OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
By Jason Thornbury
Excitement was abundant last year but highlights were few for the franchise's first season in Oklahoma City. The team improved by a whopping three wins from its last season in Seattle, finishing 23-59. Kevin Durant's Pollyanna playoff predictions aside, this season should bring continued improvement, though baby steps are more likely than a giant leap.
The team drafted James Harden to shore up its long-range shooting, which was woefully inadequate last season. Oklahoma City finished 28th in three-pointing shooting last year (34.6 percent) and was last in three-point attempts at just 11.6 per game.
The other glaring problem - interior defense - was addressed by signing Etan Thomas after Nenad Krstic proved less than adroit at rebounding and toughness last season. And another season of development from the turnover-prone Russell Westbrook at point guard will help matters, too.
All positive aspects to be sure, but Harden is still a rookie, Thomas is still a marginal player and Westbrook is still not a true point guard. If the team cracks 30 wins it should consider itself fortunate.
Looming over it all is the specter of Durant's future. He's all but certain to be in Oklahoma City through 2012, but if the team doesn't make significant progress this season, will that impact his decision to accept the team's forthcoming maximum contract offer next summer? Ditto Jeff Green.
Last season, OKC fans were just happy to have the NBA. That attitude will serve them well again this season.
Russell Westbrook is back for a full season at point guard, which, the team hopes, will see him cut his league-high 274 turnovers from last year. Westbrook is a great athlete, but as a point guard he's a work in progress, posting a poor 1.59 assist-to-turnover ratio. He's excellent in the open court, but struggles to distribute the ball in the half-court offense, often playing too recklessly for his own good.
Rookie James Harden likely will begin the season on the bench, but don't be surprised if he takes the starting shooting guard spot from Thabo Sefolosha before long. Sefolosha's best asset is his defense, but his 24.3-percent shooting from long range last year opens the door for Harden, who shot 48.9 percent from the field last season at Arizona State as the Pac-10 player of the year.
Sefolosha should still see decent minutes even if he loses the starting job, though, because he can relieve Kevin Durant at small forward. Durant thrived after moving to small forward full time when Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo last season and should again play close to 40 minutes per game.
Jeff Green will log most of his 35 minutes at power forward, though he'll shift to the three when the team goes big. Nick Collison figures to get most of his time this year at power forward. He's signed through next season, but with $13 million owed him over this year and next, it wouldn't shock us if the team looked to trade him at some point. D.J. White is an intriguing option who missed most of last season recovering from a broken jaw, but minutes might be sparse.
Nenad Krstic and Etan Thomas will share the center duties, Krstic for his offense (10.6 PPG, 48.1% FG, 79.0% FT as a starter), Thomas for his defense (2.82 blocks and 10.4 rebounds per 48 minutes). Collison will also see action at center, where he played most of his 25 minutes per game last season.
B.J. Mullens: Mullens only played one year with Ohio State and wasn't even a starter. He's a project, but Oklahoma City can afford to be patient with the 7-footer.
Nenad Krstic: Krstic signed with OKC in late December last season after playing in Russia. He provided a scoring boost the team lacked at center but disappointed defensively. In 28 starts, he averaged only 5.8 rebounds per game and 1.04 blocks per game. The team signed Etan Thomas to pick up the defensive slack, leaving Krstic free to provide value as a scorer.
Etan Thomas: Thomas' acquisition allowed the Thunder to dump two expiring contracts (Damien Wilkins, Chucky Atkins) for one. It also gives the team some frontcourt depth and a defensive-minded center, which starting center Nenad Krstic doesn't provide. Thomas should see decent minutes, at least initially.
Nick Collison: Collison is a defensive-minded C/PF who attacks the glass and plays with high energy. He's probably more suited to coming off the bench, which he'll do this season. Nenad Krstic, who started the final 28 games last year, enters the season as the starting center, though both Etan Thomas and Collison will see good minutes at the spot as well. Collison, however, is undersized for a center at only 6-9, and with Thomas aboard this year it would make sense if he saw more minutes at power forward than center.
Kevin Durant: Credit coach Scott Brooks for realizing that the "Durantula" was much better suited to small forward than shooting guard. The move allowed Durant to open his game up considerably and utilize every weapon in his offensive arsenal, vaulting him to an unprecedented level of production. During the 43-game stretch between his move to small forward and his ankle injury in late-February, Durant was flat-out dominant, averaging 27.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 treys, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks on 49.3-percent shooting from the field and 43.8-percent shooting beyond the arc. The improvement in his shooting proficiency was astounding as his effective field-goal percentage on jumpers climbed from an anemic 39.7 percent in '07-'08 to a respectable 45.2 percent last season. Durant also showed marked improvement on the glass where he upped his defensive rebounding percentage from 9.9 percent to 15.1 percent. We are witnessing the makings of a superstar.
