The naysayers are spelling doomsday for the Thunder, but things aren’t as bad as they may seem…
- A lottery pick. If you’re one of those people who’s calling into question Sam Presti’s creative ability to engineer rosters, whether in the draft or through trades, let me just say that you’re wrong. You can beat the dead horse of the James Harden trade as much as you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in a swift and effective move this year, Presti acquired a player in Enes Kanter who could very well be a foundation for years to come. It also doesn’t change the impeccable draft record he has, not only of top players—Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant—but of later picks too—Reggie Jackson at 24, Serge Ibaka at 24, Mitch McGary at 21. This summer, in a loaded draft, Presti will have the 14th pick at worse. Not as sweet as the playoffs, but it’s another arrow in the quiver.
- New Appreciation for Russell Westbrook. Wednesday night, as the Thunder were thrashing the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, Durant tweeted about his Westbrook: “Sheesh this guy is ridiculous lol.” This in contrast to the tweets of Skip Bayless, who has, like many others in the media, continually derided Westbrook, despite Russell’s unequaled numbers this year; he finished the season with this per-game line: 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.1 steals and a 29.1 player efficiency rating. The only other guy in the history of the league who has achieved that kind of line is Oscar Robertson. (And if you adjust for pace, by the way, Westbrook’s numbers are better than the Big O’s.) In other words, everybody else might be finding things to complain about, but Durant seems to be loving it. I wouldn’t imagine that changing next year.
- Anger. As nice as a lottery pick is, the Thunder as a team probably would have reaped more from a playoff series—even getting decimated by the Warriors—than the new selection, but losing can, of course, be a strength. Look at LeBron’s first year in Miami. The bitterness that Westbrook and Durant will harbor this summer, their leadership and command of this team, the extra time off and the regaining of health—all this, for a team as talented as OKC, spells trouble for the rest of the league a season from now.
- A better coach than you or I thought. Durant missed 55 games. Westbrook missed 15. Ibaka missed 18. Collectively, that’s more than an entire season without one of your three best players. Yet despite these injuries, and despite the fact that nearly every other player on the roster missed some amount of time on top of that, Oklahoma City won 45 games in the Western Conference. I have written on numerous occasions that the Thunder should fire Scott Brooks (there are rumors about it happening), and while I still don’t think he’s a top five or even seven coach in the league, he has proven that he’s better than I thought. Now that Durant and Westbrook can be counted as veterans, he might actually be the perfect fit.
- The most talented Thunder roster—ever. Yes, I’m including the yesterdays of Harden. If Oklahoma City can re-sign Kanter, they’ll bring back a loaded frontcourt (Ibaka, Kanter, Adams, Collison, McGary) with two of the best 10 players in the league and the most lethal supporting cast behind it. (Morrow, Augustin, Waiters) This will be the most dynamic team both offensively and defensively that Brooks has had. They’ll be able to score from the inside, from the outside, from slashing, from posting up. They’ll have an ace shooter and a post-up presence.
The great temptation, a temptation to which many have already succumbed, is to construct a straw-man case against the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder using as evidence an anomaly season. When the Thunder finally get their studs back healthy and rested, you’re going to see what might be the most talented team in the NBA with a reputation to salvage, a point to prove and a championship to win. There won’t be a hungrier team at the start of next season.