(Want to know the top five scariest places in Oklahoma? Royce lays them out over at The Lost Ogle.)
By the time this article runs, the Thunder will have played their first game, and, Gary England willing, be 1-0 after stomping the Kings. That’s going to happen. If it doesn’t, you probably shouldn’t pay any attention to my predictions for the rest of the season.
Key to the Season: Jeff Green
Sure, Kevin Durant is the team’s best player, and James Harden is the rookie ingenue that is supposed to fill the holes the team had last year. No one is going to dispute that. The guy who will have the biggest influence on how this season turns out for the Thunder, though, is the glue guy–Jeff Green.
For the Thunder to reach the unfair expectations being heaped onto them by much of the national media, Jeff Green is the guy who has to get to that next level. When he was drafted, the thought was that he would be as Scottie Pippen was to Michael Jordan for Kevin Durant. And, honestly, I think he can fill that role. For now, though, I’d just like to see him strive to be like David West. If he can consistently bring his A-game, improve his rebounding, and silence the detractors that say he is too small to play power forward (much like West dealt with before the Hornets arrived in OKC), the Thunder will easily improve on their win total from last season, and with luck challenge for a playoff spot.
Even if he does not, I think Green will do a lot for the team fresh off being named a team captain. While I don’t think I’ve seen this mentioned anywhere, it was Green who I saw motivating his teammates this Summer, by publicly calling on them to get to the gym (via Twitter). It might have just been that he didn’t understand you could send messages directly to people with Twitter accounts, but I prefer to look at it as him cracking the whip.
When will James Harden become the starting SG: Not this year
This might be my boldest prediction. Taken third overall, Harden has to be expected to be an immediate difference maker. Otherwise, you would have to think Presti would have gone with the Spanish sensation, Ricky Rubio, even if the team would have to wait a couple of years to bring him over to the U.S. (which is debatable). The expectation is that Harden will fill the hole at shooting guard and be a better shooter and better defender than we saw at Arizona State.
The thing is, people forget about how much of an impact Thabo Sefolosha made for the Thunder last season. I know I did. That is, until I saw a couple of pre season games and remembered just what great defense he brings to the floor, and it appears he might have improved his shooting stroke. Meanwhile, watching James Harden, I saw exactly what I expected to see from a rookie. He was streaky shooting the ball, a little overwhelmed handling the ball, and disappeared much of the time he was on the floor even though I was specifically keeping an eye on him.
Plus, if you look at good teams, most of them tend to have a guy like Thabo in the starting line up. For instance, Denver last season had a super talented offensive weapon in J.R. Smith, but they started Dahntay Jones who from a stat sheet standpoint doesn’t make near the impact. And the Spurs, have chosen to bring their second best player, Manu Ginobili, off the bench in favor of keeping Bruce Bowen (before his defensive skill deteriorated) in the starting five.
I look for Sefolosha to continue as the Thunder starting two guard indefinitely.
Kevin Durant’s scoring average: 25.3
How did I come up with that number? It’s precisely the number of points he averaged last season. And if he has that number, I would still chalk it up as a better season for the budding superstar.
As the team grows around him, Durant is not going to be counted on to carry the whole scoring load. And for us fans, that’s the way we want it. Watching him put up gaudy numbers because his teammates defer to him entirely and let him jack as many shots as Kobe in the post-Shaq/pre-Pau era, we’ll be watching a team much like the Iverson-led 76ers. In essence, a team going nowhere.
Thing I’m going to complain about most this year: Nick Collison’s mustache (or lack-thereof)
You cannot tease me that you are going to grow a handle bar mustache with the inner half shaved and then not do it. I refuse to let this go silently. I’m picturing a reverse Hitler mustache, or else Rollie Fingers’ mustache if he only grew it from the part of the lip near the corner of the mouth. Either way, endless entertainment for me, a guy who loves Landry Jones’ stache even though I hate Sooner football.
If Collison ever follows through, it will synch the University of Kansas as the place for weird hair. Between the “Absolute Value Stache” (as Collison coined the facial hair he hasn’t grown), Drew Gooden’s skullet, and everything Scot Pollard has done with his hair, every rebellious teenage giant with elite basketball skills will be wanting to head to Lawrence.
Other thing I’ll be complaing about too much: Russell Westbrook’s decision making
Looking at the box scores of the first few pre season matchups I was optimistic that Westbrook’s game was developing as the anti-Rubio crowd suggested. His turnover numbers were much smaller and assist numbers much higher than I had come to expect. Then, I actually watched the Miami game and was left with the same tidal wave of conflicting emotions while watching him run the team.
The most upset I got was at the end of the game. Holding onto a three point lead, Westbrook rebounded a Heat miss with 22 seconds to go. With the shot clock turned off, he went coast to coast with the ball and fired up a wild lay up attempt that came nowhere close to the rim. Luckily, Etan Thomas bailed him out by grabbing the offensive rebound and getting fouled. But, the fact that Westbrook acted like it was a 2-for-1 situation rather than a victory-formation point of the game suggests to me that his basketball IQ still leaves a lot to be desired.
First Player to be Traded: Conditional second-round pick
The Thunder still have around $10MM in cap space. As the season progresses and the economy continues ravaging team owners, there will be a lot of teams begging Presti to help relieve them of salary. I suspect Sam Presti will sit on his hands patiently waiting for a team with high expectations (and high salary commitments) fall out of the playoff hunt and give the Thunder a talented player for nothing.
The New Robert Swift: B.J. Mullens
I saw this guy at P.F. Chang’s last Friday while he was waiting for a table. It’s probably more than I’ll see of him at any games this year. But, for those who are wondering, his eyebrows were immaculately manicured.
Fan Favorite: Serge Ibaka
<Bad pun alert> This guy is going to bring a Serge of energy every time he gets on the floor. </Bad pun alert>
What I’ll be doing tonight: Watching FC Barcelona on ESPN360
I would suggest everyone else do the same. Looking at the team roster, they appear to be the Yankees of Spanish basketball. I’d say Lakers, but I’m guessing the Spanish League doesn’t have salary caps or no way FC Barcelona assembles this much talent. Their roster is a virtual who’s who of international talent not currently in the NBA.
They start Fran Vazquez, who shunned the Magic after being drafted #11, at center. Their power forward is former Michigan State star Erazem Lorbek (backed up by a former NBA player Boniface N’Dong), and Pete Mickael who used to star for Cincinnati finishes out the front line. Their off guard is Spanish superstar and former Grizzlie Juan Carlos Navarro (who bailed after one season in Memphis because they traded Pau Gasol). Then, at point guard is the guy we could have drafted, Ricky Rubio.
I would suggest everyone with access to ESPN360 check these guys out. Then, cry yourself to sleep that we won’t have Rubio to watch in person in Oklahoma City.
Team wins for the season: 32
Sure, 32 wins doesn’t sound like a lot, but a nine game improvement is massive in professional basketball. For the Thunder, that would be a 39% more wins than last year. While I would love for The Columnist Who Shall Not Be Named to be correct and for the team to be challenging for a the eighth seed and flirting with a .500 record…I’m a realist. If the team can post more than thirty wins and be in the game during the fourth quarter night in and night out, that will be enough improvement to make me happy.