By Britt Robson
March 22, 2011

The hallmark of a well-run franchise is putting players in a position where they are best able to succeed. In that sense, general manager Sam Presti's moves in building the Thunder have been remarkably prescient, patient and well-planned.

Presti got lucky when Kevin Durant fell to him as the no-brainer No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. But his picks since then, including Russell Westbrook in 2008 and both James Harden and Serge Ibaka in 2009, were either surprising or questioned at the time. Now they seem like wise components of a comprehensive plan.

In that '09 draft, the Thunder passed on Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry, two players who would have interfered with Westbrook's development, in favor of Harden. Presti has taken care not to rush Harden or Ibaka, bringing them along without too much responsibility despite their obvious progress. Then, at last month's trading deadline, Presti made a series of bold moves that solidified his core.

Gone were Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, two starters and soon-to-be free agents. In exchange, he acquired Kendrick Perkins, a strong interior defender who addresses OKC's most glaring flaw. Presti immediately gave Perkins a long-term contract before the center had even played a minute for the Thunder. With Perkins in the pivot and undersized power forward Green's departure, Presti could move Ibaka into the starting lineup at his natural position. Green's absence also enabled Presti to promote Harden as a sixth man with more playing time and more scoring responsibilities. In the last year and a half, Harden and Ibaka have been groomed for these roles.

Now the Thunder have four solid interior defenders in Perkins, Ibaka, Nick Collison and recently acquired Nazr Mohammed. They have big scorers in Durant and Westbrook and a dynamic sixth man in Harden; all three are especially adept at getting to the free-throw line. Thabo Sefolosha is a shutdown wing defender, Daequan Cook a three-point specialist and Eric Maynor a promising backup point guard. The roster is young and relatively inexpensive, features young (Durant) and older (Perkins) mentors, and has clearly defined roles. As soon as this postseason, the Thunder may be ready to make some noise.

For now, they've won nine of 11 and are up to fifth in this week's Power Rankings.

(All stats and records are through March 21.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Los Angeles <a href=Lakers" title="Los Angeles Lakers">
Last Week: 1
Derek Fisher is serving notice that the usual aspersions about his age and capabilities for the upcoming postseason will likely again be rebutted. His steal and layup, followed by a crunch-time jumper, helped rally the Lakers past Portland on Sunday. Amid Fisher's exploits, Kobe Bryant nailed a crucial jump shot with Brandon Roy inside his jersey. But perhaps the best recent news for the Lakers is better production from their bench in quality wins over Orlando and Dallas as well as a victory against the lowly Timberwolves. Even Fisher's backup, Steve Blake, is starting to stir from his months-long slump.
2 Chicago <a href=Bulls" title="Chicago Bulls">
Last Week: 2
Chicago Bulls (50-19)
If Chicago has a trump card, it is the ability of its second unit to shut down opponents' reserves on a regular basis. Omer Asik, a 24-year-old rookie from Turkey, is the leader of that unit. When he is on the court, Chicago's already-stifling defense allows 9.37 fewer points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value. In fact, the 92.72 points per 100 possessions that Chicago yields when Asik plays is the lowest rate allowed for any player getting regular rotation minutes. No wonder his playing time is steadily rising, to more than 16 minutes per game in March.
3 San Antonio <a href=Spurs" title="San Antonio Spurs">
Last Week: 3
Even before Tim Duncan went down Monday with a sprained ankle that is expected to keep him out for a couple of weeks, one of San Antonio's few perceived weaknesses was a lack of interior bulk. Brazilian rookie Tiago Splitter (who had his first career double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds in Monday's victory against Golden State) will fill some of the void, and the Spurs will also likely go small and spread the floor more with Matt Bonner. With the top seed pretty well secured, the goal is to have the core personnel primed for the playoffs, and Duncan is not the only concern. Gregg Popovich has been steadily ratcheting down the playing time for 33-year-old Manu Ginobili, who, even with the reduced workload, is on schedule to log the most regular-season minutes of his nine-year career.
4 Boston <a href=Celtics" title="Boston Celtics">
Last Week: 5
The Celtics lacked rhythm and synergy at both ends of the court in their last two games, but they still gutted out comeback victories against the Hornets and Knicks through sheer competitive pride and intensity. I still question how a crunch-time lineup that uses Glen Davis with the team's four All-Stars is going to fare against taller, talented frontcourts in the playoffs. But no opponent is going to bring more desire to the fray than Boston.
