No less than an hour after LeBron James announced his “decision” on ESPN, the Miami Heat were being proclaimed the 2010-2011 NBA Champions. With James’ commitment, the Heat featured a trio of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the star power of those three immediately made them the favorites according to Vegas.
Obviously, those three are fabulous talents. LeBron and Wade are top three players in the NBA and Bosh is one of the top 15 players in the league. On top of that, all three guys seem to be pretty good friends thanks to the time they spend together during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
However, there are a lot of things being overlooked with the situation in Miami. Being buddies off the court is one thing, but when you get onto the court with only one basketball, that friendship is not going to shine through like many think it will, especially when you consider that all three guys have been ball dominant players in their careers and have never played with somebody they had to defer to for any stretch in a game. Now, you’ve got the top two guys in usage percentage from last season on the same team (Wade and LeBron) with the 11th most used player to boot.
A frequently used counter to that statement is that both Wade and James are willing passers and will have no problem deferring to one another on a nightly basis. Its a nice theory but one that will never truly make sense until it actually happens on the court. Saying those guys are not unwilling to give up the ball to a wide open shooter on five or six possessions a game is completely different than saying either guy will be alright with giving the other the ball for the majority of the game. Maybe they’ll work that out over the course of the season but there is no evidence to support the theory that they Wade and LeBron are OK with the other taking over the game until we actually see one of them standing in the corner while the other racks up all the points.
Adapting to their new roles will be a lot more difficult for LeBron, Wade and Bosh than Miami Heat “fans” are willing to believe. Yes, these three guys are some of the best players in the entire league, but to say that they are the favorites or even the best three man combo in the NBA without every seeing them play even a minute on the court together is somewhat ludicrous. Its fine to think that this team will compete for a title within the next few years but this is a group that has absolutely no experience and no chemistry on the floor, no matter how good of friends they might be.
Meanwhile, there is a trio somewhat hidden in the depths of Oklahoma City, the NBA’s newest market, that may not have the starpower that Miami does, but has every bit as much potential as the Heat.
For the second straight summer, I broke the ice with Kevin Durant at a USA Basketball practice by asking him a question about the University of Texas, the school Durant attended for one year before making the jump to the NBA. I asked him if he was ever worried about Texas leaving the Big 12 after all of the rumors surfaced that UT was looking to move to the Pac-10.
“Not really,” he said with a smile. “I knew they would make a decision that was best for the school and for the sports program.”
Despite spending just one year in Texas, that mentality seems to have rubbed off on Durant. Doing what’s best for his city and the organization that drafted him three years ago is Kevin’s MO at this point. He’s one of the few professional athletes left in today’s society that has completely dedicated himself to one team and one fanbase and would love to do nothing more than bring success to Oklahoma City.
Earlier this summer, in the midst of all of the madness surrounding the aforementioned LeBron drama, Durant used a popular social networking site that restricts messages to 140 characters to announce that he had signed a contract extension with the Thunder, even though his deal wasn’t scheduled to expire for another season.
Exstension [sic] for 5 more years wit the #thunder….God Is Great, me and my family came a long way…I love yall man forreal, this a blessing!
A one-hour special for LeBron, a tweet for Durant.
Many people believed that LeBron needed to do something for Cleveland prior to heading south being that he was a hometown kid (even if that meant simply letting them know he wasn’t returning prior to his show). Durant didn’t need to do something for Oklahoma City and as ordinary as signing a contract extension may be, given what was going on everywhere else, his decision to ink a new deal was a nice gift for Thunder fans.
He wasn’t born in Oklahoma, he’s a Washington D.C. kid, Oklahoma wasn’t his first NBA home, Seattle was, and most of the fans that attend his 41+ home games a season likely have a disdain for his beloved Alma Matter. But instead, Durant, who could have gone anywhere next off-season for the max, decided to commit to the Thunder early, saving them the hours it would take for Sam Presi to make a cartoon for Kevin to watch next summer and even took less money for good measure.
With Durant now (happily) locked up in Oklahoma City for the next five seasons and with Sam Presti working on extensions for Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, the Thunder are pretty close to having the league’s best trio locked up for a long run at a championship.
Now anybody that watches basketball will quickly note that it is rather bold to say that Durant, Westbrook and Green are a better combination of players than Wade, Bosh and LeBron but as I mentioned before, chemistry is an invaluable quality that every championship needs to have and the Thunder are the league’s best example of that.
“We do everything together and we enjoy being with each other,” Durant said. “We’re all young, too, so that helps. Our chemistry has been there since day one and its only getting better now.”
Durant’s relationship with his entire team and more specifically Westbrook and Green goes far beyond passing each other the ball for 48 minutes a night. As Kevin said, they do everything together. Watching movies, walking around the mall, and playing video games. They’re all kids and they’re all truly best friends.
Of course, being friends doesn’t always translate to being one of the best combo’s in the league, having top level NBA talents is also required to put together a championship team. Luckily for the Thunder, their three best players are also some of the best all-around players in the association.
