(Note: This is my preview for Jeff Clark’s CelticsBlog preview series. I’ll have more preview stuff coming later on this month.)
Team name: Oklahoma City Thunder
Previous record: 23-59
James Harden, Byron Mullens, Kevin Ollie, Etan Thomas, Serge Ibaka, Maurice Cheeks (coaching staff)
Robert Swift, Malik Rose, Desmond Mason, Earl Watson, Chucky Atkins
1. What significant moves were made in the offseason?
I think the question, at least for OKC should be, “what significant moves weren’t made in the offseason?” With a heap of cap space in his pocket, general manager Sam Presti chose not to make a splash in a watered down free agent market. The most important moves were done via the draft- James Harden picked third overall and Byron Mullens coming in through a trade with Dallas.
While the Thunder didn’t grab anyone’s attention by signing a big name, a couple savvy moves were made by Presti. Bringing in Etan Thomas vastly deepens OKC’s thin frontline, but it also unloaded two dead body contracts in Damien Wilkins and Chucky Atkins. Then Presti bought out Earl Watson, clearing more space. And finally, veteran point man Kevin Ollie was signed to back up Shaun Livingston. Oh, and don’t forget that Serge Ibaka was signed to a multi-year deal after being drafted in 2008 and playing a year in Europe.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Enthusiasm, hunger and desire. This team has heard all offseason how they’re on the rise, how they’re the team of the future and how chic a pick they are. Now they want to prove everyone right. After suffering through a horrific 3-29 start last year, the team picked up the pieces to close out the season on a 20-30 run. Which was pretty darn good considering. Now with Kevin Durant leading the charge, this group is hungry to take another step toward respectability. They may be young, but they want to win and want to win now.
X’s and O’s wise, the Thunder can create a bunch of matchup issues for opposing defenses. Everyone is versatile. Everyone can play multiple positions. Russell Westbrook is a handful, Durant is a nightmare for any defender and Jeff Green is difficult for most fours to guard in this league. Add in the offensive capabilities of James Harden likely coming off the bench and this team could fill it up in a bunch of different ways. Efficiency wise, OKC was worse offensively than defensively last year, but a lot of that was due to the start under P.J. Carlesimo. Another year in Scott Brooks’ scheme and this group could be dangerous. At least on one end of the floor.
3 What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Youth, inexperience and immaturity. Three things you deal with when the average age of your starting five is under 24. Last season, the Thunder led the league in losses under six points. They just didn’t know how to close. And it was simply because they hadn’t learned how to win. They hadn’t learned how to step up in big spots and make winning plays. Those are the type of things that only come with good coaching and experience.
And while another year for the core should help, it can’t be forgotten that these guys are young and are learning how to finish games. It might drive fans mad a couple times this year when they blow a close game or lose a big lead, but it will inevitably happen.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Last season, I *thought* a reasonable goal would to be .500 at home. And while it didn’t happen (they went 15-26 at the Ford Center), the Thunder did got 13-12 at home in 2009. So I think that’s another goal for this year. Be at least .500 at home. That’s 21 wins guaranteed right there and I think this team is good enough to win 25 games at home.
Similarity, OKC really needs to eclipse the 30-win mark. With the way some people are drooling over the Thunder right now, you’d think it should be 40 wins or bust. But a nice, steady 7-10 game improvement is a must. Of course life would be good if OKC could jump 15-20 wins, but I’m not sure how realistic that is.
Overall, the team just needs to continue to improve and learn how to play together. It’s essential for a young team that’s in a building stage to not take any steps back. Stay on the course and keep working to get better. That’s what this season is all about. Last year was about adapting to a new environment and taking lumps early on to get to a point of winning some games later on. This year should carry on the momentum of last year and build more for a strong run in 2010-11.
5. Should Kevin Durant be considered in the game’s elite?
Absolutely. Yes. Most definitely. Bang-a-rang. I know some people will point out his defense and some will nitpick about his plus/minus. It’s not like I’m overlooking either thing. Defense is absolutely as important as offense. If you give up as many points as you score then you’re really not all that valuable on the floor. But Durant is a worker’s worker. He really wants to be as good as he can be. He’s not afraid of work. He’s not afraid of accepting his limitations.
He will be an offensive assassin this year but I’m thinking he improves enough defensively to push away most of the criticism. I don’t think he’ll ever be an elite defender, but when you can put the ball in the bucket as much as he does, all your defense really needs to be is adequate in order to prove your worth on the floor.
I’m fluctuate between 32 and 36 wins for this group. I’m not sure if it’s that important to really nail down a number because honestly, who is ever right in predicting crap? This team is capable of nearing the 40-win mark if Russell Westbrook carries into the season what he’s been doing this preseason. If he continues to evolve into a floor general type playmaking point guard, this team could shock some people. The pieces are there. It’s just about them harnessing the talent and translating it into wins.