5 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 6
As well as the Thunder are playing -- and they're a better team than the one that stretched the Lakers to six games in last year's first round -- they'd be much better with wiser shot selection from Durant. He attempts an NBA-high 14 shots per game from 16 feet and beyond, according to Hoopdata, but Durant is below the league average for accuracy from those distances. By contrast, he's deadly -- way above the norm -- from inside 16 feet.
6 Miami <a href=Heat" title="Miami Heat">
Last Week: 7
Miami Heat (48-22)
The questionable decision to dump Carlos Arroyo to make room for Mike Bibby looks more problematic now that Mario Chalmers is out two weeks with a knee injury. The slow-footed Bibby was considered a defensive liability in Atlanta even though the Hawks frequently played him alongside four above-average athletes. Undersized Joel Anthony is the lone member of the Heat's quartet of centers who isn't dreadfully slow, and Chris Bosh, while improved, is no rapid-fire rotator on defense. That makes Miami very vulnerable to half-court offenses with good ball movement. At the very least, Chalmers' absence is going to add to the defensive burden of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
7 Dallas <a href=Mavericks" title="Dallas Mavericks">
Last Week: 4
When center Tyson Chandler is on his game, he elevates the Mavs from a solid to a stifling defensive team. But since missing three games with an injured right foot (it was the left foot that caused him to miss months of playing the previous three seasons), Chandler has been in constant foul trouble, especially in losses to the Lakers and Spurs. It's a concern because aggression and timing, not bulk and strength, are the keys to Chandler's game, and if he is hampered in his movements, or if scouting or quality opponents have discovered reliable ways to compel him to foul, this edition of the Mavs isn't that much different from the fancy jump-shooting teams of playoff failures past. Certainly with the wily but slow Jason Kidd and speedy but slight Roddy Beaubois as the starting backcourt, Dallas needs a formidable presence in the paint to deter penetration.
8 Orlando <a href=Magic" title="Orlando Magic">
Last Week: 8
Orlando Magic (45-26)
The Magic rank third in defensive efficiency, the same as last season, and are actually yielding 1.4 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did in 2009-10. They are five wins behind last year's pace because their offensive efficiency has plummeted from fourth to 12th. Don't blame MVP candidate Dwight Howard, who is averaging 23 points on 60 percent shooting, although his usual struggles at the free-throw line and paucity of assists haven't helped. The reality is that GM Otis Smith's blockbuster deals in December have pretty much been a wash. Jason Richardson hasn't been that much better or worse than Vince Carter, and Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas have been mild and major disappointments, respectively. But the real cost was losing ace backup center Marcin Gortat. As well as Brandon Bass has played, he can't patrol the paint with the same authority as Gortat.
9 Portland <a href=Trail Blazers" title="Portland Trail Blazers">
Last Week: 11
I applaud the boldness of NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, who raised some eyebrows when he proclaimed that the Blazers would win their first-round playoff series regardless of the opponent. I safely wonder if coach Nate McMillan will continue to risk playing both Patty Mills and Rudy Fernandez together in the backcourt during the postseason, and, if not, which one will back up Andre Miller? Also, does LaMarcus Aldridge, who is among the league leaders in minutes while banging more than ever in the paint, have enough left for the postseason grind? Finally, as much as I love the depth and versatility on the roster now that Gerald Wallace is on board, and admire the resourcefulness of McMillan's rotations, it is hard to ignore that Portland is a combined 1-7 against the Lakers, Mavs and Thunder, their three most likely playoff foes.
10 Memphis <a href=Grizzlies" title="Memphis Grizzlies">
Last Week: 10
Some members of the Grizzlies, including coach Lionel Hollins and swingman Shane Battier, are growing beards on the cusp of the playoffs. It's a postseason tradition in hockey that makes perfect sense for this team given the way Memphis careens around the court bashing into people for steals, blocks and fouls both drawn and committed. The Grizzlies will have to continue to battle to make the playoffs now that Rudy Gay has been ruled out for the season because of a shoulder injury. But between Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Sam Young (80 percent of the current starting lineup), not to mention defensive-oriented sub Battier, this is a team that has defined itself with physical play. That's not a bad identity to claim heading into the playoffs.
11 Denver <a href=Nuggets" title="Denver Nuggets">
Last Week: 9
Danilo Gallinari's arrival in last month's Carmelo Anthony deal might signal the departure of J.R. Smith as a free agent this summer. Gallinari is at least a match for Smith's potent long-range prowess, and he's also taller and cheaper, has a more well-rounded skill set and carries less baggage than Smith. Yes, Gallinari is a 6-10 forward and Smith is a 6-6 guard. But Smith's role is to score in bunches off the bench while Arron Afflalo starts ahead of him at shooting guard. And in Gallinari, the Nuggets have that rare player who can handle the role better than Smith himself. Even if Gallinari can't, there are two more options from the big trade: Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton.