First off, Durant is one of the top five players in the league period. No qualifiers. Not a top five scorer or offensive talent, he’s a top five all-around player. Last season, Kevin became the youngest player in the history of the league to win a scoring title by averaging 30.1 points per game as a 21-year old. In addition to his league best scoring average, Durant pulled down eight rebounds a game last season while also dishing out three assists.
And not only is Durant an offensive show, he’s becoming increasingly better on the glass (he’s gone from 4.4 boards per game to 7.6 in two seasons) and is absolutely obsessed with becoming a defensive stopper (he averaged about two and a half defensive plays per contest, last season).
“I’ve been dedicated to that end for about a year now,” Durant told me a few days ago. “Since training camp of last summer I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to play better defense. I think being (with Team USA) is going to help me do that. I think the coaches are going to depend on me to be a defender. I’m looking forward to that responsibility and I just gotta go out there and play my hardest on the defensive end.”
21-years old, the game’s best scorer, a top five talent, and someone that already understands how important defense is and wants to play it? Not a bad foundation for a franchise.
Behind Durant is point guard Russell Westbrook, who had somewhat of a coming out party this summer with Team USA. We already knew he was a top 10 point guard in the league last season but his explosiveness and defense with the National Team was better than it was last season and he emerged as the top point guardo on a roster that included Derrick Rose, Chauncey Billups and Stephen Curry.
The six-foot-three point guard is an athletic freak that can get to the rim with ease thanks to his quickness and found a bit of a jumpshot near the end of the season from mid-range. His versatility at the guard spot and his ability to attack defenses was one of the reasons the Thunder made a series out of their bout with the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
The key advantage the Thunder discovered as a team was their overwhelming speed in transition. That all started with Westbrook. Russell made excellent decisions with the basketball on the break, a fantastic sign for such a young player. So many times you’ll see an inexperienced player like Westbrook go down on a break and make a sloppy play with their body way out of control. That didn’t happen for him that series. He continued to make terrific passes and even better finishes at the rim. The Thunder were so much faster than the Lakers because of their youth and athleticism and Westbrook was able to maximize their performance as a whole by keeping things under control.
I think its fair to say that only reason that the Thunder forced six games against the Lakers was because of Westbrook’s play and there is little reason to think the Thunder would have even competed in Game 1 or Game 2 without significant runs from him. Westbrook has averaged 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists and a steal a game against the Lakers while shooting 55% from the field and 91% from the free throw line.
Russell is just 21-years old and he is already making a strong case to be one of the top six point guards in the game. Once he gets a more reliable shot from outside the paint, his ability to carve through a defense will make him all the more dangerous, and with his speed, that’s a hard thought to process.
The final member of the triad is Jeff Green and he would be the one you would refer to the most as being the weak link of this trio. Durant and Westbrook isn’t that far off from Wade and James but there is some separation between Bosh and Green when it comes to individual talent. That being said, though he isn’t a top level player, he is a valuable role player.
Green is the undisputed glue guy for this team. If I were to define “glue guy,” I’d say its a player that improves team chemistry (check), is responsible for and fills a role (check), and improves his play when it matters most (check). Guys like Luke Walton and Delonte West are two examples. Neither guy starts, but they are both great teammates, fill their roles and have come through when needed.
The difference between Green and those two is that Green has all-star level talents. His stats don’t do his game justice. 15 points and six rebounds a game aren’t bad. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t want your starting power forward to get just six boards a game, but its a little more acceptable when you consider Green is two inches shorter than his fellow forward Kevin Durant, who plays “small” forward and gets about eight rebounds a game.
Uncle Jeff has a lot of offensive talent. He can score at the rim, has pretty good handles, and has become an absolutely cold-blooded shooter from three in close games. Though Durant is the best player on the Thunder, Green has gotten his share of looks in the final minutes of games and he usually converts his opportunities.
Green has also toughened up on the defensive end. He was a little soft last season but he has been more active on defense as the team’s overall effort and attention to defense has become the team’s main focus. Green is only giving up 105 points per 100 possessions compared to 110 last season.
To clarify once again. 1+1+2 (Miami) will always yield a bigger result than 1+1+1 (Thunder) will, but basketball isn’t as plain and simple as addition and subtraction. Chemistry, the understanding of roles, depth, the coaching that ties it all together. All of those things are taken into account when you put together a championship caliber basketball team.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have the most talented troika in the league and you can argue where they place in all of history even though they haven’t played a single game yet. But when you consider all of the other factors that comprise a title team, I think the Thunder have the league’s best trio. Because Durant, Westbrook and Green have played together and they’ve grown together. As friends and as teammates. While watching movies and while working out with Team USA.
The word chemistry, in this case, doesn’t just describe their friendship off the court but also their ability to play cohesively on the floor. And, no matter how good the Miami trio looks right now, that cannot be overlooked. But even if it does, the Thunder don’t mind playing under the radar, because that’s where the stars ascend.