Training camp is underway at Thunder headquarters and, frankly, we’ll see how long the optimism lasts now that the real work has started. National expectations continue to be high for the Thunder in 2009-10. But there are several questions about this team leading into the Oct. 28 opener against Sacramento. Answers will begin to crystallize over the next month and into the early portion of the season. But here are five burning questions the Thunder faces as training camp opens.
1) How much better can OKC get defensively?
It’s seemingly a foregone conclusion that the Thunder will pose problems offensively. With Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, James Harden and Nenad Krstic, Oklahoma City has ample scoring weapons. And so defense has been the name of the game entering this season. It’s what the organization wants to establish as its identity as a means toward long-term, championship-level success. But is there enough in the cupboard? Etan Thomas’ addition upgrades the interior defense, but the Thunder still doesn’t have a true anchor in the middle. The team’s perimeter players are long and athletic enough to give opponents’ fits, but today’s hand-checking rules allow perimeter players only so much room for lock down D. And without a last line of defense in the form of protection in the paint, baskets still could come too easily for opponents this season.
2) Is Russell Westbrook ready to lead?
From a statistical stand point, last year’s fourth overall pick put together one of the best seasons in NBA history for a rookie point guard, with averages of 15.3 points, 5.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals. And somehow people still question if he’s the right guy to captain this team. In some ways it’s a fair question. Mostly, it’s ridiculous. The biggest area of improvement Westbrook must show this season is decision making. He played with increased patience and showed more maturity toward the end of last season and in summer league. That level of play is expected to carry over into 2009-10. Westbrook might never be the pass-first, set-up man that many want him to be. And that is probably a good thing. His offense is too valuable and he’s too explosive and versatile to be resigned to coming down the court and taking two dribbles before passing it off. But in year two, Westbrook will definitely need to make more sound decisions to take the next step as an elite young point guard.
3) Is Scott Brooks ready to lead?
Almost everything the interim head coach did last season was an upgrade from the moment he took over — from lineup changes to his rotation and substitution patterns to the team’s nightly effort. But, no disrespect to the job Brooks did, that’s not saying much. The Thunder had no choice but to play better after the coaching change was made. Brooks’ challenge now is to get his players to give that same effort for 82 games even if they grow sick of hearing the same voice. Naturally, as the head guy, Brooks also must take on more of a bad cop role and police his players more than he ever has. The players all support Brooks, which should make things easier on him in his first full season. But expectations are rapidly growing for a young Thunder team, and the young coach must prove he’s ready to blossom with his squad.
4) What will a full season of Nenad Krstic and Thabo Sefolosha mean?
The Thunder played its best ball last season after Sefolosha and Krstic came on board. But even in the second half of the season we never really got to see what both players could offer in the context of the team. The starting lineup of Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Green and Krstic played only 17 games last season. We know Sefolosha is the team’s best man defender and Krstic is the best offensive big. But how will those skills, when blended with the Thunder’s full arsenal of talent, impact Oklahoma City over the course of the year?
5) What’s the missing piece?
Talk to anyone around the league about the Thunder and you’re usually greeted with, “That’s a good young team with great talent, but they need a big man.” It’s the pink elephant in the organization. As training camp turns to the preseason and the preseason progresses to the regular season, we’ll find out just how big of a weakness that hole still is this season. I tend to think the team’s playoff possibilities would be much more realistic with a rebounding and shot-blocking presence like Andris Biedrins on the roster. Etan Thomas should help in the middle but is only a backup and is no longer a spring chicken. The other obvious problem area last season was perimeter shooting. And most players think rookie James Harden will help solve last year’s woes. But are those two additions alone enough to at least plug the hole enough in those areas to allow the Thunder to take the next step in 2009-10. And are there other issues that could arise?