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Old 10-08-2009, 08:03 PM   #1
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Default ESPN Insider Season Preview t0910

2008-09 Recap

Sometimes you have to look beyond the win-loss record to see where a team stands. The Thunder won only 23 games in their first season on the prairie, yet in many ways it was a hugely successful season, and their future seems as bright as any team in the league's.

It didn't seem this way at first, as the Oklahoma City era could hardly have started worse -- the Thunder were 3-29 after 32 games. But looking closer at this poor start reveals that few of the contributing factors were of long-term concern to the Thunder. Yes, two wings expected to make major contributions -- Damien Wilkins and Desmond Mason -- both played horribly, setting back the Thunder's hopes. At the point, it was a similar story, as Earl Watson labored through a thumb injury that threw off his shooting all season.

But those players weren't in the Thunder's long-term plans anyway. Those who were -- chiefly Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook -- were playing fairly well right out of the gate and continued to improve as the season went on, leaving the Thunder in a much more solid position than their early record indicated.

Oklahoma City strengthened its position by firing disciplinarian P.J. Carlesimo and replacing him with well-regarded assistant Scotty Brooks. Brooks made an important and productive decision almost immediately, moving Kevin Durant from shooting guard to small forward and Green from small forward to power forward. This proved to be a much better utilization of the Thunder's talent, and Durant in particular bloomed following the transition.

W-L: 23-59 (Pythagorean W-L: 22-60)
Offensive Efficiency: 99.9 (29th)
Defensive Efficiency: 106.9 (21st)
Pace Factor: 96.1 (8th)
Highest PER: Kevin Durant (20.85)
That helped the Thunder to a respectable 20-30 finish in their final 50 games, helped along by several personnel moves along the way. We normally think of talent acquisition as an offseason activity, but the Thunder were extremely active body-snatchers during the year. Oklahoma City signed Nenad Krstic to a three-year deal when he left his team in Russia, traded a future first-round pick to Chicago for Thabo Sefolosha to supplant the struggling Wilkins-Mason tandem on the wings, and added Shaun Livingston to the roster late in the year as a potential solution in the backcourt.

Even in the second half of the year, the Thunder had their problems. Chief among them was a tendency to think the shot clock had 10 seconds instead of 24, with lots of wild shots early in possessions. Durant and Westbrook were the most frequent transgressors, but certainly not the only ones, and the results were disastrous for the offense: Oklahoma City finished eighth in the league in pace factor but last in 2-point shooting percentage.

Worst 2-point shooting pct., 2008-09
Team FG pct.
Oklahoma City 46.3
L.A. Clippers 46.7
Milwaukee 46.7
Minnesota 46.7
Sacramento 47.2

A lack of outside shooting was another huge problem. While Durant shot well on 3s (42.2 percent), nobody else could space the floor for him. The Thunder were dead-last in the league in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt, with only 14.1 percent of their shots coming from beyond the arc (see chart). Oklahoma City was one of only two teams not to have a single player make at least 100 3s, and Durant and Green were the only ones to make more than 35.

That led to all sorts of problems in the half-court offense, as defenses felt free to crowd the paint, double Durant and force Oklahoma City to choose between tough, contested looks or jump shots by players who couldn't shoot.

Fewest 3s per field-goal attempt, 2008-09
Team 3s per 100 FGA
Okla. City 14.1
Philadelphia 16.4
Detroit 16.5
Utah 16.9
Memphis 17.5

The Thunder played defense better than offense, despite a glaring lack of size in the middle that Krstic, still recovering from knee problems, failed to address in a meaningful way. One interesting aspect of their defensive activity was how good they were at stealing the ball, and how bad they were at any other means of forcing a turnover.

The Thunder stole the ball on 8.8 percent of opponent possessions, the highest rate in the league. But the Thunder created dead-ball turnovers only 5.6 percent of the time, placing them 28th out of the league's 30 teams, and overall they forced fewer turnovers than the league average. Oklahoma City's other defensive numbers weren't far off the league average, especially after Brooks took over and rescued Durant from nightly blow-bys against opposing shooting guards.

Across the board, the numbers screamed out the Thunder's youth and inexperience. They played too fast, shot too quickly and gambled too much on defense. Fortunately, all those youthful transgressions are easily remedied. Unfortunately, the only cure for them is time. They're getting better before our eyes, but experience was a painful teacher last season.

Offseason Moves

It was an eerily quiet summer in Oklahoma City. The Thunder had a raft of cap space, but given a weak free-agent market, they decided to hold their cards for next summer, when they could have as much as $15 million under the cap to pursue a much stronger free-agent crop. At that point, Oklahoma City could be a much more enticing free-agent destination, because the young players will be a year further along in the development process and the team could have two lottery picks (Phoenix's and their own) to supplement the free-agent haul.

The Thunder may also extend Sefolosha before the season starts, which may cut into their cap space but would lock up a quality defender for their nucleus, if the price is right.

Signed Serge Ibaka. A first-round pick in 2008, Ibaka played in a low-level league in Spain last season. It was a bit of a surprise to see the Thunder commit to the raw prospect from Congo this early, if only because it started the clock on his eventual free agency a year earlier and he doesn't seem able to contribute yet. The benefit, however, will be that he can play for the franchise-run D-League team in nearby Tulsa, permitting the Thunder much closer supervision over his development.

Drafted James Harden, B.J. Mullens, and Robert Vaden. Looking at the previous chapter on the Thunder's woes in field goal shooting and 3-point opportunities, Harden could not have been a more obvious selection. The Thunder had a glaring need for a floor spacer who could provide more room for Durant and Westbrook to operate, and Harden fits the bill quite nicely. The hope is that he can be a long-term solution at shooting guard, leaving only the center position as a prominent need going forward.

To answer that latter concern, the Thunder took a late flier on Mullens. He's 7-foot-1 and has some talent, but his freshman year at Ohio State was rather unimpressive. The Thunder can afford to be patient and may send him to become Ibaka's workout partner in Tulsa; as with the former, Mullens' selection was more a long-term play than a quest for immediate dividends.

Vaden, a late second-round pick, will play in Europe.

Traded Damien Wilkins and Chucky Atkins to Minnesota for Kevin Ollie and Etan Thomas. The Thunder took on some salary in this deal but didn't affect their long-term cap space since both Ollie and Thomas have expiring contracts. Additionally, both players could fill important roles. Ollie provides insurance as a third point guard in case Livingston's injury woes return, but as a hardworking and highly respected veteran, Ollie may prove more important for his sage counsel in a locker room filled with kids. Thomas hardly played the past two seasons due to health problems, but if he reverts to his level of 2006-07, he could provide the interior toughness the Thunder have so clearly lacked the past two seasons.

Bought out Earl Watson. This move saved the Thunder nearly $3 million, a windfall given how poorly Watson performed last season.
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