Oklahoma City Thunder preview: Passing the torch

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Two years after the Mavs defeated the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, the two franchises have headed in opposite directions.

Eddie Maisonet, III covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for SB Nation Kansas City and is the managing editor of The Sports Fan Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @edthesportsfan.

The Thunder don't seem to have missed a beat after dealing James Harden. How has that happened or is this an issue that won't rear its head until the playoffs?

The evolution that's taken place in this team in the wake of James Harden leaving has been a coach's dream. The things that Harden specifically brought to the table (three-point shooting, ball-handling, distribution, getting to the line) have been picked up by the other members of the team. Russell Westbrook's been playing as a ... wait for it ... point guard. Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka have been shooting it well, and Kevin Durant's been doing everything else.

Will things be different in the playoffs? Who knows. James Harden is a star, and when you lose a star you miss him. However, this team might be better served with more versatility in its ranks.

Kevin Durant's statistics (FG%, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) have improved across the board this season. Is that just his natural progression as a player or did he change his mindset coming into the season?

One of the biggest things I've noticed is that he's playing much closer to the rim this season. I figure that comes from his time on the Olympic team playing power forward in London and Scott Brooks integrating what he likes into the team sets. Also I think it goes back to your first question on the after-effects of Harden taking his talents to Houston. Durant's just doing more. He's making his case for MVP a tough one to dispute.

Where would you rank Russell Westbrook among the league's PG's? What can someone like Darren Collison, one of the smaller PG's in the NBA, do to slow him down?

If basketball purists and casual basketball fans don't want to get their proverbial panties in a bunch, then I'd say that Westbrook's been the best "PG" in the league thus far. Sure, things didn't go well in game one of the season where he went entirely in the wrong direction versus the Spurs, but you know what ... shit happens. Folks have wanted Westbrook to be less selfish and distribute the ball more, and he's done exactly that. His assist rate is higher than its ever been in his entire career and the team is scoring at an all-time high.

Personally, I think what Scott Brooks is asking Westbrook to do is a heavy burden, and its something that Russ is finding a way to perform quite well on a nightly basis. Be our leading distributor and a lead scorer, on this team? Its a hell of an effort by Russ. As far as Darren Collison's concerned ... well, he's gotta pray. That, and just back up off of Westbrook and hope that the pull-up free-throw elbow jumper isn't falling.

Kevin Martin seems to have a second wind in Oklahoma City. Do you think he'll leave in the off-season or is at the point in his career where he would be willing to take less money to stay on a contender?

As of right now, I say that he stays as for another year or two at least. The man is 29, in the prime of his career, and his previously most talented teammates are Ron Artest and Brad Miller. I think he'll probably want to stay in OKC if the Thunder will have him. The bigger question is what Sam Presti's long-term goals are. Technically, he could package Martin and all those draft picks for another star player. Or, he could let Martin walk altogether and get some room back on the payroll. If there's a homerun to be hit by Presti, I think he'll go for it. Otherwise, I see Martin staying for a few more years at around $10 million/year.

Who do you think is the biggest threat to the Thunder's chances of making it back to the NBA Finals?

Clippers and Grizzlies. Both have the size and the ability to shoot proficiently from the three-point line to bother Oklahoma City. I'll say the Spurs too, just out of sheer respect.

Perry Jones III has been on the radar of Dallas basketball fans since his days at Duncanville and then Baylor. Do you think he'll be able to carve out a spot in the rotation next season as a second-year player?

I believe eventually PJ3 will step into a role that was previously held by a former Thunder player in Jeff Green. A flexible forward who could play the 3 and the 4 (maybe the 5?) and create real match-up problems for everybody. Can you imagine a lineup with KD, Ibaka and PJ3? Yikes. I don't know if he'll get a ton of minutes in that role now, because KD and Ibaka aren't coming off the floor anytime soon, but with more teams rolling out small lineups I could see PJ3 subbing for Kendrick Perkins and creating a different lineup dynamic.

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