This is an NBA Preview I wrote for my fill time employer SportsNetwork.com... As many of you know I have recently accepted a full time writing and editorial position and will be covering the league on a full time basis this season.
No team in the NBA's Western Conference did more to secure the future of its franchise during the summer of 2010 then the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Coming into the "Summer of LeBron," the Thunder had one thing on their mind: re-signing their own superstar Kevin Durant to a long-term deal. The move was not necessary, as Durant still had one more year left on his initial rookie contract, but in a effort to put the Thunder faithful at ease, the OKC brass made the move and signed Durant to a five-year deal that will keep the 22- year-old sensation in a Thunder uniform until the 2015-16 season.
Beyond the extension given to Durant the team also secured its front office future as they picked up the option on head coach Scott Brooks and secured general manager Sam Presti to a multi-year contract extension, all of which will allow the young organization to grow with the group of people that created one of the league's most dynamic franchises.
The Thunder were one of the NBA's Cinderella stories last season as the franchise improved to the much coveted 50-win plateau and made a legitimate run at dethroning the Western Conferences big dogs, the Los Angeles Lakers.
They had two of the team's leaders, Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, spend the summer improving with Team USA at the FIBA World Championships and stacked their Summer League roster with some of their most highly touted young talent in an attempt to begin the 2010-11 season where they left off last year, on the verge of the primetime.
The last time we saw the Thunder was a David versus Goliath playoff series as they pushed the eventual champion Lakers to six hard fought games and proved that the future of the Western Conference is not located in California.
The Thunder will again come into the season as one of the league's youngest teams and an early favorite to possibly dethrone the Lakers as kings of the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City Thunder
2009-10 Results:50-32, fourth in Northwest. First round playoff loss to Lakers.
ADDITIONS:G Royal Ivey, C Cole Aldrich, F Morris Peterson, G Daequan Cook,
SUBTRACTIONS:C Etan Thomas
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
PG- Russell Westbrook SG- Thabo Sefolosha SF- Jeff Green PF- Kevin Durant C- Nenad Krstic
PG- Russell Westbrook SG- Thabo Sefolosha SF- Jeff Green PF- Kevin Durant C- Nenad Krstic
KEY RESERVES:G James Harden, F Nick Collison, C Serge Ibaka, G Eric Maynor, G Daequan Cook
What can you say about Durant? It is rare for a player to flirt with the type of numbers that Durant showed off last year. His 30.1 ppg was not only the highest in the league but his 2,472 points last season were the highest for any player since Kobe Bryant's 2,831 in the 2005-06 season. The scariest thing about Durant, however, is that at 22 years old he is still getting better.
The league's youngest scoring champion spent the summer under the tutelage of one of basketball's best minds in Mike Krzyzewski and showed the entire international basketball community that he was the real deal.
"He's that versatility guy, and the other thing is he's a shooter, and with the way we were playing defense for most of the Olympics, with his length, he could be a heck of a defender," stated Coach K in the USA FIBA training camp.
Durant didn't disappoint in FIBA play as he was the hands down leader of the gold medal USA Team and kept up his scoring average, finishing the nine-game tournament as the second best overall scorer with 205 points or 28.2 per game, second to Luis Scola of Argentina and the NBA's Houston Rockets.
At the other forward position Jeff Green is coming into the 2010-11 season with something to prove. The 24-year old is entering into the last year of his contract and will spend the season showing the team's front office why he deserves a long-term deal. He averaged 15.1 points and 6.0 rebounds a game and was one of the Thunder's ironmen, playing and starting all 82 regular season games.
If there is any position on the Thunder roster that could be considered a position battle it would be at center. Nenad Krstic was the team's full-time starter last season playing in 76 games, averaging an impressive 8.4 ppg but his 5.5 rebounds a game leave a lot to be desired.
When Krstic is not on the court the Thunder rely on the play of the 6-foot-10 Serge Ibaka. Appearing in 73 games, all from the bench, Ibaka became one of the teams most reliable defensive specialists last season and his 1.33 blocks per game were a team-high. The Congo native had many things to adapt to in 2009 and it is also important to notice that he was averaging 8.1 points and over 6.0 rebounds a game after the All-Star break, which shows what his potential can be.
