This was Year 2 of the Thunder experience and I think we’d all agree this season went pretty well. But this is still a process. And there are things for all of us to take and consider as we move into the offseason. I came up with 15 things we learned about this team, city and organization.
1. Russell Westbrook is in fact, a point guard
I think this was our first and most important lesson from this season. If you still haven’t figured this out, then maybe this basketball fan-ship thing isn’t for you. Westbrook isn’t just a point guard, but he’s one of the bestpoint guards. How’s that for a leap? He went from project to star in really, just three months. The player we saw in November compared to the player that the Lakers feared more than any other were only similar because they both wore No. 0.
Westbrook began to develop a deadly mid-range game and once he extends out to a semi-consistent 3-point shot where at least has to be honored, he’ll be unguardable. No one will be able to stay in front of him and prevent his trek to the paint. He’ll drive, dish, score, pass, create – he’ll be one of the most dynamic offensive talents in the league. Someone described as LeBron but three inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter. I think that’s a pretty fair description when you really think about it. Westbrook is the kind of player that won’t averaged 10 assists-plus season in and season out. But he’s a threat to go 20-8-6 (points, assists, rebounds) for a good long while, all while he improves himself on the defensive end.
A friend of mine had an interesting point: In the future, Westbrook, not Durant, will likely be the player teams gameplan to stop. I think that’s really what the Lakers did after Game 4. Because if Westbrook is trucking, the whole team is a completely different animal. Don’t get me wrong, Durant is the unquestioned star and leader. But Westbrook is the engine that makes the car run.
2. James Harden was the right pick
Actually, some may still not agree on this. But I think much like the Westbrook pick in 2008, this one will have a chance to soon prove to be brilliant. He was the fit. Everything about him worked well with this roster. He’s unselfish. He can create. He can shoot. He can score. Yes, his rookie numbers weren’t eye-popping and just shooting barely above 40 percent isn’t great. But there’s reason for it. Harden shot just 47 percent at the rim. That number WILL go up. He’ll learn to absorb contact, slow down and finish. He was fantastic at that during summer league, but that was because he wasn’t playing against NBA bodies. So once he catches up to the speed and physicality of the game, he’ll be an outstanding finisher. I’m convinced.
In his rookie campaign, Harden averaged 9.9 ppg and shot 37.5 percent from 3. He improved his defense dramatically and at times, showed flashes of being a true creator. I don’t know if it’s in the cards to start him next year, but the guy has serious ability. Don’t get hung up on his rookie year. He played a role and did it extremely well. He was consistent for much of the year in just 23 minutes a game. And we saw his importance when OKC struggled offensively without him when he was out with that hamstring injury. Just like everything else, let him develop and you’ll be rewarded.
3. Oklahoma City is legit
We already knew this. But now the world knows. This is a real NBA city. The fans showed it off in the three games at home with and impressed everyone. You have no idea how much positive buzz this generated about OKC. Now other crowds are being compared to Loud City, with writers expressing disappointment because the atmosphere couldn’t live up to the one in the Ford Center.
During the playoffs, Thunder fans consistently stood for the duration of the game. Gone were most of the in-game PA stuff because the crowd was making enough noise on their own. And there was no difference between the first quarter and the fourth quarter. Everyone was invested, everyone cared.
Obviously the intensity was raised in the playoffs, but it’s not like Thunder fans slacked much during the regular season either. But I don’t know if we’ll be able to duplicate this type energy, excitement and emotion because next year it won’t be as new and fresh. I love that us Thunder fans are new to the party and that we act like it. People have said we’re the loudest crowd but not the most knowledgeable. If that means we cheer at inappropriate times, I hope we stay dumb. I love the fact that we don’t fit the NBA arena mold. And I hope that never changes.
Entitlement and satisfaction will happen to some degree as we move on. This is new. It’s fun. It’s exciting. In Year 8, we’ll have seen and done this all before. Hopefully we’ll all be battle-tested playoff fans. But despite that, I hope we always hang on to that unbridled enthusiasm and sense of spirit. I think we will. I hope we will.
Other than the direct development of the players on the floor, the most important thing to take from this season was the development of the fan base. We’re in it for the long haul now. This isn’t just a niche thing. This isn’t just some little hobby we’re all wasting our time with while we wait for football season. We’re invested.We care. I heared three older women probably around the age of 60 talking in a store the other day. They were talking about Game 5 and how “we got our butts kicked.”
