Okay folks, raise your hand if you predicted that the Oklahoma City Thunder would win 50 games last year and nearly push the defending champions to a seventh game in the playoffs.
If you're raising your hand, please put your hand down. You're lying.
Indeed, nobody could have predicted the Thunder would rise so quickly. Sure, we all knew they would become a force eventually, led by Kevin Durant and a host of promising young talent, but we figured it would take a year or two. We figured it would take time for Durant to go from star to superstar. We figured Russell Westbrook was too young to run the point, and we figured there would be growing pains defensively for such a young team. Instead, Durant made the leap, Westbrook was excellent and the team's defense was among the best in the league.
The Thunder slipped a bit at the end of the regular season, but honestly, you could not have asked for more from them. The question now is whether they can make another leap and truly become an elite team. As any NBA person will tell you, it's much easier to go from 23 wins to 50 wins than it is to go from 50 wins to 60 wins. Can the Thunder avoid the dreaded "second-year curse" that's affected many young, rising teams in the recent past?
SB Nation's Thunder blog Welcome To Loud City believes they can.
Over the past two years, this has been one of the healthiest teams in the NBA, and the only players likely to go down for any significant amount of time are the mostly replaceable big men. Of course, Durant and Westbrook's work for Team USA in the summer could lead to him being more injury prone, but since they're at such a young age, any speculation is iffy at best. There have been some minor shifts in the roster, but by and large it won't be affecting the gameplan, and if the new acquisitions end up getting in the way, the team can just revert to last year's lineup. Finally, there's no outside factors like ownership issues, chemistry problems, or civil unrest getting in the way. Thus, this team seems destined for a quick rise to the top, given all of the information at hand. But a broken bone on Durant's body could change all of that in an instant.
The health thing is key: among the Thunder's key rotation players, only James Harden missed any significant time with injuries last season. But the Thunder has two things going for them that could prevent a similar stagnation. One is Kevin Durant, which speaks for itself. The other, as Welcome To Loud City notes, is a firm commitment to defense.
If you watched any of the video from Thunder Media Day, you'd have to be deaf to say that you didn't hear the word "defense" at least once, especially from Sam Presti and Scott Brooks. And that's the main strength of this team moving forward. Kevin Durant was a defensive liability early on last season, but his defense slowly improved over time, and it got even better over the Summer, as evidenced by his stellar performance in the FIBA World Championship. In addition, Thabo Sefolosha is known as one of the best lock-down defenders in the nation, while Serge Ibaka is one of the best blockers in the NBA. Overall, their defensive rating was 9th in the league last year, and that number is expected to improve as the team becomes more experienced together.
The Thunder's defensive rating was actually higher until the final month of the season, when they slipped a bit on that end. So yes, I think they can maintain that defensive identity.
The one potential issue with Oklahoma City, besides health, is that they didn't do much to upgrade the team. Armed with cap room, GM Sam Presti decided to use it to move up and select Cole Aldrich in the draft. Otherwise, the team is basically the same, and at some point, you'd think that Presti would have to make a move for another piece. Planet Bball, however, disagrees, and thinks doing little was the right move.
Obviously, the Thunder were not in the midst of the free agent wars going on this summer. But they quietly signed multi-year contracts with the two most important people to this team - Kevin Durant and Sam Presti. They also added Cole Aldrich, a great rebounding big man who will solidify them in the post, and a couple more role players in Daequan Cook and Morris Peterson. And they didn't lose any of the influential players from last year's team. In fact, considering the experience that Durant and Russell Westbrook picked up on Team USA, I would go so far as to say that the Thunder improved their team more than any other Western Conference contender. What they lacked last year in the playoffs was experience, and what better way to gain some than having your two best players compete on the world stage?
Getting more experience is great, but one big reason some of these other young teams couldn't get over the top is that their roster stagnated. Maybe Presti is right to wait, but I don't think he can wait for forever.
Ultimately, will the Thunder make that leap into real contention? The bloggers say yes.
- Welcome To Loud City: 53-29
- Planet Bball: 55-27