Friday, May 13, 2011

Gods of Thunder

A couple nights ago I saw this movie Thor, one of the more enjoyable of the comic book adaptations that have flooded movie theaters over the last few years. Thor is a talented warrior and heir to the throne of the interstellar capital of Asgard. But his father, Odin, banishes him to Earth for his lack of wisdom and humility. Odin sends his Mjölnir, a magical hammer which accentuates Thor's strength, behind him with instructions that it can only be wielded by those who are worthy. The Mjölnir winds up lodged in a rock like the Sword in the Stone until Thor proves himself ready.

This provided the most obvious bridge that's ever been presented in my long history of introducing blog posts with analogous comparisons. I've been known to reach. This one would have been easy even without Thor's job description: God of Thunder.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most talented team in the NBA. Their starting five reads like the cast listing for The Avengers, Marvel's team of superhero all-stars:
  • 22 year-old Kevin Durant, the freakishly smooth 6'9" 22-year-old All-NBA first teamer who led the league in scoring each of the last two seasons
  • 22 year-old Russell Westbrook, another physical marvel whose size and speed give him an unfair advantage over anyone who'd seek to guard him
  • 21 year-old Serge Ibaka, "Air Congo", 16th of 18 siblings, sculpted like one of Tony Stark's Iron Men, the NBA's leading shot-blocker
  • 26 year-old Kendrick Perkins, the Gimli of the group, on hand for his defense, his enforcement, his loyalty, and his dwarven beard
  • 27 year-old Thabo Sefolosha, the exotic long-armed defensive specialist, resident of five different countries and speaker of three different languages

21 year-old James Harden, another fantastical creature transplanted from the world of comic books, is the first man off the bench and logs more minutes than everyone except Durant and Westbrook.

The Thunder also boasts one of the league's better benches, stocked with potently-powered specialists whose skills just aren't as diverse as their starters.

No team's talent compares to the Thunder's, yet Oklahoma City is still publicly viewed as a precocious band of heroes rather than their true identity: a malevolent arch-villain set to dominate the Western Conference for many years to come.

Like all supervillains, the mighty Thunder have a fatal flaw. It is this flaw which makes them so abhorrent. Oklahoma City plays incredibly selfish basketball. Though they finished the regular season 5th in the NBA in scoring, they were just 24th in assists.

Westbrook finished 41st out of 64 NBA point guards in assist ratio - the percent of his possessions that ended in an assist - even while distributing to the NBA's leading scorer. Durant finished 50th of 59. Ibaka was 338th out of all 339 NBA players.

It all starts with the point guard, Westbrook. He's too fast to guard closely but tall enough to get a shot off any time he wants. He led all NBA point guards in rebounding this season. Westbrook is unguardable. His problem is that he knows this, and looks to exploit it every possession. Westbrook's modus operandi is shooting, whereas most point guards are taught to pass first.

Westbrook has taken the bulk of the media scrutiny during the playoffs, but Durant is just as parsimonious with the basketball. He's dodged the criticism because he's shot 45% in the playoffs compared to Westbrook's 41% and Westbrook has taken more shots during the playoffs. But if the ball finds its way into Durant's hands, the possession is going to come to a close with Durant taking a shot.

It gets even worse in crunch time, when Westbrook, Durant, and Harden are all on the court together. Westbrook starts with the ball and doesn't give it up unless double-teamed. On the rare occasions he finds Durant, the lanky Texan is obliged to shoot it immediately. He knows he's not getting the ball back if it leaves his hands. Durant winds up taking covered threes or driving wildly to the basket with no plan other than tossing the ball towards the basket when he can't drive any closer. Durant's skills are so brilliant that he ends up making many of these difficult shots, so many that no shot he takes can really be considered a bad shot. Meanwhile, poor James Harden is stuck in the corner chucking threes, which has never been his forte (35% during the season, 27% in the playoffs). Harden is more benevolent with the ball than the team's other scorers, but sees it so rarely down the stretch it hardly matters.

OKC has wisely surrounded their alpha dogs with a quartet of egoless defensive-minded role players. Ibaka, Perkins, Sefolosha, and Nick Collison are more interested in blocking shots and drawing charges than taking shots. The latter three average about 10 points per 48 minutes, while Ibaka scores about that many in the 30 minutes per game he averages. Indeed, OKC's front office should be lauded for the creation of this juggernaut, which began in Seattle before the Sonics were reborn in the Midwest. In 2007 Seattle drafted Durant and Jeff Green. They followed that up the next year picking Westbrook fourth overall, then snagged Harden with the third pick in '09. The Thunder really became formidable after trading Green for Perkins in February, jettisoning an unnecessary scorer in favor of one of the NBA's premier post defenders.

The scariest thing about the Thunder is that they are the third youngest team in the NBA. Durant is locked up for the foreseeable future. Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka should be around till at least 2013. Perkins signed a four-year extension with the Thunder immediately after the trade, and Collison and Sefolosha are signed through 2014.

But Oklahoma City's title hopes will be stuck in a rock until their leaders prove worthy of the prodigious talents bestowed upon them.


Blogger Julie said...

"Dwarven" is sending me off to my Funk and Wagnalls...AJ

9:03 PM  
Blogger Bag said...

Dwarven, Moon?

1:24 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

they also have a very meh coach

1:27 AM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

Yeah, there's a reason he wasn't mentioned.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Spencetron said...

Think Rick Adelman would like to coach this team?

12:28 PM  

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