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2010-11 NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

By Ryan Costello

2009-10 Season: 50-32, 8th seed in the west, lost to Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1.
Key Losses: G Kevin Ollie, Asst. Coach Ron Adams,
Key Additions: G Morris Peterson, G Daequan Cook and PF/C Cole Aldrich.

1. What significant moves were made this off-season?
In traditional Sam Presti fashion, there weren’t any earth-shattering moves made from a personnel standpoint, and it’s hard to blame the man for staying the course.

At last glance, Kevin Durant is signed for the foreseeable future, Russell Westbrook looked about as containable in a Team USA uniform as he did in the first round of the playoffs (not very), and the supporting cast in Oklahoma City will return such potential-rich talents as Eric Maynor, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

What little roster shuffling that was made was highlighted by the welcoming of Morris Peterson in a trade with New Orleans that also brought over rookie big man Cole Aldrich, and a deal with the Heat that netted young two-guard Daequan Cook.

Peterson and Cook, both acquired for their three point stroke, offer a similar skill set and are likely to be competing for the same minutes. The early favorite is Peterson, who at 33 years old can still stretch a defense. His three-point percentage of .363 from last season was bested only by Thunder players Durant (.365) and Harden (.375).

Cook was a different story last season.

After posting a solid sophomore season, the third year pro out of Ohio State fell off last year. His ppg (5.0), rpg (1.8), and shooting (32% overall, 31.7% 3P) all suffered significant dips from his first two seasons.

If Cook, who reportedly was uncomfortable in Eric Spoelstra’s offense last year, can return to his 2008-09 form, scoring 9.1 points in 24.4 minutes a game, he could earn some minutes at shooting guard and turn out to be a steal for the Thunder.

Aldrich, the 11th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, potentially offers the defensive post presence the Thunder was looking for, but isn’t likely to be used in heavy doses early on. The former Kansas star will have to fight for minutes in an already crowded Thunder frontcourt including incumbents Nenad Krstic, Nick Collison, Jeff Green and Ibaka.    

Whether or not he gets the play time, Aldrich joins a cast of young project big men in OKC that also features work in progress Byron Mullens and fellow draftee Tibor Pleiss, who will spend the next season for Bamberg in the Eurocup League, and if he can develop an NBA-level offensive game to go with his defensive and rebounding prowess, Aldrich might be the best of the bunch.  

The Thunder’s departures didn’t include much in the way of rotation players; Etan Thomas, Kevin Ollie, and Kyle Weaver mostly played in clean-up time.

But what Oklahoma City lost may go further than the players on the floor. Ollie was likely an important piece in Westbrook’s maturation last season, and Assistant Coach Ron Adam’s migration to Tom Thibodeau’s staff in Chicago could hurt a Thunder defense that allowed 5.1 fewer points per game last season (98.0) than in 2008-09 (103.1).
Interestingly enough, the most important off-season move for the Thunder may not be in Oklahoma City.

Trade rumors regarding the fate of Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony continue to fly.

Three of the teams (Knicks, Nets, Bulls) most mentioned in the trade rumors would have Melo safely tucked away in the East, and while a chance remains that he could end up in the West, Nugget brass seems adamantly against trading their franchise player inside the division.  

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Two young stars? Check.

Strong supporting cast? Check.

A wealth of potential waiting in the wings? Check.

Not every team can boast the league’s youngest scoring title winner, and Durant will definitely play a titanic role in the Thunder’s plans this season. That being said, there’s more to this young team than the Durantula himself.

Westbrook seems primed to pop this season, Harden will have another year under his belt, Ibaka will have more minutes and more chances to wreak havoc in the paint, and Green is playing for a contract.

There could be big things brewing in Oklahoma City this season.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Despite a monumental 27-gamel turnaround in 2009, the Thunder still had their fair share of shortcomings.
The lack of a true three-point marksman on the floor allowed opposing defenses to clog the middle against Oklahoma City last season, and while Harden was hoped to fill that role, he hasn’t yet.

Enter Peterson and Cook as earlier mentioned, but there’re no promises with either. In order to harness the offensive potential of this team, a wing shooter will need to spread the floor, which brings us to weakness number two.

The Thunder’s half-court offense looked stale in 2009, with players often standing and waiting for either Durant or Westbrook to make a play. Head Coach Scottie Brooks made an overhaul in the team’s offensive sets a priority in the off-season, and it remains to be seen whether the tweaks will take.

Finally, the team’s defense. It’s true that the team led the league in blocks, was third in rebounding, and made a gigantic overall improvement last year, but now coach Adams, the team’s “brutally honest” defensive mastermind, is gone.

That might not be a backbreaker, but losing Adams can’t be a good thing.

There’s a reason Chicago and Thibodeau coveted him.    

4. What are the goals for this team?
The Thunder aren’t drinking their own kool-aid.

They’re young, and they know that the much ballyhooed changing of the guard in the Western Conference may have been declared a bit early.

That being said, this team has the chance to earn home court advantage and make a deep run in the upcoming playoffs. The law of the land in Oklahoma City is to keep moving forward. Last season, 50 wins was a shocker. This year, it’s the benchmark.

Could they reach the finals? Yes. Will they? It’s probably not that time yet, but a high seed and a Northwest Division title are attainable goals for the Thunder in 2010-11.

Wait, what arena do they play in again?

It’s not the Ford Center anymore.

Last month, The Thunder pulled the trigger on an option to renegotiate the naming rights for the arena in downtown Oklahoma City.

There are no deals in place yet, and officials as expected are playing things close to the vest.

The teams’ big time sponsors include Love’s, the convienience store chain that just locked up the rights for the newly christened “Love’s Loud City”, as well as energy giants Devon, Chesapaeke, and Sandridge.

There’s potential for some nice names in there, but corporate naming rights can be a minefield.

Here’s to hoping KD and company won’t be playing in “Snuggle Detergent Arena” next season.


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