Jeff Green: Predictably, Green showed marked improvement during his sophomore campaign last year, averaging 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steals. The big gain occurred from downtown, as he went from making 0.3 three-pointers per game during his rookie season to nailing 1.2 on average in 2008-09. Green's game doesn't stand out in any one area, but he's an effective player with plenty of room for growth. Green isn't all that big for a power forward, but he's quicker than most, and because he can take advantage away from the basket, he's often a mismatch for opposing defenses. His production in February alone last year (20.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.3 3PT) shows his upside.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka was a first-round pick in 2008, but spent last year playing professionally in Spain, averaging 7.1 points and 4.5 rebounds. He is still too raw to make much of an impact with the Thunder this year. Summer League reviews were mixed for the C/PF.
D.J. White: White was sidelined most of his rookie season after undergoing jaw surgery. He played in seven games near season's end, averaging 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting 52 percent in 18.6 minutes per game, making him an intriguing option entering 2009-10. He doesn't have the size to play with his back to the basket in the NBA, but he'll rotate in at both forward positions and his seven-foot wingspan will keep him active around the basket. He has a good mid-range jumper and plays solid defense.
James Harden: The Thunder drafted Harden with the third pick to address their perimeter shooting deficiency. Last year at Arizona State, Harden averaged 20.1 points, 4.2 assists, 1.7 treys and 1.7 steals on 48.9-percent shooting from the field. Although he's one of the most NBA-ready prospects in this draft class, Harden still has some holes in his game - the ability to create his own shot, his handles and his midrange shooting. He will probably come off the bench to start the year behind Thabo Sefolosha, but could see the starting unit before long. He'll be the player you want to pick up 40 or 50 games in after an impatient owner drops him, not one you spend one of your first 10 draft picks on.
Shaun Livingston: It appears Livingston is nearing a full recovery from the knee injury that almost ended his career. Whether he'll be the same player he was prior to the injury remains to be seen. But he was mildly surprising in eight April games with the Thunder last season, averaging 24 minutes, 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game while shooting 53.8 percent from the field. He'll back up Russell Westbrook at point guard.
Kevin Ollie: Ollie brings intangibles to a young Oklahoma City squad. Just remember, leadership, experience and professionalism are not fantasy categories.
Thabo Sefolosha: Gifted with excellent quickness and good leaping ability, Sefolosha has as all the tools to develop into one of the league's premier defensive stoppers. He was thrust into the starting lineup upon his arrival to Oklahoma City and stepped up to the challenge, averaging 8.9 points, 5.4 boards, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks in 22 starts. Despite his strong play in those 22 starts last season, Sefolosha will face stiff competition from rookie James Harden for the starting shooting guard spot. Sefolosha's three-point percentage has been consistently trending downward, capped by an uninspiring 24.3-percent clip during his 23-game stretch with the Thunder.
Robert Vaden: At best, Vaden will be a one-dimensional shooter off the bench. Of course, he could be quite effective in that role, because he has quite a lot of range. He averaged 17.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists as a senior at UAB last season.
Kyle Weaver: Weaver is a combo guard who performed better than expected last season. He needs to work on his mid-range and perimeter shooting. His defense is a plus, though.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook came into the NBA as yet another backcourt "tweener" - primarily a shooting guard in college, who would need to transition to the point to survive in the NBA. The Thunder brought him along slowly, with most of his minutes coming at the two spot initially. By season's end, Westbrook was firmly entrenched as the starting point guard. Westbrook is a supreme athlete, but his floor leadership (274 turnovers) and outside shot (just over 27 percent from three, with 129 attempts on the year) need some work. While he's strong defensively, he's not a great on-ball defender, relying, rather, on his long wingspan to play the passing lanes and cause turnovers.
James Harden: Harden likely will take the Russell Westbrook route, beginning the season on the bench before assuming a starting spot by mid-season. As one of the draft's most NBA-ready prospects, he should be able to contribute when he gets the minutes and could provide good fantasy value, much like Westbrook last season.
Etan Thomas: Thomas likely is this year's version of Joe Smith. He'll get decent minutes early on, but eventually the team will try to trade his expiring contract. Even if he stays with the team, he'll likely head to the bench in the season's second half in favor of youngsters.
Article first appeared on 9/16/09