Thunder ’10-11 Preview
30 teams in 30 days.
by Emry DowningHall / @EmryDH
While LeBron James and company seem to be embracing their roles as antagonists for the upcoming NBA season, Kevin Durant and the Thunder are widely billed as the League’s protagonists.
Whether right or wrong, James has been vilified for the way he handled his escape to South Beach. Meanwhile, Durant has quickly come to represent a humble, selfless, focused, team-first superstar.
I can understand readers thinking it’s misguided to lead a preview for the Oklahoma City Thunder with a reference to LeBron James, but it’s critical to point out that as much as this summer will be remembered for LeBron’s off the court decisions, Durant made a similarly profound impact.
Though the SLAM family has been up on Durant for years, consider the casual NBA fan who, put off by the antics of free agency, reads about Durant announcing a contract extension in 140 characters, and then catches the highlights of Durant captaining an unheralded Team USA squad to the FIBA gold medal in Istanbul, finally placing him in the same class as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
In the four years I’ve been writing the Thunder season preview, with apologies to the Seattle fans, I began to wonder: Is there a less polarizing team in sports than the Thunder? Who doesn’t want to see this group succeed? That sentiment begins with Durant, but it doesn’t end there. The Thunder has created an appeal not by going out and acquiring top-tier free agents but by cultivating a culture of winning through developing their own players. This long-term approach to success is especially unique in modern sports, where free agency often dictates success, or leads to disappointment.
What you’re left with is a super talented mix of guys that has developed together and shared professional success and failure. The ‘10-11 season will be unique because this team is no longer sneaking up on anyone, nor will a first round playoff push of the eventual NBA champs be considered a successful run. Their superstar has been extended and the pieces are in place to contend for the Western Conference title.
The Thunder jumped from 20 wins in ’08-09 to 50 in ’09-10. The Vegas over/under for last season was 35; this year it will be closer to 55. Beyond Durant, the reason for that meteoric rise is the development of Russell Westbrook. If you watched the FIBA tournament closely, you noticed some of the team’s best play occurred when Westbrook was running the show. That’s high praise considering the roster initially included both Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. Though his jump shot lacks an assassin’s trigger from distance, his ability to get to the basket at will creates easy opportunities for teammates and there are few better at finishing around the rim.
Though it’s admittedly scary to imagine Stephen Curry suited up in OKC, second-year man James Harden is the perfect complement to Durant and Westbrook, with his ability to handle the ball, space the floor, defer, or shoot the three. Not that Curry hasn’t shown a willingness to share the ball, but Harden’s unselfish nature when playing with the first unit, and ability to force the issue off the bench, worked well last season and he should be inspired in his second year.
Perhaps the most important piece for the Thunder not wearing No. 35 is restricted free agent Jeff Green. It’s widely believed that OKC is going to let the market dictate Green’s value, and even in what appears at times to be basketball’s utopia, players are still extra motivated to perform with dollars on the line. Green’s scoring numbers reflected a decline last season but that can be extremely misleading on a team that emphasizes movement and has the League’s leading scorer. More alarming was a dip in rebounding production, but the smart money has those numbers returning to form this season. Green provides versatility because he can slide down to the 3 spot while also defending the 4. Though he isn’t likely to be suiting up in Los Angeles this February, predicting a big season from Green isn’t a stretch.
Although the Thunder lack a dominant front court presence, Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, Nenad Krstic, BJ Mullens and DJ White should provide adequate depth. First-year pro Cole Aldrich is a true center and will be given the opportunity to succeed in this crowded, yet un-established front line. The development of Ibaka will be key for the Thunder. Ibaka is one of those players Sam Presti threw on ice after selecting him with the 24th pick in 2008. Now he’s ready to contribute. In last year’s postseason he provided 25 minutes, 8 points and 7 rebounds, and he’s still learning how to play.
The rest of the roster is shaped by guys who are well beyond serviceable. Thabo Sefolosha and Royal Ivey are strong wing defenders who will help the cause as long as they’re not required to create their own shot. Daequan Cook and Eric Maynor might struggle to find minutes in the crowded backcourt, but they have already proven they can produce at the NBA level.
There’s not much left to say about Kevin Durant. If his sole focus was getting buckets night in and night out, there’s no doubt in my mind his scoring output could match the number on his jersey. I predict he’ll come in closer to the 32 ppg mark and run away with the scoring title. As far as where he stands among the League’s elite, I’ll let the SLAMonline Top 50 sort that out. The only thing he’s lacking right now is a truly defining nickname. I’m not one for forcing the issue with this sort of thing, but while I have the stage, a friend of mine coined “EZ Buckets” for KD and it seems to fit. We’ll also be taking all other suggestions in the comments section.
As for the Thunder, I predict 54 wins on the season and a second round playoff exit. While that may seem anti-climactic after the praise I’ve been tossing on the franchise, keep in mind, it’s still a work in progress and Durant just turned 22 years old.
Previous Season Previews can be found in the archive.