In the final two games of their opening round series against the eventual champion LA Lakers, Ibaka averaged 11 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, impressive when you consider he was mostly up against Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
BACKCOURT: It is easy to appoint Durant the hands down leader of the Thunder and most people who don't pay attention to the team on a game-to-game basis are quick to overlook the play of Westbrook.
Westbrook was very close to averaging a double-double in points and assists in 2009-10 (16.1 ppg, 8.0 apg), and became an important cog in Durant's scoring title. Westbrook has great court vision and his ability to control the offense is vital to the team's success.
The Thunder's 2008 first round selection was rewarded for his effort as he was named to the Team USA roster for this summer FIBA World Championship. At the World Championships Westbrook ranked third in scoring and second in assists, all while being mentored by one of the league's most respected point guards, Chauncey Billups, which is another reason for the high expectations this season.
When it comes to the shooting guard position Thabo Sefolosha had become a relative unknown because of his low numbers of the offensive end (6.0 ppg. and 4.7 rpg) but he has become a very strong contributor on the defensive end because of his size (6-foot-7, 215 pounds). He still has a lot of adapting to do, which is shown by his 21 minutes a game, but Brooks is very high on him so expect his numbers to improve.
BENCH: James Harden was one of the league's most impressive sixth men last season. He averaged 9.9 ppg in his rookie season and made the most of his 20- plus minutes a game. Expect his on-court minutes to improve and he has shown Brooks that he can become the team's third offensive option.
We all know that Westbrook is the point guard for the foreseeable future for the Thunder but if you paid attention to this team last year you had to be impressed with backup guard Eric Maynor. Maynor, who was acquired midseason from Utah last season, was an impact player for the Thunder in his rookie season. His 3.4 assists a game were second to only Westbrook and considering that he only played 16.5 minutes a game, the future for Maynor is very bright.
Nick Collison began his career with the Thunder as a starter, but with the growth of Ibaka he has become the typical NBA role player. He averaged 20 minutes a game and was mildly productive (5.9 points, 5.1 rebounds). It is almost a lock to expect that those numbers will stay the same.
When it came to the 2010 NBA Draft the Thunder seemed like they were playing a game of musical rookies as they traded all three players they selected in the draft (Eric Bledsoe 18th, Craig Brackins 21st and Magnum Rolle 51st) and eventually ended up with Kansas center Cole Aldrich. Oklahoma City is very high on the 6-foot-11 Aldrich and the team will spend his rookie season bringing him into the system slowly. He is an athletic rebounder and could develop into a very productive NBA shot blocker. Depending on his ability to adapt to the pro game Aldrich could see increased time when they want size in the low post.
COACHING: Anytime a franchise can enter its season with the reigning NBA Coach of the Year things tend to look pretty good. The young Thunder players trust Brooks and believe in his system. The 10-year NBA pro seems to be coming into his own on the sidelines of Oklahoma City, and with the front office picking up his option for 2010-11 all signs point to a long-term relationship for him and the Thunder.
STEVE SCHWARZ'S FANTASY FOCUS: This is a very talented team with three top fantasy starters headed by the best fantasy player in the NBA - Durant (30.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.4 spg). Durant is going ahead of Chris Paul and LeBron James in most leagues. Westbrook is being selected in the fourth round (ADP 38) and Green in the sixth (ADP 53). Westbrook could be a steal there as he is a solid "stats-filler" across the board. The team also has some nice talent in Harden and rookie Aldrich, but neither, barring injury, will get enough playing time to warrant drafting on your fantasy team.
OUTLOOK: Hitting the 50-win plateau was a major feat for this franchise, and with the players they have returning for the 2010-11 season, all signs are pointing toward more of the same. With most of the major offseason moves happening in the Eastern Conference the Thunder have positioned themselves as an early contender to take down the long time goliath LA Lakers.
Bradley ChandlerContributing NBA Editor