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Loud City Shoots Back: The View from Oklahoma City

So, Steve Perrin and our frenemies over at the OKC site, Welcome to Loud City had a little conversation about each other's favorite teams. Steve's answers to J.A. Sherman's questions are in the fanshot below or here, and J.A.'s answers follow the break. Unnerstand?

The Thunder are, of course, absolutely killing it with the best record in the NBA, and should be a good tough measuring stick for the Clips. And J.A. should have some pretty insightful opinons about the thing that is Thunder basketball.

Steve Perrin:
1) You know they're out there, you've met some -- I'm not a big fan of Russell Westbrook. To be fair, the one time I'm guaranteed to see him play is against the Clippers, and he's never played well against the LAC. But here's my question: isn't it a problem that Westbrook has a higher usage rate than Durant (32% versus 31.7%) when Durant is so much more efficient (61% true shooting percentage versus 52%)? Westbrook is an athletic freak and exciting and dynamic, but these guys aren't option 1 and 1a --shouldn't the pecking order be clearer? Is this a problem?

J.A. Sherman:
I imagine that Russell Westbrook is a bit of an enigma to outside onlookers. Heck, sometimes he is from an inside perspective as well. Let me make a bold statement though. When you think of Westbrook, don't think of the typical comparisons like Stephon Marbury or Steve Francis. Instead, think of a smaller version of LeBron James. Yes, I know that I'm comparing Westbrook to a two-time MVP and arguably the best player in the game, but from a physical standpoint, I think the tools are similar. Both are physical freaks of nature, both need the ball in their hands to be most effective, both guys can rip apart their one-on-one competition, and both have extremely raw skills that require refinement. The place the two diverge is that LeBron is a more natural team-oriented player (which manifests in his passing skills) while Westbrook has the heat-seeking killer attitude that many have often criticized LeBron of missing.
The big challenge for any coach then is, "how do I maximize these skills?" For Westbrook, the Thunder organization has surrounded him with people who are guiding him through the nuances of the game. Whether it is Eric Maynor, Royal Ivey, or assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, each of these men are fully invested in the idea that a Thunder team with Westbrook is far superior to a team without Westbrook. To be sure, the Thunder are going to go through stretches where Westbrook veers off-course and frustrates everyone. In the end though, the Thunder's team concept is as much a reflection of Westbrook's dedication as it is Durant's, and they have to have the belief that he will figure things out in the end. In any event, Westbrook loves-loves-loves taking on other top point guard talent. If you consider his performances against Chris Paul, he does hold his own (link).

2) How good is James Harden? I mean, seriously? I love that guy, and I don't think most people quite get just how good he is. Sekou Smith last week said that he had Lou Williams of the Sixers as the early front runner for the Sixth Man Award and I thought "Are you kidding?" Harden is clearly the best Sixth Man right now. My question is, should Harden be starting, or do you like his role right now? Does he get enough minutes (just under 30 per game) in your opinion?

I agree with you; Sekou has no idea what he is talking about. Lou Williams is a nice player playing for an emerging team, but Harden is an All-Star level player willingly coming off the bench for a championship-contending team. What I find the most interesting about Harden though, and you may remember this from the early games the Thunder played against the Clippers last season, is that he is a prime example of how critical it is for the right player to be put in the right situation. Last year, for a half a season, Harden was not sure about what his role was. He wasn't playing in the right role, and as a result he was getting slammed left and right as a lottery draft bust. And then suddenly, everything began to click. When Jeff Green was traded, Harden became the primary scoring option for the Thunder's second unit. On top of that, he demonstrated his high value in end of game sequences, which highlighted Harden's ability to make the right plays while avoiding mistakes. Even though Harden is supremely talented and would be an all-star candidate on another team, for the Thunder he willingly accepts the role of 6th man so that when the second units hit the floor, he is the best guy out there at all times. As a result, the Thunder bench is one of the best in the league. It takes a special kind of player to accept this kind of role (much like Manu Ginobili has for the Spurs). Harden sees the big picture though. He understands how he can be set up to exploit mismatches, and at the end of the game, he's always on the floor helping the team close it out.

3) Westbrook got his extension last week. What do you think is going to
happen with Harden and Ibaka? Can the Thunder afford to keep all of those guys? Will Clay Bennett pay the luxury tax to keep this group together? What do you think is going to happen?

J.A.: With both Durant's and Westbrook's extensions, OKC has proven that they're willing to pay a lot of money to establish their franchise for the long term, even if it means dealing with the luxury tax down the road. Ultimately though, the league has all but said that they're not going to allow a team like OKC to fully capitalize on great drafting and team development by allowing them to re-sign everyone for competitive dollars. In the end, the Thunder will probably have to say goodbye to key cogs.
The long-term co-existence of Harden and Ibaka poses a very difficult challenge. If they both command a lot of money in the restricted free agent market, I don't know how the team will keep both. For better or worse, they both have that kind of potential trajectory too. Harden is proving now that he is playing at an all-star level, but Ibaka could become that player within a year or two as well. Which is more valuable - an athletic big man who can block shoots, rebound, and shoot the ball, or a big-game shooting guard who makes everyone around him better? I don't know...ask me in a year.

Thanks to J.A. for answering our questions and check out Welcome to Loud City to read more about the awesomeness of the Thunder.