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Old 10-08-2009, 08:04 PM   #2
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Default Re: ESPN Insider Season Preview

Biggest Strength: Assets

One can't appreciate what the Thunder are in the process of building just by watching them on the court. Last season, they looked like any other garden-variety bad team. The difference is that they've managed their operation very carefully the past couple of years, and as a result, they're overflowing with juicy assets.

Let's start with the cap space. Oklahoma City stayed well under this year's salary cap, allowing the Thunder to make deals at this year's trade deadline to put other teams under the luxury tax by taking on an expiring contract -- and presumably getting paid for it in the form of future draft picks.

Doing so wouldn't subtract any from the $15 million or so they can expect to have under the cap in 2010, depending on where the cap number comes in, how high their draft picks are, and whether they extend Sefolosha. That won't get them a LeBron James or a Dwyane Wade -- not when the competition is the bright lights of New York, Chicago, Miami or the "other" L.A. -- but it will put them in play for any number of other quality players that may be available next summer, and/or put them in position to make a trade that takes on salary.

Then there's the Phoenix pick. As a result of a trade for Kurt Thomas in 2007, the Thunder own a completely unprotected lottery pick from the Suns. Given Phoenix's disarray, it could well be a lottery pick, and if the Thunder miss the playoffs, that would give them two shots at the top pick. Oklahoma City also has a 2010 second-round pick owned by Minnesota, which is almost like a first-rounder as it's likely to come in around No. 35.

Combined with the quality young players they've already assembled (Durant, Green, Westbrook, Harden, Sefolosha) and the prospects they're gained the rights to (Mullens, Ibaka, D.J. White, Kyle Weaver), their talent base is poised to explode over the next 12 months.

Of course, they can use any or all of these assets between now and then in trades if they want to accelerate the process, though so far patience has ruled the day. The upshot, however, is that two years from now, this team will be absolutely stacked.

Biggest Weakness: Interior Play

The Thunder have identified high-quality prospects at all the perimeter positions, but the middle remains a different story. Krstic looked wobbly in his return last season and it's an open question whether he'll regain the low-post game he showed in a breakout year for the Nets before his knee injury. Mullens is an intriguing prospect, but there's a reason 23 teams took a pass on him, and at any rate, he may not be ready for years. Ibaka is in the same boat.

As a result, the Thunder will have a hard time competing against power teams. Green is an undersized 4 and Krstic a contact-loathing 5. Nick Collison can play the middle, but he gives up size against most centers as well.

Offensively, it's a similar problem -- the Thunder don't have any quality post players. Krstic and Green are mostly spot-up shooters, Collison an energy guy who gets second shots, and the others too limited offensively to run plays through. It's a secondary reason the Thunder attempted so few 3s as well -- they don't have anybody who can command a double-team on the block.


Could the Thunder make it to the playoffs? Absolutely. I have them finishing out of the money, but they're certainly in a position where if enough things break right, they could make it. Chief among them would be breakout years from the youngsters and a monumental campaign from Durant, and along with that would have to come an outstanding run of health; this team is not laden with quality depth.

The more likely scenario, however, involves another year of growing pains while they find their way to the next level. Oklahoma City still has a lot of weaknesses for a Western playoff hopeful -- its depth and the center situation are less than ideal. Additionally, none of its key players is a good passer, which makes it tough for the Thunder to consistently generate good looks.

As a result, expect a lot of ups and downs, but ultimately a "year away" type of campaign that's reminiscent of the 2007-08 Blazers. Oklahoma City will be one of the league's most improved teams and on certain nights Durant, Westbrook and Green will remind everyone of what an awesome future this team possesses. But on others, the lack of depth, size and consistency will prove telling, which is why its future looks better than its present.

Prediction: 36-46, 4th in Northwest division, 10th in Western Conference

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