In the final days leading up to regular season action, SCH will be posting divisional previews of the top teams in all six NBA divisions. Come back early and often for updates.
This will mark the third season in Oklahoma for the team formerly known as Prince. Wait. Formerly known as the Seattle Sonics. (I know. Especially with Sonics and Kevin Durant uber-fan Paul Brogan unleashing YouTube classics like this, I was sad to see them bolt the Great Northwest, too.) Two years ago, the Thunder won 23 games. Last year they won 50. So, is the 2010-2011 version of the Oklahoma City Thunder another slick piece of marketing propaganda from David Stern and company at the league PR office? Or is this upstart team filled with a roster of ten players age 24 or younger about to assert themselves as a perennial Western Conference power? What should you believe?
Believe that the darling of the 2010 playoffs who took the Lakers to six tough games in the first round is not a flash in the pan. Believe that if they can avoid the sophomore slump, their 27-game turnaround from the previous season will grow this season. Believe that last year’s league scoring champion and all-around phenom, Kevin Durant, could be named the MVP of the league this spring. Believe that whatever happens, Durant will lead his Young Guns out of the first round at least, if not further, in the 2011 playoffs. Believe this: OKC is for real. Let’s talk about why.
Allow me to introduce OKC’s starting five: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, and Nenad Krstic. Key names coming off the bench include: Nick Collison, James Harden, Daequan Cook, Serge Ibaka, and Eric Maynor. What’s the quick takeaway for you here? A strong, young starting five and a reserve unit that is among the deepest in the league.
Kevin Durant vs. The World
Durant’s soft-spoken demeanor betrays his on-court leadership. He was the unequivocal leader of Team USA’s gold medal run this summer at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey. Lest you forget, OKC point guard and rising NBA star Russell Westbrook was at his side for the entire run, which only enhances the growing on-court chemistry for the pair this season. (More on Westbrook in a moment.) Durant’s game is deceptively effortless, and NBA writer Scoop Jackson has compared his play to that of George “Iceman” Gervin, who made his every move look as easy as water rolling downhill. The best Utah can hope for is to stifle Durant when he penetrates the lane, force him to kick the ball out a little more than he normally would, and hope the post game stat sheet shows 22 points instead of 32.
D-Will vs. Russell Westbrook
Why should you pay attention to Russell Westbrook? Westbrook has quietly become one of the best point guards in the Western Conference. For a guy many expected to be nothing more than a role player, this is quite an accomplishment. He will have his hands full with D-Will, who is bigger, but Westbrook will be scrappy to be sure.
Paul Millsap vs. Jeff Green
This may be the matchup to watch. Jeff Green is the Thunder’s rebounding machine, and if he can make strides in that area this year, he will be the difference maker for many OKC wins. Remember, the Thunder ultimately lost game 6 against the Lakers on a missed defensive rebound that Pau Gasol scooped into the hoop after Kobe’s missed baseline jumper. Rebounding will, consequently, be a continuing mantra for the Thunder and Green is the heart of that effort. He and Millsap will be nicely matched, as both are underrated scorers as well.
Thabo Sefolosha/James Harden vs. Raja Bell/C.J. Miles
Thabo will start against Raja. Both are able scorers and tough defenders. But watch James Harden off the bench, the former 3rd overall pick whose game is really improving after his rookie year last season, in which he scored almost 10 points a game in 22 minutes a night. Both of those numbers will rise as his role grows on this team.
It would be a mistake to believe this team’s success is built on their scoring prowess. It’s a sleight-of-hand. This is a crew of rapscallion defenders of the highest order. These guys are too young to know how to get away with sloppy D. They are alive, and electric, and Head Coach Scotty Brooks has them convinced that the road to a championship is paved with iron-clad defense.
One potential low note is the psychological effect of becoming a target of everyone in the league for having become the darling of the NBA so quickly. Could this newfound bullseye on their back create enough of a shift in the environment to knock them off their 50 win pace of last season? While it’s possible, I doubt it. Not with Brooks’ coaching and the roster’s up and down hunger for winning after tasting it in the series against Los Angeles.
The Jazz went 3-1 vs. the Thunder during their 23 win 2008-2009 season, their first in Oklahoma City. Last year, the Jazz were 1-2 against OKC. This is the sum of the short rivalry between these teams, notwithstanding the days in Seattle, which we’ve buried with a reservoir of tears. RIP Jazz Killer Eddie Johnson, Gary Payton, Shawn “Johnny Appleseed” Kemp, and company.
For his efforts leading the Thunder turnaround, Scott Brooks was named NBA Coach of the Year. His team buys into his coaching philosophy, which Jazz fans can appreciate. He’s short. He played 10 years in the NBA. He won a championship with the 1994 Houston Rockets. His players like him. That’s all I’ve got here, folks.
The OKC franchise has built this team largely through the draft, which gives them a sense of pride at home-growing this group of youngsters. Clay Bennett and his ownership group had cap space to chase a big dollar free agent, but these guys want to do this on their own terms, and who can blame them, with the young talent they’ve acquired? In the most unnoticed move of the summer, Durant signed a 5 year max contract extension with a nonchalant whisper through Twitter, in stark contrast to LeBron’s “Decision”. In fact, Durant’s favorite motto: “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” You get the sense from the way he goes about his business that he believes it. It makes it easy to root for him and this team.
The Jazz matchups with OKC will be among the most kinetic games of the season. For you basketball purists, this matchup will showcase the orchestral beauty of this game–offensively and defensively–in full regale. In short, these games will be pretty to watch. Utah catches OKC at its freshest as two of the team’s first 11 games are against the Thunder. The next two games come in early February and late March. The latter will be a nice test of how the Jazz can handle a stifling defense and manic offensive movement down the stretch.
If I were the Jazz, I’d want to catch these guys sooner than later in the playoffs too, before the OKC kids get in over their heads and not realizing it, play out of their heads to the dismay of whoever stands in their way. Don’t give them more credit than they’ve earned quite yet, but they stand toe to toe with the Jazz lineup in the “who’s second best in the west behind LA” category. To the victor go the spoils.