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Oklahoma City Thunder: What it will take to keep a blue-sky outlook

SEASON PREVIEW — A few clouds hover over the Thunder. here's why finding a silver lining could depend on the continued development of Serge Ibaka.
by Berry Tramel Published: October 27, 2013

photo - Power forward Serge Ibaka averaged 13.2 points per game last season for the Thunder.   Photo by Chris Landsberger/Cyanotype print by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman
Power forward Serge Ibaka averaged 13.2 points per game last season for the Thunder. Photo by Chris Landsberger/Cyanotype print by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

Let's be honest. A sun-kissed basketball franchise landed in our lap.

The SuperSonics had lucked out in the lottery. Clay Bennett had the good sense to hire Sam Presti. Presti had the foresight to draft Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. The oil and gas business has flourished.

Willie Nelson ought to be the Thunder's official anthemist. Blue skies, smilin' at me; nothin' but blue skies, do I see.

But as the Thunder's sixth Oklahoma City season approaches, a cloud or three hovers, really for the first time since Big Blue's arrival.

No Westbrook for the first few weeks of the season, and the Thunder discovered in the playoffs how chilling life can be without Peter Pan.

No real replacement for Kevin Martin, who last season reasonably filled the void left by the Harden trade.

A tougher Western Conference, if that's possible. The Clippers added a big-time coach, Doc Rivers, to that slick roster. The Grizzlies added a shooter, Mike Miller, to that Doberman defense. The Spurs refuse to release the headlock on Father Time.

For the first time, the Thunder seems unlikely to improve on the previous season's win total, 60 in this particular case.

The Thunder no longer can count on improvement coming from the general osmosis of growing up. To a large degree, the Thunder is all grown up.

Except for Serge Ibaka. None of us remembers what the Oklahoma sporting life was like before Ibaka arrived, but he's still just a hoops pup.

Ibaka has been playing basketball since he was seven years old. But playing in the Congo, using wooden backboards, is not the same as playing in the gyms of LA or D.C.

That's why Ibaka's ascension has been so steep. He's gotten better literally by the month during his four Thunder seasons. From a virtual shot-blocking specialist to now an all-around player who is as good as the NBA gets on 17-foot shots.

“I don't think he can shoot the ball as well as he did last year,” Scotty Brooks said without hint of a smile.

Go back and read that again. An NBA coach seriously says one of his best players can't duplicate a part of his performance from last season.

“If he can stay at that clip for the rest of his career, that's going to be historical numbers,” Brooks said.

Then the Thunder needs historical. Needs Ibaka to do what he did last season shooting – virtual 50 percent from 17 to 21 feet – and more.

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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