Regular Season Western Conference Rank: 3
Last season was a transition period for the Thunder, who transformed themselves from semi-expansion team with little success in their young history into an up-and-coming Playoff squad no longer a pushover. They played well throughout the regular season and won 50 games, a stunning development when considering they won only 23 games a season prior, and improved themselves so drastically on the shoulders of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both of whom are the cornerstones of the team.
Their biggest improvement came on defense, where they were ranked 11th in opponent scoring, up from 23rd a year before, but they also got better on offense, going from 23rd to 14th in scoring average. Add all this up and it correlates to a dramatic increase in point margin from -6.1 to +3.5 points per game, a healthy average that put the Thunder in the top ten teams of the league. And, as ESPN.com’s John Hollinger so often harps on, a team’s point differential is the biggest indicator of actual strength and future success.
But in simpler terms, the Thunder were just better in every facet of the game, not an oddity when considering the youth of the team. The players were just getting better as they matured, and with their individual improvement, good coaching and strong leadership, the team was able to more than double their win total.
Most of the credit was given to Kevin Durant, the team’s 2007 2nd overall pick who endured a few seasons of terrible team records but great individual success to really establish a name for himself in his 3rd year in the league. He averaged an astonishing 30.1 points per game and led the NBA as the youngest scoring champion ever, but the points don’t tell the whole story. He was a leader by every definition of the word, buying into the schemes drawn up by coaches, working hard to get better, and setting a great example for his teammates. And he also improved not only his production in scoring, but also was more efficient, rebounded better, and although his playmaking for his teammates could improve, was still phenomenal offensively. He was the driving force behind the Thunder, the heart and soul of the team, and was rightfully credited as the main instigator of the turnaround. He showed that he is a franchise guy – one of the few in the league – whom you could win with as the best player on your team.
But another important piece to the puzzle was Russell Westbrook, another lottery pick, from 2008. He initially had a shaky rookie season marred by inconsistency, although he showed immense promise with flashes of brilliance. On some nights he was fantastic as he learned the ropes to the point guard position, throwing nice dimes, playing good defense, and finishing at the rim effectively. But on those other nights, he was a turnover machine who relied too much on his athleticism on defense and bricked his jumpshots. In 2009, he was able to develop some more consistency as the starting point, averaging 16 points and 8 assists on an improved shooting percentage.
And in addition to the two top guys, the other players on the team also pulled their weight, with impressive showings all around. Thabo Sefolosha, a former Bulls player who was no longer in their long term plans, became the Thunder’s lock down defender for all two guards in the league, effectively guarding players like Kobe Bryant and earning himself an All NBA 2nd Team Defense selection. At 26, he has nowhere to go but up.
Another addition was James Harden, the team’s 3rd straight lottery pick, who is a good character player effective off the bench in limited minutes, with a smooth jumper and some nifty driving ability, although there were some growing pains with his efficiency. He too is a young player who has great potential and looks to improve for many seasons to come. The team also relied on some lesser known role players who were effective, like Nenad Krstic, a former borderline All Star with the Nets whose career was derailed by a ghastly knee injury. He played a few seasons abroad and returned with the Thunder, looking not all the way back but still able to contribute well. Together with long time Sonics cog Nick Collison, a steady role player, and Serge Ibaka, a diamond in the rough whose athleticism, shot blocking, and defense all come so easily to him, the Thunder have lots of young, potential-filled players who could be stars one day. Their only blemish was the stunted development of Jeff Green, who looked passive, unsure, and useless for stretches.
But overall, the team was great, and it all came together in the Playoffs against the Lakers, who would go on to win the title. The Thunder were fast, strong, aggressive, and nearly won the series by running the Lakers into the ground and exploiting their athletic advantages. Ibaka was an absolute beast against Gasol, blocking his shots and bothering him incessantly, while the team swarmed the post and disrupted the Laker offense by taking away their one advantage in size. They relegated the Lakers to a one dimensional squad incapable of generating points, while shutting down Kobe and forcing long contested jumpshots from Fisher.
Although the Lakers won in 6 games, the series could have swung differently, were it not for Gasol’s buzzer beating rebound putback and a poor showing from Durant brought about by inspired and physical defense from Ron Artest. The Thunder had a good showing in their first Playoff appearance, and Westbrook looked almost unstoppable against the slow-footed Lakers. After a summer of international basketball success heavily reliant on Durant and Westbrook, it seems like a forgone conclusion the Thunder will improve once again.
This season, I see them moving all the way up to the 3rd seed, although the improvement really could only entail between 5 and 10 games on their wins. Their young players should get better again, and the world championships must have been helpful for their two top guys, who were given more experience in games that matter and able to develop even more chemistry. The team will not do any worse than 55 wins and a Playoff berth; they have an extremely bright future and have the talent to contend for titles for years to come. However, I don’t think they’ll be able to put it all together for one more season, and a few growing pains will surface. They will win in the first round handily but struggle against the Mavericks, although they will make it through to the Western Conference Finals, where they fall to the Lakers. They still need another year of seasoning before they can beat the defending champs, whose veteran savvy and experience will help them through more than anything. But a Conference Final berth for the Thunder team is nothing to be disappointed about and Durant will surely come back with a vengeance in 2011. For now, the team will have to make do as a contender capable of playing spoiler to the real favorites – Miami, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Boston.