I spent the whole summer being incredibly excited about this season one minute and then completely terrified the next. Excited for what could be, terrified for what might not. A summer of hype and potentially unreasonable expectation has scared me a little. Well, maybe scared me a lot. I don’t want to be let down. I haven’t soured by any means on the season, but I think I need to re-excite myself. So here’s 20 reasons to be fired up about this season even if you’re so terrified about it that you’ve changed pants four times already and it’s not even lunch.
1. Kevin Durant
He’s No. 1 for a reason. He is the absolute tip-top reason you should be pumped about this year. Nobody really knows what to expect from him. Twenty-five points per game? Thirty? More than 30? I feel like George Costanza asking Jerry how much he paid for his suede jacket. I’m walking out of here right now thinking KD could average more than 35 points this season, unless you tell me different. Most that claim to know stuff have eliminated his ceiling completely. But not only can we expect to possibly see KD step into the pagoda of the NBA elite in terms of gaudy offensive statistics, but he’s worked all summer upping his defensive game. He’s motivated and that’s scary. Forget reading the other 19 things I list. This should be enough.
2. Natural progression
This is what we’re all banking on. If it doesn’t happen, we may all end up running headfirst into a staircase. When you build a team of young college studs and feign any free agent impact signings, it’s all about player development. And spend 10 seconds talking to Sam Presti and he’ll say “player development,” “process,” “culture” and “plan” 16 times each. Some folks out there are expecting a large jump for this team – a major, unnatural progression. It’s definitely possible and heaven knows I’m hoping for it. But even natural progression is enough to fire me up more than Eddy Curry at an all-you-can-eat. If this young core progresses this year the way that’s intended, we’ll get a nice bump in wins, some major momentum into the offseason and the deserved buzz and hype we all would love to see. Playoffs would be more than we could ask, but things at least sticking to plan this season is enough for me.
3. Russell Westbrook and The Leap
The team’s success depends on it. Presti made a commitment to Westbrook as the point guard of the future by passing on Ricky Rubio last June. Westbrook had an outstanding rookie campaign, considering A) He was a rookie; B) he’d never really played point guard full time and C) he was a rookie. Yet he was a couple rebounds away from being only the 10th rookie in HISTORY to put up 15-5-5, with Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson Michael Jordan and LeBron James being proprietors of that list. And he’s just getting better. This preseason he was Chris Paul-esque with his improved vision and feel for the position. He set teammates up, played under control and slowed down his jets a bit. He’s going to make a leap into the Awesome Zone at some point. He’s too talented not to. But if it’s this year… well, we could be in for something. Something tasty.
Nearly the whole dang team is on it now. So we can follow James Harden, Kyle Weaver, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha (maybe), Byron Mullens, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison all season long getting their thoughts on games and other things. Collison has slowed his pace, but any time a 140 character gem pops up with his name by it, I’m excited to read it. I’m sure he’ll have a thing or two to say this season and I think you can count on whatever he says to be enjoyable. We need Etan Thomas on it though. I think he could work some beautiful prose into just 140 characters.
5. James Harden
He was drafted to fill a need. We can’t say if that need is officially filled yet, but on paper it is. When a guy is your top pick and taken in the top five, by default you’re excited about it. Harden is a smooth operator that will make his teammates better while also providing some outside shooting and scoring. It may take half a season for him to get rolling. It may take just a month. But when he starts to figure it all out, he’s going to make this team much better.
Professional basketball in Oklahoma? AGAIN? Yes please. This is Year 2 and I’m just excited to be able to talk about transactions, a roster and the game in general. We didn’t have this three years ago. And the best news is, we’ll have this again next year and the next and the next…
7. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is the most intriguing player on this roster. Who knows what we’ll see. He may play 20 minutes a night. He may not play at all. He may spend his season in Tulsa. He may explode a basketball by swatting it so hard. It’s all so captivating! Ibaka is a mystery and we don’t really know what to expect. We know he’s got athleticism out the everything and will surely bring us to our feet a few times. We can only hope he stands us up more than a few.
8. No Earl Watson!
Did you grow frustrated last season watching Earl dribble to an elbow with 18 on the shot clock and hoist an ugly jumper, which inevitably clanked back-iron? Me too! That’s why I slaughtered a lamb in celebration and thanks the day Presti bought out his contract.
9. No Damien Wilkins!
You know what sucked? Yes, Damien Wilkins last season. We’ve got the Mendoza Line, we’ve got a new Trudeau line for football, but if we’re looking for a general suckage term for the NBA, Wilkins’ 2008-09 season would definitely be in contention. Horrible percentages, uncanny unproductiveness (word?), general disinterest. It was truly something special. Both team scapegoats are gone and while I’m sure we’ll find someone else to place all blame on, it’s nice to see these two cadavers in different laundry.
10. Youth and exuberance
You know you’ve got a glass half full group when it can start 3-29 and players don’t start faking injuries just so they don’t have to play that night. These guys fought hard through it all and it paid off with a decent finish to the season and some momentum into this one. And with the average age of the team hovering around 24, these guys are just excited to be playing basketball. They play XBOX all day just to pass the time until tip-off. There aren’t a lot of distractions for them. Basketball is life. And that should translate into 82 games of all out play, for good or bad. They’ll run, they’ll dunk and they’ll play hard. Whatever happens, it should be fun.
