The Thunder have definately been playing better lately. They are 9-12 since the All Star Break, and 7 of the 12 losses have come by 5 points or less. Basically they've won or "been in" 76% of their games in 2009. Pretty remarkable for a team that fired their coach after they started the season 1-12. I think a lot of their problems in close games (3-13 on the year in games decided by 5 points or less) has to do with their youth. Acquiring a veteran like Tyson Chandler certainly helps, and battling through games like that this year will help in the future.
That being said, seems like the buzz is "playoffs" next year, and I'm not so certain. First of all, the Thunder play in the Western Conference. Even though the East has made gains this year, the West is still tougher. The 8th spot this year will probably take 46-47 wins, and a team about 9 or 10 games above the .500 mark could easily miss the playoffs. It's going to be a lot tougher than you'd think to make the playoffs, especially in the West. Additionally, the Thunder play in the Northwest Division, which has 3 playoff-caliber teams right now (Denver, Portland and Utah).
That all being said, the Thunder do have some pieces in place to get much better.
Obviously Kevin Durant is a bonafide superstar-in-the-making. I don't know why, but the guy really flies under the radar. ESPN the Magazine had an article on this recently. He is younger than O.J. Mayo, he is breaking a lot of scoring benchmarks by age, etc. It's really pretty amazing. Durant is 16th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating and 4th in the league in scoring.
The problem is, the Thunder don't really have anyone else who is a great scorer. Jeff Green is alright, but honestly, the Thunder really need to go out and acquire some sort of dynamic player who can score a bunch of different ways, and make the Thunder a bigger offensive threat. Don't believe me?
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-reference.com
The Thunder have a Pace Factor of 93.6 good for 7th in the league. 7th! What is the pace factor? It is basically an estimate of team possessions in 48 minutes. With such a great number with respect to the rest of the league, one would expect the Thunder to have a highly ranked offense. In fact, they are 28th out of 30 teams. Not very good at all, and that's because they lack another dynamic scorer.
Durant is obviously a lock at one of the forward positions (fast and lean enough to play the 3, and long enough to play the 4). Westbrook seems like a good enough starter at the PG position, but consider this: Westbrook is basically tied with Steve Blake in terms of PER. Both are in the bottom half of league PGs. Steve Blake has a better assist rate and turnover rate. Obviously Westbrook has to have some time to adjust to the NBA, but he does only average 4.9 assists per game. I think he'll be a bit more of a quarterback if the Thunder can acquire another scorer.
Honestly, I see Chandler at Center and Durant at either 3 or 4. It basically boils down to whether or not you want Green or Collison starting. I personally prefer Durant at the 3. I think he is athletic enough to play that position, and it would help the Thunder's interior defense and rebounding to have Collison and Chandler playing at the 4 and 5 respectively. I think Jeff Green would be a great 6th man and would give you versatility in the frontcourt.
What the Thunder need to do is acquire a top-flight Shooting Guard, and get a versitile big man who plays the 4 and the 5. Kyle Weaver is not a starting caliber shooting guard in the NBA, and Nick Collison is the 38th ranked PF in the NBA in terms of PER. Getting a new starter at the 2 by next year is a must, and replacing Collison in the starting lineup is key if you want to go to the playoffs.
Basically I've worked my way to a starting lineup (next year) of: Chandler, Collison/Acquisition, Durant, Acquisition, Westbrook. Off the bench your primary players would be Green, probably Collison, and maybe Krstic and maybe Weaver/Atkins/Watson.
So who to target? I would go free agency for the PF. There will be a lot of good ones that will be unrestricted free agents. Try Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Zaza Pachula, Anderson Varejao, Drew Gooden, Lamar Odom, Jermaine O'Neal, Al Harrington, Shawn Marion and Carlos Boozer. Pretty good class of free agent PF!
The draft would be the way to go for a SG. Check out the draft board on ESPN. Harden from Arizona State is a great scorer, but does have problems driving to his left. Any of the top 4 or 5 prospects there would probably be pretty good in the NBA. The draft is pretty deep at the 2.
Again, the Thunder are headed in the right direction, but remember they are in the Western Conference in a tough division. It may take a few years to get back to the playoffs for this franchise. I think it will require a smart offseason this summer, saving some money, and making a big splash in the summer of 2010, bringing in a huge free agent to throw out there with Durant.