They got away with it. It still boggles the mind. No other contemporary NBA team has managed an equal feat of sheer incredulity as this team. It's a vile and ethical sham.
This team got to use the word 'City' in their team name.
Utah and New York are left as 'state teams', along with Minnesota and Indiana, instead of being allowed to call themselves Salt Lake City Jazz or New York City Knicks. It's a sacrifice but it brings a level of aesthetic value and ease-of-speech as recompense. Somehow, though, in 2008 a team is once again allowed to use the word 'City' in their team name. That is a gift. A horrible, meddlesome gift, but a gift nonetheless. Then they opt to pair that unsightly verbiage with the word 'Thunder' just to assert how insidious and intent on sullying the NBA brand they truly are.
However, this team will still be asked to compete in the upcoming NBA season and should be treated as a legitimate contender. Well, a legitimate team. Well, a group of basketball players who play in the NBA.
Thunder GM (how ridiculous does that sound?) Sam Presti has gone about systematically ridding this team of excess in the way of veterans as he looks to build his team with youth and draft picks, both of which he has stocked to the ceiling. The positive part of that strategy is that this team can focus on developing its future without the petulant griping of underplayed vets. The negative portion of this approach is that the future is all this team is playing for. In a top-heavy Western Conference this team is nothing more than fodder nine out of every ten games. NBA team building is a process, but this 'City' will be from 'Thunder'ous for the time being.
While the team waits for that time to come they are going to focus the bulk of their energy and marketing power on second-year forward Kevin Durant. Durant had a stellar rookie campaign last year as the central focus for a rebuilding Sonics franchise. While many rookies would have wilted under the pressure and responsibilities of being the single biggest contributor to their team (which in turn means the focus of all opposing defenses), Durant excelled and his scoring, rebounding, assists and percentages all increased as the season wore on. He showed no signs of fatigue after playing his first full NBA season and he demonstrated incredible composure and adaptability - especially after the press ravaged him in for his sub-40% shooting and his below-expectation rebounding numbers early on. He was asked to play out-of-position as an oversized (you don't hear that much) 6'9" shooting guard to avoid being banged around inside the paint and yet he found a way to make it work. This season he'll probably be asked to play more of his natural small forward position as head coach P.J. Carlesimo begins easing him into his expected role for this team long-term.
Durant is not the only youngster with expectations coming into this season, though. Sophomore forward Jeff Green and rookie point guard Russell Westbrook are going to be joining Durant on the perimeter this season to basically form what the Thunder hope will be the foundation for this club for years to come. They are an untested core but the team is hoping to follow in the footsteps of their Division rival, the Portland Trailblazers. They rebuild their team by focusing on youth and development and they were unexpectedly close to making the Playoffs a year ago.
The differences between the two teams, however, start to appear in the post. While Portland managed to turn Tyrus Thomas into LaMarcus Aldridge in a fleecing of the Bulls on draft night in 2006 (and then follow it up with a fortunate first round pick of Greg Oden the following year), all that the Thunder have is a bevy of lottery miscues manning their centre position - including Mouhamed Sene, Robert Swift and Johan Petro. All three now have some NBA seasons under their belts and the team is preying that at least one of them proves capable of producing this season. None have been able to stay particularly healthy these last three years and none have been able to show any consistent flashes to prove that the team's investment in them has been well spent. If Swift and Petro are unable to find a groove this season then both will likely be allowed to walk next summer in free agency. If they do, and if the team is unable (or unwilling) to resign forward Chris Wilcox then this team will be completely rebuilding its front court a year from now.
That may not be such a bad thing, though. The Thunder have barely any money tied up in big money players beyond this season (save for $6.2 mil to Nick Collison and $6.6 to Earl Watson) and so they will have the ability to grab a big or two in free agency next summer and will no doubt select at least one with one of the three picks they hold in next June's Draft. Outside of Collison this team has nothing in the paint worth holding on to. Having the ability to completely rebuild one's front court - especially in an age of overpaid big men - is a rare luxury that the team will no doubt avail itself of while designing a roster that meshes with what Durant, Green and Westbrook are able to show as a group this year.
