Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder
One of the most enjoyable parts of following sports is watching a team with no previous winning experience get thrust into the forefront of fandom's attention. For the first weeks of last season the question was whether or not this Thunder club was going to set the record for fewest wins in a season – a mark of ineptitude not seen since the '72-'73 Sixers managed only nine wins. An early season coaching change, though, and a new philosophy on how to use the team's bounty of youth and the optimism couldn't be higher for this club.
Some liken it to the climb made by the Portland Trailblazers in recent years, but as each franchise lurches on in its rebuilding, the further away it gets from the other's fortunes. For the Blazers, it was about building a steady-yet-unspectacular club that emulated the style of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, a pseudo-Spurs approach that captured respect more than it captured the imagination. The Thunder, on the other hand, employ one of the most dazzling talents in the NBA in Kevin Durant, and as a result the attention being paid to them is of a different sort than the attention that falls on the Blazers.
For Oklahoma City the anticipation is almost indefinable. One could easily forecast the steady climb of the Blazers and the team has held true to the predictions over the last three years. For the Thunder, it's hard to say exactly HOW they'll be good, but the opinion is becoming increasingly unanimous that they WILL be good, somehow. Durant has that "otherworldly" feel to his game; once head coach Scott Brooks moved him into the frontcourt, his game took on a completeness that is rare for a 20-year-old. He was sixth in the league in scoring at 25.3 ppg, and he also pulled down 6.5 rebounds and grabbed 1.3 steals. While his defence still needs maturing, his game has left people in awe. When I talked with Jay Triano this summer, who was the head coach for the Team USA mini-camp in Vegas, he gushed over how much farther ahead Durant was than any of this contemporaries. Jerry Colangelo has all but called him a "lock" to join LeBron, Wade and Co. at the World Championships next summer with Team USA and officially join the ranks of the league's most celebrated players.
Of course, if this team were just Durant, it wouldn't be much of a team. GM Sam Presti has done a thorough job in acquiring talent that complements the full breadth of Durant's game. There's Russell Westbrook, the electrifying point guard from UCLA who some feel even outplayed Bulls guard Derrick Rose in mini-camp play this summer. There's Jeff Green, the do-it-all swingman who very quietly averaged 17-and-7 last season while upping his outside shooting to nearly 39%. There's Thabo Sefolosha, the defensive ace that will play the team's sixth-man role this season. Then there's rookie James Harden, the steady-as-the-come shooting guard whose high I.Q. and cool demeanor fit perfectly and productively outside of the spotlight of Kevin Durant.
Of course, the most perplexingly enjoyable aspect of getting hyped up to watch this club is that they haven't proven they are capable of doing anything of substance in the league yet. This is that brief moment when no one knows if they're going to continue their upwards climb to respectability or if they are going to stall at the bottom of the hill. People look at the talent reserves and drool at the possibility, and to a certain degree that allows excitement and anticipation to override common sense. However, in this age of unending statistical metrics designed to take all of the unpredictability out of professional sports, a little bit of unsupportable optimism is a desperately-needed distraction. Who cares if this team is actually any good, they've given basketball fans a whole summer to talk ardently about how good they're "gonna" be, and there is real value in that, too.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – Russell Westbrook
Some thought, going into the draft this year, that Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio and his Sportscentre-friendly style were ideally suited to this Sportscentre-friendly team. However, the Thunder barely gave the 19-year-old prodigy a look because they have about as much faith in the future of Westbrook as anyone in the league – and many in the league already think highly of him. He was the controversial fourth selection by the Thunder last year and yet the controversy subsided right about the time when he started playing last season. He's explosive, tenacious and dares you to get a pass by him without him picking it off. While his playmaking skills don't live up to the rest of his play, Durant, Green and Harden more than make up for that limitation. If Westbrook can improve his shooting numbers (a lot) in the coming season, he could be the difference-maker for a club looking to take the next step in the Western Conference.
SG – James Harden
Harden is one of those guys that comes into the NBA as a veteran. He plays with such composure and smarts that completely belie his age that many will forget he's even the newcomer on this team when they see him play. While his college career ended somewhat unceremoniously with teams ganging up on him and daring his teammates to make plays – severely limiting his effectiveness – there will no gang-defending here so long as Durant, Westbrook and Green dot the roster. He'll be that dependable force in the backcourt that balances out the wild swings in Westbrook's game, just like a veteran is supposed to do for a youngster…oops – see, it's started already.
SF – Kevin Durant
Yes, this is the Velvet Hoop himself. The Thunder, though, are very lucky that Durant plays in the era that he does and not the one parodied in his Nike "Hyperize" campaign. Team USA has instilled a new appreciation for defence in the league's top players and that has every second- and third-tier guy wanting to emulate their developments. That means that while Durant's defensive abilities lag behind his prodigious offensive ones, there is little doubt that his stopping-power is going to be addressed in the very foreseeable future (and certainly no later than with Team USA next summer). Teams are becoming less and less patient with big-time players who don't commit to playing defence, which makes not only for better players but also for a better NBA. Of course, there are 29 teams that want no part of a better Kevin Durant, so perhaps they will endeavour to halt that progress as soon as possible.
PF – Jeff Green
Green just gets thrown into whatever position needs manning and he mans it without complaint and with extreme effectiveness. Despite the quality of his play, though, he makes no waves about being stuck in Durant's shadow as he seems to have fully embraced the sidekick role and all that comes along with it. He was drafted three spots after Durant and was basically forced into a pecking order he wasn't going to be able to upset, so faced with the choice of either whining about it or making the best of it, he chose the latter. Teams with two wings this good sometimes have trouble balancing their games, but the Thunder seemed to have solved this issue before it ever became an issue. Green is in line to become one of the best "second guys" in the NBA and has the potential to sneak up on teams that look past him on the depth chart.
C – Nenad Krstic
For now Krstic is a placeholder. When he was with the Nets he was billed as the team's future at the centre position before his game stalled and they let him walk. Now he's a better-than-average backup type starting for a team that is waiting to make an upgrade when the right player becomes available. This is a team that is sitting on a mountain of cap space, but they have been steadfast in their insistence that they will not spend it for the sake of spending it, but rather will wait until the perfect player comes along. This team needs a low-post presence that they can throw they ball to in half-court sets and who can protect the paint at the other end. Krstic offers neither of those qualities but when he slides into the second-unit he'll be a far more valuable asset for this team – both because it means they've found a better starter and because Krstic is better than most opposing team's backups.