All of this talk of the "future" of the Oklahoma City Thunder has forced me to look more closely into the likelihood of this team reaching their potential. A rarity in the modern NBA, GM Sam Presti has chosen to build his team solely through the draft. Commendable, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. After dismantling the entire former Seattle Sonics core (Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Luke Ridnour), Presti refused to take any shortcuts. Even after tempting free agent big men such as Paul Millsap, David Lee, Marcin Gortat, and Brandon Bass flooded the market, Presti refused to budge.
His priorities lie with the players who are building his team from the ground up. The young core he has drafted in the lottery in recent years is beginning to take shape, and the national media is taking notice. It seems like a simple enough theory, but why hasn’t anyone tried it before? Well, it is currently being attempted in Portland, OR by GM Kevin Pritchard. The Blazers have a fantastic young core lead by lottery pick Brandon Roy. Portland’s drafting luck has not been quite as fortuitous as that of the Thunder, but they still have a very bright future in the coming years.
In recent years, some of the best talent assemblies have been built through the draft, most notably San Antonio (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker) and Chicago (Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc). These squads have gone on to win a record number of NBA titles, and are considered by most to be the single most successful teams of their respective eras. In support of Presti’s fantastically stubborn philosophy, and for the offseason sanity of my fellow Thunder fans, I’m going to take a closer look at the upside of each young player that makes up the future core of this team, in order to properly put into perspective the potential that the overall team possesses.
Best Case Scenario: Poor Man’s Dwyane Wade
Rationale: Westbrook has developed more quickly than anyone could have imagined. Although he was taken with the #4 overall selection in the 2008 draft, most scouts believed at the time that he was taken far too high, given his collegiate productivity. Westbrook has proven all of his critics wrong to date. While he still has significant improvements to make in order to be allowed in the conversation with Dwyane Wade, there are obvious signs that he will reach his potential sooner than later. Already one of the top rebounding guards in the league, Westbrook possesses world class athleticism, rivaled only by two guys named LeBron James and, oddly enough, Dwyane Wade. Westbrook is also an exceptional defender, which is something he shares in common with Wade. Westbrook’s ability to create turnovers and occasionally block the shot of a smaller guard is tremendous compared to the typical PGs capabilities. He always shares his lack outside shooting with Wade, but both players are steadily improving, and I expect Westbrook especially to be considered a quality shooter in the near future.
SG James Harden
Best Case Scenario: Manu Ginobili
Rationale: Even though so many people hate the playing style of the flop-happy Argentinean, that doesn’t make him any less talented. All of the positives in Ginobili’s game are reflected in the skills that Harden possesses. Harden has decent athleticism to go along with deadly shooting, a lightning quick first step, great court vision, and elite finishing ability. We can only hope that Harden does not emulate the extra-curricular basketball plays that most fans have come to dislike him for though. On the flip side, I think that Oklahoma City fans would be pleasantly surprised with Harden’s abilities if he were able to develop his game to the level of Many Ginobili’s, who has led his team a many playoff wins, and aided in the pursuit of multiple chamionships, something that any team would love to have.
SF Kevin Durant
Rationale: Okay, so there may not be a much better "best case" than the above, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a ridiculous notion. At only 20 years old, Durant has made strides in his first two NBA seasons that no one thought he (or anyone else for that matter) would be able to master at such a young age. His ball-handling ability and athleticism rival that of Kobe Bryant, while his shooting ability and overall size are very comparable to Dirk Nowitzki. In essence, I’m saying that a player of his size and skill set has not come along since Magic Johnson (whom a small minority believe to be the greatest NBA player of all time). The only difference between Magic and Durant is Durant’s ability to shoot. Durant has the ability, and Magic didn’t. That is where the Dirk comparison comes in. At no point in history have all of these elements come together in one player’s body. Oklahoma City has a chance to see something a great offensive force develop over the next few years, and he is already a solid defender to boot.
PF Jeff Green
Best Case Scenario: David West
Rationale: I realize that West is not that much older than Green, so how can I compare the two? I can because I believe that West has essentially tapped out his potential, and Green has barely played in the league long enough to reach his. While Green is obviously a much better shooter than West from the outside, don’t forget that West occasionally will take a shot from beyond the arc, and also sports a career 84.1 free throw percentage. They share the same height and build, although Green has yet to fully fill his out. The only other true advantage that Green has over West is his passing ability, which is a great asset for any team. Aside from that, Green could learn a lot from West about low post moves and rebounding, both of which would serve Jeff very well as he continues to develop every aspect of his game. C
Best Case Scenario: Poor Man’s Pau Gasol
Rationale: Until the Thunder draft Greg Monroe or Cole Aldrich next year, I have no choice but to be convinced that Sam Presti really believes Mullens can turn into a primetime player. I see what he sees, in Mullens elite athleticism and unteachable instincts. Mullens, though, was surprisingly unproductive in his one season at Ohio State. Therein lies the problem. Most NBA projects, especially big men, don’t reach their potential due to lack of effort and dedication, which have seriously been questioned regarding Mullens since Day 1. Unless that changes, expect him to be your run-of-the-mill big man bust, and you won't be disappointed. No one has ever questioned his talent or size, as he is a legitimate 7 feet and runs the floor like a gazelle, but he needs to dedicate himself to becoming a better player if he ever wants to be mentioned in the same breath as Pau Gasol. Gasol possesses the game’s best passing from the block, excellent hands, a reliable jumpshot, and a work ethic that cannot be matched. Needless to say, if the Thunder end up with half the player that the Lakers have in the post, then a late first round pick would have been well worth it.
This Oklahoma City team desperately needs to maintain their level-headedness despite the hype that is being spread about them right now. No one is talking championship this season, but they know that all else equal, this team will develop into an animal that no team will want to mess with. It all starts with the development of Durant. He is the unquestioned team leader, despite his age, and it will be his responsibility to set the tone for upcoming seasons. The entire aforementioned core will need to dedicate themselves personally as well, because the championship trophies don’t just jump on the mantle for you; you have to go out and earn them. You can bet that each of these players know exactly what they need to do to be the best player that they can be, the only question is, do they have the work ethic that it takes to get it done? After watching the conclusion of the 2008-09 regular season, I think it’s safe to say that this particular group of players has no qualms with hard work.
This article can also be found at HoopAngle.com/Thunder