Season preview: OKC Thunder
The Thunder should enjoy a honeymoon period with their fans in Oklahoma City
Will Kevin Durant improve his shot selection and rebounding in his second season?
Rookie Russell Westbrook faces a tall order learning the PG position in the NBA
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Thunder at a glance
Last season: 20-62
Notable additions: Desmond Mason and Joe Smith (trade with Bucks/Cavaliers), Russell Westbrook (R), D.J. White (R), Kyle Weaver (R, trade with Bobcats)
Notable losses: Luke Ridnour and Adrian Griffin (trade with Bucks/Cavaliers), Donyell Marshall (waived), Francisco Elson (signed with Bucks).
Coach: P.J. Carlesimo (20-62 in one season with Thunder; 203-284 overall in seven NBA seasons.
Reasons for hope
1. They're home. Snobs can quibble all they want about Seattle as a culturally and scenically preferable locale to Oklahoma City, but for most of the relocated Sonics players, the difference was more fundamental: uncertainty vs. the ability to unpack, stock up the refrigerator and choose between satellite and cable. The Seattle franchise's shift to the nation's heartland brought tears to fans in that already damp city, but for near-vagabond NBA players, it got them out of a lame-duck, pins-and-needles situation and into something stable. Fans in their new market are ready to go -- Ford Center boasted frequent sellouts and strong decibel levels for the Hornets during their two temporarily headquartered seasons there -- with modest expectations for the on-court product. That's a good thing.
2. Kevin Durant is a year older. Portland's Greg Oden might win the Rookie of the Year award one year late, after being the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. But Durant already has won it, and the No. 2 pick 16 months ago figures to build on his initial contributions. Durant's scoring (20.3 points per game) was solid, but he could boost other numbers -- his 28 percent shooting from the arc, his 4.4 rebounds -- through familiarity with the league and maturity both physically and in his approach to his craft. For starters, Durant must get stronger, more committed defensively and smarter in his shot selection -- all three are improvements he can make this season.
3. Draft position is overrated. Some experts said Russell Westbrook was drafted too high, as the fourth pick in June. But what exactly is "too high?'' If a player thrives with the team that wanted him, then he was drafted like Goldilocks, just right. And if he fails with a club that was set up for him to succeed, then there's no guarantee he would have fared better four, six or 10 slots down. Besides, it wasn't like the Sonics-turned-Thunder had the option to take Westbrook fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. And they either didn't like or need the guys who went with those picks anyway (Kevin Love, Danilo Gallinari, Eric Gordon, Joe Alexander). Should they have tried to move down a few spots and get a fringe player or some cash? Well, sure, but that's small potatoes when you're talking about a lottery pick and possible cornerstone player. General manager Sam Presti wanted to upgrade at point guard and believes Westbrook is his guy.
Reasons for worry
1. Progress post-poned. Post, as in center. The center-est looking guy on the roster, 7-foot-1 Robert Swift, has been hobbled by injuries, playing only 71 games his first three seasons. The most reliable guy for the position, Nick Collison, is an out-of-place power forward. Then there's Johan Petro and Mouhamed Sene, who mostly explain why the Thunder used draft picks on long-term prospect Serge Ibaka and Cal big man DeVon Hardin. Staying soft in the middle is no way to improve defensively, a must for this club this season.
2. Growing pains. The Thunder would love to fast-track their newcomers, especially Westbrook, but they aren't known to have any secret formula for getting that done. Getting instant contributions from a rookie point guard, even one as athletic and driven as Westbrook, is rare; at least he won't face quite as much pressure as No. 1 pick Derrick Rose in Chicago. Early returns from summer league were good, and Westbrook's initial play in preseason games was mixed. Learning the position at this level, while trying to facilitate teammates' games and keep defenders honest with a shaky outside shot, is a lot to handle.
3. Chris Wilcox is day to day. Not physically, just emotionally. Motivationally. In terms of focus. If the former Clippers power forward played every night the way he performed when he first joined this squad in the middle of the 2005-06 season (14.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 59.2 FG percentage), he would be a major asset. But he has been suspected the past two seasons of not always bringing his A game. That sort of drifting is doubly bad on a roster stocked with young, impressionable teammates.
Keep an eye on ...
Mason's impact. was brought back because of his roots (Oklahoma State alum) and because of his popularity with the OKC fans when he played at Ford Center as a member of the relocated Hornets. But his presence now will have to go beyond team Good Guy if the Thunder are going to improve defensively -- which they must. The Sonics last season gave up an average of 106.3 points, leading to the worst scoring differential (-8.8) in the league. Opposing offenses hummed, getting 24.4 assists on average and hitting 38.5 percent from three-point range. Mason is one Thunder -- uh oh, just what is a singular member of this club called? -- who has a defensive orientation. He needs to make it contagious.
Durant last season averaged 41.8 points per 48 minutes of clutch time (a five-point game in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime), which ranked sixth in the league. LeBron James led that category with 56.0 points.
One of the handy things about a team in a honeymoon period, which this one assuredly is with the fans in Oklahoma City, is the many options it has and the luxury of time to exercise them. But no one has any long-term love yet from the locals, so cutting individuals free and trying a new direction is easier for a reborn franchise like this. That creates some urgency within the overall lack of urgency and a need to improve both the victory total (30 would be nice) and other key statistics to prove development.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.