2010 NBA Season Recap: Oklahoma City Thunder

| by David Berri

James Brocato graduated from Washington State University in 2009. He is currently attending Law School at Gonzaga University. He grew up a passionate supporter of the Seattle Supersonics, but their relocation to Oklahoma City in 2008 put him in an awkward position. Failed attempts to root for Phoenix and Portland made him realize that his heart is still with the team he grew up loving, even if they’re not the hometown heroes anymore.

In the 2008-09 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder won 23 games. In 2009-10, they won 50. This 27 game swing was good for the best improvement in the NBA over that time period, and an unexpected surprise for a promising young team. Much of the surprise is not that the team achieved a 50 win season, but when the 50 win season was realized. The Thunder have recently undergone a rigorous rebuilding process with an impressive and confident front office. The success of this process promises hope for struggling teams everywhere – if the right people are put in charge and the pieces fall into place — a bad team can become good in only a few years. Of course, a player like Kevin Durant is only available so often. Regardless, one has to give credit where credit is due. But, while the front office has clearly done wonders for a team that has only recently gone through hard times, it is important to determine exactly where the team improved, and what it can do to further its progress. So the begging question remains: how did Oklahoma City improve so much in one year? 

The allocation of more minutes in 2009-10 to Oklahoma City’s productive bench players from 2008-09 accounted for just over five extra wins. This can all be attributed to one player – Thabo Sefolosha.  The rest of the improvement — which accounts for the bulk of the Thunder’s progress — is the increase in production from two starters. The two players, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, combined to produce 15 more wins than they had produced in the 2008-09 season. This increase in wins did not come from a dramatic increase in minutes; rather, these two actually improved their per-minute production by doing things like shooting more efficiently and earning more possessions for their team. This is especially notable in that, as Dave Berri has argued repeatedly in the past, player production is relatively stable over time. Stumbling on Wins does note that younger players get better with age. However, for one player to triple his production is very rare.  And for another player — in this case the most productive player on his team during the previous season — to double his production, is also uncommon.

Kevin Durant won the rookie of the year award in 2007-2008, but he was not a good rookie (see Kevin Durant was not the Best Rookie).

However, as disappointing as his rookie campaign was, he improved more than any other player in the NBA over the next two seasons. Durant prides himself on being a hard worker and determined to win. His hard work has paid off. But now he has a great responsibility to maintain his brilliant level of production, as he is the most important piece to a team with big dreams. In fact, his subpar play in the playoffs (though the sample size is very small) may have been a factor in their first round exit. Durant produced only 0.043 wins per 48 minutes, compared to 0.280 during the regular season. Again, the sample size is very small, so it is hard to draw a worthwhile conclusion from those numbers. The main point, however, is clear: Durant plays the lead role in the Thunder’s future, and their success will largely depend on his play.

Durant’s success may not be a surprise to anyone (he finished second in MVP voting for the 2009-10 season). In fact, most of what has been established thus far in this post – the improved play of Westbrook and solid contribution from Sefolosha – is probably not surprising to casual fans. 

What may come a surprise, however, is the very unproductive play of Jeff Green. Green produced less than two wins in over 3,000 minutes of play time. He played more minutes than all but six players in the entire NBA, and only produced ONE win. Scarier still is that this bad season isn’t an anomaly. He posted nearly identical numbers in 2008-09, and was the worst player in the NBA the previous season. The reason this is so alarming is that the front office puts a great deal of confidence in Green. He was drafted with the 5th overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, a pick that was traded by Boston for Ray Allen. In addition, they have made no moves to secure a player to start at power forward – a sign of their trust in Green to play the position. Obviously the coaching staff shares this confidence, or he wouldn’t have seen such a huge volume of playing time.  He is considered (along with Durant and Westbrook) a member of the core of this young team by the front office, coaching staff, and the media. This is extremely unfortunate, as Green’s poor play may well put a damper on Oklahoma City’s success for years to come.

The best case scenario would be to trade Green, though this is unlikely given what we have just established. A more foreseeable, yet still positive possibility is that the front office realizes it needs a true power forward (Green is naturally a small forward, but plays PF so he and Durant can be on the floor at the same time). In this case, a productive power forward could be brought in, and Green could be moved to the sixth man position.This would diminish the effect of Green’s lack of productivity enough to make everyone happy.

While we’re on the subject of players that hurt the Thunder, we might as well mention Nenad Kristic. Kristic, despite his continued negative production, continues to be employed as Oklahoma City’s starting center. He has literally lost the Thunder a win over his last two seasons.  However, the poor play of Kristic will probably not be as detrimental to Oklahoma City in the years to come. 

There are two reasons for this: 1.He is not perceived as that good of a player, and 2. The success of Serge Ibaka, particularly in the playoffs, might soon earn him the starting position, and more of Kristic’s minutes. 

As for the offseason, Sam Presti’s job is clear: get a good big man! Oklahoma City’s backcourt is great.  Their swingman is fantastic. Their big men are terrible. Fans can keep their fingers crossed that Serge Ibaka’s development will follow suit with Durant’s and Westbrook’s. Chances are, though, that it won’t. Additionally, it is very improbable that one of the Thunder’s four late first round picks will develop into a star.

Fortunately, there is hope. The Thunder have $17 million free in the salary cap this offseason ($22 million in the unlikely event that Kristic doesn’t resign with his player option). This is enough to sign a huge free agent. Of those available, the most desirable would be David Lee, Carlos Boozer, or Chris Bosh. Bosh is out of the picture, he already narrowed down his list to five, and the Thunder didn’t make the cut. Boozer, although extremely desirable, is also probably unattainable, signs point to him seeking a larger market. Lee, on the other hand, would be a perfect match. In fact, theoretically, if Lee simply replaced Kristic’s minutes, one would expect the Thunder to produce around 60 wins. Giving Lee the same amount of minutes he received last season, which would involve replacing all of Kristic’s minutes at center, and some of Collison’s at power forward, would render the Thunder a 64 win team. However, before people jump to conclusions and assume adding Lee would make Oklahoma City the best team in the NBA, there are two important points to note:

1. This conclusion is based on Wins Produced from the 2009-10 season, and this may not remain constant in the 2010-11 season (though, as mentioned earlier, evidence supports it to stay at least relatively constant), and

2. Diminshing returns – a real but small effect (as noted in The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins) — may decrease Lee’s production, or the production of someone else, if he were to be added to the team. Specifically, only so many rebounds can be grabbed each game. Oklahoma City is already one of the premier rebounding teams in the NBA, and a great deal of Lee’s production comes from rebounding. Still, the addition of Lee, or Boozer, certainly could make the Thunder one of the best teams in the league.

-James Brocato