As we roll through the league taking a look at every team in the NBA, it's my turn to take on the OKC Thunder. You couldn't help but take notice of this team last season. Durant was the league's leading scorer with 30+ PPG (and he scored with a higher efficiency than any of the other top scorers), they won 50 games, and they lost a very exciting first round series to the eventual NBA Champs. So what have they been up to this offseason to push them over the edge and put them in title contention? Well, uh... not that much really. I guess that's okay when you've already assembled the league's best collection of up and coming young talent. Let's take a closer look after the jump...
Heading into this offseason Thunder GM Sam Presti must have been pretty pleased with what his team had accomplished. After only managing to win 23 games in '08-'09 the Thunder did surprisingly little to improve the team. They made good use of their hard earned (sitting through 59 losses is hard work) draft picks by adding James Harden and Serge Ibaka, and decided to retain Scott Brooks as head coach despite going 22-47 after taking over for P.J. Carlesimo. Not to play down the value of Harden and Ibaka (they were both significant contributors to the team's turnaround), but it seemed like Presti was banking on internal development more than a roster overhaul. Having gone to the Jae School of Basketball Theory I'm not a big believer in internal development, but it seemed to be working for Presti as the team took a giant leap from the lottery to a dangerous playoff team.
Thanks to the success of last season Presti looked to continue with his winning formula this summer. Start with a player with a shot at being the best in the game, add good young players through the draft, and fill any remaining holes with reasonably priced veteran role players. Then, watch the team get better. Sure, it was easy to continue to add talent without any major trades or signings when the team was losing lots of games. A string of quality draft picks including the likes of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka is hard to maintain though. As the team gets better it gets inherently harder to add young cheap talent. Of course, Presti didn't let that stop him. He took advantage of a Hornets team that was in need of some instant salary relief to avoid the luxury tax when he relieved them of Morris Peterson's contract (set to expire after this season anyway) and traded two low first round picks to move up and grab Cole Aldrich. So yet again he added a good young piece to an ever improving team. Not the flashiest of moves, but another example of a shrewd GM taking advantage of the money driven NBA landscape and coming out on top talent-wise. He was also able to add some stability moving forward by extending Durant, and also extending Coach Brooks through 2012. Presti himself received a multiyear contract extension, so it seems that the Thunder have doubled down on the core that they've put together. So who are they, and how good can they be?
THE FRANCHISE TALENT
This is a Warriors blog so I'm going to take a minute to whine here... Why can't we end up with a player like this?!?! Durant looks like he's going to be a legit top tier NBA stud for years to come. It shouldn't be much of a surprise really. Everyone who loves basketball took notice of this kid when he was playing a Texas. We at GSoM were drooling over him back then, as evidenced by long time community member and GSoM's newest Contributing Writer, Sleepy Freud's Blue Note style album cover pictured below featuring his dream line-up heading into the '07 draft lottery.
For the record Sleepy would totally accept an updated version of Curry, Ellis, Durant, Lee, and Andris...
Yeah, I think I could live with that.
Sure his career had a bit of a rough start as he was played out of position at Shooting Guard by P.J. Carlesimo his first season and a half. He still scored a bunch of points, but he was doing so at well below average efficiency and not rebounding as well as he should. Here are some of my thoughts on P.J.'s decision to play him at SG from back when Durant was still trying to find his NBA legs.
I totally agree that this was a very poor decision. Not only does it not take advantage of some of his strengths (rebounding in particular) but it sends the wrong message to a young impressionable player. It basically says don’t worry about improving your strength and taking advantage of your frame, you can just chuck from the outside and we’ll be happy with that. IMO they should have played him at 3/4 and let him have the rude awakening that is playing against the real men in this league. That would have hopefully inspired a work ethic that could last his entire career instead of breeding a lazy chucker's mentality that could ruin what may have been a stellar career. I still think he could turn out to be a good-great player but only if someone comes along and reminds him that he is a forward and he needs to work hard to achieve something in this league.
Sure, it may have been a harsh take on his early struggles, but it seems like Scott Brooks was that guy that came along and put him at Small Forward where he belongs. He also made his secondary position Power Forward instead of Shooting Guard.
Now that Durant has played a full season under Brooks he already seems to have cemented himself as a top 5 player in the league for years to come. At the moment there is no better scorer in the NBA. He rebounds well, and his defense is underrated. You've gotta love this guy. Ok, I'm going to move on before I start whining again...
THE YOUNG CORE
RUSSELL WESTBROOK / JAMES HARDEN / JEFF GREEN / SERGE IBAKA
Here are four guys who are already heavy contributors to the team, and all under 24 years old. It's a more than solid group that can still be expected to significantly improve. Getting back the the old internal development debate, this is about as good of a situation as you can be in if you are looking for your team to grow and get better without shaking things up too much. Westbrook in particular has shown lots of promise. He's already shown he can be a good distributor and rebounder, and while he's had a hard time finding a way to score effectively he's shown some promise in that area too. If he stays aggressive he could see his free throw attempts rise as he learns to take contact in the NBA.
He's the old man of this group at 25 years old, and while I'm not sure if he will keep improving, he's already proven he can contribute. He may not be able to score in this league, he's a great guy to have playing on the wing alongside Durant as he's shown he can be a shut down perimeter defender and rebound his position well. His skills definitely complement Durant, and I hear he's a nice guy so he might compliment him too (I went to the Jae school of comedy too).
Presti targeted Aldrich as the piece he needed to solidify the Thunder frontcourt. Before landing Cole, Ibaka was the only good rebounding big on the team moving forward. Presti is hoping Aldrich can come in to grab boards, defend, and score efficiently inside like he did at Kansas. Here's Draft Express:
I'm generally horrible at prediction, but I'm VERY confident in these...
- Durant wins two MVP awards this season (don't ask me how, just bet on it)
- The Thunder win 54 games
- Zorgon wins SB Nation MVB (Most Valuable Blogger)
- Russell Westbrook fools around and gets a triple double... like 7 times
- Serge Ibaka takes Jeff Green's starting spot by the All-Star break
Hey!! Look at that!
Long time GSoMer (traitor?) Zorgon is blogging the Thunder on SBN! If you haven't checked out the site, Zorgon and the rest of the Loud City Crew do a great job covering the team.