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Thursday, December 4, 2008
PER Diem: Dec. 4, 2008

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Oklahoma City lost to Charlotte 103-97 on Wednesday, dropping the Thunder to 2-17 on the season and putting them in a rather undesirable position as the season nears the quarter pole. At this rate, the Thunder will finish with a record of 9-73, which would tie them for the worst record of all time.

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This raises some interesting questions. Just how bad are the Thunder, and what are their odds of having the worst record in league history?

Certainly, the "worst team ever" label is within the realm of possibility based on how the Thunder have played so far. Oklahoma City is dead last in the Power Rankings, and the Playoff Odds have them pegged for a 15-67 finish. In fact, in the worst of the 5,000 simulated seasons we ran, they finished just 3-79.

Although that possibility is extremely far-fetched, there is a sliver of a chance that the Thunder could tie the standard of awfulness set by the 1972-73 Philadelphia team. After 19 games, they're one game ahead of the Sixers' pace from that year. (You can see all the worst 82-game seasons here and compare the Thunder to the 76ers here.)

But all these scenarios depend on whether the Thunder continue to play as badly during the next 63 games as they've played in the first 19. And for a variety of reasons, I don't expect that to happen.

For starters, they've played more respectably since replacing P.J. Carlesimo with Scotty Brooks. Under their new coach, the Thunder are 1-5 with an average scoring margin of minus eight points. Although this is still terrible, it's a big improvement on the 1-12 mark and minus-12.3 margin under Carlesimo. (And as one Seattle jokester noted, Brooks already tied Carlesimo's record for the most wins by a coach in Thunder history.)

Second, Oklahoma City's best players are young. This is important, as they can be expected to improve throughout the course of the season. Although there's the so-called rookie wall, most rookies (and second-year players) play better statistically as the season goes on.

Kevin Durant (17.27 player efficiency rating), Jeff Green (14.25) and Russell Westbrook (14.16) own three of the top four PERs on the squad. Westbrook is a rookie point guard who didn't play the position in college and is learning on the fly, while the other two are NBA sophomores. We can reasonably expect each of the three to put up better numbers as the season goes on; they also should get better on D as they gain valuable experience.

Third, the Thunder's veterans have pretty seriously underperformed their career norms, to the point that one has to think they'll bounce back sharply in the next 63 games. Most of these guys aren't old, either -- they're mid-20s types such as Chris Wilcox, Nick Collison, Damien Wilkins and Earl Watson.

For no apparent reason, those four players in particular have made a serious turn for the worse this season. Wilcox is 26 years old and has a 12.75 PER; he was better than 16 the previous three seasons. Collison is 28 and has a PER of 11.15; he was better than 14 the previous four seasons. Wilkins is 28 and is at just 9.08 after being a useful reserve in his other seasons. And Watson is 29 and has a mark of just 7.44, barely half what he'd done in his previous six seasons.

It's possible that all four players suddenly became awful, but it's far more likely that it's just a 20-game fluke and their numbers will return to something more normal. Because those four are likely to see their numbers rebound, and the three youngsters also are likely to put up better numbers as the season goes on, that gives us seven key rotation players who are likely to play a lot better than they've done so far.

And that, in turn, leads us to the conclusion that the Thunder will be better than they've shown so far. Not good enough to do anything of significance, probably, or even to avoid the worst record in the league. But at the end of the day, it seems to me they'll easily surpass the nine-win threshold of historic awfulness and finish with about 18 to 20 victories.

Historic awfulness always requires a confluence of factors -- a perfect storm of horrendous play. In this case, it probably would take multiple injuries, as well as trades of several veterans, for the Thunder to truly threaten the Sixers' mark.

So far we've seen just about the worst-case scenario for the Thunder. Unless it continues, they'll be able to escape the notoriety of becoming known as the NBA's worst team ever.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.