Coming into this season the Thunder are picked my many to be the biggest challenger to the Lakers rein as Western Conference Champs. Almost every single key player from last year is back and with their new found play-off experience the team should continue to improve. However, the front office didn't rest on their laurels and went out in the off season and acquired some good bench depth. Will these new additions and the continued improvement of key young players be enough to take this team over the hump? Let's take a look at the current roster and see what we can expect out of each player. Without further adieu, here they are, your 2010-11 Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook is coming off a very good showing in last year's first round play-off series against the Lakers in which he used his speed to get to the rack whenever he wanted and seemed to grow up before our eyes. This summer Westbrook also went overseas with his teammate Kevin Durant and was a key bench player on the gold medal winning team. Westbrook seems to be on the verge of becoming a top ten point guard in the League. It's entirely plausible to see Westbrook reaching averages of 16 ppg and 10 apg as he continues to turn into a true point guard. Not only that, but with his elite athleticism he will continue to be a ball hawk and be a big part of the Thunders team defense. With Durant taking the scoring load this is where his role must lie because if he, among others, can keep up the high energy D they played last year this team will be challenging for a title at the end of the year.
Sefolosha is one of the best guard defenders in the game. He is our version of Ron Artest and can be put on pester them all game. Going back to the first round of the play-offs last year, Sefolosha was able to give Kobe fits. Even though Kobe was able to score quite a bit he also had to take more shots to get those points than he wanted to. Thabo sets the tone on defense and will continue to keep opposing guards in check. Without him the defense might crumble because he brings a veteran presence to the team and takes the toughest match-up on the team. When Sefolosha can hit a few shots it greatly improves our chances of winning because then opponents can't sag off of him. This opens up lanes for Durant and co. to go to work. Last year he showed a few flashes, but he's going to have to score a few more points to keep the hounds off of Durant.
As the photo would suggest, Durant can hit the bottom of the net no matter what you try and do to him. With Lebron Jame's arrival in Miami, Durant is poised to claim his first MVP award. Not only that, but after gaining some much needed play-off experience and getting to play for his country this summer he should be able to help this team take the next step. It will be fairly difficult for Durant to average 30 points a game again this year, but he'll hover around that number. Not only that, but his all-around game will continue to improve. As he adds strength Durant will become a better rebounder and with his length his defensive game can only improve. Watching the World Championships it's easy to see that he could become a great back side shot blocker, but he needs to have that want-to for the entire year. If he continues to play with the passion he did this summer the sky is the limit for young "Durantula"
Jeff Green might be the most underrated player on the team. He does it all for this team, he's the ultimate glue guy...put him on the court and he'll do what he has to to keep the team going. At 6'9 he guards the four position and does it extremely well. He gets key rebounds and always seems to come up with a big block or steal towards the end of games. Even as the third option on the court, Green doesn't complain and goes out and gets 15 points a game and does it very effectively. One of the biggest things he has done in the past is consistently hit threes from the four position. This keeps the lane open for Westbrook and Durant to drive and get to the lane.It doesn't seem like he's going to quit anytime soon because in the first preseason game he hit 5 of 7 threes and got 25 points. Now this isn't something that's going to happen every night, but knowing that he can step up and score that many points, even in a preseason game, is reassuring. Look for Green to continue being a great all-around player and hopefully get some much deserved recognition.
Nenad is probably the guy most likely to lose his starting spot on the team sometime throughout the year. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but with a few good young bigs it's a possibility. Last year he was the weak link on a strong young team and that looks to be the case this year. Nenad only averaged five boards a game last year, which is terrible for a seven foot tall center. He also doesn't block shots very well, coming in with only .6 per game last year. He does a decent job of stretching the defense with a decent mid range shot, but one of the younger guys who gets boards and can block shots will probably start to eat up his playing time.
First things first, Harden has the best beard in the League. With that out of the way Harden has a crazy high offensive IQ. As a rookie he did a great job of playing within himself and letting the game come to him. He doesn't make very many mistakes and sometimes show flashes of offensive brilliance. I think he will continue to develop this season and could become one of the best 6th men in the league because of his instant scoring off the bench. I could see him becoming a young Jason Terry. He won't be getting 30 off the bench like Terry did a few years back, but somewhere between 15-20 is totally possible depending on how many minutes he gets. If he can continue to develop his defensive game (he had five steals in the first preseason game) he could begin taking minutes from Sefolosha. However, with Sefolosha's ability to shut down most guards and pester all of them I can't see Harden in the starting lineup this season without becoming a much better defender. Look for him to be in the top five 6th Man of Year award come seasons end.
