad decisions coupled with poor luck. Due to their average record, they did not get a high pick in the lottery and settled for North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, who proved to be a project and has only seen minutes during garbage time this season. The team then attempted to sign Eric Gordon away from New Orleans over the summer, but the Hornets matched the Suns max contract offer and retained their star.

 

It was at this point the team decided to dump fan-favorite Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers, and proceed without a superstar for the 2012-2013 season. They claimed Luis Scola after he was amnestied from Houston, and signed Goran Dragic to run the point with the departure of Nash. Although Dragic and Scola have proven themselves to be solid NBA players, they are nowhere close to the level of the Nash-Amare’ Stoudamire tandem the team relied on for much of the 2000s.

 

Simply put, this is the problem for the Suns: they have several good players that would be valuable second or third options on many teams. However, they lack a proven superstar to turn to late in games that will pull them through in the clutch. Looking at the main players other than Dragic and Scola, an average NBA fan will recognize the names: Sebastian Telfair, Marcin Gortat, Jermaine O’Neal, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Shannon Brown and Markieff Morris.

 

The franchise tried to sell fans on the concept of balance and teamwork, and they have held to that philosophy with five players averaging in double figure scoring, but none of those five are even averaging 15 points per game. The team has played many close games against top-level opponents, but lacks that killer-instinct player teams like the Heat, Thunder and Clippers possess. The team’s listed attendance on a given night will range around 14,000, but anyone watching the game sees the empty seats. Even people who have already paid for seats don’t want to come watch a team without a face. Ownership went to the extent of a bizarre “have fun at the game or get your money back” promotion to try to get fans to come watch the team. To their credit, they do play hard every night, they rarely get blown out even on the road, and at times play an up-tempo style that is fun to watch, they simply aren’t good enough to win, the only thing that truly matters to fans.

 

After constructing a championship-level team in the 2004-2005 season that many around the league saw as favorites to win it all before Joe Johnson broke his face against the Mavericks in the Conference Semifinals, Suns management has made awful personnel decisions at every turn. That team’s key pieces were Nash, Stoudemire, Johnson, and Shawn Marion, playing in a Mike D’Antoni system perfectly suited for their talents, locals knew them as “The Run-N-Gun Suns.” Following that season, Johnson was traded after owner Robert Sarver refused to pay him top-level money. Marion was traded a couple years later, and Stoudemire was let go during free agency due to long-term health concerns. The reasons for letting go of Stoudemire were completely valid, but what the team tried to do to replace him was idiotic at best, signing Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye to long-term big money deals (Frye is the only one still with the team, sitting out this season due to injury). The team has gone from four all-stars to none in a span of eight years. For anyone who thinks the future is promised to successful teams with young talent, think again. Win when you can, the future isn’t guaranteed.

 

For fans, there isn’t even a player on this team who excites you. New Orleans may be the worst team in the West, but fans there can look at Gordon, Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers and see hope for the future. Markieff Morris is a good option off the bench for the Suns, but not a player who shows any signs of becoming a superstar down the road. One would imagine opponents don’t know how to defend the Suns coming into a game not because they are so stacked it’s scary, but because no one on the roster demands a double-team. An optimist will say, “Anyone could go off on their team and lead if they get hot on a given night.” A realist will say, “No one on that team is good enough to lead them, even if they do get hot.”

 

Suns fans can look at the team and say at least they are tanking it badly enough to get a good spot in the lottery. Other teams can also look at them as a viable trading partner for solid pieces to add down the stretch of the season without having to make a substantial financial move, with Dragic as the team’s highest-paid player at $7.5 million this season. Few of the Suns players are signed past this year, so there will be flexibility in the off-season as the team tries to rebuild. They also have the benefit of an additional first-round pick acquired from the Lakers in the Nash trade, a pick that would be in the lottery if the season ended today.

 

For now, there is nothing exciting about the Suns. Parents raising their kids will emphasize the value of teamwork over individual talent, but even the best of parents realize the teams with the best players will win as long as those players can co-exist (take a look at the aforementioned Lakers for an example of talent that can’t co-exist). The Suns players work very well together, they just aren’t very good individuals. Teams need superstars. Superstars put butts in seats, get cities excited and proud to be supporting their home-town team, but most importantly, they win games. When you put multiple superstars together, you win championships. The Suns have no superstars, no chance of winning a championship, and practically no hope.

 

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David Oleson
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