This run established the fan base. Honestly, a fervent, enthusiastic fanbase is as important to sustaining the life of the franchise as it was for the success of the team on the floor. And I think 2009-10 cemented this team into all our hearts. It turned the casual fan to hardcore and brought the non-believers to the table. The city and state now care about the NBA. People are talking draft. People are talking salary cap. People are learning what Bird Rights are. It’s kind of amazing. This city was already was the best kept secret in the NBA. Now everyone knows and more importantly, we’re here to stay.
4. Serge Ibaka
We saw. We learned. We Air Congo’d.
I could spend 200 words trying to summarize his potential and what he could mean to this team. But I don’t think I could do it justice. Ibaka is one of those guys that truly can be as good as desires to be.
5. Nick Collison is valuable
He finished second in the league in charges drawn. He played spectacular post defense. He’s one of the best help defenders in the league. He made little plays that consistently made a positive impact on the outcome of a game. His contract is up in 2011 and he’ll be the type of player people are split on. He’ll be 30 and likely on the down-slope of his career. He won’t be worth the MLE, which is around what he makes now, but for a good price, I want Nick Collison on this team. He’s a leader, a smart player and he just helps you win. As soon as you lose him, you’re going to be looking for another guy just like him.
6. There are some holes in the roster
But they aren’t as gaping as some might think. These guys are close – really close. I know there’s a lot of talk about that mythical “big man” but the reality is, probably 25 other teams would love to have that same guy. Heck, think back to all those title-winning Bulls teams. Remember their big men? Bill Wennington, Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley?
7. Rumble is an awesome mascot
I was constantly entertained by Rumble at every game I attended. Typically, off-court antics annoy the crap out of me. I’m there to watch basketball, not some costumed creature jump up and down. But Rumble is great at picking his spots. He never distracts from the game. He complements it. He pulled some great stunts this year (the dunk on roller skates was the top of the mountain for me) and showcased serious talent (like drumming with Peter Rabbit).
I thought he won Mascot of the Year last season as a token gesture by the league for being new. Now I realize he really deserved it. People chuckled at Rumble when he came dropping from the rafters last season pounding on a drumset. And people are still laughing, but this time because of Rumble.
8. Jeff Green has a place, but I’m not sure we know where it is yet
As is the case with a lot of teams, there always has to be That Player on a roster. The guy that polarizes the fanbase and keeps discussion going. Jeff Green is that guy for the Thunder. Is he a power forward? Should he start? Should he be traded? What’s his ceiling? It goes on and on and on. Trust me, I know.
I don’t think anyone really has a handle on what Green’s role will be with this team going forward, but I think the consensus, at least within the front office, is that he’s a piece of the long-term puzzle. He’s unconventional, yes. He’s undersized for his position, yes. But he’s versatile, which is something Sam Presti really values. He’s a very good basketball player. I think people forget that. He averaged 15.1 ppg and 6.0 rpg this year. Other power forwards with similar numbers to that: Elton Brand, Andray Blatche, Carl Landry and Paul Millsap. Granted, Green averaged more minutes that all of those players, but the point remains: This team won 50 games with him starting at the four and playing almost 38 minutes a game. He did something right. Take away Jeff Green and you can probably take away seven or eight wins. Five games he made a huge play in come to mind immediately.
He has power forward ability, but might be better a hybrid off the bench like Lamar Odom. Some have suggested move KD back to the two and Green to three. Or just keep it the way it is. I don’t really know at this point. I think it’s still to early to decide that.
Next year is big for Uncle Jeff. It’s probably the make-or-break year in terms of figuring out where he fits. He showed serious improvement from his rookie to his second season. But he regressed slightly this season. His scoring dropped, his rebounds dropped, his 3-point shooting dropped but his minutes went up. I don’t know what the offseason plans are for OKC, but no matter if Green is coming off the bench or still starting at the four, he’s probably going to get at least 30 minutes a night. He CAN rebound. He CAN shoot. He just took too many 3s this year. He shot almost 39 percent from outside last year and was a real weapon. He hovered around 30 percent before getting up to finish at 33 percent. He just had too many 1-6 games and got in shooting ruts. He’s got a place, but I don’t know if we have that figured out yet.