12 76ers/">Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 12
The youthful Sixers have matured to the point that their offense (ranked 18th in efficiency) can withstand the loss of team leader Andre Iguodala. With Iguodala sidelined by a knee tendinitis Saturday, Philadelphia had 101 points, shot 50 percent and finished with 25 assists and 10 turnovers against a Portland team that had yielded more than 100 only once in its previous seven games. But Iguodala was sorely missed as the linchpin of Philadelphia's ninth-rated defense. His absence enabled Wallace to go off for 28 points (including 6-for-6 on shots at the rim) and eight assists, by far his best game as a Blazer, while overpowering Evan Turner and being too quick for Andres Nocioni. Iguodala is expected back for Wednesday's game the Hawks, who are four games ahead of the Sixers in the battle for the fifth seed in the East.
13 Houston <a href=Rockets" title="Houston Rockets">
Last Week: 16
The Rockets have moved into playoff contention with an 11-3 record since the All-Star break, reducing their points allowed by 5.7 per game and raising their scoring by 1.8. Guards Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry (who had his first career triple-double in Sunday's big victory against Utah) have increased their scoring in that stretch. Up front, rookie Patrick Patterson has been a godsend filling in for Luis Scola, who missed five consecutive games before returning to play 20 minutes Sunday. Patterson has hit 57 percent of his shots while getting 9.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in 23.3 minutes over the last 10 games. He arguably gives Houston its best interior defense in tandem with Chuck Hayes.
14 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 13
General manager Dell Demps has generally done well with his tinkering around Chris Paul, David West and Emeka Okafor. At the trading deadline, he dealt his most explosive scorer, Marcus Thornton, and expanded the team's offensive capabilities. Power forward Carl Landry, who came over from Sacramento in the Thornton trade, is shooting 58.1 percent and averaging 10.3 points in 22.3 minutes over the last 10 games. He's proved to be superior to Jason Smith as a backup to West and enabled the Hornets to continue running their half-court sets designed to get the power forward the ball. Meanwhile, shooting guard Marco Belinelli has filled the void left by Thornton. Belinelli is averaging 13.2 points in 27.6 minutes and shooting 48.9 percent from three-point range in the last 10 games.
15 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 14
Atlanta Hawks (40-30)'s John Schuhmann nicely captured Atlanta's offensive woes -- specifically the consequences of coach Larry Drew's decision to move away from isolation plays for Joe Johnson in favor of more ball movement. But in fairness to Drew, his top two scorers have both been slumping lately. Iso-Joe or no, Johnson needs to get to the line more than 31 times in 15 games, his total since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, Al Horford's March shooting percentage of 51.6 looks great until you remember that he was at 56.8 percent at the All-Star break and exercises superb shot selection. He's missing a surprising number of open looks lately, especially from his sweet spot about 15 feet out and halfway between the baseline and the foul line.
16 Phoenix <a href=Suns" title="Phoenix Suns">
Last Week: 17
Phoenix Suns (35-33)
The Suns' final 14 games includes a brutal road schedule, with games against the Lakers, Spurs, Bulls, Hornets and Mavericks. But within that period there is a stretch between Wednesday and April 1, when Phoenix plays five of six at home, that will probably determine whether it can stay in the playoff chase. With Steve Nash and Channing Frye back from injuries, Gortat continuing to rack up double-doubles off the bench and sparkplug Jared Dudley flourishing in his chaotic groove the last few games, the Suns are positioning themselves to make a run.
17 New York Knicks
Last Week: 15
Yes, the Knicks are wretched defenders, the primary cause of their current woes. But as they fell to 3-7 with Chauncey Billups at the point after Monday's loss to Boston, it's becoming an open question whether a player like Billups -- a deliberate floor general who likes the ball in his hands -- is the best complement to volume scorers Amar'e Stoudemire and Anthony. Billups certainly hasn't played badly in New York; battling injuries, his true shooting percentage is a gaudy 60.3. But he also thrives when he's settling down his teammates, and Stoudemire in particular functions best when his motor is at near full throttle. It's only 10 games, but Billups' usage rate (25.9 percent) would be the highest of his career if he maintained what he's been doing in New York. With two players who are among the top half-dozen pure scorers in the NBA, the Knicks are most in need of a point guard who can play the pick-and-roll like it's second nature and be both a pugnacious on-ball defender and one who can rotate and double down on big men with lightning speed -- not somebody nicknamed "Mr. Big Shot," who craves possession of the ball at all times but especially crunch time.