In Peterson the Thunder have picked up a great long distance shooter. This could be a great addition because outside of Durant, Harden, and maybe Green they don't have many pure shooters. Not that any of those guys can't get it done, but adding someone who can come in with the second team and put up lots of shots will help greatly. Mo-Pete gives them two solid scorers off the bench (the other being Harden) and this bench depth will be key in trying to take over the Lakers who have a pretty deep bench. If Mo-Pete can get 8-10 points per game it will go along way towards helping the Thunder win and give Durant and the starters a chance to rest a little for the play-offs.
Collison is a great energy guy off the bench and gets all the effort plays. Every team needs a guy like this to come in and do the dirty work and Collison can do it with the best of him. He's like a poor man's (and less ugly) Joakim Noah. Too many times to count, Collison has come in off the bench and made a game changing play...whether it be a big block or taking a charge just when he needs to. Seriously, if they kept track of charges taken per minute I'm fairly certain Collison would top the list. Not only does he do all that, but off the bench Collison gets more boards than starting center Nenad Kristic. His production might not be seen every night by the casual fan, but rest assured that Collison means a ton to this team because they know he'll always be there to do their dirty work for them.
Ibaka is crazy raw, but he's quickly becoming a force on both sides of the ball. Last year he got 1.3 blocks per game and 5.4 rebounds and with another off season under his belt his production should only go up. His athleticism is off the charts, but he also shoots very well from mid-range. He shot 49% from 10-15 last year and should continue to get better. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he could someday soon average 10 points and 10 boards a game. I really think Ibaka will take over the starting center spot at some point this season and could be a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year. Look for Ibaka to approach a double-double average this year and get at least two blocks per game.
Maynor's best attribute last year was that he had a 3 to 1 assist to turnover rating last year. Maynor doesn't have to do a lot outside of this because he has so many playmakers around him. There's not a lot to say about Maynor because his biggest and pretty much only job is to facilitate for other players. If he can get the ball to guys on the second team like Harden and Mo-Pete and keep down on his turnovers he will continue to be a very effective back-up who does a good job of handling the offense, staying within himself, and giving Westbrook a chance to catch his breath.
Aldrich brings in an old school center who will play smart on both sides of the ball. He's not going to score a ton of points, but he will give you a good post game. His biggest asset is going to be his ability to lock down the paint on defense. He's going to come in and contribute right away because he has so much experience from playing at Kansas. He's not going to win rookie of the year because his numbers won't be flashy, but he will put up solid numbers and, along with Serge Ibake, help shore up a position that was a weakness last year. His limited potential will probably keep him from become that much better, but I think he's the future of this position for the franchise and will stay effective for many years to come. Look for him to split time with Ibaka this year, probably coming off the bench, and be used a lot as the season progresses because he's so reliable at his position.
White is another guy, like Collison, who does the hard work. He's got exceptional strength and decent athleticism. White really shines on the defensive side of the ball and brings extreme intensity. He's very vocal and could become a leader among the second team defense which will keep the intensity from dropping off with him in the rotation. He's also becoming a good rebounder and developing a decent mid-range jumper to go with his back-to-the-basket game. He will probably see limited minutes at first, but as the season progresses I think he'll get 10-15 minutes a game as part of what is sure to be a rotation at the the 4 and 5 spots. It could go the opposite way though and he could end up back in the D-League, trying to improve his game until he can take over Collison's spot as the Thunders energy man.
Both these guys will see limited minutes as the third string guards, but they could still be effective in their spots. Ivey isn't a great player, but he is tall at 6'4 and brings some experience to the position as a six year vet. Cook has proven to be a good scorer and could come off the bench to get some buckets here and there, but his minutes will be sparse with so many good young guards on the squad. At the very least they'll both give this young team some more veterans off the bench, which is always important.
With key players from last year's team getting much needed playoff experience and another off season together, as well as the addition of a few key players, the Thunder are poised to make a run at the Lakers crown.
Projected Record- 52-30 (2nd in Northwest Division)
Playoff Projection- Eliminated in Conference Finals by the Lakers
Team (and League MVP)- Kevin Durant