Monday, October 25, 2010

Oklahoma City Thunder: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 50-32
2009-10 Playoffs: #8 seed; lost in Round 1 to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games
Additions: Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook, Morris Peterson, Royal Ivey
Key Losses: Kyle Weaver, Etan Thomas, Kevin Ollie
Projected Rotation Players: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison, James Harden, Eric Maynor, Morris Peterson

Look for the OKC Thunder to live up to most, if not all of the hype, thanks in no small part to Russell Westbrook joining Kevin Durant in the NBA’s top 25.

The last young team made this kind of leap from “promising upstart” to budding dynasty” was the Chris Paul-led 2008 Hornets (sorry NOLA!), and the groundswell of support for them was not what it has been for the 2010-11 Thunder- and those Hornets actually won a playoff series!

With that said, OKC has even greater cause for optimism than did CP3’s 2008 crew. Both teams boast(ed) a once-in-a-generation superstar, a likable core group that really pulls for one another, a raucous and adoring new-to-the-NBA crowd, a strong relationship with their fans and at least a couple of solid veterans (both featured Mo-Pete!).

A pretty good recipe for optimism, no?

However, on top of all this, OKC has something that CP’s Hornet’s lacked: a second budding superstar. When the Hornets’ were in the midst of their ascent, Paul’s primary support- Tyson Chandler, David West and Peja Stojakovic- played extremely well and were all All-Star caliber players, but even at that time, each of them kinda was who we thought they were. This is not say that these guys couldn’t improve, but Chandler wasn’t going to evolve into David Robinson. West is a damn good player, but no one thought he was going to become Karl Malone.

In the case of the Thunder, we know that Kevin Durant is a top-four guy, a perennial MVP candidate and as long as he’s healthy, a virtual lock to average 30+ ppg. We also know that Jeff Green is essentially a talented third or fourth banana- a good player that haz a bit of room for improvement, but not a bona fide star.

But what abut Russell Westbrook? Where do we place him? What’s his ceiling?

After scoring 15.3 ppg as a rookie, Westbrook pushed his scoring average to 16.1 ppg (though not very efficiently, with FG-3-pt percentages of 41.8% and 22.1%). He averaged 5.3 apg (v. 3.3 TO/game) as a rookie combo guard. In his second season as a point guard, that number jumped to 8 apg, without any uptick in turnovers. According to Basketball Prospectus, Westbrook was one of eight players in the NBA to record an assist on at least 10% of his team’s possessions. In doing so, he shed the title of “average point guard” and joined the NBA’s elite.

He also possesses the strength, speed and quickness to get into the lane almost at will, and is a great passer off the drive. He’s also an excellent ballhawk with the potential to be an elite defender. He’ll need to refine his offensive game (developing a semi-reliable jumper and getting to the FT line more frequently are good starting points) so that it’s not entirely reliant on his athleticism. He’s already shown the ability to do this in spurts- namely last spring’s 20- 6- 6 in six tough games against the eventual champion Lakers and his fantastic performance in the FIBA World Championships- so consistency will the be the next goal.

Assuming his offseason work, combined with the invaluable experience he’s gained in recent months, leads to even modest improvement from Year 2 to Year 3, it’s difficult to see Westbrook averaging less that 20 ppg, 10 apg (that’s just three per half to KD and one per quarter to anyone else) and 1.5 spg. Take into consideration how good he was to begin with, and Westbrook should cement his status as a top-five PG in 2010-11.

Bottom line: From a PR perspective, no team benefitted from LeBron’s “Decision” more than the Thunder. Although they have yet to advance past the opening round of the playoffs, this young, exciting and soft-spoken crew has become the darlings of the NBA. However, based on their playoff performance against the Lakers and the exceptional play of KD and Westbrook (the NBA’s third best duo by season’s end; LeBron-Wade, Kobe-Pau…. And?) at the World Championships, they look like a safe bet to justify much of “contender” hype they’ve received over the summer.

Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Thunder at 51.5. Barring an injury to Durant and/or Westbrook, this looks like free money. OKC came out of nowhere to win 50 games last season. Nothing happened this summer to suggest that that 2010-11 won’t bring improvement. This team will enter the postseason in the top half of the Western Conference with no fewer than 54-55 wins, and maybe more.

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