18 Indiana <a href=Pacers" title="Indiana Pacers">
Last Week: 23
Second-year forward Tyler Hansbrough has emerged this month as the Pacers' leading scorer (18.7 points) and rebounder (7.8) while shooting 50.8 percent. The key factors in this growth have been more minutes and a willingness to shoot his turnaround jumper outside the post on the left side. As Indiana clings to the final playoff spot in the East, supposed team leaders Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert have been woefully inconsistent. Hansbrough's grit has set the example for promising rookie Paul George (who could become a lockdown defender), fellow power forward Josh McRoberts and (to a slightly lesser extent) second-year point guard Darren Collison.
19 Milwaukee <a href=Bucks" title="Milwaukee Bucks">
Last Week: 22
In each of the previous two seasons, John Salmons was traded at the deadline and produced big numbers in the month of March to help lead his new team into the playoffs. In March 2009, coming over from Sacramento, Salmons averaged 21.3 points on 50 percent shooting for Chicago. Moving to Milwaukee a year later, he averaged 19.8 points on 46.3 percent shooting last March, and maintained that scoring into April. Salmons stayed put this season but wasn't delivering early this month. He has awakened lately, however, averaging 23 points on 55.8 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range in the last three games. On a team that ranks last in offensive efficiency, field-goal percentage and scoring, Salmons' ability to stay hot down the stretch represents Milwaukee's best hope for a postseason berth.
20 Utah <a href=Jazz" title="Utah Jazz">
Last Week: 18
Utah Jazz (36-35)
Jerry Sloan's resignation and Deron Williams' departure will be the reasons most frequently cited for Utah's likely failure to make the playoffs. But it must be said that the new-look frontcourt of center Al Jefferson and power forward Paul Millsap, both under expensive contracts for two more years, has taken Jazz from third to 28th in defensive rebounding percentage this season, and those extended possessions by opponents have contributed to Utah's plummeting defensive efficiency, from 10th to 24th. And regardless of whether Sloan was on the sidelines or Williams was at the point, the starters weren't ready or able to defend. The Jazz rank 25th in first-quarter points allowed and 27th in third-quarter points allowed, only to improve markedly in the second and fourth periods.
21 Los Angeles <a href=Clippers" title="Los Angeles Clippers">
Last Week: 20
It obviously wouldn't work against every opponent, but the Clippers might want to experiment with a monster front line of DeAndre Jordan, Chris Kaman and Blake Griffin. The 6-11 Jordan has emerged as valuable rim protector and explosive finisher. The 7-foot Kaman is a remarkably accurate mid-range shooter who has made at least 41 percent from 16-23 feet for four straight years, including a career-high 45 percent this season, according to Hoopdata. He is also shooting 53.2 percent from 10-15 feet, second to the Hornets' Jarrett Jack among players with at least two attempts per game from that distance. His presence on the wing would give the 6-10 Griffin less punishment to absorb and all kinds of room to maneuver, possibly against a small forward (who otherwise would be guarding the much taller Kaman). And guards Eric Gordon and Mo Williams would spread the floor even more as spot-up outlets on the perimeter. On defense, where Griffin is already a liability, the Clippers could use their length to play zone. Ryan Gomes, the current starting small forward, would be available off the bench, along with big men Ike Diogu and Craig Smith.
22 Golden State <a href=Warriors" title="Golden State Warriors">
Last Week: 19
Monta Ellis is right up there with Derrick Rose as one of the NBA's most enjoyable scorers to watch. Sometimes Ellis becomes so horizontal shooting his fadeaway over taller foes that his body seems nearly parallel to the court. Not that Ellis usually settles for the fadeaway. Only four backcourt players get to the rim more often -- Wade, Rose, Westbrook and Tony Parker -- and none of them finish more accurately than Ellis. The rub is that Ellis is a wretched defender. According to Basketball Value, the Warriors give up 10.21 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the court compared to when he sits, easily the worst differential on the team. The problem is compounded by pairing Ellis with the similarly undersized Stephen Curry. The result is a steady stream of high-scoring, highly enjoyable losses in Golden State.
