After a tumultuous, yet ďupliftingĒ offseason, the Thunder and its players are ready to start the 2008-09 NBA season in Oklahoma City. This team actually has many plusses, including star player Kevin Durant, sophomore Jeff Green, and the fourth overall pick in the 2008 Draft, Russell Westbrook. The biggest factor for this team is the fan base. The first few months will be riotous for the Thunder, and the team will go through ups and many, many downs, but the constant could be the support of the fans in Oklahoma City. The Thunder wonít go too far this year, but the foundation will be built, and in a few years, the Thunder will make their strike on the league.
Offense: The Sonics, whoops, Thunder, are a great running team, and have many solid scoring pieces. Kevin Durant can score both inside and out, Jeff Green is a solid mid-range shooter, Russell Westbrook can hit the long range bombs, and Chris Wilcox is a formidable low-post threat. With Westbrook, this team has a distributor who can also score the ball at will. If P.J. Carlesimo lets this team run wild on the league, there will be a few more wins that wouldnít be there if he keeps a half-court style. This team is extremely young and athletic, and by letting them get out there and play by running the ball, the chemistry will grow between these guys faster than if they were forced to get beat down in a slower-paced game. The Thunder will struggle on offense no matter what style they choose to utilize, but this team can run, so why not play to their strength, even if it is to little effect at this point?
Defense: The Thunder are one of the worst defensive squads in the league, and should be for some time. Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook all have the potential to be solid defenders in the NBA, but it will take some time, and a lot of learning before they are considered valuable commodities in that department. Nick Collison is this teamís best defender, as he isnít afraid to get bruised in the post, and goes after rebounds like few others can. He may not be a shot-blocker, but his tough play is a small strength to this team. The addition of Joe Smith will bring veteran leadership and good man to man defense to the team, but his solid play will probably get lost in the shuffle between losses. Desmond Mason will prove to be the teamís best perimeter defender, and hopefully will get the credit he deserves playing in his hometown. The Thunder will get blown out on the road many times, and even a few times at home, but a slight improvement from last season in Seattle will be expected.
Strengths: This is an extremely young, athletic team that can run with any opponent in the league. They also have a Big Three of sorts, if you will, with Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook. They are the most valuable players on this team, and considering what they are getting paid, the Thunder have one hell of a bargain, or three. This team should have a great future, and make the Playoffs, but that is still years down the road.
Weaknesses: The defense is horrible, and will stay that way for quite some time. The youth and inexperience on this team will lead to many unnecessary losses, and blowouts on a nightly basis. Once the Thunder find their niche, though, they will start to grow, and progress will be made. That could take the entire year, however, and it might be difficult to watch them as they play, because many, many mistakes will be made.
Five Players to Watch:
Kevin Durant - Kevin Durant has shown flashes of greatness, and could be one of the gameís best very soon. He has size, speed, can play both inside and out, and has shown improvement on defense. Durant is also a great clutch player already, and has no fear of taking the big shot, which is a sign of greatness. Durant will be the leading scorer on the Thunder, but considering his youth, as well as the teamís, there will be problems this year. Kevin Durant, though, will show a lot of growth and maturity this season, and he will prove that he is the key to a successful future in OKC.
Jeff Green - Everyone loves to make comparisons involving a Michael Jordan type player and his Scottie Pippen type sidekick. Well, Jeff Green fits that bill, as he is the perfect complement to Kevin Durant on this team. Green does a lot of the dirty work, and creates many scoring opportunities for his teammates, that other forwards just canít do. He is also a reliable defender, and can shoot the ball. Sure, he isnít Scottie Pippen, but the signs point to a solid and prosperous career playing alongside Kevin Durant.
Russell Westbrook - Going into the draft, many analysts questioned whether Russell Westbrook could truly handle the point guard position, and whether he was an accurate passer. Westbrook will need to prove all of his doubters wrong this year, and play the point guard position with poise and a savvy leadership. Along with his electrifying dunks, Westbrook should be able to step up and be the playmaker for this team, as this was a huge weakness last season. He will have trouble, especially early, but he should find his groove as the season progresses, much like Green and Durant did last year in their rookie campaigns.
Chris Wilcox - Johan Petro, Robert Swift, and Mouhamed Sene havenít shown one sign of progress in becoming a dominant big man for the Thunder, so Wilcox has to step up to the plate once again. Wilcox has a nice touch offensively, and uses his size to get to the basket, but he is still missing that aggressiveness you would expect from someone in the post. Wilcox is too laid back on the floor, and needs to assert himself in the paint. If he can do this, the search for a big man may finally be over for the Thunder, or he might continue his lackadaisical play which would be a disappointment to the team, and the fans.
Oklahoma City - The fans of Oklahoma City embraced the homeless Hornets when they couldnít play in New Orleans, and were one of the most raucous crowds in the league. With a team of their own now, expect the Ford Center to be crazy every night, and it should actually be one of the hardest places for any opposing team to play. Ultimately, the fans are the biggest strength for this team, but the Thunder will still lose many games. Hopefully the fans donít give up on this young team, because the future holds plenty of golden opportunities for the Thunder, and the fans of Oklahoma City.
Playoff Hopes: Maybe in two or three years, but this season they will be at or near the bottom of the league. The clouds will gather over the city, and losses will occur, but if the Thunder can play their cards right, the rainy days might come to an end in the very near future, perhaps as soon as 2010. The continued development of Kevin Durant is enough to raise the hopes of any Thunder fan, and the future looks to be just as uplifting.
Prediction: 5th Place, Northwest Division