9. Scott Brooks can coach
It’s not easy for a coach to get any team to completely buy in to a culture and a philosophy. But to get a team of 20-year-olds that all want to prove themselves? That’s a miracle. Brooks wasn’t the best in-game coach and he even admits that. But keep in mind, he was a rookie this year too. He’s an excellent practice coach and a good motivator. He has the respect of his team and has built a fun but very united culture within the team. I love how loose he kept the team during the biggest moments of the playoffs. Like when he told James Harden to shoot the ball because, “You were open and it would have been over Kobe. That would’ve made a nice picture.” He’s the perfect guy to lead this team and I think that Red Auerbach Trophy was well-deserved.
10. Defense is our backbone
The Thunder’s success came largely because of an incredible improvement on the defensive end. It was the focus from Day 1 of training camp and it continues to be the focus. The team went through a lull in late March and April, but cranked it up against the Lakers and really showed their stopping ability.
And while defense is going to be the calling card for this team, the offense improved steadily throughout the year. Granted, there were some pretty awful stretches. But finishing 13th in offensive efficiency is something to be proud of. And with the maturation of scorers like Harden, Westbrook and Durant, it’s just going to get better. Plus, I think the team is starting to find an identity on that end of the court.
Scott Brooks preaches defenses and admittedly says he doesn’t coach much offense. That worked out for this season, but if things are going to continue, offense has to become a focus, with defense still remaining the calling card.
11. This team is young
Brooks put it so well after Game 1: “This team will still be really young in three years.” But think about that for a second. In three years, KD will be 24. Westbrook 24. Harden and Ibaka 23. Green 25. The main core of players will still be one of the youngest rosters in the league. Maybe that will put some perspective in this unlikely leap they made this year.
Sam Presti wanted to build a culture that a team could learn and grow together, organically. I think he’s pretty much nailed that. His guys have just made him look like a genius earlier than we thought.
12. KD will get there
I think Durant’s six games against Los Angeles may prove to be the most important of his career. Think about it: If KD plays anywhere close to what he’s capable of, OKC might win the thing. Despite shooting around 35 percent and fighting through frustration every night, Durant brought everything he had. He worked his tail off defensively and kept plugging on the offensive end. Game 3: He starts out miserably but lifts his team in the fourth with four baskets and 12 points. Game 6: He’s 3-21 and maybe having one of the worst shooting nights of his life. But he hits a huge 3 and then a big driving layup to give his team a chance. He never quit, he never stopped working. And another thing: He learned (though he probably already knew this) that he could lean on his teammates.
13. The NBA is a lot more fun when your team is winning
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed last season. Despite the horrific start and the frustrating struggles, I was still enjoying professional basketball in my home state. But let me tell you, winning is fun. I can see why people get so caught up in it now. And I can see why people get so pissed when your team sucks.
14. Being healthy is good
We all know the stat. Four starters started all 88 games this year. Out of OKC’s starting five, only six games were lost, all by Nenad Krstic. James Harden missed six games with a hamstring issue. There were some injuries down the bench like with Kyle Weaver’s shoulder and D.J. White’s everything. But for the most part, the Thunder were abnormally healthy.
And it’s something we can’t rely on next year. Depth is always an issue for good teams. 82 games are a lot. And you have to be ready to play a week without a key contributor. Whether it’s by developing home grown talent or going out and adding depth in the draft and free agency, OKC just can’t assume that it’ll be afforded the same good fortune next year. It happens every year to every team. It helps that this team is so young, but KD missed eight games last season. Jeff Green missed a handful. Somehow, Russell Westbrook has played in every possible game so far in his NBA career. But again, that’s unusual.
15. This team is going to be very, very, VERY good
Forget cap space and draft picks. The main core of Harden, Durant, Westbrook, Green and Ibaka is already pretty excellent and the eldest of the five is Green at 22. Honestly, start those five together for the next five years and I bet they win at least 45 games every year. But that’s the thing. There’s still room for growth. And that’s what will push this team to the next level. The main pieces are intact. Now it’s about supplementing. Spend wisely, find a quality, productive player and make sure you get a serious return on your investment.