If we've learned one thing this summer it's that the NBA community LOVES Kevin Durant. Loves with a capital ‘L'. He announces his contract extension over Twitter, he's so humble and classy. He downplays his status as an elite player, he's so humble and classy. He plays as the most devastating force in the World Championships but pimps Luis Scola for Tournament MVP, he's so humble and classy.
Look, all of the fawning over Durant the man is going to abate. People used to fawn over LeBron James, too, remember? One day, people are going to find a reason to tear down Kevin Durant. It's a sick and endless cycle in the world of celebrity, so hopefully Durant can keep the ammunition people will have to use against him to a minimum, because he and the Thunder have some serious basketball to play over the next few years. Oklahoma City started last year as nothing more than a trendy team with a ‘you had to follow basketball to know him' NBA star, and most expected them to be, at best, a fringe Playoff team. What no one expected, though, was that this formerly bottom-ten defensive squad would finish the season eighth in defensive efficiency to go along with their twelfth place finish in offensive efficiency and that they'd easily coast into the post-season with a 50-32 record. When that same club put a mild scare into the eventual-Champion Lakers in round one, the stage was set for unimaginable expectations heading into this season.
The big question in meeting those expectations is whether or not the Thunder can improve their fortunes against winning teams. Last season they did a tremendous job of pounding on the league's weaklings, going 29-6 against sub-.500 squads. However, they were just 21-26 against the over-.500 crowd last season, and if they want to reach the upper echelons of the Western Conference (remember that they only finished as an eighth seed last season) they are going to have to address this weakness right away.
One of the biggest jumps to make in the NBA is from Playoff team to elite team. There is no battle plan for how to do it, and one person's definition of ‘elite' may differ from another's, but adding ten more wins to their season total of a year ago is a pretty safe way to crack that threshold, but those additional ten wins are some of the hardest to come by because any kind of elongated losing streak or ebb due to injury is basically going to torpedo one's chances of reaching that plateau. Remember that only one team last season won 60-games, and that was the Cavs (the Lakers ‘only' won 57) and so for the Thunder to reach that level, or at least finish within three or four wins of that level, is going to take a standard of play that only two or three teams a year achieve during the regular season.
What the Thunder have going for them, though, is enough for most to give them a fighting chance to be that good this season. It starts with Kevin Durant, the most dominating scoring force in the NBA last season and his commitment to defense had a trickle-down effect across the whole roster. It extends to Russell Westbrook, a 16-8-5 point guard that thrust himself into the upper stratosphere of young guards in the game with his 20-6-6 averages against the Lakers in the Playoffs. Flanking those two are Swiss Army Knife forward Jeff Green and defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha and a reserve crew full of vital role players like Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Nick Collison. In terms of sheer balance and economy, the Thunder might be the best built team in the NBA, and they look to be the organization that finally cracked the Spurs model of team building. The pressure may be on them to win today, but with the way this club is structured they don't have to worry about a window closing on them for a very long time.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – RUSSELL WESTBROOK
It's funny to go back and look at some pre-NBA expectations for Westbrook, as he was tabbed by Draft Express be, in a best-case scenario, the next Leandro Barbosa. No one really pegged just how good Westbrook was coming into the NBA except for Sam Presti and the Thunder, a club that grabbed him fourth overall in a move that many saw as a reach for an athletic combo guard. However, the club has worked to maximize his skills (staggering athleticism, ferocious defense, unstoppable penetrating abilities) while managing to at least offset his current weaknesses (weak shooting, low assist ratio, turnovers) by not forcing him to play the role of a traditional point guard. If he can start ironing out his trouble spots the league had better look out because he could give the Thunder two players that are nearly impossible to stop, but he has to do it before it matters.
SG – THABO SEFOLOSHA
There isn't a whole lot one needs to say about players like Sefolosha. He's a utility player, asked to fill in the gaps as a wing defender, rebounder and open-shot hitter (an area of weakness is his game) and basically play the Bruce Bowen role for this Thunder squad. When a team is building a roster for the long term, they need useful, low-cost options like Sefolosha locked-in so that they can maintain consistency and chemistry while also not exploding over the luxury tax.
SF – KEVIN DURANT
It was hard to even get all that keyed-up watching Durant this summer because the things he did looked so effortless that it took some of the bang out of the action. Still, this guy basically took a group of second- and third-tier NBA ‘stars' and led them to the USA's first World Championship since 1994, a feat maybe only one or two other NBAers could have done, and that is a BIG maybe. Durant is slowly evolving into the kind of force that many hoped Carmelo Anthony would become before he basically settled into his niche as a high-volume, low-percentage scorer. If Durant can just boost his three-point shooting ever so slightly he could set-up camp as the league's top scorer for years to come. This is going to be a key year for him, though, because the expectations are outrageous and if he can't meet them (they've been made almost unreachable, anyway, so it wouldn't really be a failure on his part) it'll be interesting to see how the world at large deals with it after pimping him all summer. He'll be fine, but it'll be interesting to see how long he can keep riding this wave of super-adoration.
PF – JEFF GREEN
In many eyes, Green has become the disposable option in OKC's lineup. He came to the team in the same year as Durant, the key bit of recompense for sending Ray Allen to Boston, but his star just hasn't risen alongside his draftmate's and that has many shrugging their shoulders in response to his presence. As a 15-point, 6-rebound per-game power forward, one can sort of understand that thinking. After all, he doesn't really have a go-to skill set that defines him as a pro, nor does his efficiency at what he does really open people's eyes (he ranked 50th in PER last season amongst power forwards), so that leaves many lukewarm towards him. However, he's versatile, plays defense, doesn't demand shots and he helps let Durant do what he does. Pricing that array when he becomes a free agent next summer will be tough, but for now any piece that makes Durant stronger can't be looked upon dismissively, whether he's good enough to help take the TEAM to the next level, though, remains to be seen.
C – COLE ALDRICH
For the last year-and-a-half, this spot has belonged to Nenad Krstic, the chair-throwing seven-foot Serbian. However, Aldrich is much better suited to what the Thunder need out of the position. He's a tough, low-mistake big man that has strong defensive skills in the post and excels as a shot blocker. He can play in the pick-and-roll, he blends well with the team's offense and by all accounts he's less prone to furniture tossing than his counterpart. With Krstic starting training camp with a broken finger, Aldrich may be able to plant himself with the first five before Krstic even has a chance to retaliate, though it says here that Aldrich should be able to earn the spot with or without a healthy Kristic challenging his attempt.