The recently passed trading deadline has demonstrated the preferred ways NBA teams continue or begin chugging toward victory.
For instance, the high-riding Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Antawn Jamison as the presumed last piece in what could be a championship puzzle. He was available because his old team, the staggering Washington Wizards, was willing enough to dump salary (and a really fine player) in an effort to achieve salary-cap relief and woo success-creating free agents. But not much trading-deadline news erupted in Oklahoma City, where Thunder employees were busy working on a string of victories that (thanks to Sunday’s conquest of the Minnesota Timberwolves) has reached nine in a row. This run pulls OKC’s season record up to 33-21, good enough for fifth place in the fluid standings of the Western Conference. Although it has a combined record of 7-11 against the four best teams in each conference, OKC has won its past three such games (home wins over Denver, Atlanta and Dallas).
A look at the Thunder lineup suggests not a great deal of wheeling and dealing was necessary for the former Seattle SuperSonics to become a team with one of the league’s brightest futures. All that was required was a great deal of losing and reasonable returns during the draft lottery party in Secaucus.
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It certainly helped three years ago when the Portland Trail Blazers convinced themselves that historically bad big-man karma has no influence on reality and selected center Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant. The SuperSonics were obliged to seize Durant, a one-and-done wunderkind from the University of Texas, and coach P.J. Carlesimo was more than thrilled to install Durant into the starting lineup at shooting guard.
Well, P.J. didn’t work out so well and — only a few games into the franchise’s relocation to Oklahoma — was replaced by assistant coach Scott Brooks. Brooks, an overachieving type as a player (seven teams in 11 seasons), worked his way out of the interim tag despite coaching the Thunder to a pair of victories in his first 19 games. But he was smart enough to move the spindly, 6-foot-9 Durant to small forward, a move that many dimestore experts hailed as wise even though they weren’t expert enough to realize the change enabled this rising star to have a shot at at least getting by on defense. Defense, or a reasonable stab at it, was the real wisdom in the move.
Once upon a time in Oakland, a similar shift by Don Nelson helped Chris Mullin go from slow-moving shooting guard to All-Star small forward; simply put, opposing 3 men exposed Mullin’s defensive liabilities a lot less than did 2 guards. Even though Durant has created a Thunder buzz with his ability to score, Brooks is making the team prematurely successful by emphasizing defense. According to the league’s efficiency numbers, OKC ranks third in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions and is forcing opponents to shoot five-percent lower from the field than they did last season.
However, before we dig more deeply into that element of the Thunder story, let’s stick with Durant. OK, if you embrace the premise of his registry as a legit superstar (please embrace it), please note his team is in better cap shape than any other team employing a player of that caliber. A check of its financial situation reveals OKC has $40 million and change committed to next season with all of its current rotation players still under contract.
The potential, down-the-line rub surrounds Durant, who this summer will be eligible for a whopping extension from a team that would seem more than happy to bestow it. But the aforementioned rub arrives in the threat of a lockout provoked by the owners’ interest in knocking down salaries. If Thunder management waits to re-enlist Durant, a salary structure mandated by a new collective bargaining agreement could save it several million because the maximum deal would be far less than it is now. Good business, right?
Well, it might be just as prudent to keep the franchise player happy by making him filthy rich right now. Then again, a strong majority of high (and successful) draft picks stay put in their second contracts because the original franchise has the ability to make its player a restricted free agent after four years and match any offer from another team.
So, OKC can bargain in good faith and make Durant — who now has scored at least 25 points in 28 consecutive games — rich this summer. Or Durant could grin and bear whatever the team decides because the Thunder can make him wealthier faster. The last issue to consider might be Durant refusing to bleed franchise coffers in an effort to help his team re-sign his young, gifted teammates when their times are up.
At the top of this teammate list is second-year point guard Russell Westbrook — a premier athlete who found the NBA game to his liking after two seasons at UCLA — and Jeff Green, a combo forward who arrived from Georgetown in the same lottery with Durant three years ago.
With Durant settled in at small forward, Green moved to power forward, giving the Thunder considerably more quickness and north-south speed than most teams can muster at those positions. Nenad Krstic isn’t exactly a demon in the middle, but undersized Nick Collison gives it his all and 7-foot rookie Byron (formerly B.J.) Mullens has the potential to eventually become center enough based on the caliber of his teammates.
The team also has two first-round picks (expected to be in the low 20s) that — with big thinking, luck or both — could become another rotation player. The front-office architect behind this future is Sam Presti, who learned on the job as an apprentice in San Antonio and left the crafty Spurs to run things in Seattle. His first coach, of course, was former Spurs assistant Carlesimo, which proves that even rising sharpies make a mistake now and then. For the record, choosing Durant was a cinch, but taking Westbrook seems rather inspired.
Presti also took Arizona State’s James Harden with the third overall pick last summer with Tyreke Evans and Steph Curry still on the board. While Harden has had some nice moments subbing for defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha at shooting guard, he doesn’t look as promising as Evans or Curry, right? Well, they’re all NBA babies right now and shoving Evans into a lineup with Durant may not have worked out so swimmingly.
Would Curry pay dividends alongside Westbrook or fit in a defensive system insisted upon by Brooks and designed by veteran assistant coach Ron Adams? Adams, by the way, lines up with Mo Cheeks and Rex Kalamian on an impressive staff assembled by the young head coach. Adams, who has head-coaching experience at Fresno State, has helped the Thunder build a defensive shell that emphasizes help-and-recover team concepts similar to what has worked like a charm in Boston.
Unfortunately, OKC’s offense can be compromised by its youth. The team is a shaky 27th when it comes to frequency of turnovers and — consequently — a measly 19th in offensive efficiency.
It is believed that the decision-making will improve through experience, a variable that begs patience when considering the Thunder’s potential in the 2010 playoffs. Thanks to defense — and a gifted scorer in Durant — the evolution is way ahead of schedule.
Even with money to spend and a GM who worked for the Spurs when they were nailing future stars way past the lottery, on-the-job training will be this team’s best ally.
But, like any professional franchise, the potential enemy will be money.