May 05, 2010
With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Oklahoma City Thunder.
The thing you have to keep telling yourself -- if only to make Oklahoma City's 2009-10 turn seem all the more brighter, or to steel yourself for a near-future that might see the team fade a bit -- is that this is still a rebuilding team. A rebuilding team that won 50 games, in the West. Lucky you.
The Thunder barely made any moves during the last offseason. It committed to Scott Brooks as a head coach, it drafted James Harden(notes) and it extended Thabo Sefolosha(notes). This is more or less the same team, same rotation save for some new faces (Serge Ibaka(notes), thank you for gracing us with your presence), that struggled to three victories in 30 chances to start last season.
Last season's crew had promise, no doubt, but even the team's most ardent admirers (and I considered myself one) didn't expect what 2009-10 brought. In chat after chat, out of nowhere, I was asked if the Thunder were playoff-bound, and I politely wrote them off every time. Even wondered if the team could top 35 or even 30 wins, and meant it. And I was the guy breathlessly talking them up. While figuring them in for 15 fewer wins than they actually achieved.
This is what you have to remember entering 2010-11. Oklahoma City could fade a bit, even if it strikes gold on the free agent market. Even if all those draft picks flesh out. You have to balance things and not overreact.
But support. My god, support.
Because this Thunder team is something special. Because, I'm sorry, it's just not that good, but it plays so great. Jeff Green(notes)? This should be a seventh man on a 50-win team. And yet, save for the playoffs, he works. Nick Collison(notes)? He's your highest-paid player entering the summer, he's only played since 2004-05 and yet postseason announcers were acting as if he'd jumped tip during the Clinton administration. Serge Ibaka's our hero and yet at best he's the dirty work power forward alongside a great scoring center.
And yet, they won. Over and over again. This team screams of championship potential, but individually it tops out at something far, far nastier.
So credit Scott Brooks for putting it all together. And be ready if the team stops playing bigger than the sum of its parts.
OKC will have double-figure cap space this summer after those two first-round picks are accounted for, and you have to wonder what this team is going for. It badly needs a scoring center but so do 25 other teams, and the closest hit is Chris Bosh(notes); though all indications point to him heading elsewhere.
Can general manager Sam Presti swing a trade with all that money? One of those second-round pick deals, like the kind that landed the Clippers Marcus Camby(notes)? Or does he let it roll over until next summer? Because, in spite of how the league's newer CBA could hinder things, the Thunder could have twice as much cap space even after extending Kevin Durant(notes) and Jeff Green. While allowing itself the chance to trade for whoever it fancied while giving up nothing in return (because of the cap space) during the 2010-11 season.
This is the luxury you can work with when you start slow, build assets, don't go for a quick fix (you listening, Charlotte?) and, yes, luck into a second pick in the draft and the ability to draft an all-world talent in Kevin Durant.
Kevin was pretty bad in his first postseason go-round. He was hesitant offensively and missed a series of shots and runners that he hit all season. But he'll improve. There's no way around it. Twenty-one-year-old scoring champions (taking the honor with a .607 True Shooting Percentage, mind you) just ... well, we've no precedent for this. Other than to assume that he'll be bloody brilliant as his career moves along.
Jeff Green? Running the danger of being overrated, and the postseason (32.9 percent shooting) thankfully revealed his faults. Perhaps now the Thunder can relegate him to a role worthy of his abilities. Not to be cruel, but this isn't a person that should be taking shots away from Durant.
The rotation? It succeeds as is, if it remembers what got it to the first 45 wins of the season. This is a defensively-minded team that relies on Durant to finish games, and the Thunder lost a bit of that edge down the stretch of the regular season. Understandable -- they're young -- but that sort of loss of identity cannot re-establish itself to start 2010-11 or the Thunder will dig itself a hole that it will not be able to crawl out of if it wants to make the playoffs. The West is that good.
Act like your GM, Thunder fans, and go slow. The 2009-10 season wasn't a fluke, but a mere approximation of the squad's 2009-10 win total (even with a free agent addition) should be a sufficient accomplishment in 2010-11. You'll hear all sorts of TV types pin this team as a championship dark horse to enter next season, as if they're in on some secret and all the Thunder's postseason games weren't nationally televised, but you'll have to ignore that, and stay humble.
And stick with the line of thinking and reasoning that allowed for such a fantastic season in 2009-10. It will get better. It's just a question of degrees.