As lightning-quick turnarounds go, it’s hard to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.
One year removed from a last-place finish, the young and vastly improved Thunder appears bound for the playoffs.
The Clippers are headed nowhere except for another draft lottery, a 104-87 loss to Oklahoma City on Friday night at Staples Center the latest setback in a season gone terribly wrong.
But there’s hope for a speedy turnabout, and the Thunder could provide a blueprint. Oklahoma City’s roster was largely built through the draft, with five of its top players having spent their entire careers with the organization.
The Thunder is also exceedingly young. Its roster includes five rookies, three second-year players and a pair of third-year stars in Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. Durant poured in 32 points Friday, supporting Clippers interim Coach Kim Hughes’ pregame assertion that the forward is possibly the fourth-best player in the NBA behind only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
The Clippers trotted out a variety of defenders on the 6-foot-9 Durant, each struggling to do much against his array of floaters and fadeaway jumpers. As Durant was on the way to 15 points in the first quarter, one disgusted fan yelled, “Play some defense! Durant’s going to be all over us!”
Turns out the Clippers were all over him. Hughes had advised his players not to touch Durant, but that proved to be difficult as Durant repeatedly went to the free throw line and made 12 of 14 attempts.
“I tried to keep my hands off of him and play him the best I could without fouling him,” said Clippers forward Rasual Butler, who had 17 points.
Center Chris Kaman had 19 points and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, but guards Eric Gordon and Baron Davis combined to make only five of 22 shots. Gordon had a sore right leg and it was unknown whether he would be able to play Saturday against Utah.
Although not to the extent of the Thunder, the Clippers have a young core and could get younger next season with the addition of rookie Blake Griffin and another first-round draft pick. Craig Smith might also be a keeper after scoring 19 points Friday on seven-for-11 shooting off the bench.
The fourth-year forward provided a jolt of energy with 11 of the Clippers’ 21 points in the first quarter. But he wasn’t much of a factor late in the game after picking up his fifth foul 17 seconds into the fourth quarter.
“Next time I’ll try to be aggressive but not too aggressive,” he said.
Hughes pinned the Thunder’s dramatic improvement largely on the progression of Durant, and refuted the notion that a winning team can be built primarily through the draft. Hughes said a roster should be built 25% through the draft, 30% through free agency and the balance through trades.
But there’s no denying the Thunder has found a formula that works.
“If they get one more big guy,” Hughes said, “they could be really dangerous. They’re right on the cusp of making a run for a long time.”
Hughes has talked about playing DeAndre Jordan more, so why doesn’t the coach just start the center and play him 30 minutes every game?
“He’s got to demonstrate that he deserves it,” Hughes said. “It’s not just going to be given to him. If he puts on a string of games where he’s dominating a game defensively, he may start. But that’s on him.”
Jordan had two points and five rebounds in 11 minutes off the bench against the Thunder.