As I said, I’m out of pocket for the day, but J.G. has hooked us up with another lengthy, yet very insightful column about Oklahoma City, the Trailblazers and next season.
By J.G. Marking
Special to Daily Thunder
In season three of a rebuilding effort, the hardest thing for the fan is the question of how tempered their expectations should be for the upcoming year. In most year twos of a rebuilding process, the fan typically witnesses the rock-bottom point of the franchise’s complete roster and organizational overhaul (3-29 anyone?), as pieces of the old regime get phased out (farewell Wilcox, Petro and Sene).
But at some point in year two of any successful rebuilding process, typically towards the latter half of the season as young talent begins to gain invaluable playing experience and starts developing some true chemistry, there is a punctuated leap of improvement (20-30 for the last 50, remember that?). This eye-opening leap sparks an ever dangerous ember in the heart of the fan, reawakening the glorious notion of next year. After all, that’s why the NBA Draft tantalizes every fan of every team. And there’s next year, isn’t there?
But what about the Thunder’s next year? What are we to expect from a team that had such a drastic difference in play last year, from the lows of one of the worst starts in NBA history to the highs of near .500 play and knocking off playoff bound competition for one of the league’s youngest and most inexperienced teams?
The focus of the Thunder’s youth movement and player development helps most NBA analysts, reports and bloggers draw an easy comparison to another team, in fact a division rival, that hit the reboot button and pretty much completely rebuilt their franchise in a similar way as the Thunder are trying to do. And unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past year and a half, then you have had this comparison force-fed to you repeatedly, if not belligerently. That comparison is of course that the Thunder is the Trailblazers, only two years behind in the rebuilding process.
But is this comparison an accurate one?
Well after doing some digging and a good deal of research, the surprising answer is that the Trailblazers and Thunder are not a good comparison at all. Nope, good just doesn’t cut it. Eerily Similar. Almost Identical. “Are these two teams related?” Or even, “Is this a sign of the apocalypse?” would all be much more accurate in terms of trying to describe the ridiculously similar comparison of the Thunder and the Trailblazers.
If a good comparison is listing the similarities between Dr. Pepper and Vanilla Dr. Pepper, then comparing the Trailblazers and the Thunder is like comparing Dr. Pepper out of a can with Dr. Pepper out of a bottle. Yes, it’s really that close (though everyone knows it’s better out of a can, I mean, honestly).
And here’s the proof.
First, you have to look at what assets both teams stockpiled in the wake of the relative rebuilding implosions of their rosters. As it turns out, both teams shrewdly compiled a great number of draft picks while shipping out or cutting loose the better players from the old regimes.
Trailblazers: Four Top 6 picks in three years: 2005, 2006, 2007
2005 – SG Martell Webster – 6th
2006 – PF Lamarcus Aldridge – 2nd overall pick traded from Chicago
2006 – SG Brandon Roy – 6th
2007 – C Greg Oden – 1st
Best Pick: Brandon Roy, hands down.
Wasted Pick: Martell Webster (yes, I know you were expecting Oden, but the guy just came off major knee surgery and has yet to play his second season, whereas Webster is little better than a backup in the NBA and with the sixth pick, that’s definitely more of a waste than the still-present potential upside of Oden).
Summary: The Blazers landed a multiple All-Star quality player in Brandon Roy, one really great player who may have a few All-Star games in his future in LaMarcus Aldridge, one guy who could be an impact player or could be a bust who never stays healthy in Greg Oden, and a so far career/mediocre backup player in Martell Webster with their four Top 6 picks (though Webster is still all of 22, so I refuse to write anyone off).
Thunder: Four Top 5 picks in three years: 2007, 2008, 2009
2007 – SF Kevin Durant – 2nd
2007 –“PF” Jeff Green – 5th overall pick traded from Boston
2008 – PG Russell Westbrook – 4th
2009 – SG James Harden – 3rd
Best Pick: Hmmm, Durant is the obvious selection since he’s the Thunder’s best player and a future All-Star and potential MVP candidate if his game develops, but you expect that with the 2nd pick in most drafts (go ahead and throw out this year’s draft in that equation, please). Thus, the argument could be made for Westbrook as the 4th pick after his statistically improbable rookie season and since most individuals wrote the Westbrook pick off as a reach, if not a mistake. But I’ll stick with Durant.
Worst Pick: Uh…“Ask Again Later.” Or, when a worst pick happens, then we can pencil that one in here.
Summary: The Thunder landed one of the potentially greatest players of his generation in Kevin Durant if he can put it all together, who is a virtual lock for the All-Star game throughout his career, one really great player who could sneak into a few All-Star games himself in Russell Westbrook, an exceptionally solid and surprisingly influential all-around player in Jeff Green, and what looks to be a solid if not potentially spectacular starter in James Harden with their four Top 5 picks.
Side note – (If you compare Green’s [13.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 43.8% FG] and Aldridge’s [15.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 48.7% FG] career numbers, especially since Aldridge really raised his numbers in his second and third years after a 9.0 point, 5.0 rebound rookie season, the argument could be made that I may be selling Jeff Green short since he had a statistically better 10.5 point, 4.8 rebound rookie season and still has one more year to increase his numbers up to or even beyond Aldridge’s).
So since both teams did great in accumulating and successfully using their draft picks, the next thing to look at is how did that translate into wins and if the team was able to add more influential pieces to their team through trades or free agency.
