6 min read

What your country can do for the Thunder

What your country can do for the Thunder
AP Photo

There’s two contrasting thoughts typically around NBA fan circles about what role Team USA can play on that fan’s team. These thoughts usually depend entirely on what happens to the players from that fan’s team while they are representing their country, positively or negatively.

Thought A is that the risk versus reward is too great and that only bad can come from it. These are the fans who claim that any actual basketball development or improvement while playing with the Team USA squad and coaching staff will be so negligible that the risk for injury and/or the non-rest that these players experience during the off-season puts them in an unfavorable position heading into the season. They’re either going to be too tired and a little worn down from the games and practices during a time that they are typically resting and recuperating from a long season, thereby making them more susceptible to picking up nagging injuries or to suffer from fatigue earlier in the 82 game haul than usual, or they will actually enter training camp with an injury/still trying to fully recover from one and that hampers their ability to enter the new season in top form.

Thought B is that risk for injuries or exhaustion is minimal for a Team USA player in the contrasting context of an 82 game season whereas the experience of playing with some of your country’s best players/coaches, especially for younger players, can act as a springboard to an entirely different level of mental development as well as physical/basketball skill growth. In other words, risk of injury is a part of basketball so unless a player is known to be somewhat brittle, what’s the difference between them playing a pickup game on asphalt or at an NBA team’s training facility versus playing with Team USA, especially since a few months of games and practices is nothing compared to the 9 months of night in, night out basketball grind that the players go through during an NBA season?

For me, both sides have their points and ultimately it comes down to just one simple thing in terms of the fans’ perspective (after all, for the players this is really about representing your country and wearing that jersey with pride and honor…but NBA fans usually aren’t nearly as worried about that part).

That one thing is this: Will there actually be development and improvement?

Cause if there’s not, there’s definitely too much risk and not enough reward for Thought A to not overpower Thought B since the only other component of Thought B’s argument is that, well, injuries happen all the time in basketball so why not just let them play. That kind of thinking, without being coupled with an “Oh, and they can get even better for the coming year” is going to fall flat to almost any NBA fan if we’re thinking strictly about Team Celtics, Thunder, etc instead of Team USA.

But the funny thing about Thought B is that, judging by the last Olympics, that improvement can be seen and it most assuredly makes an impact.

Everyone seems to forget this, but Kobe Bryant’s work ethic and all-around commitment to improving until the day he retires had such an impact on the Redeem Team’s youngsters that many, MANY individuals credited that experience as the starting point when someone like, say, Lebron James, saw what he could be if he (as he intimated himself) stopped selling himself short and started showing up as early as Kobe did, put in the time and effort to become transcendent instead of just top five, and made that unrelenting commitment to defense, chasing down every fast break like a locomotive instead of letting them get an easy dunk/lay-up, filling the defensive lanes, etc, etc.

Another example, though not one that applies to the Thunder’s young trio, is the rejuvenation Charles Barkley experienced after the 1992 Dream Team regarding his career.

So improvement can happen, sometimes in staggering degrees, but since Kevin Durant will undoubtedly be the best player on this USA squad and there’s no Kobe, Lebron, etc for him to get a good glimpse of in terms of what he could improve upon (especially since KD already seems to possess all the work ethic a human being can possibly handle), the jump in development will most likely not be tremendous for him but hopefully impactful and more maturity centered nonetheless. Now concerning Jeff Green and, especially, Russell Westbrook, there is more to be optimistic about regarding improvement.

So here are the individual aspects of improvement I’d like to see each Thunder player bring to this upcoming season (and beyond) from their time with Team USA.

Kevin Durant – Become a facilitator more than just an unbelievably amazing scorer

The reason I’d like to see this from KD is because I think being the alpha dog on Team USA will almost demand this next stage in development for Durant’s game. There is no doubt who is the best player on this squad and who is the biggest offensive threat on the floor no matter who the USA plays against. KD will be wearing a red, white and blue bulls-eye, which is precisely why he can become that much more effective and lethal of a player if he can continue to progress as a passer and creator of offense for the team than just for himself.

Obviously I’d add dribbling, slashing while in traffic and a few other nit-picky things if I could since he already does so many things well, but the day Kevin Durant can become as much of a threat as a creator as he already is as a scorer, well that’s the day he becomes not only unguardable, but unstoppable.

And I honestly think he can do that quickly, which is the scary part since he’s still only 21 years old, folks.

Russell Westbrook Improve the skill that got you drafted

Russell Westbrook was drafted to play lock-down, suffocating defense. To apply so much pressure in the backcourt and on the helpside that opposing guards/teams could never take a play off and always had to execute under tremendous pressure, thereby freeing up easy baskets and transition offensive opportunities for a young, athletic team to take advantage of every game.

Thus far in his career, Westbrook has shown flashes of that ability but has never managed to put it all together either out of a lack of focus and understanding or out of a lack of desire (which is a little hard to believe coming from someone famous for effort).

But this might actually be the biggest potential improvement that the Thunder could see via Team USA as Coach K and numerous Team USA sources continue to rave about Westbrook’s defensive ferociousness and acumen, especially since the presence of Rajon Rondo seems to be something of a spark plug for Westbrook’s defensive prowess.

If this translates to the upcoming season and the defensive monster that we saw at UCLA and, apparently, can be seen at Team USA practices and scrimmages takes the court for the Thunder over the span of 82 games, then every Thunder fan should send Rajon Rondo a gift basket of the finest beefs and cheeses.

Jeff Green Use your strengths and matchup advantages instead of simply settling

I think the versatility and all-around skillset that Jeff Green possesses is easy to overlook but I think Green is probably the one responsible for this slight as much as anyone.

Jeff Green is very, very talented. He does almost everything either above average or really well…but he doesn’t do any one thing at an elite level. And while that’s both a compliment and a bit of a criticism, what it really should be is a license for Jeff Green to understand that he will never be a better rebounder or post presence than most low post, banging power forwards and he will never be as fast, as skilled a slasher or as good of an outside shooter as most stretch power forwards.

But he will be better than most at almost every other aspect of the game.

I can promise you that Jeff Green is better than either of the aforementioned, specialized group members when it comes to two or three of those traits, if not infinitely superior in some. If he’s up against a banger, Green needs to draw him out and use his quickness to his advantage and attack by going by him. If he’s up against a slashing, outside shooter, Green needs to use his size and physical superiority to back him down and force the double-team or shoot more close-to-the-basket shots that he’s obviously improved upon.

In short, Jeff Green has got to start maximizing his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses, thereby capitalizing on the one thing he has that most forwards in the NBA don’t have: a versatile, all-around game. Green should be exploiting the fact that he doesn’t fit the mold of a typical forward, not having to excuse it or defend it.

This is where it’d be really nice if Lamar Odom could just really go all out and show Jeff what mismatches can really do for you if you exploit them.

So those are my top three things and while I don’t expect all of them to come to fruition (if only), I honestly do think Thunder fans will see improvement from the trio when training camp opens. The only question is, how much?