Hollinger's Team Forecast: Oklahoma City Thunder
The fact that the Seattle Sonics left behind 40 years of history in the Pacific Northwest to move to the heartland completely overshadowed the team's basketball season, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. With a young, rebuilding team playing before an embittered home crowd, the Sonics went 20-62 and lost by some frightening scores. The Nuggets alone beat them by 42 points twice in a three-week span, and Seattle had nearly as many losses by 20 points or more (15) as it had wins (20).
W-L: 20-62 (Pythagorean W-L: 16-66)
Offensive Efficiency: 97.6 (30th)
Defensive Efficiency: 106.9 (24th)
Pace Factor: 98.9 (5th)
Highest PER: Chris Wilcox (16.34)
Meanwhile, local arena politics and assorted legal wrangling combined to set the wheels turning on the Sonics' departure. The city's court battle to keep the team in town dragged on all season, but without a new arena it was ultimately a dead letter -- even if they "won" they were going to lose the team in 2010. In the end, the case did little more than expose some bare-faced lies by owner Clay Bennett, which won't matter a bit as long as he remembers to steer clear of Sea-Tac Airport in his future travels.
The Sonics' final season in Seattle was not a memorable one, clearly, as the team was rebuilding under a new coach and general manager. Conspiracy theorists tried to link these two facts, but they had little to do with each other -- the Sonics were a bad team with a bad cap situation when Bennett bought it, and blowing up the salary structure was the obvious thing to do.
New general manager Sam Presti set out to do just that, and in his short tenure he has done an impressive job accumulating assets. Most notably, he was able to rent Kurt Thomas for half a season while getting three first-round picks from the arrangement -- two from Phoenix and one from San Antonio -- including an unprotected lottery pick from the fading Suns in 2010. Another deal later in the season cut costs while unloading Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak in a three-way trade with Cleveland and Chicago, again helping position the Sonics for the future.
Meanwhile, new coach P.J. Carlesimo tried to deal with the present. Offensively, his team was a walking disaster. Rookie Kevin Durant was the team's go-to guy despite having almost no clue what a good NBA shot was or what his other four teammates were doing, and it showed in the results. Don't blame the kid, though -- he was 19 and didn't have much help, and to his credit his decisions improved as the season went on.
Offensive Efficiency: 2007-08's Worst
For the season, Seattle ranked last in offensive efficiency, and there weren't many highlights in the sub-categories, either. The Sonics were 28th in 2-point shooting, 3-point shooting and turnover ratio, though they did at least nudge ahead of the league average in offensive rebound rate.
The biggest problem, however, was generating 3-point shots. Seattle took just .134 3-point attempts per field-goal attempt, which was easily the lowest rate in the league. After Szczerbiak and West were traded, Seattle often played lineups that didn't have a single player who was a legitimate threat from behind the arc.
Seattle's other problem offensively was a disappointing season from rookie Jeff Green. While Durant lived up to expectations and won the Rookie of the Year award, Green -- taken fifth overall -- struggled mightily, posting a 9.92 PER while playing 28 minutes a game. Making this of greater concern was that he wasn't the typical teenaged lottery pick; Green had played three years in college.
At the defensive end, let's give the Sonics one thing -- they tried. Seattle finished 24th in defensive efficiency despite starting two rookies and playing an undersized frontcourt. They were 28th in 3-point defense because they had to double inside so much, and 29th in forcing turnovers because they just weren't that good, but unlike a few other teams I can think of, they didn't quit.
They saved that for after the season, quitting the city that had supported them for four decades and heading halfway across the country. The NBA left behind just a glimmer of hope that Seattle might get a team in the future if a new arena is built. In the meantime, the team renamed itself the Thunder (thwack), a USFL-esque moniker that immediately takes over as the league's worst nickname. Timberwolves fans, you may quietly rejoice.
Biggest Strength: Can I get back to you on that?It's hard to point to a single area where the Thunder (thwack) will be better than most of the other teams this season. They're raw and inexperienced at almost every spot, they don't have much in the way of quality size up front, and their guards don't scare anybody.
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If pressed, however, I'll point out that they rebounded decently. Not great, but decently. Last year Seattle grabbed 73.7 percent of available defensive boards and 26.8 percent of available offensive boards; both figures were just slightly ahead of the league average.
Given that the Sonics were 28th in just about every other metric, this will have to pass as their big strength. And it should carry over to this season. Top rebounder Nick Collison and Johan Petro are still in the center rotation, Green and Durant should contribute more on the boards with an added year of experience and lifting, and newcomers Joe Smith and White should also help on the glass. They'll get help from the backcourt, too -- Watson is a good rebounder from the point and Westbrook also figures to do well in that regard.
Biggest Weakness: Outside shootingOklahoma City has a lot of weaknesses, obviously, but the inability to shoot from outside looms as the most damaging. The 3-point problems from last season likely will worsen in a full season without Szczerbiak and West; the most threatening outside shooter left on the roster might be Smith, and he's a spot-up guy from 17 feet rather than a long-range bomber.
Of the projected perimeter players, Earl Watson (37.1 percent) was the only one to make more than a third of his 3-pointers. Durant (28.6 percent) and Green (27.6 percent) both struggled from long range, while rookie Westbrook isn't regarded as much of a shooter. Off the bench, Mason is one of the worst outside shooters in the league. The problems extend to the frontcourt, where Wilcox isn't much of a threat even from 10 feet while Collison and Petro are only modestly accurate from the foul-line area.
The big question is how all this might affect Durant. The main offensive threat for the Thunder (thwack), he'll be asked to create shots off the dribble both for himself and others. But if his teammates can't knock down perimeter shots the whole system unravels. Defenders can lie in wait for Durant's drives knowing that their man won't burn them, leaving him to force shots in crowds or kick out to non-shooters.
It's hard to see it now, but the Thunder (thwack) have as bright a future as any team in the league. Unencumbered by bad contracts and laden with draft choices, they are going to improve with remarkable speed from here on out.
But in 2007-08, they are going to take more lumps. In order to set up their future, they're operating as a glorified expansion team; fortunately for them, the folks in Oklahoma are likely to fill the arena every night anyway to welcome the state's first major league pro sports team. (No, the Outlaws don't count, and yes, this shatters my record for USFL references in a column).
That may give the Okies enough of a home-court advantage to steal a few extra wins, especially since this team is going to play hard. They did last season even while getting their brains beat in, and with all the hustling defensive types they've acquired in the past two drafts, they should only redouble their efforts.
But enthusiasm can carry them only so far given the absence of talent. Durant may bust out with a big season, and the other youngsters will have their moments here and there. But by any name, this team might not win more games than last season.
Prediction: 20-62, 5th in Northwest Division, 15th in Western Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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HOLLINGER'S TEAM FORECASTS
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Oct. 29: vs. Milwaukee
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