Kevin Durant Photo Credit: Icon SMI
As this series draws near to a close I think it’s important to note one thing. The purpose of detailing the worst teams in the West is not to kick teams or fans while they’re down. It’s more to discuss franchises we don’t ordinarily talk about; to look at the positives and where improvement is needed in those cities. I generally enjoy watching young and athletic teams full of potential, like OKC, more than veteran-laden squads. There are very few teams I actually dislike, and they tend to be smug winners (your Tony Parkers and Bruce Bowens of the world). On to the Thunder.
On any given night this season the Oklahoma City Thunder may well be the worst squad in the Western Conference. But they are not the worst franchise out West because of two things: hope and potential. The Thunder have compiled a nice young core of perimeter talent that has legitimate star potential in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. While the Clippers may win more games this season (then again, maybe not) the Thunder are a better franchise because they seem to actually have a plan for future success – that, and their owner isn’t named Donald Sterling.
The Oklahoma City Thunder
2007-08 Record: 20-62, 15th (aka last) in the West
2008-09 Salary: $54,794,213
Thunder fans across the great plains take pride in one fact first and foremost: Kevin Wayne Durant will be a star in this league, perhaps as soon as this season. It remains to be seen if the 20-year-old will be just another star or a true superstar, which will of course depend on how he fleshes out his game. What is not up for debate is that if he remains healthy The Durantula will be one of the finest offensive players in the league and a true difference maker.
Kevin came out of the gates last season expecting the world to be handed to him and the results were mixed – some truly memorable performances marred by extremely poor efficiency overall. As the season wore on he improved his shot selection markedly and adapted to the speed and physicality of the NBA game. Of note are his pre and post All-Star splits. In 50 games before the break Durant shot 40.2% on 17.2 field-goal attempts (3.4 from behind the arc) for 19.4 points per game. In the 30 games after Durant shot an impressive 47.6% on 16.9 shots (including just 1.2 three-pointers) for 21.9 points a game. It’s that kind of dramatic maturation from a man his age that should have the league taking notice.
With the fourth-overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft the Thunder selected another young man with legitimate star potential: Russell Westbrook. He’s a scorer and floor general with exceptional quickness and leaping ability which allows him to put the ball in the basket and create for others. His presence handling the ball will take a lot of pressure off of Durant and the two have nicely complementary games. Even more promising is that Westbrook is the rare draft pick who comes equipped with NBA-ready defensive skills. He was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in his first season of real action. Westbrook’s long wingspan and quicks will play well at this level.
And speaking of defense, Jeff Green, the other member of Oklahoma City’s talented young core, should also develop into a true two-way player. Acquired in the Ray Allen deal with Boston, the fifth pick in the 2007 draft is a versatile forward who can knock down shots, rebound and play lock-down defense. He’s a big man who doesn’t project as a typical star but who can do so many things well that he should make the rest of the roster look better. Green has the tools to be an exceptional “role player” alongside the more flashy Westbrook and Durant.
What’s even more encouraging this season is that the trio actually play well together. On the young season the Thunder’s five-man rotation with the highest +/- (+14), and consequently Win%, features Durant, Westbrook and Green alongside Earl Watson and Nick Collison. That’s a promising sign from three players who are all 22 or younger and obviously figure prominently in this team’s future. On top of that, OKC has the third-lowest salary in the NBA and only have one player locked up for the summer of 2010 (with modest team options that will be exercised on Durant, Green and Westbrook). That means the Thunder can afford to bring in a top-flight free agent to play alongside these kids that summer – and just look at the list of available players in the Kings breakdown.
Getting Ennio Morricone in Oklahoma City after the jump…
The Bad and the Ugly:
By far the two hardest positions to field in the NBA are center and point guard. Wing players who can score or play D are a dime a dozen (though the ones who do both are still special). Quality teams have those wing players, but they also pressure the rock, have somebody to bring the ball up the floor, protect the rim and have a post player that they can go to in the clutch. With Westbrook on board the Thunder are hoping they have half of that taken care of. Unfortunately they don’t have anybody to play in the paint.
The franchise has sure used enough draft picks on big men, but with limited success. It’s been a case of just throwing a large volume of shit at the wall and hoping some of it sticks. It hasn’t. First-round picks the last few seasons have been spent on the likes of Mouhamed Sene, Johan Petro, Robert Swift, Nick Collison, Vladimir Radmanovic and Serge Ibaka. Their last first-round pick up front that actually paid off was The Reign Man in the rainy city, Shawn Kemp in 1989. They’ll need to shore up that interior offense and defense before OKC can hope to compete.
In fact, they’ll just need to shore up offense and defense in general. This season they’re third to last in the L in points per game at 89.8 and last in the league in field-goal percentage at 40.7%. They’re also third-worst in assists with 17 a game while remaining among the bottom ten in turnovers. This comes after a 2007-08 season where their 97.6 points per game, 44.4% shooting with 21.3 assists and 15.2 turnover a game were all sub-par. There’s room for improvement there. Their opponents were also better than them and better than the league average in every category last season, so there’s plenty of room for improvement on that end too.
Aside from roster or performance on the court, the Thunder have a serious problem from a marketing perspective. Ask a talented young man who grew up playing hoops in an urban area like New York or Los Angeles, even a student of the game, where he wants to play. Oklahoma City will not be among his first 20 answers. That’s not to say Oklahoma can’t develop that name-brand recognition in time. LeBron James has made Cleveland an attractive destination for draft picks and free agents. Prolonged success has made the Detroit Pistons a desirable employer. But for most players right now new NBA city Oklahoma City doesn’t sound like much of a step up from D-League locales, and it’s going to take some time to change that. Here’s hoping it’s a more attractive place to play by the summer of 2010.
And for chrissakes, let’s get some real uniforms on these guys. Those 1950s high-school duds are the worst in the league.
Russell Westbrook Photo Credit: Icon SMI