Monday, September 7, 2009

Season Previews 09-10 Edition "Thunder"

Oklahoma City Thunder

The franchise formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics has turned into everyone’s favorite offseason darkhorse/cinderalla team. Yeah, I think they’ll improve a great deal from last year’s 23-win effort, first and foremost because there’s no way (save a Kevin Durant injury) that the team gets off to another horrific 3-29 start. I mean, after that terrible beginning, aided by the midseason acquisition of Nenad Krstic, the team went 19-30 to begin 2009.

But I’m not drinking the Koolaid to the point where I believe they can make the playoffs…not just yet. My concerns do not lie with the core group. Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and now James Harden make, perhaps, the most promising 1-4 in the whole league. It’s that fifth position, normally considered along with the one as the most important position in basketball, that has me worried.

Of course Krstic’s presence was not the only reason for the success enjoyed by the team to begin the new year, but he was certainly an upgrade over the undersized body of Nick Collison (who is a solid player as a power forward, but definitely not a center), or the rawness of Johan Petro or the one-way play of Chris Wilcox (also undersized) or the plodding, unrefined game of Robert Swift. (Just for the record, B.J. Mullens doesn’t look like the answer.)

And the Thunder need a true center, a Tyson Chandler-like presence—a rebounding, defensive-minded five who eats space in the middle. And yet, I not only understand, but I completely agree with why Sam Presti opted to move away from Chandler.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The addition of Etan Thomas, while certainly not the answer, is a good start…if he can stay healthy. When given minutes and when he’s been able to keep himself on the court (has averaged only 53 games over seven seasons and missed one season entirely), Thomas has been a pretty effective center. While he’ll most likely be the backup, Thomas, though a bit undersized, brings energy, rebounding and some shot blocking to the table. He’s not known as the best clubhouse guy (just ask Brendan Haywood), but perhaps, coming to a team of youngsters as an elder statesmen will be just what he needs to keep his attitude in check (a la Stephen Jackson).

As for Krstic, who I expect will start, the dude can shoot, has an offensive game plan that he executes well and has enough length to make the opposition think about coming into the paint. In the season of his knee injury, Krstic was averaging 16.4 points, seven rebounds and two assists on 52.6 percent shooting with the Nets and many thought he would be the center of the future. But the injury limited him the next year and following his disappointing 07-08 season, he moved to the Russian Super League for a brief stint to regain his old form. As he proved last season with the Thunder, the 25-year-old is a quality player to be sure, but despite being 7-0 feet tall, his game is more power forward than center. He's been playing really well in the Eurobasket Championships the past couple of weeks and was the best player on the floor against Spain which included both Gasol brothers. Krstic led the Serbian team to victory as well.

So, with the team the Thunder will have going into the 09-10 season, a great deal of its success will ride on the thin (though reportedly 10-lbs more muscular) shoulders of one man. Since being chosen second overall in 2007, Durant has increased every aspect of his game by leaps and bounds. From 20 points per game as a rookie, to 25 as a soph, he also improved his shooting percentage (43 to 47), his three point percentage (28 to 42), his rebounding (4.4 to 6.5), his assists (2.4 to 2.8) and his minutes played (34.6 to 39) while maintaining his turnover rate. That’s remarkable improvement in only a single season. While I believe he will make progress this year as well, I wouldn’t expect his numbers to jump quite as much as they did last year. He could very well push for 30 points per game, but I am of the impression that that would be to the detriment of the team as a whole.

Watching Durant come out to Summer League in Las Vegas and sit on the bench, bond, and offer advice to teammates James Harden, Sean Livingston, Mullens, D.J. White, Serge Ibaka and Kyle Weaver, not to mention the half dozen other guys he won’t even be playing with this year, solidified in my mind that he is all about the team and is serious about his role as a leader. It also won him the respect of everyone on the team from the last man on the bench to Scott Brooks.

While I didn’t catch all of Summer League, I caught enough and read about enough to know that no other star player on any of the other 29 teams came out to Vegas and sat on the bench for nearly every game like Durant did. I saw Baron Davis out there, but he was dressed up all snazzy and sat in the bleachers. Durant was on the bench, well, except when he got on his feet to cheer his squad on.

The Thunder have had one more year to mature. I caught Russell Westbrook working out over at HAX in L.A. a month ago and he’s looking to have a big season. While his scoring will most likely remain around the 12 to 15 point mark, look for his assists to go up and his shooting percentage to be better by a few percentage points. He’ll need to be a better distributor with this team who are growing up together and will feature a lot of weapons. In addition to the obvious primary importance of KD and the refined, Euro-game of Krstic, Westbrook will have Harden/Thabo Sefolosha and Green as starters.

Green, like KD, has matured rapidly over the past two years. His production jumped across the board in his sophomore year as well—10.5 to 16.5 points, 1.5 to 2 assists, 4.8 to 6.6 rebounds, .6 to 1 steals, 27.6 to 38.9 in three-point percentage and 42.7 to 44.6 overall field goal percentage. Being that he’s playing a bit out of position as an undersized power forward, he’ll need to boost that rebounding even more to help offset the lack of a true interior presence, but if his overall post game (both offensively and defensively) has developed and if he’s learned a few new things in guarding bigger, stronger players in the post, those improvements will be just as vital to the Thunder’s success as anything from Durant or Westbrook.

I got to watch Harden play in Summer League and, like many other pundits and scouts out there, I was impressed with his ability to make the right play. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll go through growing pains in his rookie campaign, but seeing the pieces he has around him already, his skill set is perfect.

The big thing I harped on last year for team success was the importance of depth. I chose the Lakers, Jazz, Rockets and Portland to finish in the top four in the west last year based on this theory. While the Rockets and Jazz finished in the bottom half of the West’s playoff teams, depth helped soften the blow of Tracy McGrady’s season-ending surgery and it also helped keep the Jazz afloat while they suffered a myriad of injuries to all of their key players.

Depth on the Thunder is looking like a strength. Livingston has a lot of potential and has been slowly making his way back from his devastating knee injury two seasons ago. If he can regain anything close to the form he showed in his last year with the Clips, he’ll lead a bench that will include Sefolosha, Collison, Thomas and Weaver all of whom were capable starters at various points of last year. Of course, Sefolosha and/or Thomas could win the starters roles, which would send Harden and Krstic to the bench. If this happens, the bench will be more dynamic, though not as good defensively, while the starters will be better defensively, though not the offensive force. Either way, the bench will be at the very worst, solid.

If every "if" is answered, this team could potentially push for the playoffs. But without a true center, I find it very difficult to see how they can consistently win against those squads with a big front court. Playoffs or not, this will be the year that everybody outside of Oklahoma City proclaims Durant's name in the same breath as Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Dwyane Wade.

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