Last season the Oklahoma City Thunder won 23 games and finished third-to-last in the Western Conference. 2008-09 marked the organization’s end in Seattle and the supposed beginning of a long haul back to the playoffs.
The plan in 2007 was to rebuild the team around fresh legs. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were traded, and the franchise tag now donned the chest of a lanky rookie out of Texas in Kevin Durant. With any rebuilding plan, architects and fans alike have to cope with the possibility of many losing seasons. Similar situations have succeeded in Atlanta and Portland, while Sacramento is still recovering.
To begin its campaign in OKC last year, the Thunder started 1-12 before deciding to can then head coach P.J. Carlesimo in favor of assistant Scott Brooks. The players responded to Brooks’ system, but still finished 31 games behind the Northwest Division-leader Denver Nuggets. Led by Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook, the 2009 Thunder looked promising, but still needed a few more years of seasoning.
20 games into this season and the Thunder already look like a playoff-caliber team. They are currently in the 8th playoff slot out West at 11-9 and are winning important games. Last season, the Thunder could not close out tight games and they didn’t come ready to play night in and night out. That’s not the case this year.
Oklahoma City has won at San Antonio, at Miami, at Utah and a blowout of Orlando, 102-74, in early November. En route to its 11 wins, opposing teams are being held to just 95.1 points a game compared to 103.1 a game last year. They also haven’t lost a game by at least 20 points all seasonâ€”compared to four times at this point last year.
Simply enough, the Thunder can be as good as they want to this year. The focal point of the team is undoubtedly resting on that kid from Texas’ shoulders, but his surrounding entourage has a bright future ahead. Clay Bennett may not have made the right choice in moving his team from Seattle, but choosing young GM brainchild, Sam Presti, to lead the Thunder was genius. Presti has managed to pull the proverbial rabbit from a hat with many of his decisions.
For starters, the Thunder’s team core is built upon Top-5 Draft picks: Durant (2), James Harden (3), Westbrook (4) and Green (5). Presti also swung deals for Thabo Sefoloshaâ€”who has become their definitive defensive stopper around the arcâ€”and 7-footer, Nenad Krstic, to roam the paint in OKC. The young nucleus of this team, comprised of those four Top-5 Draft picks, is already playing at a high level.
Durant is leading the team with over 28 points and 7 rebounds a game. While in the midst of a breakout seasonâ€”which is strange considering he averaged 25.3 a year agoâ€”Durant is also averaging the most rebounds, assists and steals of his short career. The 6-9 Green, who’s averaging 14.7 and 6.3, is a solid inside-outside presence and will be very, very good in Oklahoma City for many years. Even at 23 years old, Green has only showed glimpses of what he is capable of doing. Harden is also playing well and as he continues to loosen up to the NBA game, he will begin playing more fluidlyâ€”although he did drop 26 and 9 in a 104-88 win over the Warriors Monday night. With these pieces in placeâ€”and help coming from more experienceâ€”the Thunder are looking surprisingly composed this season. Wait, did I forget someone?
Oh yeah, that Westbrook guy.
In my opinion, Westbrook is the key to the Thunder’s success. Durant is your go-to-guy and can drop 40 whenever he feels his averages slipping, but Russell is the fire starter. Besides Aaron Brooks and Ty Lawson, Westbrook might be the fastest guy in the League with or without the ball. He clearly has a second gear and dices through defenses effortlessly. Westbrook gives the Thunder a stable point guard that knowsâ€”and canâ€”when to score and when to pass (He dished out 15 helpers in a win against Philly a week ago). Westbrook understands the flow of the game and can adapt to what the defense gives him.
For a guy who only played college ball for two years and ran primarily as a shooting guard, Westbrook’s rapid development has been impressive. As of Wednesday, he is averaging 16 points, 4.7 boards and 6.9 dimes a game.
Above all of its statistics and improvements this season, the biggest factor in the Thunder’s realization of its talent has been its chemistry. Presti and the Thunder have brought in quality guys who have developed friendships with one another. This in turn has helped drive their success on the court. When you watch the Thunder, the guys look very comfortable and trusting playing togetherâ€”as evident in their offense as well as their body language. The same cannot be said for teams like Golden State and Washington.
Looking at it today, it’s very possible that the Thunder could finish the season above both Portland and San Antonioâ€”a notion that seemed ridiculous last year. With the Blazers’ recent rash of injuries and San Antonio also bitten by the injury bug, Oklahoma City is on the uptake. ESPN’s John Hollinger has OKC finishing fifth in the Western Conference through his “playoff odds” crystal ball.
With upcoming games against the Cavaliers, Nuggets and Dallas next week, we will see for sure if the Thunder can keep up with the NBA’s elite. If at the very least, this team will be exciting to watch mature and should turn more than a few heads this season in the wins column.