November 19, 2008
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…