That the Oklahoma City Thunder are bad is not surprising. The franchise formerly known as the Sonics, an NBA-worst 1-10 through Tuesday, is attempting to rebuild through the painstaking process of the draft. The Thunder's core players and three leading scorers -- shooting guard Kevin Durant, 20, small forward Jeff Green, 22, and point guard Russell Westbrook, 20 -- are all receiving their NBA educations on the fly. When a team's leaders and best players are also its most inexperienced, it is expected to struggle.
But what the Thunder did not expect to be is a team that, at times, has appeared to be lazy, disinterested defensively and poorly coached.
Yet that's exactly what the Thunder have been. Last Friday in New York, Oklahoma City trailed by 30 early in the third quarter of a 116-106 loss to the Knicks. Moving like they had weights glued to their sneakers, the Thunder allowed the Knicks to shoot 60.9 percent in the first quarter. They made Nate Robinson (15 points, five assists) look like a pocket-sized Steve Nash and Zach Randolph (29 points, 19 rebounds) look like Wilt Chamberlain.
At the team's shootaround that morning, Durant insisted that he had worked diligently to improve his defense. But hours later he was so bad on the defensive end that Thunder coach P.J. Carlesimo had to quickly switch him off Knicks guard Jamal Crawford, who lit up Durant for 11 points in the first five minutes.
Not that Carlesimo was helping the situation. While Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni is a staunch advocate of the freewheeling, shoot-first-call-a-play-later mentality, Carlesimo, according to one scout seated courtside, called just three plays in the entire first half. That's not what you would expect from a Gregg Popovich disciple who spent five seasons on the Spurs' bench helping Popovich implement his structured game plan.
"When you have a team that young, you have to be able to execute on offense," the scout said. "They are not executing anything. They are just running up and down the floor."
Nick Collison, one of the few veterans on the roster, recently expressed his displeasure at the Thunder's casual attitude after losses.
"It shouldn't be as happy as it is right now," Collison told The Oklahoman after last Saturday's 110-85 loss at Philadelphia. "It doesn't seem like we're 1-9 right now with the way some people are acting in here. We need to have a better sense of urgency and try to change what we're doing. We're doing it over and over and over again. It's the same thing every night."
Change won't come easy this season, not with a roster loaded with question marks. Starting point guard Earl Watson has reportedly been dissatisfied with his role and may ask to be traded. The Thunder have gotten virtually nothing out of the center position, with Johan Petro (5.4 points per game) and Robert Swift (4.0) providing little more than a pair of big bodies. For all of his offensive talent, Durant has been a below-average defender who will continue to struggle against smaller, quicker shooting guards. And even though the 6-foot-9 Durant has a considerable height advantage over most defenders, his slender, 215-pound frame has limited his opportunities to score in the post.
"When you talk about why LeBron is LeBron or why Dwight Howard is Dwight Howard, you start ticking off the physical stuff," Carlesimo said. "You can't deal with a guy who is that big, that strong and that quick. Kevin is that big and that quick [but] he's not that strong yet. If he adds that dimension to the other tools he already has, that will really be significant.
"People forget what Michael [Jordan] looked like when he first came into the league. You look at pictures of Michael early in his career, he looks very thin. Toward the end of his career, it was like night and day. I'm hoping Kevin will make physically that transition."
While the Thunder wait for Durant, Green and Westbrook to grow together, they also have one eye toward next summer, when general manager Sam Presti will be armed with two first-round picks and about $30 million in salary-cap space. Finding a center will be the No. 1 priority; the free-agent market looks thin at the position, but the Thunder also have the ability to absorb a big salary (the Knicks' Eddy Curry could be an option) in a trade. Bringing in a savvy veteran to patrol the locker room will likely also be a priority for the Thunder, who are off to a similar start as last season's Sonics, a team that finished a franchise-worst 20-62.
"We're having our peaks and valleys," Carlesimo said. "The biggest problem has been when we go bad, we go bad on both ends of the floor. We can't afford the extremes. We need to be more consistent."