And unsurprisingly at this point, there is a distinct correlation between the Blazers and the Thunder. Both teams improved their teams without sacrificing picks or significant pieces through trades and free agency. For posterity’s sake, we are only going to focus on the acquisitions and moves that involved a player who directly helped the rebuilding process or is expected to be a significant piece of the team’s future.
Trailblazers: Blew up the team after the 2003-04 season when they went 41-41 (in almost the exact same fashion that Presti did when he traded Ray Allen in 2007 after the 2006-07 season).
Season Records since the 2003-04 season:
2004-05: 27-55 (Acquired C Joel Pryzbilla)
2005-06: 21-61 (Drafted SG Martell Webster and signed PG Steve Blake to offer sheet, named Nate McMillan head coach)
2006-07: 32-50 (Drafted SG Brandon Roy and the rights for PF/C LaMarcus Aldridge)
2007-08: 41-41 (Drafted C Greg Oden, acquired the rights to SG/SF Rudy Fernandez, re-signed SF Travis Outlaw and re-acquired PG Steve Blake)
2008-09: 54-29 (Drafted PG Jerryd Bayless and SG/SF Nicholas Batum)
Summary: Pryzbilla has averaged about 5 points (4.96), 7.2 rebounds and 2.22 blocks since joining the Trailblazers, and would have had higher numbers had the Trailblazers not benched him during the “Let’s try our PF Aldridge at center” experiment during the 2006-07 season when Pryzbilla logged only 16.3 minutes a game, instead of his 24 minutes a game average in all other years. Steve Blake has averaged almost 10 points (9.75), 5.05 assists, 2.45 rebounds and shot 41.8% from the field since rejoining the Blazers in the 2007-08 season. Needless to say, steady but unspectacular point play and a defensive/rebounding anchor in the post greatly improved the Trailblazers and enabled the team’s third year jump when Aldridge and Roy were brought on board.
Thunder records since the 2006-07 season when the Sonics went 31-51 before trading Ray Allen:
2007-08: 20-62 (Drafted Kevin Durant and Jeff Green)
2008-09: 23-59 (Drafted Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka and the rights for D.J. White and Kyle Weaver and acquired Nenad Krstic, Shaun Livingston and Thabo Sefolosha, named Scott Brooks head coach)
2009-10: TBD (Drafted James Harden, Byron Mullens and the rights to Robert Vaden)
Summary: Nenad Krstic averaged 9.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.07 blocks in 24 minutes of action for the Thunder in his first year back in the NBA since tearing his ACL with the Nets and playing overseas for a small spell, so it’s understandable for Presti and Brooks to expect an improvement in Krstic’s numbers (though I doubt his rebounds and blocks go up all that much). Krstic’s numbers may actually surprise some since statistically he was very comparable last season to the much more touted Spencer Hawes. Unlike Pryzbilla though, Krstic does not provide the shot-blocking and rebounding anchor in the post that the Thunder are still looking to fill. Thabo Sefolosha experienced a breakout half-season upon joining the Thunder midway through the year, averaging 8.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks in 31.1 minutes a game and shooting 41.7%. More so, Thabo’s zeal for defense helped ignite a surprising run for the Thunder as he became the team’s defensive stopper.
Due to Shaun Livingston’s limited sample size, you really can’t come to a conclusion regarding his impact on the team (though I personally am excited about him), however it is clear that Krstic and Sefolosha were both clear upgrades at their positions and impact performers for the Thunder, making them surprisingly good acquisitions for what little the Thunder gave up or paid for them (though, clearly, at least one very big acquisition is still needed to solidify the lineup).
Per the italics, the third year was really the turning point for the Trailblazers, as they increased their win total by double digits after drafting Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. But it would be wise to not overlook the influence that veterans Steve Blake and Joel Pryzbilla played in the rebuilding process after year three. These non-draft moves helped establish the blue-collar, work-for-everything mentality that the Trailblazers have thrived under. Those acquisitions also show just how crucial mid-season trades and free agency acquisitions are in the rebuilding process, as evidenced by the spike in wins that third year and beyond. Of course it also shows how vital a shot-blocker and rebounder are to improving your team’s numbers in the win column, but hey, I guess the Polish Hammer can still become a member of the Thunder on Dec. 15…right?
What’s also interesting, if not weird and uncanny, is that Trailblazers and the Thunder both named their “coach of the future” in year two of the rebuilding process (the start of the year for the Blazers, the end of the year for the Thunder). Thus, the Thunder has indeed followed an astoundingly, ridiculously (that’s enough of the adverbs) similar path as the Trailblazers in both the draft and through their season performance and acquisitions. So, it’s quite clear that this upcoming season should and most likely will be the tell-tale season for the Thunder’s rebuilding process in terms of franchise assessment and what to expect for the future. If you take a look at the strikingly (just one more!) comparable records of both teams in their first and second seasons of rebuilding, the Thunder’s 2009-10 season should resemble something along the lines of a 30-34 win season with a step in the right direction, making that an 11 win increase IF the Thunder are headed in the right direction as a franchise.
If the Thunder manage to exceed 34 wins then, wow, this rebuilding effort is quite ahead of schedule and once again Presti will have his pick of the finest beef and cheeses of all the land. If not….ugh. If not, then there’s still a big missing piece that the Thunder have either not acquired or are waiting/hoping to develop over the next few years and the current crop of players need to step it up.
All in all though, it appears that the Thunder is on the path to establishing the franchise as a heavy competitor in the years to come. Of course all of that could change depending upon what happens in those magical two words: next year.