Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

» October 21, 2009 9:49 AM | By xphoenix87

Coach: Scott Brooks
2008-09 Record: 23-59
Pythagorean Record for 08-09: 24-58
Offensive Rating: 102.9 (29th in the league)
Defensive Rating: 109.4 (20th)
Possessions per 48: 93.6 (8th)
Four Factors:

eFG%

TOV%

RB%

FT/FGA

Offensive 47.1 (30th) .148 (28th) .286 (4th) .242 (10th)
Defensive 51.4 (25th) .130 (18th) .739 (13th) .216 (8th)

Roster (Red indicates new acquisition, Blue indicates rookie) Click to enlarge

Just to let you know, the ceiling for Kevin Durant has officially been removed. Nothing would surprise me now. If he averages 40 points a game sometime in the next 5 years, I wouldn’t be shocked at all (yes, I know 40 is a lot of points). When you talk about 6′9″ guys who take on the kind of load Durant did last year and shoot as well as he did, it’s Durant and Larry Bird…and that’s it. That’s the list. With his height, length, and absurdly quick release, there’s really no stopping Durant when he decides to shoot. As a pure scorer, there’s no one in the league like him, and there’s actually a pretty good chance he’ll lead the league in scoring this year, and do it efficiently. He’s going to have to improve his shot selection a bit and get better at setting up his teammates, but those are minor quibbles. The guy is a premier offensive player. The question for Durant is whether or not he’ll improve his exceedingly poor defense. Both of his years in the league, Durant has been near the bottom of the league in defensive plus/minus. He has all the tools to be not just a good defender, but a great defender; he just has to put in the effort to make use of those tools. An encouraging sign is a marked increase in his defensive rebound rate last year, but it’s going to take more than that. If Durant wants to be an upper-tier superstar (and by all accounts, he has the drive and work ethic to get there) he’s going to have to become a game-changing defender along with being a game-changing scorer.

I’m interested to see what the Thunder get from Nenad Krstic this season. Center, to me, is the big weak spot on this team, the one place they don’t have a definite future starter penned in. The Thunder signed Krstic for the mid-level out of Russia last season, and it was a good gamble. Krstic is a skilled big man who had showed a lot of promise in New Jersey before a knee injury took him down. He definitely wasn’t starting caliber in the half season he played, as he was below average offensively, and that’s really all he brings to the table anyway. However, that was just a half season, and it may be that after getting back into the swing of things, he can return to be at least the solid contributor he was for the Nets. If the injury has permanently slowed him down, though, he doesn’t bring very much to the table. The Sonics don’t really have another option at center other than Nick Collison (who is a power forward), so they need Krstic to produce. Keep an eye on rookie Serge Ibaka though, if not now than over the next few years. He’s a tremendous athlete, and for such a raw prospect, he showed surprisingly good ball skills in the summer league.

Russell Westbrook didn’t have nearly as good a season last year as everyone seems to think he did. He shot the ball poorly and he turned the ball over too much, making him a really inefficient player. What he did do, though, is show the kind of potential he has with his athletic ability, and the Thunder were happy enough that they decided to pass on Ricky Rubio in the draft, in part because they were so confident with Westbrook as their point guard of the future. While I don’t really agree with that, there are a lot of things to like about Westbrook. He’s going to be a fantastic defender for his whole career. He has the strength, speed, and mentality to be a lock-down defender, and he learned from a great defensive coach in college. Offensively, Westbrook makes his living in the lane, able to get around (or bull straight through) most defenders to get into the paint. His problem comes once he gets there. Despite his strength and athleticism, Westbrook was a very poor finisher last year, and his wild forays to the rim often resulted in careless turnovers. The good news is that he drew a lot of fouls, and that high turnover rates are common among rookies, and typically improve quickly. I also wouldn’t worry overly much about the inability to finish. Westbrook has all the physical tools to be a great finisher, and I find it hard to believe that he’ll be that bad again. The bigger problem comes from his inability to shoot the ball. As poor as he was finishing at the rim, he was far, far worse when it came to shooting jumpers. He’s also going to have to improve on setting up his teammates, especially playing alongside a guy like Durant. Right now, Westbrook is less “basketball player” and more “athlete,” and we’ll just have to see if he can convert those athletic gifts to actual production.

James Harden is a rookie to watch this year. I think he could very well have the starting SG spot by the end of the season. Of course, he’s only got Thabo Sefolosha to contend with, so that’s a plus. Harden kind of reminds me of a bigger Chauncey Billups, in the way that so many of his points come either from threes or free throws. He’s a very smart player, and really is a great fit beside Durant. He has a smooth jumper, but he’s also got excellent court vision for a guy who is such an effective scorer. A lot of people going into the draft were saying he’s kind of like a poor man’s Brandon Roy. I don’t quite agree with that, but I think it’s safe to say that if Harden grows into either a poor man’s Brandon Roy or a taller Chauncey Billups, the Thunder will be pretty happy.

Keep an eye on D.J. White this year. I loved him going into the draft, and then his season was basically ended by surgery. In the little time he did play though, he was absolutely fantastic. I’m excited to see if they give him any playing time this season, and what he does with it.

X-Factor: Jeff Green – Last year was a massive improvement for Green from his rookie season. He played nearly 10 minutes more per game, and his percentages went up across the board, especially three point accuracy, which took such a large jump that you’ve got to be a bit skeptical that it’ll stay there. Green’s role is really to be a jack- of-all-trades for this Oklahoma City team, he does a little bit of everything. He’s a little overmatched at the PF position, and it shows in his low rebound rate. He reminds me a bit of Lamar Odom, as a more face-up oriented PF who has a very versatile skillset. Entering his 3rd season, Green hasn’t really defined himself as a player yet, and I’m interested to see what he does this 3rd year, which is often the “breakout” year for guys. The first thing he’s got to do is stop settling for bad mid-range jumpers. 40% of his shots were two-point jumpers, but he made only 34.6% of them, one of the worst percentages in the league. Attacking the rim more would also improve his middling free throw rate, getting him more easy points. As of right now, Green is a decent player who does a lot of different things, but if this team is going to capitalize on all their potential, he’s going to have to eliminate some of his bad habits and become a more efficient player.

