Know thy enemy: Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Season: 23-59 (.280, 5th in the Northwest Division, 13th in the Western Conference)
I'm willing to wager that a healthy portion of NBA teams- lottery and playoff squads alike- would trade their lot in life for what the Thunder have cooking in their big cast iron, high plains basketball kettle. A killer core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, none older than 23, with more potential added in first rounder Harden. Scads of draft picks at their disposal. Cap space stretching to the tips of Oklahoma's vast horizon. A home city forgiving of their growing pains and just happy to have the team- any team, really- in town, meaning there's no rush to try and mess with the rebuilding blueprint and risk screwing things up in the process.
So intense has the love grown among fans and scribes alike for GM Sam Presti that it feels almost dirty, like he should be shrinkwrapped and put in the naughty section of the magazine rack. But it's all well deserved, which is why the man is smiling. You'd smile too if the future of your franchise was this bright.
As for this season, with the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race at least theoretically in question, the Thunder are a popular dark horse pick to slip in should any of last year's entrants leave the top eight. It's not as far-fetched a notion as it might seem at first glance. Yeah, OKC won only 23 games a year ago, but they started 1-16, then 3-29. After that, Durant and Co. were a still-bad-but-far-more-respectable 20-30. Five more wins there and the Thunder are a .500 team. Would that be enough to sneak in?
Sure, it takes a little imagination, but not the sort of hard drugs required to picture, say, the Kings playing deeper into April.
Beyond the Big Three (Durant, Green, Westbrook) and Harden, Presti has afforded coach Scott Brooks some other intriguing pieces. Thabo Sefalosha came to OKC last season in a trade, and provides a solid defensive presence. Nenad Kristic had become a pretty good big man in New Jersey before turning his left ACL into pudding back in '06. Oklahoma City brought him in last year, and hopes he can return to form. Given his age (26), it's not out of the question. Fellow reclamation project Shaun Livingston may never reach the potential he had before suffering what may have been the most destructive knee injury in recent NBA history, but if he's healthy provides key minutes and options for Brooks, allowing Westbrook to concentrate less on operating the offense and more on scoring and defending. Livingston's length can also make a mark defensively.
Nick Collison and the newly acquired Thomas bring leadership. The hope is Thomas provides a little interior toughness as well. Guys like Kyle Weaver and DJ White could in the long run be the type of role guys all good teams need.
Still have the ol' bean thinking big? It's probably safe to stop. Rather than a playoff berth, the Thunder are more likely to continue to build on last year's improvement, adding another 10-15 wins. That's still pretty good. Unfortunately, despite oodles of skill, particularly on the offensive end, OKC likely won't have the defensive chops or the polish to make the top eight, and turning the ball over too much and struggling with shot selection. But the Thunder provide as good a reason as any to buy the NBA package from your cable provider. Durant is flat out awesome, and improved dramatically over his rookie season, particularly after Brooks returned him from shooting guard to a more more natural small forward position. After only his second season, Durant is already one of the league's best pure scorers. Freakin' sick, really. Plus, he has an absolutely spectacular nickname. Green made huge strides last season. Westbrook can be (pardon the cliche) electric.
Over the course of the season, you're guaranteed to see some cool stuff for the money.
They're still likely a year away from postseason play, but the Thunder are no longer an easy win. There will be nights where they look awful, but also games in which the OKC's are capable of beating anyone. And down the road, watch out.
Prediction: 35 wins, 4th in the Northwest, 11th in the Western Conference.