With some time to digest what happened in Turkey over the past couple weeks, what have we learned from the 2010 FIBA World Championship, and what does that tell us about the 2010-11 NBA season? Well, thanks to the performance of two of its top players, the tournament showed that the Oklahoma City Thunder will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Lesson 1: Kevin Durant is capable of carrying a team to the title
Entering the tournament, everyone knew that the USA was Kevin Durant’s team. If the young US squad was to win, Durant would have to be their best player and take over when it mattered. Well, in two weeks, KD did exactly what was expected of him, leading the team in scoring and playing his best when it mattered most, clinching tournament MVP honors. Durant averaged 23 points and 6 rebounds per game in the shorter FIBA tournament (quarters are just 10 minutes long). What’s more, he accomplished this while shooting 56% from the field, 46% from deep, and 91% at the free throw line.
He saved his best performances for when it mattered most. In Team USA’s four most important games (the narrow group victory over Brazil, the quarterfinal versus Russia, the semifinal versus Lithuania, and the final versus Turkey), Durant upped his level of production to averages of 32 PPG, 7 RPG, 56% FG, 49% 3FG, and 86% FT. His 38 points against Russia set a US record for the World Championships, and he was pretty much unguardable in the elimination round, raining threes at will against anyone who played off him and blowing by his defender to the rim when being played closely.
Before I rush to proclaim Durant as the savior to the oppressive reign of the Heat and Lakers over the NBA, a couple points are worth mentioning. The level of play at these World Championships, while competitive, was below NBA standards, and many of the top sides were missing key players. A good college team would have blown out Angola or Tunisia. And though Durant was clearly the best player in Turkey, he had a fantastic supporting cast that was willing to take a backseat to his talents. Back in OKC, the competition (the Lakers) will be much tougher, his supporting cast will be a lot weaker (goodbye Lamar Odom and Andre Iguodala, hello Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha) and the task will be a lot more difficult (16 wins over two months against quality teams of NBA veterans).
That said, the Durant we saw in Turkey seemed pretty much unstoppable, scoring whenever and however he wanted. To be a contender in the NBA today, you either need a multitude of really good players (the Celtics) or one legitimate superstar with a decent supporting cast. The Thunder have their superstar. We knew Durant was that guy before worlds, but now that he’s led the US to the title and has some quality playoff experience under his belt (the six-game series against the Lakers last spring), the Thunder have to be taken very seriously out West. They still don’t match up well against top teams such as the Lakers or Heat, but with a great home court advantage, they are a threat to upset the Lakers should they meet again this spring. But Durant’s play in Turkey isn’t the only reason why I’m high on the Thunder right now. It doesn’t hurt that…
Lesson 2: Russell Westbrook is on the verge of becoming an elite point guard
Though he didn’t start for Team USA, Westbrook still had a big impact at the worlds, and looked more impressive than his more touted point guard counterpart, Derrick Rose. Westbrook was effective driving to the rim, demonstrating his speed and athleticism. He posted higher averages (9 PPG/3 RPG/3 APG) than Rose (7 PPG/2 RPG/ 3 APG) in fewer minutes, and also shot a better percentage (46% vs 45%). Moreover, unlike Rose, Westbrook played within himself and chose not to launch threes and instead distributed the ball. Westbrook attempted just seven threes, making three. Rose, on the other hand, showed poor decision-making in launching 18 threes while connecting on just five.
The tournament was just the latest step in Westbrook’s development. He made huge strides in his second NBA season last year, increasing his production in all categories. Not only that, his assist-to-turnover ratio jumped from 5.3-3.3 to a much-improved 8.0-3.3. As the young Thunder team continues to grow, expect Westbrook to improve as well. Outplaying Rose at worlds showed that Westbrook is not far from joining the upper level of NBA point guards. Right now, Deron Williams and Chris Paul form level 1, with Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and Jason Kidd at level 2. Westbrook is right on the verge of joining level 2, and given his age (he’s still just 21), has the potential to ascend to level 1 within the next few seasons. Westbrook’s continued development, coupled with Durant’s ridiculous skills, has stamped the Thunder as a dangerous playoff foe next spring. They are still a piece or two away from being a serious contender, but if their secondary players can make a jump (I’m looking at you, James Harden and Jeff Green), they will make some noise come playoff time.