The Thunder are a long way away from being competitive and unlike the rebuilt-through-youth Blazers they don't have the shrewd eye for talent that Portland GM Kevin Pritchard has. However, Kevin Durant is an enviable asset to possess at one's disposal and hopefully he is an asset that is handled with care. Attention must be paid to who surrounds him on the court and how well he meshes with them as a unit. Haphazardly mixing promising youth together isn't much of a long-term plan despite how often NBA teams try it, but if Presti and his team can show an aptitude for acquiring compatible talent to surround Durant then perhaps this team's ascension to relevancy may be pushed up to before the end of this decade.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - Russell Westbrook
Westbrook was a very interesting pickup in this draft. He was sort of like the opposite of Boston's Rajon Rondo and his Draft journey. When Rondo was drafted two years ago he saw his stock climbing leading into the draft only to slip to 21st in the first round. He then blossomed as a sophomore into a key starter on last year's Championship Boston squad by simply being a steady, reliable pont guard. Westbrook, however, saw his draft status climb late in the game but actually saw his stock get him taken at the top of the first round by OKC at four. He's not much of a star in the making, which is usually what teams reach for that high, but after nearly ten years of well-reputed lottery busts many NBA teams are becoming more conservative with their drafting and Westbrook is a classic example of that. He's a sharp player, a solid defender and a reliable - if unspectacular - floor leader. It's odd that a team would pin their future hopes of the position on a guy that could easily turn out to be the second-coming of current Thunder player Earl Watson but that is exactly what makes this such an interesting pickup. The team passed on guards like Jerryd Bayless and D.J. Augustine to grab Westbrook - which gives one an example of how highly they feel about him - so the pressure is on him to prove it was a wise investment.
SG - Jeff Green
Green didn't exactly have the year that most anticipated that he might in his first NBA season. He was brought in (via the Ray Allen-to-Boston trade) to be the more reliable, steady rookie alongside the explosive-yet-raw Durant. However, Green struggled, at times mightily, and never found a groove all season long. He started by coming off of the bench and then moved into the starting lineup but his numbers were only mildly improved by the move (his rebounds and shooting percentages actually went down) despite playing ten more minutes per game. The Thunder are going to have to be able to rely on Green to provide much more consistency in year two, and if he is unable to provide it then Desmond Mason will be more than happy to take this spot right out from under him.
SF - Kevin Durant
There is a somewhat logical explanation for a Sophomore Slump. If a player is successful in their first year, especially a player who has such seemingly limitless potential like Durant does, then expectations for that player simply reach unattainable levels. Combine that with the fact that NBA opponents now have a very intricate idea of everything that the player is going to try and do on every possession and the deck simply becomes stacked against the second-year pro. When a player can have a breakout rookie campaign and follow it up with an even better sophomore one then he becomes a truly special player worth watching. While most assume that Durant will be able to meet that challenge, that is exactly the kind of expectation that set-up disappointment. Durant should be allowed to a margin for error this year, especially given how wretched the talent around him is, and if he manages to thoroughly surpass last year's achievements then all the better for him for doing it.
PF - Nick Collison
On a better, more competitive team Collison would be invaluable. The man was a shade under 10-10 last year (actually 9.8ppg and 9.4rpg) and he did it in 28.9 minutes per game on a team that provided him next to no help in the low-post. As a starter he averaged 10.9 points and 11 rebounds per game in 35 games and will be looked upon to repeat those numbers this year as a full-time starter. He's the kind of heady, get-after-it player that coaches love and if he were playing on a team that could really maximize his abilities like Houston, San Antonio or Cleveland he'd be one of the most celebrated under-rated players in the league. As it stands today, though, he's just another guy plying his trade on a woeful Western bottom-feeder going mostly unnoticed by the league around him. On one of those aforementioned teams, at just over $6 million-per-year, he'd be a steal and if he puts up his starters numbers of a year ago again he could become the target of several teams come the February trade deadline.
C - Chris Wilcox
The team will probably use the starting centre spot to rotate their bevy of young guys through their paces as the season winds down, but for the start it would help if this team at least attempted competitiveness to try and help their trio of perimeter players get a sense of how to win in the NBA. Wilcox may not be the most dominant centre in the league, but at roughly 14 points and 7 boards per game as a starter he's hardly the worst. He's basically Drew Gooden without the years of playing alongside LeBron. Wilcox will probably become a story down the stretch of the season if he isn't traded because his playing time will be cut to suss-out the youngsters, and no player reacts well to seeing their minutes slashed in a contract year. Wilcox, though, has had six years to show the league what he is capable of and a few stat-stuffing nights on a bad team to end the season is hardly going to change anyone's mind about his or what they might offer him on the open market.