Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder won 50 games and secured the West’s last playoff spot. Last week, John Hollinger and his enslaved army of stat-elves projected the Oklahoma City Thunder to win 49 games, one fewer than last year’s total, and still finish in the top half of the Western Conference (4th). The guys at Basketball Prospectus–whose rankings this year also ask you to forget anything you’ve ever believed to be true about basketball in order to accept that the Warriors should win three more games than the Lakers–predict the Thunder will win only 48. Yet somewhat more subjective (because selecting which stats count and for how much is also a subjective process) ranking systems like Marc Stein’s Preseason Power Rankings or Ric Bucher’s pomade fueled predictions have the Thunder finishing 2nd in the West.
What’s causing this gap between subjective prediction and statistical projection?
One factor is certainly that the West, as a whole, seems to be getting older, slower, and generally stinkier. As the conference’s old guard of Nash, Nowtizki and Duncan decay and Utah and Denver appear to take steps backward, many see a golden opportunity for the Thunder to move up the ranks. Indeed, they may not need to be any better to finish much higher in their conference.
The scintillating play of Kevin Durant in this Summer’s FIBA WBS in Turkey has also no doubt contributed to the hype. What’s odd is that it took Velvet Hoop flamethrowing a bunch of zone defenses manned by “players” who couldn’t make the D-League for some to realize he’s got all-world game.
Was his Turkish delight more impressive than scoring at least 25 points in 29 straight games (more than two months) against real life NBA wingspans? Did Durant improve this summer by playing overseas, or did his play overseas simply prove he’s the best pure scorer alive? Is it possible that beating up on Lithuania won’t translate to better handling Ron Artest’s bully tactics?
To those, like Marc Stein, who see the Thunder leapfrogging six other playoff teams this season, the gains seem to be more psychological than anything else: “any fears Durant might struggle with lofty expectations were obliterated in Istanbul.” I can see how these sorts of mental gains earned from battling in an elimination format will manifest in the playoffs, but I don’t see them changing the regular season performance of the Thunder, already one of the league’s hardest playing teams. Still, Stein is correct to point out that the mental make-up of this team calls for optimism.
However, other than the natural development of its young core, the Thunder bring surprisingly few new assets into the 2010-11 season. Perhaps as part of a long term plan to retain Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, GM Sam Presti opted not to sign an impact veteran this off season who could prevent plays like this one. And this is, in the short and long term, where I see the Thunder possibly running into trouble. As John Hollinger writes, “they are unlikely to have anywhere near as good a health record” after 4 out of 5 starters played all 82 games last year, so they needed to add depth. But when you are in the 46th largest TV market in America and have at least three young ballers to sign to long term deals in the next few years, it’s difficult to splurge on a mid-level exception.
Sam Presti has proved to be a master at cutting salary costs in exchange for draft picks and then making solid use of the picks, but he has yet to bring in meaningful veteran talent. Will his ownership allow him to do so? Or will it be another year or two before the rest of the Thunder’s youngsters like James Harden and Serge Ibaka are ready to spit out their pacifiers and take a bite out of the Lakers’ collective butt?
I look at another highly touted team that also expects to make a run at No. 2 in the West this year, the Portland Trail Blazers, and wonder if the Thunder could sustain last season’s rash of Blazer injuries to players as important as Greg Oden (60 games) Brandon Roy (17 games) and Joe Pryzbilla (50 games). Portland, who many believed would make the leap to No. 2 last season, can absorb these sorts of calamities and still finish 6th in the West because Paul Allen has 416 ft. yachtfuls of money–the kind of cash necessary to launch a spaceship in your free time–and encouraged former GM Kevin Pritchard (a certifiable deal-making wizard) to make moves for insurance policies like Andre Miller and Marcus Camby. While Pritchard’s talent is undeniable, being able to spend $20 million more than his counterpart in OKC helps as well.
By conserving resources this off season, the Thunder have allowed for no such contingencies. They could win 46 games, they could win 56 games, and neither would surprise me.
Who knows, maybe the longtime stalwarts of the West will crumble like ancient caryatids and the Thunder will escape the falling stones for a second straight year. If they do, they may have the talent to emerge from the rubble of the good Western Conference teams and challenge the great Lakers. But to make it, the baby-deer legs of Kevin Durant must carry this Thunder team while balancing on a uncomfortably thin margin for error. If the Thunder finish right where they were at the end of last season, my guess is that it won’t be great expectations that cause them to slip, but the harsh realities of being a small market team playing an 82 game season.