To preview the Mavericks game against the Thunder on Monday night, we've brought in J.A. Sherman who does a great job exhaustively covering Oklahoma City over at Welcome To Loud City.
Head over to his site for my answers to five questions about Dallas.
1) What are the expectation in OKC this year? Is it championship or bust?
I think you can bifurcate this answer between 'hopes' and 'expectations.' The hope is certainly a championship parade, just like it is with a host of other teams in the Western Conference. However, unlike a team such as the Rockets for example, the Thunder actually have the talent to do it. Because of this abundance of talent from their two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on down the roster, OKC fans see a team that is capable of beating any team in the West, and confidence abounds.
However, as I know Dallas fans are fully aware, abundance of talent and even the best record in the NBA guarantees you nothing. So while hope floats the possibility of a championship ring this year, I have to temper the enthusiasm with the knowledge of the history of the NBA, and history says that it is darn near impossible for a young team to have a meteoric rise on the back of amazing talent and beat everybody else. Thunder fans must heed well the lessons learned from the Orlando Magic teams of 1994 and 1995, when Shaq, Penny Hardaway, and some other extremely talented players seemed prime for a decade of dominance only to watch it wash away faster than anyone imagined. Based on this knowledge, I think that while expectations of the Thunder reaching the Finals are reasonable and justifiable, there is still a handful of lessons that they have yet to learn about what it takes to cross that finish line, as Dallas did last June.
2) How much better do you think Kevin Durant can be and can you see him passing LeBron James in the next five years?
The greatest fear any NBA fan should have when a talent such as Durant enters the league is that they become content with their talent. We've seen it in the past with such players as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, & Glenn Robinson. We remember a lot of these guys for how easy the game came to them in their youth, but also how they never reached expectations. The reason why always seemed to be that they never really wanted to work, to get better at their craft and be able to control a game in all respects.
Fortunately for the Thunder, it appears that Durant is committed to hard work and improvement and wants to master all of those nuances of the game. From a team culture standpoint, Durant may have already exceeded LeBron. KD's dedication to his craft has established a team culture that every player who comes in also must fit into that mold. From a performance standpoint, Durant is already the superior scorer, but trails LeBron in all of the secondary categories, like rebounding, assists, and defense. Durant has improved in each of these areas, but to catch LeBron in all of them may be too tall an order. In the end though it may not even matter, because like I suggested in the paragraph above, the attainment of better stats isn't always the solution, but rather the fact that the player wants to, that makes all the difference.
A video of Durant and LeBron working out together in the off-season:
3) How much do you buy into the talk about Durant and Westbrook not fitting well together? Bill Simmons has taken to calling them "Avon and Stringer".
I think a big part of this whole faux-controversy involving Durant and Westbrook is borne from the reality that we, from the media on down, typically play association games in order to understand things better. From whatever part of life we come from, we see things in relation to other things we've seen before, and there is the mischievous urge within ourselves to cheat and jump to the ending without first investing in the story. Therefore, it is quite understandable that we would witness a pairing of Westbrook & Durant and immediately try to look at it through the lens of a Shaq & Kobe or a Garnett & Marbury and then, because we know how those story ends, it must give us some indication about how this story ends. However, Durant-Westbrook does not have to end that way, and we don't have to resign ourselves to a Garnett-Marbury failure today when we don't even know what will happen tonight.
Even with this knowledge, we still look for clues; we can't help ourselves. Though it is difficult to fight the urge, fight it we must. We must do it because do we really want to read the last page of the mystery novel first, or have somebody tell us that Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze at the beginning of the movie?
4) Will the Thunder be able to keep both James Harden and Serge Ibaka long-term? And, if not, who would you rather have?
Probably not, even though it is fun, challenging, and frustrating to think of all the ways OKC might be able to. The reason why it may be all but impossible is 1) David Stern has explicitly said the league's new CBA is built not to allow it and 2) Harden vs Ibaka is a classic dilemma of what a championship-contending team should value more - is it the glue guy in Harden who makes everyone around him better and steps up under pressure (a la Manu Ginobili), or is it in Ibaka a guy who has so much raw talent that we can't even see what his ceiling is, but a stat line of 18 and 12 with 4 blocks a game seems entirely realistic?
I think when it comes down to it the Thunder will probably value Harden more because he is more important to making the Durant-Westbrook two-headed dragon work. Ibaka is a wonderful player, but he is also precisely the type that some team is going to break the bank to try to steal away from OKC, and I don't know if the Thunder will be able to afford to match it.
5) Who do OKC fans consider their biggest rival?
The Thunder are fortunate to have two natural geographic rivals in both San Antonio and Dallas. If you actually look at the three cities on a map, they all lie on the same highway I-35. More importantly, in the Mavs and Spurs, you have two teams that have something the Thunder want - a championship - and they both won their rings by virtue of good team management, veteran leadership, and dogged determination in fighting through the playoffs.
The Spurs and Thunder share interesting ties, since San Antonio is where OKC GM Sam Presti first got his start, and you can see clear parallels in how the two small market franchises run. The Mavs, as mentioned above, are the Thunder's 'big brother' and despite losing some key players still have a mental advantage over OKC.
Furthermore, both Dallas & SA are interesting models because like OKC, they drafted an all-time elite player (Duncan, Dirk) and then have had to deal with the challenge of how to find the right pieces to put around them to capitalize on their respective prodigious talents. Elite players always win championships; the only question is how long will it take, and how many opportunities will get used up short of the goal before the right mix is found. Historically we know from Dallas that sometimes it can take a decade. However, there is always the promise of Duncan, who won a championship in his second and 5th years in the league. Regardless, the opportunities are limited and the sun always sets before people are ready.
Are the Thunder ready? I'm not sure; big brother's floppy blond hair and one-legged fade-away still reside down I-35.