This is in response to Ric Bucher's article in the April 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about the Oklahoma Thunder. Kevin Durant is one year, and a few national broadcasts, away from unquestioned superstar-dom. Jeff Green (or, as LeBron's dubbed him, "Uncle Jeff") might be the ideal complementary star—the only "next Pippen" to really get the point. Russell Westbrook is a cross between Wade and the Drunken Master. And that's just the team's core.
There's the lottery pick this season, gobs of cap space, forgotten x-factor youngsters like Thabo Sefolosha and Shaun Livingston picked up for cheap, the perfectly respectable record once Scottie Brooks replaced P.J. Carlisemo as head coach, and genius GM Sam Presti calling the shots. Plus, for the real NBA geeks, there's the explosive Serge Ibaka developing overseas.
But while all of this makes them a prime candidate for the NBA's new cult favorites—the heir to the Brand/Odom/Miles Clippers, the Suns before anyone realized they were good, or the2006-07 Warriors—there's no reason to assume they'll improve enough to make the playoffs next season. That's because, for all their spunk and character, the Thunder remain largely a work in progress.
Looking at their roster now, you see a ton of talent but not much internal logic. They have no real post threat, outside of de facto power forward Jeff Green; while Green and Durant grab their share of boards, the team's most effective rebounder is probably Westbrook—a de facto PG whose haywire game lends itself to both breathtaking invention and loads of turnovers, botched finishes, and a giant question mark where most teams want stability. Livingston's produced in limited minutes, and a full-fledged resurrection could be just around the bend; on the other hand, pairing Sefalosha with Westbrook has also proven productive. The bottom line, though, is that unless Presti hires Don Nelson, the Thunder still has a lot to figure out about their team's identity. Without any legit inside presence or clear-cut custodian of the rock, this is a small-ball onslaught with neither head nor tail.
Had the Tyson Chandler deal gone through, the team would have gained exactly that necessary form and definition—and taken a huge leap forward. If they were to somehow land Oklahoma's Blake Griffin or Ricky Rubio—expected to go first and second in this summer's draft, if Rubio puts his name in—they would have either that force down low that Chandler represented, or the kind of playmaking wiz that undersized, up-tempo teams usually depend on, respectively. It would be easy to imagine the Thunder having more of an identity from the tip-off, and thus winning more of those close games. But the draft process no longer has territorial rights built into it, and thanks to OKC's improvement, they're likely to pick around fifth. And sorry, but neither Hasheem Thabeet nor Brandon Jennings are ready to make that kind of contribution yet, and might not ever be.
Presti does have cap room to play with, but remember, he also has to think about re-signing Durant, Green and Westbrook down the line. The franchise doesn't need any more "best available," in either the draft or especially from the free agent pool. And, with all due respect, Oklahoma City is no South Beach when it comes to attracting top-flight talent, so if the organization goes that route, they might not have their pick of the litter (even with everyone freaked out about the next summer's FA class). Perhaps more importantly: Knowing about the Spurs culture that Presti comes from, it's hard to imagine he doesn't have a more concrete plan. He's still searching for the appropriate parts, or seeing what fits where. Compare that to his pal, and fellow next level GM, Kevin Pritchard, who has been able to assemble a relatively conventional, and logical, core of players.
It's also worth pointing out that, for a lot of the league, the Thunder were barely a real team this season. How many of their wins came as a result of sneaking up on teams who were already thinking past them? A team could not be more invisible, anonymous, and obscure than the Thunder were, even once they started winning at a respectable clip. For heaven's sake, between their generic unis, middle-of-nowhere location, abrupt move and roster full of youngsters, they made the Bobcats look like the Boston Celtics. You know how the world champs always have that target on their backs, every night? The Thunder had the opposite of that going, and almost every night. Next season, if Durant's rep gets around, or teams remember how unexpectedly feisty OKC was a season ago, we could see them paid the worst compliment possible: respect. Even if the Thunder do play that much better in 2009-10, it could be canceled out by opponents taking them half-seriously.
That -- and not making the playoffs -- is a more realistic goal for a team that's yet to really figure out what it's capable of or exactly what direction it's headed in.