You could say that the Oklahoma City Thunder had a bad season last year. After the move from Seattle, head coach P.J. Carlesimo was fired when the “Zombie Sonics” (to borrow from Bill Simmons) lost 12 of their first 13 games. They seemed almost like a minor league team – they did not receive national television coverage, none of their players made the All-Star team, and their logo looked generic and amateurish. When the season ended, only the Clippers, Kings, and Wizards had worse records.
…but I’m going to tell you why they’re in a fine, fine place. The firing of P.J. Carlesimo was necessary – he was playing Kevin Durant at shooting guard and had Ruseell Westbrook coming off the bench, splitting time with Earl Watson. I shouldn’t have to explain why this was irrational. As soon as Scott Brooks took over, he moved Durant to his natural position, small forward, and handed Westbrook the point guard reigns, giving him the freedom to make mistakes along the way. These two franchise cornerstones shone in their new roles. Jeff Green, not a prototypical 4 (and perhaps not a suitable long-term option there), remained effective at that position because of his strength and the matchup problems he creates. Perhaps most importantly, the team seemed to buy into Scott Brooks as a coach. They played hard for him and vouched for him loudly when they were questioned about removing his interim tag.
Management helped Brooks out, too, by making several smart decisions as the season progressed. General manager Sam Presti was able to acquire Thabo Sefolosha, Nenad Krstic, and Shaun Livingston at reasonable contracts, without giving up any of the team’s significant assets. Sefolosha and Krstic became starters and all three were a part of the regular rotation by the end of the season, where they will remain when the 2009-2010 season starts.
At the end of the season, the Thunder had only won 23 games of the possible 82. Yeah, this sounds bad, but when you consider that they were 3-29 at one point, it changes your perspective a bit. The Thunder undoubtedly improved as the season went on. They competed every night, even when they were overmatched, and even beat some superior teams. With a team full of young players, you’re going to have ups and downs. When a team changes coaches mid-season, it is going to take time to adjust. Last year’s losing, for this franchise, shouldn’t be considered a problem. They had great home attendance, a happy fanbase, and had become the trendy go-to League Pass team in the NBA blogosphere by the end of the season.
I would be remiss here if I didn’t give Kevin Durant his own paragraph. I’m just going to come out with it: Kevin Durant has quickly become my favourite player in the NBA. I’m not going to talk about how underrated he is or how his mild-mannered demeanor belies his killer instinct at this point. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows this stuff already. I’m going to keep this simple: the man is the best small forward on the planet not named LeBron James and he doesn’t even turn 21 until September. He should have been a lock for the All-Star team last season, but the coaches who vote in the reserves continue to reward inferior players who are blessed with superior teammates. I have no idea what his ceiling is, but I know he wants to stay in OKC and their fans are thrilled to have the privilege of watching him reach his potential. Me too.
Durant is one of the many players on Oklahoma City’s roster still on his rookie contract, including their core of Westbrook, Green, and recent draftee James Harden. The other players on the roster have reasonable, short-term deals. In fact, the highest-paid Thunder player is the recently acquired Etan Thomas, who will be making $7.9 million in 2009-2010 before his contract expires. This team has a ton of salary cap flexibility over the next few years, which will allow them to surround their young guys with proven players when they are ready to seriously compete in the West. This franchise took a bit of heat in Seattle when they let their two all-stars (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) skip town and went to work acquiring expiring contracts and draft picks. Now, though, we can see that they have rebuilt the right way, and don’t think other teams haven’t noticed. It’s safe to say that the Thunder are the model franchise in terms of how to rebuild, these days.
Part of this model is avoiding desperation home-run swings that can tie up your cap space for the next few years. The Thunder have plenty of cap room as I type this, yet they have refrained from acquiring a marquee free agent. They chose, instead, to keep improving from within while keeping their options open. I’ll admit that I wanted them to make a run for Paul Millsap or David Lee, to shore up their frontline with a legitimate 4. Still, I can’t bash ‘em. They can get away with having Jeff Green at the 4 for another season. They can afford to let their young guys breathe. This is the same reason I can’t be too harsh on them for selecting James Harden over Ricky Rubio in the draft. Yes, Rubio may turn out to be a megastar, but they chose to make the pick that wouldn’t foster any chemistry issues. They knew that Russell Westbrook wanted to remain the point guard of this team, and thus they grabbed a player who fits in well beside him in the backcourt, a guy that might not have the same hype as Rubio but may turn out to be a star in his own right. I’m not going to lie and say that I would have made these two moves, but dammit, I respect them.
I wanted to avoid this post turning into a Thunder love-fest, but it’s proving difficult. I really dig the nucleus of this team. Yes, it’s very true that they haven’t achieved anything yet. Still, they’re the envy of other franchises that wish they had the same kind of young talent and manoeuvrability. Even if you’re upset at the way the move from Seattle went down (and you have every right to be), you have to love the potential of this team. You know they’re going to be fun to watch and you know they’re going in the right direction. This is how to start over in the NBA. This is how to develop talent, especially in a small market. Other franchises could learn a thing or two.