It should be glaringly obvious to anyone who pays even casual attention to the NBA that the Oklahoma City Thunder are still a work in progress despite heightened expectations after last season.
However, what might be difficult - especially once the season starts - is to balance those expectations with a perhaps less exciting need for this team to focus on day-to-day development on the path to fulfilling their potential.
"It's a big year for us as a team coming off a great season last year so it's going to be a lot of spotlight on us and a lot of pressure on us to try to duplicate that," said Jeff Green at media day. "But we can't look into what everybody is going to say or predict how we are going to do - the season hasn't even started yet. And I know it's a long way to go and it's going to be a long season. We just gotta take it one game at a time but I know that people are going to put a lot of pressure on us. And with us being a young team we can't fall into that."
In the minds of most observers, the Thunder are undeniably "ahead of schedule" in terms of reaching their potential - you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who projected them in the playoffs before last season, much less doing so with 50 wins. Strangely though, even after last year's success it's difficult to impose lofty expectations on a team that is clearly still growing. Even if last year's first round playoff performance has rapidly raised expectations among fans and media, the team is still so young and has so much untapped potential that it would be unfortunate if people become impatient with the progress of the team- as frustrating as knee jerk moves this off-season would have been, it would be equally frustrating for fans and media to hold a team with such enormous long-term potential to short-term benchmarks of wins and losses.
Along those lines, the underlying theme at Thunder training camp last week was growth, both as individuals and as a unit. As currently constructed, the Thunder are much more so an open laboratory for basketball development than a finished product that can be held up to scrutiny. That not only applies to the continued development of young superstar Kevin Durant, but also the cohesion, experience, and skillset of the entire unit.
"I just turned 22, so my experience is a little better than last year," said Kevin Durant. "But Russell is growing older. James is getting better. Eric is getting better. So I think that's one thing we need to do is get older and you can't do that in a couple of days. So we're learning everyday and our coaches do a great job. So I think we're all grateful to be part of a great organization."
In addition to the "internal development" that is likely to occur among players from last year's rotation, the Thunder have made some key new additions that might also contribute to the strength of this unit. In fact, it's quite conceivable that the Thunder could grow in key areas this year even if they don't see a large improvement in terms of wins or playoff advancement. As the Thunder look ahead to the pre-season, monitoring their ongoing development as a unit is probably more important than trying to anticipate what the rotation for that unit might look like.
And that's certainly not a bad thing.
There's a lot of talent on this roster and a number of potential configurations that might maximize that talent. But with so many variables of positive uncertainty even on paper - both the internal development and how the new additions might complement what they already have - it's hard to make any sort of affirmative assessment of what the most productive rotation might look like in live action against NBA competition. Even Thunder coach Scott Brooks is able to predict a rotation at this point.
"No, I'm looking at different ways," said Brooks when asked whether he had any particular lineups in mind. "I think we have a lot of interchangeable parts - Kevin can play four. Kevin can play three. You know, he's played two - he played two in the playoffs. We've got guys that can mix or change spots. I think that's a great asset that we have."
The very assets that make this team so exciting to follow - the anticipation of how a unit filled with athleticism, talent, versatility, and youth might continue to rise together as a unit - is what makes this team so difficult to predict anything about. Yet if you believe that at some level a team's identity should be formed organically around the talent within the unit instead of dictated by conventional wisdom, then patience would be the key as the team continues to grow.
Aside from the fact that both Nick Collison and Nenad Krstic are currently sidelined with injuries, it could be said that the team has so many potential configurations that it's pointless to begin speculating about anything until both the players and coaching staff get a sense of what exactly they have on their hands. So while patience might be the best approach to thinking about rotations, there were a few key areas of growth that seemed to surface while at training camp that are worthy of attention as the team moves forward.
5. How will Jeff Green respond to his contract situation?
Contract situation aside, there are plenty of reasons on the court to watch Green this year.
"With Jeff, I think Jeff is a very versatile player - he can play multiple positions," said Brooks. "He [showed] in the playoffs he can play 2, 3 and 4."
Next to Durant, Green might be the most versatile player on this team. And navigating how to best use that versatility on a growing team will certianly be an important task.
Yet statistically, Green had a bit of a down year last year -- particularly as a rebounder -- but this year he says he intends to be more assertive on both ends of the floor. In the brief scrimmage in practice last week, Green looked as focused as any player on the floor, bringing his versatility to bear on both ends of the court.
So let's further push this contract situation aside: with a team so focused on growth, waiting to make a final decision on the contract issue is not necessarily a bad thing. Not only does it give the team some wiggle room in terms of how to build the team moving forward, but it also gives the front office and Green an opportunity to see where exactly his versatility fits in the still-emergent identity of this unit.
