I love the offseason. It’s really almost as much fun to me as actually playing games. Moving parts, roster changes, players working on their games, speculating… it’s fun. Time to start looking at who could be here, who might not be and just the overall (and very early) outlook for next season.
By John Mietus
Special to Daily Thunder
It’s a summer of reckoning for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Next season brings renewed optimism and expectation for the club. We as fans of the team must expect things to improve and we must expect to see major changes next year in the win/loss column. The players, who I and many others believe have the right talent to win at the NBA level must piece together “unexpected” victories and become a “surprise” team contending for the playoffs. Progress can only be measured in small increments, but this year’s version of the club has made significant strides during the course of the season. Scott Brooks has done an excellent job keeping the Thunder competitive to the very last week of the season, there is no question that the team had no interest in “tanking” in order to improve draft position. I believe this is good karma for both coach and ball club, not conceding an inch even when making the playoffs is a dream long dead. Brooks continues to demonstrate he is the right man for the job of leading the Thunder into next season.
With 18 losses this year coming by six points or less the Thunder seem primed to better their overall record in 2009-2010. Even a 50% improvement in “close games” would be a major leap forward in the standings. And this belies the fact that the club has yet to fully decide on its roster going forward. We’re sitting on a heaping pile of draft picks, right now based on record: three of the top 34. Considering the success with drafting Russell Westbrook fourth last year and the additions of Jeff Green and Kevin Durant the year before, there’s a good chance the team can add at least one, if not two contributors via the draft alone this offseason. In addition, the Thunder are so far below the salary cap that they’ve got plenty of room to maneuver in that area as well. The sun is shining on Oklahoma City.
So measured success we must have to truly consider the upcoming season a success. Certainly there can be no regression as the young players learn to win in the NBA. Peering around the Western Conference I see a Suns team in decline and facing financial difficulty, a Mavericks team nearing the end of its run, a Hornets group that will be looking at a fire-sale of its expensive players, a poorly organized Minnesota group years away from contending, a dysfunctional Golden State bunch, and a young Memphis team that is looking to take a similar path to the Thunder. To truly scale the heights of the conference and pass the Lakers, Spurs, Rockets, Nuggets, and Blazers will probably be better suited as a two-three year plan, but significant progress can be made next year. Can the Thunder go into Salt Lake City next season and win? Can we beat the Lakers at home? Can we challenge the Rockets on the road? These are the questions that need answering.
While it’s impossible to predict the final roster heading into 2009-2010, let’s take a look at the pecking order:
1. Kevin Durant. Brooks and Sam Presti have given him the keys to the franchise and he’s the right guy for the job. Twenty-five years from now when Durant gets inducted into the Hall of Fame and gives a speech about how “upset” he is that it means his basketball career is officially over we’ll all look back fondly on his tenure in Oklahoma City. That said, 2009-2010 will be an entirely different experience for Mr. Durant. No longer will he be judged by the national media through rose colored glasses. He’s had two years in the league to develop and he will be measured in wins and losses from here on out. The rest of his career Durant will have to answer for every failing of the team, every time the group does not deliver a major jump in production (and eventually: every time Oklahoma City fails to capture a title) will fall on Durant’s shoulders.
2. Russell Westbrook. Huge summer for the young man from Southern California. We need him to develop his shooting ability and point guard skill-set. If he comes back with a higher skill level than this season, look out. The 2010 Rookie-Sophomore game should belong to Russell just as this year’s belonged to KD. Russell must become the clear number two talent on the team behind Durant and establish himself as one of the top young lead guards in the NBA. He’s got exactly one more season to put himself firmly into the equation with Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, and Tony Parker.
3. Jeff Green. Ought to continue his glue-guy status and all-around contributions to the team. Green may be the ideal third violin for this orchestra. He’s selfless, easy-going, and talented. He defends well at two positions and has enough offense to justify 35 minutes per night.
4. Nenad Krstic. The laid back Serbian gives good minutes at the center position and will be back on the roster next season. While he may not be viewed as the answer at the center position, he handles the middle much more aptly than the Swift/Petro/Sene three-headed gorgon of the past few years.
5. Thabo Sefolosha. We need to give minutes to the talented Swiss swing-man. The obvious concern is the development of his offensive game, but considering he won’t be asked to carry much of the scoring load maybe we should be satisfied with his defensive contributions. However, his status of tentative starter could be jeopardized by the draft.
The Role Players:
1. Nick Collison. After actively shopping Collison during the trading window this season, Presti might opt to jettison the big guy for future considerations. I like Collison and still think he can help the team win, but after this year’s draft we may be all stocked up at power forward. Even D.J. White has contributed in limited minutes at the end of the season.
2. Earl Watson. While many complain about Earl’s decision making he has proven himself in year’s past and even to a point this season as being a reliable guy to have around to back up Russell. However, if as rumored he spends too much energy complaining about playing time, he’s got to be shown the door.
3. Damien Wilkins/Desmond Mason. Both serviceable backups, both reasonable salaries, but both not necessarily going to contribute to the future of the franchise. Particularly if we opt for a shooting guard in the Draft.
4. Shaun Livingston. More a question of contribution than anything else. Does Livingston have any quality NBA minutes left in his surgically repaired knee. The talent was never a question with this guy, we’ll see if he’s truly recovered enough to contribute next year.
5. Kyle Weaver. An excellent fill in starter this year, may not be on the roster next season.
The “Not Likely” Crowd:
1. Malik Rose. Love Malik Rose, guy plays as hard as anybody and brought a fiery temperment to the court every time out this season. But at 7+ million dollars he’s vastly overpaid and won’t be around next season.
2. Chucky Atkins. Can’t have complainers sitting on the bench behind more talented guys. See Watson, Earl.
3. Robert Swift. Any productive minutes we can get out of Big Red will be a bonus. If he gets shipped off to the Spanish league I don’t think any tears will be shed.
4. Serge Ibaka. Probably still not ready, but may be closer than we thought.
Overall the talent pool will be vastly improved. We’ll all know more when the Draft Lottery order is announced, but for now this lineup is on the immediate horizon for the Thunder.