11. An All-Star Game within driving distance
And inside a spaceship no less. But the best thing is that Kevin Durant is likely going to be participating and when Oklahoma City sends its first player to the All-Star game, we can actually all go see it. Russell Westbrook is a definite contender for the dunk contest. James Harden will be in the Rookie/Sophomore game. And KD will defend his HORSE title. It will be a Thunder weekend in Dallas, and we can all go.
12. Sam Presti is the smartest man alive
Something is going to happen at the trade deadline. Or even before. Something. We all trust in Presti’s judgment, well, at least most of us, so whatever he’s got in mind, we’re going to get behind. He’s got a diddly of cap space to jostle with, he’s got expiring contracts and he’s got assets out the ace. When Dwight Howard is in a Thunder jersey and all we gave up was Kevin Ollie, Etan Thomas and 2011′s No. 1, don’t ask why. Just nod, shake your head with a Harrison Ford smirk and say, “Heh, that Sam Presti.”
The Thunder fields a solid dunking lineup. Durant can soar. Westbrook flushes with anger. Jeff Green uses both hands and surprises you with an awesome punch. Serge Ibaka may dunk from the other free throw line. Not to mention Harden can toss a few good ones in and Etan Thomas does the whole power dunk thing where he flushes with two hands and shakes the rim around like he had a seizure mid-slam. We’ll have some acrobatics to admire this year for sure. And isn’t that really what we kind of want to see? Chicks dig the dunk ball.
14. The Ford Center
I’ve gone over this already. But it will be fun to watch the NBA in an arena that actually feels like you should be watching the NBA in it.
15. The trade deadline
I’ve never had so much fun with sports while a game wasn’t being played. The moving parts, the talking, the rumors – I ate every bit of it up. I think I had more fun that week than I did the whole season. Granted some of that may have had to do with rooting for a team that was 10-35 at the time. But nonetheless, I can’t wait for the whirling week of deals and rumors. It’s the number one thing you get with a professional team that you don’t get with a college one. Recruiting is faceless and all you care about is a couple of stars next to a kid’s name. You don’t know who he is or where he’s from most times, just what some service thinks of him. But in the pros, you make deals for real players that you know. Hopefully this year OKC is making a deal to push the team over the top instead of making room for the offseason. Oh, and doesn’t rescend it when it happens. That was kind of a buzzkill.
16. Jeff Green
Everybody loves Jeff Green. He’s unassuming, he’s low-key and he’s humble. He plays second fiddle as well as you could. But he made a huge jump last season and he may have more in store this year. Kevin Durant is going to draw almost all attention OKC gets for good reason. Westbrook gets a bunch for his pure flash and excitement. But nobody seems to notice Green. He just does his thing and there are nights he carries the team. You’ve got to love a guy that’s willing to accept a role and do what needs to be done. And a guy LeBron nicknamed “Uncle Jeff.” Best nickname ever.
17. Defense defense defense
It’s what the team spent an entire camp working on. Thabo Sefolosha is the stopper and he’ll lock down on some poor sap all season. Durant supposedly improved, Westbrook is solid and Serge Ibaka may evolve into a rim protector. The Thunder wants to build around defense and spent the offseason working on it. I think there’s some saying about it and championships or somesuch.
18. Scott Brooks
Isn’t Coach Brooks just likable? It always seems like he’s choosing his words very carefully and wants to say the proper thing. He’s got that “You can’t dislike me” look about him and while intense, very under control. For some reason I took pride in having a non-hothead coach last year that didn’t get teed up every other night. I think he’s the right man for the job and he’s instilled an unmatched work ethic in this group to the point he had to lock the gym doors to keep them out. That’s a good sign.
19. The changing of the guard in the West
On the way down: Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix, Houston, potentially New Orleans. On the way up: Oklahoma City, Portland, L.A. Clippers, maybe Minnesota. I’m picturing titanic matchups between the Thunder and Blazers in the Western Conference Finals over the next five years. I’m picturing monster late season games against the Lakers for seeding. The West is about to open up for a team like OKC. The Thunder just has to be ready to seize it and take advantage of the natural cycle in sports. This could be our time. We need to be ready for it.
20. Hopes and dreams
We all have them about this team. We can play the “If” game and we can think about things bouncing right. It’s what makes a season fun. It’s what makes opening night a joy for every team. Everybody is tied for first place. Everybody thinks about being the It Team that surprises everyone and makes a strong push. Could it be this team? Could this team be the Tampa Bay Rays or the Arizona Cardinals? Why not? Why can’t they be? Actually, don’t answer that.
But entering a season, it’s all about hope and what could be. Nobody wants to think about what won’t be. That’s what December is for. Right now, the Thunder is in first and after tonight could be undefeated with a 1.000 winning percentage. And that’s just how the dream starts. With a healthy amount of hope.