Oklahoma City Thunder are the reigning Western Conference champions, having knocked off the San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in last year’s conference championship. These two teams are again setting the pace for teams in the West and it is very likely that the two will meet once again in the conference finals — which calls for a position-by-position breakdown. Who has the better starting five?
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker
This is probably the toughest one to decide. Both players are among the best point guards in the NBA, yet both are very different in styles.
Westbrook is often criticized for not passing the ball enough, or not making the players around him better, but 7.5 assists per game would seem to suggest otherwise. The former UCLA guard is a score-first point guard — 23.6 points per game ranks him third among point guards — and is integral to this OKC team on both ends of the floor.
Parker, on the other hand, is the main man in San Antonio these days. He controls the Spurs offense perfectly and is a big reason why coach Gregg Popovich’s team has again recorded a 50-win season. Twenty-one points per game and 7.6 assists per game looks a little worse than Russell Westbrook, yet this can be put down to a few reasons: Parker commits fewer turnovers and he also has more players that contribute on a nightly basis. In Oklahoma City it is largely left up to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to provide the majority of the scoring.
In the end, the smooth and slick veteran Tony Parker edges out Russell Westbrook, but it’s very close. Parker’s more reliable in clutch situations and is better at rotating on the defensive end of the floor — where Westbrook can sometimes switch off and rely on his athleticism to bail him out on occasion.
Advantage: Tony Parker
Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs. Danny Green
These are two role players. They do not take over games, nor will they be mentioned in All-Star contention any time soon, but they are both vital cogs that keep their respective team’s wheels turning.
Thabo Sefolosha provides two main functions for the Thunder: tough defense and 3-point shooting (.405 accuracy from downtown). In the 2012 NBA Finals for example, Thabo guarded LeBron James for long stretches — showing just how highly coach Scott Brooks rates his defense.
Danny Green provides a similar role for the Spurs, but is perhaps slightly worse than Sefolosha on the defensive end of the floor. However, he is having a great year offensively, averaging 10.7 points per game and shooting an impressive .437 from 3- point range, which are both career highs. In the end, Thabo just edges it for me. His slightly larger frame and better defense make him a tad more reliable. It’s a close one though.
Advantage: Thabo Sefolosha
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard is a very good player. He is the next star to break out in San Antonio. Tough perimeter defense and a slowly improving offensive game, combined with remarkable athleticism makes for a very good young player. However, he is not Kevin Durant.
Kevin Durant is a bonafide superstar in the NBA. A four-time scoring champion, there is no one that can put the ball in the hole like KD. Sure, he has a few slack tendencies on the defensive end — he is a little weak when defending in the post — but his overall game is so great, these negatives are only a drop in the ocean.
This isn’t really too much of a contest.
Advantage: Kevin Durant
Power Forward: Serge Ibaka vs. Tiago Splitter
Serge Ibaka’s defensive prowess has never been in doubt; the long-bodied Congolese forward led the league in blocked shots last season and is among the top 10 again this season. However, where we’ve seen huge growth from Ibaka is on the offensive end. He has upped his points per game to 13.3 and also his field-goal percentage to .569. Serge is slowly becoming a two-way player and there is no reason why he shouldn’t go on to be an All-Star some time in the future.
Tiago Splitter is also an improving player. The Brazilian has soft hands around the rim and is slowly learning to pass well, especially out of double teams. He has always been a brilliant screen setter, something which is often overlooked. Despite this, he is not quite the defensive presence, or all-round player that Ibaka is.
Advantage: Serge Ibaka
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Tim Duncan
This one isn’t even worth a debate. Kendrick Perkins is likely to be amnestied next season, in my opinion. He has cement feet on defense and takes some ill-advised shots on offense. Sure, he can set hard screens and plays hard, but he isn’t athletic enough to keep up with his teammates.
Duncan, on the other hand, is playing some amazing ball. Remarkably, he’s improved his production at the age of 36, from 15.4 points per game to 17.3. Despite being 36, he has an array of post moves that still allow him to take over a game in an instant. The Big Fundamental is here to stay. Can he top off his stellar career with one more ring? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Advantage: Tim Duncan