— Obviously, no one’s afraid of a team with a 13-43 record.
It’s also fair to say that no one instinctively cringes in fear at the sight of a leading scorer who looks like he’s never lifted anything heavier than a basketball in his life.
And you’re certainly not going to run and hide from a 20-year-old rookie point guard who’s still learning the position on the pro level, nor will you be outwardly intimidated by an individual whose playing style has been likened to that of your uncle.
In sum, the Oklahoma City Thunder may not look like a force to be reckoned with — and that’s because, quite frankly, it isn’t one. But while other lottery-bound teams like the Clippers and Kings stagger downward with no clear remedy for losing and no tangible blueprint for future success, Oklahoma City is quietly stockpiling talent for a run at respectability that’s probably coming sooner than most of us realize. Here’s a look at the key components:
A moment that’s quietly emblematic of Kevin Durant’s proficiency took place in the closing moments of the Thunder’s 100-98 loss to the Hornets last Tuesday. With the Thunder trailing by three, Durant curled toward the right sideline, caught an inbounds pass, and in one fluid motion the electric swingman faded to his right to bury a line drive three while falling out of bounds.
If you didn’t see it (or simply can’t quite visualize it), the operative word for that play — and for Durant’s scoring acumen at large — is effortless. In fairness, you don’t score 47 in a game (as Durant did that night against New Orleans) without exerting considerable effort. However, there’s something about Durant’s style — from the way he glides down the floor on a fast break to the quiet but forceful release of his jump shot — that exudes an overriding measure of ease. And the force with which he’s able to finish at the rim or propel a jumper from several steps behind the arc is made even more surprising by his physical appearance: with his rail-thin 6-foot-9 frame and clunky, oversized shoes, Durant looks less like a pure scoring machine than he does a slightly awkward kid who borrowed an older player’s jersey before sneaking onto the court.
And on that note, the most striking fact to understand is that Durant doesn’t turn 21 until September. Considering the leap he made from being a 19-year-old rookie last year (when he averaged 20.3 points on 43.0 percent shooting) to a 20-year-old averaging 26.2 points on 48.5 percent shooting to trail only Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in scoring output, it is nothing short of staggering to realize how prolific he could become.
During his brief stint as a broadcaster for the Rookie Challenge over All-Star Weekend, LeBron James bestowed forward Jeff Green with the moniker “Uncle Jeff,” a nod to the fact that Green plays basketball like that uncle you used to compete against at family gatherings.
LeBron gets a significant amount of credit for coining this rather inspired nickname, and Green’s game has enough old school, efficient-but-not-that-flashy characteristics to largely justify the label. At the same time, your uncle probably never rose up out of nowhere to violently swat a layup attempt off the backboard or drove to the rim for an unexpectedly forceful dunk, so please understand — while he does occasionally resemble a crafty, middle-aged man out on the court, Green is also more than a little bit explosive in his own right.
In February, the second-year pro has averaged 20.1 points and 9.2 rebounds, notable considering that as of Monday only five players had averaged better than 20 and nine on the season: Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Chris Bosh and Al Jefferson (who’s out for the year with a torn ACL). Granted, Green’s sample size is only nine games in February as opposed to the entire season, so any comparisons to the likes of Duncan or even Jamison are obviously unfounded. But let this much be clear: With averages of 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds in his second season, Green is quite a bit better than your dad’s brother, and at age 22, he’s still got plenty of old man tricks to add to his repertoire.
He probably won’t beat out Derrick Rose or O.J. Mayo for Rookie of the Year, nor will he win any accolades for outstanding marksmanship (41.0 percent from the floor) or ball control (his 3.1 turnovers per game is ninth-worst in the league). However, Russell Westbrook does receive high marks for an impressive 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game, numbers that have made the 20-year-old a formidable third member of the little-known but rapidly growing Oklahoma City Three.
And even though he’s still learning how to efficiently distribute the ball on the pro level, Westbrook is already well-versed in the practice of forcefully finishing his own drives. You only need to watch the Thunder for about one quarter to realize that very few point guards in the league can match Westbrook’s explosiveness off the dribble.
The Wild Card
Though Durant, Green and Westbrook would be front and center on any Oklahoma City Thunder film poster, one other player acquired at last week’s trade deadline warrants a mention as well: Thabo Sefolosha.
Why should a player who has averaged just 5.0 points during his brief NBA career generate any sort of excitement? Because 5.0 points per game doesn’t tell the whole story. A closer look shows that in the 42 games in which Sefolosha has played 25 or more minutes, the 24-year-old has averaged 10.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.6 blocks. Those numbers obviously aren’t dazzling, but they’re enough to make you realize that Thunder General Manager Sam Presti spotted something in Sefolosha. And unlike so many of the deadline deals that were motivated by finances, this one was clearly motivated by the belief that adding Sefolosha would mean adding a valuable new component to a growing young team.
And make no mistake, despite all the talent, young and growing are still very valid adjectives to describe this franchise. In its first nine games this month, the Thunder let up an average of 114.0 points and had a 2-7 record (after a 7-7 January). That’s not very good, and neither, for that matter, is the Oklahoma City basketball team – at least not yet.
Just don’t make the mistake of grouping this team in with other struggling franchises like the Kings or the Clippers, who don’t compete these days so much as they make a nightly mockery out of lopsided box scores. Oklahoma City still loses more often than not, but there’s a distinct ripple of electricity in the air in Thunder country. One day sooner than we all might think, that energy is going to translate into wins.
Five Games to Watch This Week
1. Pistons at Heat, Tuesday: Dwyane Wade’s encore to Sunday’s 50-point game could sound the final bell on the Detroit coaching career of Michael Curry, who needs his team to show significant signs of life, pronto.
2. Lakers at Thunder, Tuesday: Kobe versus Durant. Two players with the ability to go for 40-plus points (or more) on any given night with the incentive to go ballistic in a head-to-head matchup. We’re conservatively setting the over/under on their combined points at 72.
3. Suns at Lakers, Thursday: The Suns have lost Amare Stoudemire (who very nearly lost an eye last week), but high-octane basketball is back in Phoenix (the Suns have averaged 132.5 points in the first four games under Alvin Gentry). Furthermore, the Lakers — in addition to being a rather entertaining team — don’t exactly play consistently inspired defense themselves. The over/under on the combined teams’ points is conservatively set at 245.
4. Cavs at Spurs, Friday: On the off chance that you burned out on offense watching the Suns and Lakers, you can watch two very good teams play very stifling defense in Texas one night later.
5. Cavs at Hawks, Sunday: Atlanta crowds pack Phillips Arena en masse when a superstar is in town, and something about this game screams “emphatic triple-double from LeBron in a game that should come down to the final minutes.” Not a terrible way to begin the month of March.