Darnell Mayberry at the Oklahoman was up late watching the NBA TNT crew of Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Chris Webber, and Ernie Johnson, and they spent a few minutes talking about how the Thunder are doing. Mayberry did all the heavy lifting, so I refer you to his site to see a transcript:
TNT Crew Weighs in on Thunder
If you want to watch the video footage, you can find it here.
Let’s take a look at the assertions they made:
- They don’t have a big guy.
- They don’t have a veteran.
- They don’t play defense or rebound.
- They’re not ready to make the jump from being surprising to being elite.
- They are “equipped.”
- They’re not going to be a 3-seed.
- They’re not better than Utah.
If you had to categorize the four men, it might be:
Charles – doubtful
C-Webb – realistic
Kenny – optimistic
Ernie – neutral
Let’s take a look at each assertion and see how accurate they are.
1. They don’t have a big guy. TRUE. The one thing that has plagued the Thunder all season long is the lack of a big man who can body up to a classic back-to-the-basket post player. A while back I did a quick analysis to see how they were stacking up against big men. It wasn’t pretty. In order to be an effective post-defender, you have to have that lower body strength that keeps the post-man off the block, and you have to be disciplined to avoid fouling. The Thunder’s candidates for this are Collison, Ibaka, Green, and White. They have shown some flashes, but for the most part they are all undersized to deal with a guy like Al Jefferson, Pau Gasol, or Dwight Howard. This issue will be their Achilles Heel in the playoffs.
2. They don’t have a veteran. TRUE. Kenny thinks that Durant can play this role, but I would tend to agree more with Webber. When you get into the middle rounds of the playoffs, it is incredibly valuable to have guys who have been there before and know how to deal with the pressure. Some of my favorite guys from the past that have filled this role are PJ Brown, Antonio Davis, and Charles Oakley. They bring a steadying but stern hand to the team dynamic, and are not afraid to mix it up on the court either.
3. They don’t play defense or rebound. FALSE. Now, are they as good at these two things as the Celtics? No. Did they do either of those things at the beginning of the year? No. However, if you look at where they’ve come since then, it becomes clear that they have improved drastically in both areas. They are now middle-of-the-pack in rebounds, and in defense they have gone from dead-last to 21st in the league. Their point differential used to be negative; now it is over 2.
Also, if you watch the flow of their games, they almost always improve their defense as the game goes on, rarely giving up 30 points in the 4th quarter. Aside from Kevin Love, big men have not hurt them as severely on the boards either.
Now, if Charles is referring to what he thinks they’ll do in the playoffs against the likes of the Jazz or Spurs, well, that’s a different question entirely. We’re a long ways away from that point, however.
4. They’re not ready to make the jump from being surprising to being elite. POSSIBLY TRUE. In the Western Conference, jumping to elite status means that they can compete on a nightly basis with the likes of the Mavs, Spurs, and Lakers. So far, they are 0-3 against those teams. The Thunder need a signature win against a good team (hopefully next week) to validate themselves as a contender.
5. They are “equipped.” TRUE. They’re probably 85% there. They have most of the tools a team needs to go far in the playoffs, and a resolve to get there. Ultimately though, you do need a big post defender and some veteran leadership. Without those, their prospects THIS year are capped. However, if the team stays together for a few more years, then they can become those things that they’re missing now.
6. They’re not going to be a 3-seed. PROBABLY TRUE. In order for the Thunder to get a 3-seed, they’re going to have to both:
- Win their division.
- Finish with a better record than the Lakers.
The playoffs work like this – the three division winners automatically get one of the top 4 seeds, along with the team that has the best record but didn’t win the division. Then, the teams are ranked by record. If things ended today, the three division winners would be the Lakers, Jazz, and Spurs. The 4th team would be the Mavs, and those four would be seeded: Spurs-Mavs-Lakers-Jazz. The Thunder would get the 5th seed. If the Thunder jump the Jazz and win their division, they would end up with a 4th seed, because the Lakers’ record is better. Ergo, the only way for them to get that 3rd seed is if they win their division and finish with one of the three best records in the Conference. A tall order.
7. They’re not better than Utah. UNDETERMINED. And of course this is the question that will help answer #6. The Thunder are currently behind by 1/2 game, but the head-to-head is split with two games remaining, and the Thunder have a better division record. The good news is, if they can win the division they will have home-court advantage in the 1st round, where they would likely end up playing the Jazz. If the Jazz win, then the roles will be reversed. The Jazz are their measuring stick.
Charles can be blunt and critical at times, but when he is vested in studying what is going on, he’s usually pretty accurate. I think his tone might be a bit off-putting here, but by and large, I think the TNT team’s assessment is pretty fair.
One guy doesn’t think so though. And he is one of the few people that can legitimately prove them wrong.
Well then, allow me to retort.