STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Even the naively optimistic had to be surprised by the Thunder's remarkable ascent last season. A year after finishing with 23 wins, Oklahoma City won 50 games and made the playoffs, taking the eventual champion Lakers to six games in the first round.
Certainly playing an important part was Kevin Durant's rise from potential star to NBA scoring champ, Russell Westbrook's impressive development at point guard and dramatically improved team defense -- OKC finished seventh in opponent field-goal percentage after ranking 27th the year before.
But the Thunder also benefited from exceptional circumstances. First, the Oklahoma City starting five missed just six games to injury with four starters playing all 82 games. Second, Oklahoma City played 35 games against opponents that were missing at least one of their top two players. (Of those 35 games, 12 featured teams missing two top players.) The Thunder went 21-14 in those games (with two one-point overtime losses). In other words, teams used the Thunder to rest their stars and get healthy.
Or Maybe it was just coincidence. Or maybe just luck. Whatever it was, the Thunder had unquestionably good fortune last season. They'll need some good fortune again this year because no one is taking them for granted this time around.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
In the backcourt, Russell Westbrook has grown into one of the better point guards in the league. He increased assists to 8.0 per game last season in 34.3 minutes per game. He'll likely push closer to 40 minutes per game this season, but for him to take the next step he needs to cut his turnovers, which checked in at 3.3 per game for the second season in a row.
At shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha is valued for his above-average defense. That's a great fit for the Thunder, who have plenty of offensive firepower, but it relegates second-year shooter James Harden to a sixth-man role. Harden averaged nearly 23 minutes per game last season. An uptick is likely this season, and don't be surprised if Harden finds his way into the starting lineup occasionally.
The frontcourt is stocked with forwards Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, both of whom average nearly 40 points per game. While Durant reached superstar status last season, Green took a step back of sorts. His scoring averaged dipped to 15.1 points from 16.5 PPG the previous season. His assists and rebounds also suffered while his three-point shooting dropped from 38.9 percent to 33.3 percent. All of which is probably partly why the team has yet to offer him a contract extension with Green on track to become a restricted free agent next summer.
Nenad Krstic is back at center, though the position likely will be more fluid this season. Serge Ibaka impressed as a shot-blocking menace last season, and his per-minute stats offer substantial upside. Expect him to see an increase in the 18.1 minutes per game he averaged last season. Minutes might be initially sparse for rookie Cole Aldrich, but he looks poised to take over the Nick Collison dirty-job role down the road. The wild card here is that both Krstic and Collison are in the last year of their contracts. Collison won't be back, meaning he could be dealt at some point, which would benefit Aldrich. Krstic could be expendable if Ibaka forces the issue, but that's a decision that likely will wait until the offseason.
The Thunder likely will go with a nine-man rotation again this season, which could open minutes for either Daequan Cook or Morris Peterson, if either finds his three-point shot, something the Thunder struggled with last season.
Nenad Krstic: Oklahoma City's big men aren't exactly an appealing bunch for the fantasy owner. Nor is it because any one of them lacks the talent to succeed, either. Rather, there are just too many of them. Krstic, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and newcomer Cole Aldrich: all of them are somewhere on the depth chart at center. And with Jeff Green playing 37 minutes per night-most of them at the four-center is where those bigs will have to play. In short, none of Krstic and Co will be effective until the playing time is available.
Serge Ibaka: The Thunder might have hit a home run when they took Ibaka with the 24th pick of the 2008 draft, as he really emerged over the second half of his rookie season last year (he even blocked seven shots in a playoff game versus the Lakers). His game is still raw, especially on the offensive end, but there's a chance he starts at center for the Thunder as soon as this season. All he has to do is beat out Nenad Kristic, which shouldn't be too difficult. Last season, his per-36 minutes stats looked like this: 12.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, so if he gets more playing time and a starting job, watch out.
Nick Collison: Except for the 2007-08 season, when he averaged close to 10 rebounds per game, Collison has never really been a rosterable fantasy option by most formats. After the Thunder's draft-day acquisition of Collison-clone Cole Aldrich (both are defense-oriented big men who went to Kansas), Collison's stock falls even further. Even before the team acquired Aldrich, things weren't looking so hot: Nenad Krstic and Serge Ibaka are probably both ahead of Collison on the depth chart.
Cole Aldrich: The 11th-overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Aldrich was sent with Morris Peterson to Oklahoma City in exchange for the 18th and 21st selections. While he doesn't have a ceiling as high as some other members of his draft class, Aldrich should still manage to be a defensive presence-a fact that will likely manifest itself in decent block totals. In his junior year with Kansas, he averaged 3.5 per game while playing just under 27 minutes.
B.J. Mullens: Mullens remains an intriguing prospect as a 7-footer, but he still has plenty of developing to do, and could find himself spending time in the D-League again this season.
Kevin Durant: Although some owners might be moving Durant up a notch in their draft lists because of LeBron's departure from the Cleve for a star-heavy situation in Miami, LeBron's situation doesn't really matter at all here: Durant was the better fantasy option last season, too. Of course, that's not to say it wasn't close – and, depending on league formats, there are probably instances where LeBron was more valuable – but given his performance in 2009-10 and that he's very likely still improving, Durant is now inescapably the number one player in fantasy basketball. Instead of looking at his obvious strengths (scoring, rebounding), it probably makes sense to address what might be Durant's only weakness: assists. Over his three years in the NBA, the Durantula has stayed pretty static here, recording 2.4, 2.8, and then 2.8 again per game. Will that number increase? Likely not by much. Thing is, it doesn't really need to improve for Durant to reign supreme in fantasy rankings – and that's because of his greatest strength. No, it's not scoring, but free-throw shooting. Last year, Durant not only shot 90 percent exactly (756-for-840) from the charity stripe, but he also led the league with 840 free-throw attempts on the season – or, just over 10 per game. Overall, between his ability to get to the line and his efficiency once there, Durant proved to be the best overall player in the free-throw shooting category, considerably outpacing players like Dirk Nowitzki and Chauncey Billups.