Overview

Kiss last year’s 23 wins goodbye, the Thunder is almost certainly going to blow that out of the water. Durant is  going to have a breakout year. The young guys get older, James Harden comes on board, and they get full seasons from Krstic and Thabo Sefolosha. Everything is in place for a massive improvement, and with the decay of some of the previous stalwarts in the West, there could even be a playoff spot in the works. Ultimately, I think they’ll fall short, but end up with 38-40 wins. They were actually a somewhat decent defense last year, just under the league average, and there’s no way they can be that bad offensively again. With Durant, combined with the improvement of Green and Westbrook, they absolutely shouldn’t be the worst shooting team in the league again. If they can manage an average offense (12th – 17th range) and defense, that’ll be good for plenty of wins. Even when they’re not winning, though, they’re fun to watch. They’re young, athletic, and play at a high pace. The team is stockpiling young assets (not quite to the extent that the Blazers have, but they’re getting there), and with the franchise’s hopes hitched to Durant’s fast-rising star, The Thunder should be a force in the West within the next few years.

9th in the West – Race to Eighth


7 Responses to “Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder”

  1. Brandon Hoffman Says:

    40 points per game?

    I think you’re underestimating how difficult it would be to average 40 a game over the course of an 82-game season.

    Listen to the greatest scorer of all-time.

    From Michael Jordan’s autobiography, “For Love of the Game”:

    “Before the 1997-98 season, Penny Hardaway told me he was going to win the scoring title and average 40 points a game. Shaquille O’Neal was gone and Hardaway figured he would have all the opportunities. Do you know how hard it is to average 40 points? That’s 10 points a quarter, every quarter of every game. And that’s just your average. Now, if you don’t score at least 10, then you have to score even more later.”

    Think about that.

    Every 30-point game would need to be followed up with a 50-point explosion to maintain a 40-point average. Only two players — Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady — have averaged more than 32 points per game over the last decade.

    Jordan continues:

    “Scoring like I do doesn’t happen because a situation changes or a player decides to be more aggressive. You have to study the game, find opportunities. The opportunities you find one night might not be there the next night. You have to figure out ways to beat virtually every one of your opponents because you can be darn sure that if you’re scoring that many points every one of your opponents is going to make a point of shutting you down. You have to be aggressive at all times mentally, then pick and choose when to attack physically. These kids don’t understand that. They don’t have any understanding of the mental aspect necessary to score 40 points even one night.”

  2. Brandon Hoffman Says:

    Also, define “force” in the Western Conference.

  3. xphoenix87 Says:

    I’m aware of just how absurd a 40 point average is. I’m not predicting that he’s going to do it, just saying I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. Kobe averaged 35 a few years ago, and frankly, I think Durant can be a better pure scorer than Kobe. Jordan averaged 37, and in a much tougher defensive league.

    The thing about Durant is, he’s not a guy who does a ton of different things on the court. He’s a scorer, pure and simple. He was put on this earth to shoot a basketball. He’s a lengthy 6′9 guy who shoots the lights out and has an ultra-quick release, there’s only so many ways teams can gameplan against that. Hollinger’s projection system has him averaging 30 points next year as a 21 year old, and I think even that is probably a few points too low.

    Again, I don’t predict that it’s going to happen. It may even be that his teammates progress quickly enough that he never needs to take on quite that large a load. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility though. If someone were to come from the future and tell me that Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony averaged 40 points in the next few years, I’d be shocked. Durant? I could see it happening if things fall right.

  4. xphoenix87 Says:

    Upper level team in the West. Maybe not a real title contender, but in that tier of high-quality teams that you know aren’t going to miss the playoffs, and that they’ll be a tough out. Like Denver or New Orleans or maybe even Portland at this point. Remember, in addition to the young talent, they have lots of cap space to work with.

  5. Tsunami Says:

    I don’t think the pace of the NBA game is fast enough for any one player to average 40. Kobe averged 35 because took 27 shots a game.

    Last two years, Durant took 17 and 18, and his team is getting better, not worse. He COULD average 40, and I agree that there are few people with the skill sets to do it, but he’d have to average at LEAST 27 shots per game.

    In today’s NBA, it becomes detrimental to the team to take so many shots. But I’m thinking about buying league pass so I can watch Durant.

  6. Thursday Bolts – 10.22.09 | Daily Thunder.com Says:

    [...] BallerBlogger previews the Thunder: “Just to let you know, the ceiling for Kevin Durant has officially been removed. Nothing would surprise me now. If he averages 40 points a game sometime in the next 5 years, I wouldn’t be shocked at all (yes, I know 40 is a lot of points). When you talk about 6′9″ guys who take on the kind of load Durant did last year and shoot as well as he did, it’s Durant and Larry Bird…and that’s it. That’s the list. With his height, length, and absurdly quick release, there’s really no stopping Durant when he decides to shoot. As a pure scorer, there’s no one in the league like him, and there’s actually a pretty good chance he’ll lead the league in scoring this year, and do it efficiently.” [...]

  7. Thunder Tickets Says:

    Durant is one of the best point guard in the NBA. We know that they can fight in all team but they need to improve there ofense and defense.

Leave Your Comment