While the summer of 2010 will largely be remembered by what went down in South Beach, it also served as a calm before the storm in Oklahoma City. Last season the Oklahoma City Thunder surprised everyone around the NBA except for themselves, with a 27-win improvement over the year before. Their breakthrough 50-win season came just one year after their rough 2008 inaugural season, following their controversial move from Seattle. This once proud Seattle franchise has experienced a renaissance of sorts in OKC, where the so-called “loudest fans in the NBA” have been lucky enough to witness Kevin Durant take his game to whole new level; an MVP caliber level. Durant raised his average by 4.8 points per game to lead the league in scoring in 2009-2010. He would go on to lead his team to an impressive six game, first round defeat to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Although it’s uncommon to look impressive in a first round playoff defeat, the way in which the Thunder battled against the league’s best illustrates how far they have come from the young and inexperienced team that cost P.J. Carlisemo his job less than two years ago. That team that started off just 2-24 in 2008 did not look a whole lot different than the one that will take the court at the end of October. General Manager Sam Presti has kept his core of young players intact since he brought them to OKC, and they are finally beginning to blossom individually and gel as a unit. Last season the trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green combined for 60% of the team’s scoring, 43% of its rebounding, and 62% of its assists. What this means is that the team is blessed with a high volume nucleus that is poised to dominate the ball in OKC for years to come. With that said, how does Presti surround his big 3 with the appropriate talent that is required for the Thunder to take the next step towards being an elite Western Conference team? Sometimes the process of finding suitable role players is more difficult than assembling the actual core of the team; just ask Bryan Colangelo, Rod Thorn and Ernie Grunfeld who have all struggled to surround their big 3 with complimentary talent in recent years. However, Presti has already experienced success in this process by adding several impact players who played a big role in last season’s playoff team. Since the franchise move, he has drafted the athletically gifted James Harden, brought in veteran big man Nenad Krstic, and added defensive specialists Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka. These role players have bought into coach Scott Brooks’ defensive mentality and have meshed perfectly with the Thunder’s star players. In spite of their recent success, this team still has some noticeable weaknesses and while many teams have spent the summer jockeying for the rights to Lebron and company, Presti and his staff have quietly addressed some of these shortcomings.
One of the more glaring weaknesses from last season’s most improved team was the Thunder’s poor three-point shooting. While they were certainly athletic enough to catch teams off guard, their shooting deficiencies often left them one dimensional when opposing defenses were able to stop them in the open court. The Thunder finished 25th in the league in both triples made and three-point shooting percentage, shooting only 34% from behind the arch. Outside of Durant and Green the team did not have a legitimate threat from long distance the entire season. Presti addressed their shooting scarcity early this off season by purchasing the affordable contract of Daequan Cook in a salary dump from the Miami Heat (I guess salary dump didn’t work out too badly for the Heat either). While Cook’s efficiency numbers aren’t great, he certainly isn’t shy when it comes to making his presence felt behind the arch. During his best season with the Heat in 2008, he averaged over 2 triples per game and also has a three-point shootout title on his resume. Another new addition to this year’s team will be 10 year NBA vet Morris Peterson, who was acquired from New Orleans in a crafty draft day trade. Mo Pete has struggled to regain his form the last couple of seasons but he does bring a certain presence of leadership and experience that coach Brooks will undoubtedly welcome with open arms. Peterson can come off the bench and play the type of hard-nosed defense that Brooks has been preaching to his young team since taking over as head coach. If he can recapture his consistency from distance he too can be a three-point shooting asset, assuming he doesn’t become too comfortable in his favorite spot deep in the corner.
Along with Peterson, Presti also acquired Cole Aldrich, this year’s 11th pick from New Orleans. This acquisition addressed another need for the Thunder, some size and an overall upgrade at the center position. As the starting center in 2009, Krstic averaged a respectable 8.4 points per game, while still taking advantage of that lethal mid-range jumper that continues to make him valuable as a big man. That being said, 5 boards and just over a half a block per game is unacceptable from your starting center, especially when your starting 4-man is the undersized Jeff Green. At 6-11, Aldrich should provide the intimidating presence that this team was missing last season. In addition to his 11.3 points, Aldrich also averaged 9.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game as a junior at the University of Kansas. The rookie also comes to the Thunder with a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award to his credit. His game should be an immediate compliment to the more finesse style of play that Green is accustomed to and he will also mesh well with the quicker, more athletic Serge Ibaka. While Aldrich may begin this upcoming season coming off the bench for the Thunder, it shouldn’t be long before he bumps Nenad from the starting lineup and becomes known throughout Oklahoma as the anti-Krstic.
Presti has become known throughout the league as one of the more creative GMs in the NBA. The crafty trade he engineered for Peterson and Aldrich on draft day further justifies this reputation. Presti packaged his team’s 21st and 26th draft picks to move up and select Aldrich with the 11th pick. He also picked up Peterson’s $6.64 million, unwanted contract from the Hornets. Although Mo Pete will be an asset to this team during the 2010-2011 season, his contract will expire next summer when Kevin Durant’s freshly signed extension will take into effect. Of course the highlight of the summer for the Thunder was Durant’s 5-year, $85 million contract extension. Although the complimentary pieces acquired by Presti this summer are a great addition to an already great team, retaining the services of KD for as long as possible had to have been plan A, B and C for the Thunder. In the coming years Presti will also have to break the bank in order to pay Westbrook and Green however he has the large contracts of Peterson, Krstic and Nick Collison coming off the books next summer. Unlike some of his counterparts, Presti has not made moves simply for the sake of making moves, but instead has quietly made the right moves when he has needed to. So even though you won’t see anyone from the Thunder in a one hour ESPN special entitled “The Decision”, or rising from the smoke in an MTV-like press conference, the pieces have been put in place for the young team in OKC to make a big move in the Western Conference during the upcoming NBA season.
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Written by Josh Lewis