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.
HOLLINGER'S '08-09 STATS
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
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
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.
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.
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.