"This contract situation is something that's on the backburner for me," said Green. "I know what I have to this season. My goal is to try to do the best I can to help the Thunder and the organization win as many games as possible and hopefully the championship...That's why I have agent - he's the one who has got to do all the hard work. My thing is to play basketball...Not personal at all."
Still, with Brandon Roy's admission that his contract situation weighed on him last year as well as both Aaron Brooks and Jamal Crawford's public statements about their contract situations, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that Green's statements about the matter are nothing more than PR spin. Then again, when you consider how he talks about the development of the team, it's equally reasonable to assume that he understands this growth as a process.
"We just gotta take it one game at a time and we just have to continue to grow together," said Green. "I think that's the biggest thing for us. We have a couple of new faces...so we just have to take it one day at a time and continue to get better."
When you look at the situation Green is in - a strong bond as a unit, new additions that should significantly strengthen that unit, and undoubtedly more growth to come - it's easier to believe that Green might actually recognize the position this team is in and be able to remain unconcerned with his individual contract this season, even if it isn't done before the deadline.
For now, I take him at his word when he says he's unconcerned.
4. Now that we know Russell Westbrook is a point guard, what is the next step in his development?
Russell Westbrook received not one question during media day this year about whether he can play point guard.
And it was about time, even if the questions about his ability to run point have served as something of a motivator for him thus far in his career.
"Well, I was just waiting on the question to be asked," said Westbrook. "But I've been hearing that all my life and I kinda got used to it. It's just something I go along with, and try to get better, and try to - I guess - not get that question asked anymore."
The fact that it wasn't an issue among the Oklahoma City media after being quite a point of debate last season, makes for one of the most important "developments" for the Thunder this season: there should no longer be any doubt that they have a NBA point guard.
Although it's difficult to take much from a scrimmage at the end of a practice session, there was certainly enough to say that Westbrook has returned from the FIBA World Championships showing the same aggression as last season - with the lighter Eric Maynor guarding him, Westbrook used a combination of crossovers and his quick first step to get into the lane on a number of occasions, including one after which he was forced to apologize for a missed two-handed dunk in traffic.
It was one of a few jaw dropping athletic plays that Westbrook pulled off on the day, whether it be in the scrimmage or one-on-one drills. Of course, plays like that missed dunk that went careening off the back of the rim are both what make Westbrook such a threat offensively and have led some people to question his worth as a NBA point guard. But continuing that debate misses the point about what made Westbrook so effective last season - the fact still remains that the Thunder were most effective against the Lakers last year with Westbrook taking the ball hard to the rim and making the type of plays media saw during today's scrimmage. The Thunder need him to continue that.
Nevertheless, Westbrook also knows that part of his development as a point guard is balancing his scoring with setting up teammates.
"As a point guard you have got to learn how to score and when to pass," said Westbrook. "For our team I think it's better if I get in there and be able kick out to shooters - James and Daequan, Mo Pete, Kevin and guys like that - to be able to knock the shot down."
Another area of growth from Westbrook might be on the defensive end. Obviously, he has the goods to be an elite defender in the league, but his defensive numbers - for whatever they're worth - we less than elite last season. Growth on the defensive end of the ball is something Green observed during Westbrook's performance in the FIBA tournament.
"With Russell, the way he played, I think the sky's the limit for him," said Green. "I think he was the one key piece that helped them win in the way that he played. Hopefully he can play the great defense that he played in that tournament with us. But that's to be known - I mean nobody knows."
Their should no longer be any questions about whether Westbrook can make it as a NBA point guard, but his continued development running the team should be as important to the Thunder's growth as anything else.
3. How will the Thunder's post rotation pan out?
After waiting for Serge Ibaka to arrive in the states from overseas, it is probably safe to say that he came in pretty much as advertised by the end of the season: for a franchise that has pursued the magical overseas combination of athleticism, height, and skill to no avail with picks like Johan Petro and Saer Sene, Ibaka was like a breath of fresh air. During the early days of practice this year, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is seeing the nascent stages of improvement.
"We all know and love his excitement, enthusiasm, and his energy," said Brooks. "And he's bringing that along with slowing down a little bit - the game is slowing down for him, he's not always in a rush, which is a good thing for Serge. His defense, his rebounding, and his shot blocking ability is really a big part of our team and our defensive philosophy. And with Serge, he gets better through work - that guys is one of the hardest working guys I've ever seen. And he just comes back the next day - it's like a machine - and the next day he comes back and he works. And it's fun to watch and it's fun to have him as a part of our team."
So there might be some question throughout the season about a) who starts and b) who gets minutes in the Thunder's post rotation.
Defense will clearly be an emphasis especially considering that the Thunder will obviously continue being a perimeter-oriented scoring team with Durant and Westbrook getting the majority of the team's shots - it's not as if they're in desperate need for additional scorers in the starting lineup. Furthermore, Green's versatility could be just as useful off the bench as it is in the starting lineup, in which case a spot could certainly open up for a hard-working defensive player like Ibaka.
