The best way to gauge team progress is to take a number and compare it to what the team had at the same time last year. Pretty straightforward and simple. And what better to use as a measure than wins and losses?
Last season, the Thunder (then the Sonics of course) didn’t win their 20th game until the final day of the season. The team was 16-54 on March 24th. Now, OKC has win No. 20 with 12 games to go. Barring a dozen-game skid (fingers crossed), we should see 21 wins. That’s progress any way you want to slice it.
When this season started, most everyone gave Oklahoma City one simple goal to shoot for: Do better than last year. Improve. Get better. Grow and give hope. And I think 20 wins in *just* 70 games is an improvement over 20 wins in 82 last year.
(One thing you’ve got to remember is that last year’s 20-win team was entirely different. Only five players remain on the roster that finished the year with the team last season. The reigns hadn’t been entirely handed to Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook wasn’t even part of the equation. It was really more of a veteran led team with guys like a Luke Ridnour, Earl Watson, Kurt Thomas, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West shouldering most the load at different times. Durant only started to take on the “star” role about halfway through the season and Green only started 52 games and averaged 28 minutes a game. Last year’s team most certainly wasn’t the “core” that Sam Presti wanted to move forward with. So this season was almost an entirely separate rebuilding year in itself as now we’re starting to see a roster take shape.)
There’s no denying the change from 2008 to 2009. OKC is 16-21 this year, compared to 4-29 in 2008. Last season, the team was 9-22 in 2007 and 11-40 in 2008. Other words: No striking improvement throughout the year. In fact, they got worse. This season the team has taken a major step ahead with its progress in 2009. Thabo Sefolosha was added to the roster and has made an immediate impact. Kevin Durant has begun to emerge as a bonafide megastar. Jeff Green has gone from possible liability to excellent sidekick. Russell Westbrook has progressed as a point guard and has gone from question mark to the potential Rookie of the Year.
Just look at the stats this year compared to last to see the improvement of the cornerstones of the franchise. Kevin Durant is up everywhere – he’s averaging 5.7 more ppg, 2.0 more rpg, half an assist more per game and shooting much higher percentages. Green is averaging 6.4 more ppg, 2.2 more rpg, half an assist more, has added a consistent three-point shot and is hitting higher percentages everywhere. Major steps forward for the core.
And it’s hard not to think about what might have been. There’s been some buzzer beaters, some tough losses and a slew of close calls. You could make a good “What If” case for OKC to be in the 30-win territory right now. But those games were lost because of youth an inexperience. This group had learned how to lose with the best of them. They had to learn how to win. And because of that, the season has kind of gone in three stages.
Stage 1. Not competitive. Under P.J. Carlesimo, the team was getting blasted. OKC was 1-12 with an average losing margin of 14.4 points a game. There really was no hope and no reason to think this team would be better next year. Winning 20 games seemed as likely as Tyler Perry making a movie that I’d actually want to see. Most still had OKC pegged as “a team with potential” but didn’t see any chance of the Thunder sniffing the playoffs until maybe 2011-12. And that was a big-time maybe.
Stage 2. Competitive but not winning. Maybe the most important step in building this team. After the ridiculously poor start, these guys needed to be convinced that they could hang with NBA competition and that they shouldn’t be sent down to play college teams. After getting raked by New Orleans at home in maybe the biggest home game of the season, Carlesimo was canned and Brooks took over. The team showed the fire and passion that was missing from the 13 games in a ? defeat against the Hornets the next night. After that the team went 3-17 for the rest of 2008 but the averaging losing margin was cut to 8.6 with seven losses by single digits. They were still losing but they at least had a chance to win.
Stage 3. Competitive and winning. The New Year’s Eve Golden State win could go down as the Fulcrum Game for OKC. Until then, the team was hanging tough but rarely winning. After that, the team was still competitive, but winning almost half the time. As a young team – a really young team with an average age of 24 – learning to win was probably the most important thing to establish this season. And that’s happening. OKC has lost 11 games by single digits in 2009 and even in double-digit losses, the Thunder’s been competitive. But instead of losing every one of those close ones, they’re winning them now.
So what’s hopefully Stage 4? Winning. Just straight up winning. Competitive every night with the expectation to win every game. Getting near .500 on the road and nearly unbeatable at home. A team like Portland isn’t one of the elite teams in the league, but they have the expectation to win every night. They truly feel like they can beat any team on any given night and they know at home they should win. No more, “Maybe OKC can play well and surprise.” Turn that to, “The Thunder should take care of business at home tonight and get ready for a big road game tomorrow.” That’s the next phase in this evolution into a contender. Maybe it happens next year. Maybe the year after that. But with the rapid growth this year, it could happen next season.
John Hollinger has OKC as a potential lottery to playoff team next year. And the reason for it is the major improvement in such a short time. I’ve talked about this stuff it seems like a thousand times, but back in mid-December some were talking worst ever with this group. Now some are talking playoffs next year. Amazing.
And if somehow I’ve jinxed this team and they lose 12 straight as a result of my assuming they will win one game out of the next 12, I will immediately climb to the top of the Ford Center and jump off with my underwear hooked to something. I don’t want to be the fall guy here. Maybe I should have looked at the upcoming schedule – eight of the 12 are surefire playoff squads. But those are the type of teams OKC is going to have to get used to beating to get to Stage 4.
At the end of the day, if the team finishes 24-58, that’s just four more wins than last year. Not a huge deal. But that would mean that the team won as many games in 2009 as it did all of last year. That’s the improvement I’m talking about. The fact that they even got to this 20-win plateau says something about the team’s growth.
It’s all about baby steps forward. One foot after the other, step by step. It’s not going to happen all at once, but hopefully this season’s series of baby steps can lead up to a much bigger one next year.