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Thunder Emerge as Serious Contender

In a chaotic flurry of the trade deadline, Sam Presti and the Thunder shined brightest

 

Kevin Durant put it bluntly, and even then it seemed like he was hesitating, holding something back. “Everybody wanted to be here,” he said, “except for one guy.” If you’ve watched the Thunder consistently over the first half of the season, if you’ve struggled through the first 20 games without Durant and Russell Westbrook—a stretch during which Reggie Jackson absolutely shined—if you’ve seen the player Jackson has been since the dynamic duo returned, and especially if you’ve seen the player Jackson has been since the acquisition of Dion Waiters, then you understand Durant’s frustration perfectly well.

That’s one reality, the fact that Reggie Jackson did not want to play basketball any longer with OKC. At his best, Jackson has been wildly inconsistent. He’ll sink a dagger three, save an expiring shot clock with a creative floater, and occasionally thrash the Spurs, but every moment—this year, at least—of startling offense, he’s let his man blow by him on the other end without much of a fight. At his worst, Jackson has been downright terrible. There were times when I would’ve rather seen Ish Smith running the show instead of Reggie.

Here’s another reality: Reggie Jackson is really, really talented—and I think Royce Young, with whom I often disagree, nailed the assessment here. In two years Jackson might be an all-star for the Pistons, might lead Detroit to the playoffs and average something near a triple-double, but what are you supposed to do if you’re the Thunder? As Durant said, everybody wanted to play on that team, for that coach, for that organization except a single player.

NBA: APR 24 Western Conference Quarterfinal - Thunder at Grizzlies - Game 3

Are the Thunder better without Reggie Jackson

 

The trade deadline not only rid the team of a—if you’ll allow me to say this, since nobody in the organization will—cancerous player, but it also secured the backup point guard position with a veteran point guard who, in the end, is probably a better fit than Jackson. D.J. Augustin, while not as talented, is a 37 percent career three-point shooter, and he’s been pretty hot lately. He’s started quite a few games for Detroit and will have a reduced role in Oklahoma City, but at first glance he fits much better with the second unit backcourt—Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow.

The big fish for the Thunder, however, is Enes Kanter. The big man’s acquisition comes with a couple footnotes. First, his contract is expiring after the season. Presti has made it clear that OKC wishes to sign him to a long-term deal, and as of right now there doesn’t seem to be any immediate roadblock to that happening. Second, one of the reasons Utah was willing to get rid of a young talent like Kanter is that, with the emergence of Rudy Gobert, Kanter’s minutes have been cut and, well, he’s been a little unhappy. That may or may not be a good thing for his role in Oklahoma City, which has a pretty defined frontcourt rotation, although at the moment Steven Adams is recovering from injury.

Here is how the frontcourt looks now: Steven Adams (21 years old), Serge Ibaka (25), Enes Kanter (22), Mitch McGary (22), and Nick Collison (34). If you ask me, that’s a pretty darn good frontcourt—in terms of both immediate talent and future upside—and don’t think that Kevin Durant will overlook this core as he makes a decision after next year about signing a new contract.

The big question, however, is not how rosy the future looks—and, really, I don’t think we can overstate how big this trade deadline was for OKC’s future prospects—but how talented it makes them now. Assuming the Thunder lock up the eighth seed, the most important question is Do they have enough talent to beat the Golden State Warriors, win the Western Conference, and raise their first title banner?

The short answer is yes, absolutely. The long answer, the dissecting of this brand-new roster—we’ll look at those questions at Monday over at TodaysFastbreak.com. For now, Thunder fans—and enemies, too—can be sure that OKC will be making postseason noise.



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