The NBA season is upon us... or at least it would be if this lockout had not lasted so long. The NBA season is a mere month away, and there will be a flurry of moves to make up for our lost offseason. So, with that in mind, it is time to begin opening the book on the 2011-12 season and to take a look at what the season might have in store -- especially when it comes to the Magic. Be sure to look out for more of these team capsules and to check out all the blogs taking part in this year's NBA Blog Preview (don't worry, I will be linking to all of them in the next few weeks).
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Year: 55-27
Last Year vs. Magic: Won 125-124 in Oklahoma City; Lost 111-88 at Orlando
This Year vs. Magic: Dec. 25 in Oklahoma City; March 1 in Orlando
Magic Connection: Assistant Coach Mark Bryant (Assistant Coach, 2005-07)
The Previews: ZorgonB/Welcome to Loud City
No player may have taken the lockout harder than Kevin Durant. You could see from the numerous games he played -- everywhere from Baltimore to Los Angeles to Oklahoma City to New York's Rucker Park -- that this superstar just wanted to play basketball. He just wanted to "hoop."
And so Durant went hooping throughout the lockout. He was the highest profile player simply to just go out and play. This came after a long season for him that saw the young scoring champion play in the World Championships in Turkey before the season began and lead his team to the Western Conference Finals.
Durant was the preseason favorite to take the leap and win the MVP at the beginning of last year. Surely he is the preseason favorite again. And with so many games bunched together, the young and extremely talented Thunder have to figure as one of the supreme favorites to win the 2012 title. Oklahoma City now has some deep playoff experience, will get a full season (read: 66-game season) with the championship-tested Kendrick Perkins at center and has a lot of depth and cap flexibility to continue building.
Depending on how everyone comes into camp -- notably Durant has been playing everywhere in pick up games and charity events and forward Serge Ibaka has been playing professionally in Spain -- this team could be extremely dangerous.
The Thunder are one of the few teams that features two true star players that have not hit their prime, but are good enough to lead the team deep into the playoffs. They are also one of the few teams to have two legitimate defensive presences in the low post in Ibaka and Perkins, making it nearly impossible to attack the paint against this team. Oklahoma City also features a strong bench scoring punch in the 3-point specialist of Daequan Cook and then the scoring punch of James Harden. Likely Harden has to be looked at as a favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year.
Then you get to the extremely passionate and loud crowd that occupies Cheseapeake Energy Arena. Those seem to be recipes for a team able not only to succeed in a short season, but also to succeed in the postseason.
Believe it that the Thunder are one of the favorites in the 2012 season.
They don't come without any uncertainty though. This is a young team and you have to begin to worry about "The Problem of More." We saw ego begin to creep up late in last year's postseason when rumors about Russell Westbrook breaking off plays and desiring to go solo began to surface. Durant is not the demonstrative type to go get the ball -- his lack of killer instinct is a common criticism -- and Westbrook seemed willing to take criticism when needed.
All accounts say that the dynamic between the two players is fine and that the controversy was overblown. But we will not really know until the teams take the court. You also have to wonder when James Harden will want a larger role.
But at the moment, everyone seems to be happy and getting along, so long as they are winning. And Oklahoma City should keep doing that for the very foreseeable future.
How The Thunder Will Beat the Magic: Oklahoma City actually has one of the true advantages against Orlando. The Thunder feature two strong defensive posts in Ibaka and Perkins, both of whom can at least attempt to cover Dwight Howard one on one. That is always key when facing up against the Magic. Kendrick Perkins has a proven track record in frustrating Howard, although Howard has done better against him in matchups lately. More than that though, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant exploit other weaknesses on the Magic. Hedo Turkoglu's one advantage against most small forwards is his height and length. We saw how Turkoglu struggled against players like Lamar Odom and other long small forwards. Kevin Durant wrote the book on long and athletic. And Turkoglu is not the definition of "solid defender." You can say the same about Westbrook going up against Jameer Nelson. Nelson sometimes struggles against quick point guards and struggles against tall point guards. Westbrook is both. And, if he is patient, he can create for Oklahoma City in this matchup.
How the Magic Will Beat the Thunder: Orlando got Oklahoma City in the second matchup in Orlando by using its veteran poise and some great 3-point shooting. The real key is Dwight Howard being a deterrent at the rim. That should be easier considering Ibaka and Perkins are not much of an offensive threat -- although Ibaka has improved his jumper. Howard's presence can negate a lot of the advantages that the Thunder have over the Magic's perimeter defenders. Orlando is also a much more disciplined defensive team and that is an advantage too. Oklahoma City is good, but the team still makes youthful mistakes. Orlando has to be ready to take advantage of them. The Magic largely did that in both matchups last year. The loss was a one-point loss where no defense was played by either team and the Magic found they could score with the young Thunder. The second matcup, Orlando still scored a bunch while supplementing it with the defense to run away with the win.
This team put together a fantastic stretch through the playoffs.