Jeff Green: Green isn't a prototype power forward – at 6-9 and 235 pounds, he's more of a four in a three's body. But he's a heady player with the athleticism to out-quick most opposing bigs – especially when he takes them out to the perimeter – and because he shares a lineup with Kevin Durant and the rapidly emerging Russell Westbrook, Green rarely gets a ton of attention from opposing defenses. As a fantasy option, Green doesn't really excel in any one area – he scored just over 15 points per game last season, grabbed six boards and averaged just over two combined blocks/steals; his value is tied to his across-the-board production. And his outside shooting – over 100 made threes in 2009-10 – is a nice bonus. Green will be 25 when the season begins, and should just be entering his prime, so continued development and improvement is to be expected, though it will be interesting to see whether there's any after-effect to his spending the summer working out with Team USA in advance of the World Championships in Turkey.
D.J. White: After missing most of his rookie season with a jaw injury, White missed nearly two months last season with a thumb injury. He spent time in the D-League and saw limited action with Oklahoma City. White remains a good prospect with his seven-foot wingspan, good mid-range jumper and solid defensive play. At the moment, though, he's a victim of a clogged frontcourt.
Morris Peterson: Peterson could add a much-needed long-range shot to the team's offensive arsenal, but he doesn't seem to have a clear path to playing time in OKC. As such, don't expect him to be much of a fantasy factor there this season. The Thunder may also opt to buy out his contract.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook's development over two NBA seasons is nothing short of staggering. Remember, Westbrook didn't even play the point much in college, and was drafted primarily for his defense. He was brought along slowly, playing off the ball for much of his rookie season. But after year two of his NBA career, he's regarded as one of the better young points in the league and is spending this summer as a key part of Team USA's World Championship roster. Westbrook has much in common with Rajon Rondo; both are outstanding athletes and stellar defenders who move the ball well and can break down defenses off the dribble. And like Rondo, Westbrook's outside shot is spotty at best. But unlike Rondo, Westbrook actually does use his three to keep defenses honest; he had 40 makes on the season on just .270 shooting from long range; that number contributed to his overall .417 shooting from the field. Look for Westbrook to continue to improve along with his Thunder teammates; though he's entering his third year in the league, Westbrook won't hit age 22 until the second week of the season.
Thabo Sefolosha: Sefolosha is a frustrating type of player, as he offers little fantasy value in and of himself, but plays enough minutes (in the case of 2009-10, 29 per game) where he's blocking a player who actually would offer value. In fact, Sefolosha started every one of Oklahoma City's games last year. Nor was he necessarily a bad fit for the team: with Durant, Green, and Westbrook running the offense, Sefolosha's main responsibility was playing above-average man-to-man defense and hitting the occasional open jumper. He mostly did the latter, hitting 0.5 threes on 31.3 percent shooting, but nowhere near to the extent that he's worth a fantasy roster spot. The man whom he's blocking, on the other hand – James Harden – might actually have some worth should Sefolosha run into some injuries. In the meantime, the main strength of the Swiss guard will be remaining neutral in diplomatic matters.
James Harden: Because he averaged only 22.9 minutes per game last season, to understand Harden's production, it's necessary to adjust for the time he didn't spend on the court. With last year's playing time, Harden was an end-of-the-roster type player. But project him at something like 30 or 32 minutes, and Harden becomes a borderline starter in standard-format leagues. No, his scoring wasn't anything special – and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook only improving, it might not become anything special – but his three-pointers (1.2 made per game), steals (1.1), and his free-throw shooting (80.8% on 3.2 attempts per game) all project as pretty decent. Of course, there's the question of whether Harden will actually play 30-32 minutes anytime soon. Thabo Sefolosha remains with the team and is also a threat for something like 25-30 minutes per contest thanks to his defensive skills.
Daequan Cook: Cook was a big disappointment last season with the Heat. The Thunder, though, will take a flier on a player in the final year of his contract, who has shown the ability to hit the 3-point shot in the past. Cook could earn minutes if he finds his long-range shot. If not, he could be bought out of his contract.
Eric Maynor: Maynor took over the backup point guard role last season behind starter Russell Westbrook. Trouble is, Westbrook averages about 35 minutes a game, leaving little for Maynor. Don't expect much offensive output.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka turned just 21 in September and is still learning the NBA game, but he could begin to realize his upside this season. After limited playing time early in the season last year, Ibaka got more consistent minutes as the season progressed and in the last 21 games, including the playoffs, averaged nearly 8.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 24 minutes per game. Playing time should be easier to come by this season. First, defense is the priority of the Thunder at center, and Ibaka proved capable in that regard last year. Second, Nenad Krstic and Nick Collison both enter the season with injuries, which could open extended minutes for Ibaka early in the season. Third, both Krstic and Collison are in the last year of their contracts. Collison likely won't be back. If he or Krstic is moved, Ibaka gets more time. Ibaka's offensive game is improving, and his rebounding and shot-blocking skills are already impressive -- keep him on your radar.
Nenad Krstic: Krstic's not relied on for his offense, and defensively he'll be pushed by Serge Ibaka for minutes this season. Krstic's also in the last year of his contract, and if the Thunder deem Ibaka ready for full-time work, Krstic could lose out.