30 Teams, 30 Days
Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview.
We continue previewing the Northwest Division with the Oklahoma City Thunder. You can read past previews here.
The term blueprint is defined as “something intended as a guide for the creation of something else.”
Shawn Carter has basically monopolized the term, dropping three albums since 2001 that bear the name, but the blueprint we’re going to examine doesn’t involve the Heart of the City, 03’ Bonnie and Clyde, or the Death of Auto Tune. Somewhere in the League’s Northwest division, the best GM in basketball has already begun laying it out for us; he’s been laying it out since 2007.
Before I unleash a hailstorm of praise on Sam Presti that’s going to tap dance around the “Man Crush” zone, let me get this out of the way. Clearly I’d be humming a different melody if Portland had gone the other direction with the No. 1 overall pick in 2007. Though Presti’s model might still be effective with old man Oden in place of Kevin Durant, we’d be forced to monitor Oden’s development and birth certificate this season, while Kevin Durant has already arrived in the League’s elite tier.
The brilliance of Presti’s blueprint is the patience he’s demonstrated with a player of Durant’s caliber on his roster. Trading Ray Allen, and his contract, for the 5th pick (Jeff Green) in the 2007 Draft, and letting Rashard Lewis walk during free agency the same summer left the franchise without a single established star on its roster. Presti could have easily done what the Magic elected to do and overpaid for Lewis, or offered an extension to Allen. Instead he landed two rookies who would be named to the All-Rookie Team that season.
Though the Sonics only recorded 20 wins that season, the development of Green and Durant was obvious to even casual NBA observers. Anyone who’s ever laced up the sneaks at any level will co-sign that having the green light pays immediate dividends. Even at the highest level of competition this holds true. On the final game of the season Durant held his own coming out party, dropping 42 points and 13 rebounds on the Warriors. A star, albeit a very lanky star, was born.
When Russell Westbrook began climbing up draft boards during pre-draft workouts, it seemed likely he was going to land in Oklahoma City. Once again, Presti made the most of his draft, adding another versatile piece to the team’s core of Green and Durant. As sharp as the Westbrook selection was, the better move was the one the team didn’t make, once again going into the season without taking on long-term contracts that come at the expense of young players’ shots, confidence and development.
Back in May, representing the Thunder, I used the 3rd pick in the SLAMonline Mock Draft to select Ricky Rubio. I figured Westbrook was versatile enough to slide to the two and having them on the same roster would only hasten the young guards’ learning curve. In June, Presti and company had different plans, as they selected James Harden with the pick. While NBA fans were sadly denied the opportunity to watch untold SportsCenter highlights, and without a doubt the most explosive team in NBA 2k10, it’s possible Presti had information that David Kahn wasn’t party to, right? That’s not to discount James Harden’s reputation as a polished character guy and team-first player (to say nothing of his masterful beard) make him a natural fit for the Thunder. And while we’ll never know for sure, Sam Presti walks away – yet again – from the situation smoother than Don Draper at a singles mixer.
Taking a look at the OKC roster heading into the ’09-10 season, the team is built around Durant, Green, Westbrook and Harden. Those names alone are enough to make a compelling case for the League’s most talented young roster. Add to that mix Nick Collison, Shaun Livingston, Thabo Sefolosha and DJ White and you have a nucleus well suited to improve on last season’s 23 wins. Head coach Scott Brooks, who replaced PJ Carlesimo after last season’s 1-12 start, has already proved himself more than capable with the clipboard.
While the centerpiece of this blueprint is Kevin Durant, the salary cap flexibility, a product of not harboring cumbersome contracts, is the rub. Sam Presti has made it clear that a playoff birth isn’t his M.O. What good is a playoff appearance that comes at the expense of salary cap flexibility and player development? With respect to the unique situation and pressures facing Danny Ferry in Cleveland, wouldn’t the Cavaliers trade that finals sweep for three young, reasonably-paid, highly talented compliments to their superstar? Of course they would. Kevin Durant is going to re-sign in Oklahoma City because no other team is going to be able to pay him the max while also giving him a legit shot at winning a championship. Everyone on the roster knows this is Durant’s team. They know it’s his city, and if he makes the leap he’s seemingly in place to make, it will quickly become his League.
Once Durant’s signature is on the extension, Presti can then decide who is part of the long-term championship run and who is expendable. Once those decisions are made you’ll see the Thunder become players in the free-agent market, surrounding Durant with whatever talent he needs to make a run at the title.
It’s important to acknowledge that Presti has taken advantage of a situation where immediate pressure to win isn’t a pressing issue. The Thunder is literally the only game in town in Oklahoma City, so the organization is blessed with a slow-draining hourglass. That said, Presti’s foresight and patience deserve high praise; he has put his teams and their fans in the enviable position of having excitement for the upcoming season, while allowing them to keep their eyes fixed on the bigger, shinier picture.
Projected ‘09-10 record: 34-48