The bottom line is probably that the final rotation might take a while to settle, but it will probably be stronger than last season.
"I think our bigs look pretty good," said Collison. "We just gotta get the other two healthy - Nenad and myself - and I think we'll have a good rotation."
With both Nick Collison and Nenad Krstic currently sidelined with injuries, it's likely that players like Ibaka as well as first-round pick Cole Aldrich, Longar Longar, Byron Mullens, and DJ White will get more reps in practice and thus more attention. Thus far, what we can probably say for certain is that Brooks will have more options for how he wants to set the tone in the post, both in the starting lineup and off the bench and it might not be as simple as picking the best player.
"They're doing a good job," said Collison when asked what he's seen from the bigs in practice while injured. "Byron is battling and playing more aggressively - I think he's a lot more comfortable. I think some of that continuity and just being able to play basketball and not think. Cole is trying to figure things out. He seems like he has a good feel. There's been a lot of stuff thrown at him. But he has a good feel for the game. Serge looks really good - solid. Doing a lot of things that he does."
With Ibaka expected to develop and Aldrich getting positive reviews thus far, it would be no surprise if the Thunder see much improved post-play as a unit this season.
2. How much will their new three point shooters help the team?
The Thunder were in the bottom third of the league in three-point shooting last year.
In response, they have added two players - Daequan Cook and Morris Peterson - who could improve the team's perimeter shooting this year, which could help their scoring efficiency. In theory, this should help spread the floor and help players like Durant and Westbrook who can drive the lane as well as athletic players like Ibaka and versatile players like Green who could be given more space to roam with shooters lining the perimeter.
"I think it will help a lot," said Collison when asked about the team's three-point shooting. "Particularly it will help Kevin and Russell and those guys that isolate and try score a lot because the paint will be more open - guys will have to stick to those shooters more. So I think it will help. Those guys are trying to figure out what we're trying to do - it's always tough to join a new team."
However, part of that "figuring out process" will require one of those two guys to find their shot consistently again. Another part, as Brooks said, will require these guys figuring out how to fit in on the defensive end.
That leads to the biggest theme of this year for the Thunder.
1. How good can this Thunder defense become?
The Thunder were already a strong defensive unit last season. But judging from their focus this year, they're not complacent.
You've probably noticed it in the comments throughout camp and media day - from the point guard to post players to wing players to new additions cracking the rotation, defense seemed to be the running theme throughout the early stages of training camp. All the players talked about it and Brooks set the tone defensively right away.
"I think the first two days we're focusing more on defense and our defensive schemes," said Durant.
And part of the beauty of this team is that the defensive intensity will come from almost everywhere - from the point guard to the post and everywhere in between.
"It's great that we led the league in blocks, but we have to still be solid in the other parts of our defense," said Brooks when asked about the team leading the league in blocks. "For every block that we have, we have to be able to be at the right spot and close out and help early and block out 20 times. But we have guys that have length that are athletic that can alter and change and block shots. Serge and Kevin and Jeff and even Russell - I think that's why we led because we do it by committee."
But another place to look for defensive contributions from is Durant. Although defense might have been one of the major critiques of Durant's game over the years - particularly if we can now dismiss last year's plus/minus debate - his performance in the playoffs against Kobe Bryant last year demonstrates a willingness to guard an opposing team's best player and do so effectively.
"You have to want to do it and we have guys that want to defend," said Brooks. "Our length helps. Kevin is a long defender. Jeff is a long defender. Russell, Thabo, just down the line. Our big guys are athletic bigs that they can defend and they're smart defenders."
While the notion that Durant might become the type of elite defender who draws the toughest assignment every night definitely contradicts commentary from last season that suspect defense was what kept him from being the MVP, defense has hardly been a concern for Durant's teammates.
"I think his offense - people recognize that fast," said Green. "But he is a great defender. He's long, he's athletic, blocked a lot of shots last year just by his length. So I think people don't recognize that about him because his offensive game is so explosive."
But focusing on individual defensive matchups ultimately misses the point - as Brooks has said, defense is a team effort and assessing Durant as an individual defender instead of part of a team concept that appears relatively strong misses the point.
The thing that makes this team so hard to gauge is there are a lot of moving parts. There are a number of different lineup configurations that one could imagine being effective. What they settle on depends on a) how these young players improved in the off-season and b) how well they play together in different configurations. The challenge is equally daunting for the front-office - at what point do you pull the trigger on trades? How do you decide whether to keep Green or not? Given the breadth of possibilities, when do you commit to one vision instead of continuing to wait for things to grow?
But as they continue to "rise together" - as their marketing material describes - it certainly doesn't hurt that the team has some interpersonal chemistry coming in that they've been able to leverage in order to challenge one another to do better.
"We're excited about how all the guys came into camp," said Brooks. "You can tell it's genuine - they like each other and they want each other to do well."