Thursday, May 10, 2012

Could the Thunder emulate the '05 Suns? What if they signed Steve Nash?

With the Oklahoma City Thunder having swept the defending champs on Saturday, there hasn't been much to think about other than their possible second round opponent and the condition of starting center Kendrick Perkins' hip strain. The former seemed like a near certainty once the Lakers took a 3-1 lead on the Nuggets, but after Tuesday's entertaining Nuggets win in L.A., the series looks very interesting with the series returning to the high altitude of Denver tonight and Kobe Bryant a game-time decision with a stomach ailment. Depending on the result of that series and the status of Perkins' hip (he's still listed as "day-to-day"), the Thunder could face some interesting decisions with its starting lineup.

If Perkins is ready to go and the Thunder must face the Lakers and the behemoth of a center known as Andrew Bynum, then the decision is obvious since the reason for bringing in Perk is his interior defense. However, if he is still injured, I'd like to propose the option of going small and playing the run-and-gun like the '05 Phoenix Suns, one of the greatest offensive teams in league history. This thought occurred to me for two reasons: first, the news of Steve Nash becoming the GM of Canadian basketball got me thinking about where he would sign this summer (more on that later), and second, Bill Simmons' column last week about the Footnote Title reminded me of all the bad breaks the Suns have had over the years in the Nash era. That '05 team especially stood out to me because of its awesome starting five (like much of this era, they didn't have much depth):
  1. A newly signed, MVP Steve Nash
  2. A young, about-to-be-paid Joe Johnson
  3. An in-his-prime Quentin Richardson
  4. A bouncy, in-his-prime Shawn Marion
  5. A young, pre-knee injury Amar'e Stoudemire
Now look at that lineup and look at the Thunder's roster, and it's not hard to see a resemblance. Like Nash, Russell Westbrook can excel in an up-tempo environment and run the show alongside James Harden, playing the Johnson role as a starter instead of being the 6th man of the year. Thabo Sefolosha is already playing just like Q-Rich as a 3-and-D wing who knows his role as a defender who picks his spots to shoot, and Serge Ibaka can play an undersized center who focuses on shot blocking, can play the pick-and-pop game, and finish in transition a la Stoudemire. And if Marion, at 6'7", can play power forward full time and rip down 11 rebounds a game while beating opposing big men up the floor, then Kevin Durant can certainly play it more extensively than he already does in sub-packages since he is 6'10" with a near 7'5" wingspan. In fact, Durant is the best defensive rebounding small forward in the league, so his rebounding is a definite strength, and he will have even better mismatches on the offensive end than he already does since big men can't guard him straight up or chase him around screens.

Now, that '05 Suns team was not a great defensive team, had to rely heavily on Marion's rebounding, and ultimately lost to the eventual champion Spurs in the Western Conference Finals because Joe Johnson broke his face. In comparison, this run-and-gun Thunder lineup would probably be a better defensive team thanks to Ibaka's presence on the back end and Westbrook's lockdown potential--seriously, Russ was drafted as a defensive specialist thanks to his athletic tools and has shown his capabilities during certain stretches like the 2010 World Championships, and his ball denial of Jason Terry in the fourth quarter of Game 1 was the last example. However, it is debatable just how well Westbrook would handle such a high octane offense. He is turnover-prone sometimes and has drawn criticism for his shot selection early in the shot clock, but he is also at his best in transition with this team's boundless athleticism, so who knows.

This brings me to my next point: where would the team go from here? Obviously, the way they finish in the playoffs will be an indicator of what's to come, but I like to think big picture and have mentioned before that I expect Perkins to eventually be a victim of the amnesty clause. This hip injury doesn't sound too serious going forward, but his contract (over $25 million over the next three years) could limit the team's ability to stay under the luxury tax threshold while still giving extensions to Harden and Ibaka, the real priorities. Almost anyone who follows me on twitter (@distracteddavid) knows that Perkins isn't exactly my favorite player on the team, and my favorite lineup is the explosive unit described above, so it's no surprise that I don't see him in the long term plans of the team. Now, I wouldn't expect the amnesty clause to be used until the summer of 2013 when those extensions would kick in, but if a small lineup worked in these playoffs then who knows? Or perhaps if a smaller lineup showed flashes of potential, then maybe my second point of this post could occur: what if they signed Nash?
These two would look great together.

I'm not talking about a big free agent contract but more along the lines of a two or three year deal via the midlevel exception. This would put a twist on the above lineup with two point guards on the floor and would alleviate the pressure of responsibility from Westbrook. Harden could bump up to an undersized small forward, which he has played extensively this season in a point-forward role, or he could return to his 6th man role and control the second unit with his devastating two-man game with Nick Collison. The futures of backup point guards Eric Maynor, coming off an ACL tear, and Reggie Jackson, still needing experience, are up in the air after the Derek Fisher pick up in the middle of the season, so this idea is not completely preposterous.

Alas, GM Sam Presti hails from the San Antonio system, not Phoenix. He has modeled his team after the Spurs, and I wouldn't bet on him digressing much from that. Everyone has known for a long time that he has Westbrook as his electric point guard like Tony Parker, Harden as his 6th man accepting his role like Manu Ginobli (their similarities have always been uncanny), and Durant as his humble superstar like Tim Duncan (but note the position that Duncan plays: power forward). There will be tweaks here or there like a Euro player stashed away (Tibor Pleiss) in Spurs tradition or a small free agent splurge like another scoring-minded forward. The guy I'd like to see is someone who could play either forward spot and provide an extra punch off the bench while also having the ability to play alongside KD--you know, someone like his childhood buddy Michael Beasley, who could possibly be had for the midlevel (three years with only two guaranteed?) as a restricted free agent. That's the realistic plan I see for this team going forward, but it would definitely be fun seeing Steve Nash throwing lobs on the Thunder.
"Go get it big guy!"
Last thing on Nash: that news of him becoming the GM of Canadian basketball is another sign that the Canucks have a program on the rise. With Nash in charge and guys like Tristian Thompson and Cory Joseph, first round picks out of Texas last year; Kris Joseph, a likely second round pick this year; Myck Kabongo, returning to the Longhorns but a likely lottery pick next year; Anthony Bennett, the #7 recruit in the country this year; and Andrew Wiggins, the player every scout was talking about at the Nike Hoop Summit despite only being a high school sophomore, you better keep an eye out for Canada in the Olympics...of 2016.

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