23 Charlotte <a href=Bobcats" title="Charlotte Bobcats">
Last Week: 21
With Wallace's departure and the budget-cutting that began in the summer and continued during the trading deadline, the onus is on forwards Boris Diaw and Tyrus Thomas to justify their relatively lucrative salaries. Diaw is posting a nearly identical line -- 11 points, five rebounds and nearly four assists -- as he did for last season's playoff team. It's the same level of play he's exhibited in the years after his 2005-06 breakout led to a five-year, $45 million deal in Phoenix, one that will conclude when he picks up his player option for next season. That $9 million per season is a pretty price for a 6-8 power forward who does everything well but nothing exceptional -- and hasn't made much difference on the court this season. Thomas, who is in the first season of a five-year, $40 million deal, still hasn't grasped the nuances -- or some of the basics -- of the game in his fifth season. His foul of three-point shooter Gary Neal with 0.4 seconds left in the first quarter against San Antonio on Saturday is the sort of foolish play he commits too frequently. Yet, unlike Diaw, the Bobcats are noticeably better when Thomas is on the court, especially on defense, and at just 24, he still has time to mature.
24 Detroit <a href=Pistons" title="Detroit Pistons">
Last Week: 25
Can the Pistons eventually fashion an effective frontcourt out of 6-11 rookie Greg Monroe at center and two second-year players, 6-10 Jonas Jerebko and 6-11 Austin Daye, at the forwards? At first glance, their virtues seem to mesh well: Monroe is a finesse-oriented player in the pivot who can block shots and pass but has little shooting range; Jerebko is a banger with a nose for the ball; and Daye is a confident shooter who is making 41.2 percent of his three-pointers. All also have question marks. Monroe needs to get stronger and probably heavier (he's listed at 250); Jerebko has missed the entire season because of an Achilles surgery; and Daye's defense and shot selection still need plenty of work. But on a roster with a huge redundancy at shooting guard, it's some solace that the franchise's top three prospects can play together without too much overlap.
25 New Jersey <a href=Nets" title="New Jersey Nets">
Last Week: 24
One negative and two positive observations about the Nets' season. First, the good news: Contrary to what many expected, tightly wound coach Avery Johnson has guided the team to a 15-game improvement at the 69-game mark with a minimum of temper tantrums and player embarrassments. Second, center Brook Lopez has scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games, confirming to new point guard Deron Williams (out indefinitely with a wrist injury) that he'll have a reliable, Carlos Boozer-like presence to feed in the low post next season. As for the bad news, swingman Travis Outlaw's abysmal shooting (37.9 percent from the field, 30.1 percent from three-point range) comes in the first year of an incredibly generous five-year, $35 million contract.
26 Toronto <a href=Raptors" title="Toronto Raptors">
Last Week: 27
Soft is too kind a word for the indifference Andrea Bargnani displays as the man he is supposedly guarding glides past him for a layup. The most frequently used five-man lineups in Toronto pair the 7-foot Bargnani with a rugged power forward, usually Amir Johnson or Reggie Evans. But that isn't enough to prevent the Raptors from yielding the most points in the paint in the NBA. Toronto permits the most attempts and the most conversions of shots at the rim and it allows the highest percentage of conversions on shots from 3-9 feet. Bargnani doesn't exactly strive to prevent this -- his foul rate is the lowest of his career, and his negative impact on the Raptors' defensive efficiency is the highest on the team, according to Basketball Value. That he is under contract at a higher salary and a longer period of time than anyone on the roster bodes ill for Toronto's future.
27 Sacramento <a href=Kings" title="Sacramento Kings">
Last Week: 28
Beno Udrih has been a handy, albeit expensive, combo guard who has taken on varied roles as the Kings rebuild. Udrih has been the best backcourt partner for both Evans, a fierce penetrator who can create his own shot, and Thornton, a less reliable dribbler who requires more feeding. Udrih also tries to ensure the happiness of demanding rookie DeMarcus Cousins and center Samuel Dalembert, who complained about not getting enough touches in Philadelphia. And when shots becomes available to Udrih himself, he's making them at a career-high clip of 49.6 percent. If the Kings aren't major players in the trade or free-agent market, the unsung Udrih's $7 million salary for each of the next two years will make him the highest-paid player on the team.
28 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 26
For at least the next two seasons after this one, the Wolves have entrusted their center position to the Eastern European tandem of Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic. They have become close friends who root for and constantly communicate with each other on the sideline. But as players, they are near-polar opposites, with one desperately needing what the other possesses. Milicic has beguiled a handful of general managers with his extraordinary coordination, court vision and timing for a 7-footer, but temperamentally and physically he is a shrinking violet with a crippling shortage of self-esteem. The 6-11 Pekovic, who averages 13.3 minutes to Darko's 24.7, looks like a henchman in a crime caper and plays like a bull in a china shop, committing 7.5 fouls per 36 minutes. When point guard Luke Ridnour got in a shoving match with Sacramento big man DeMarcus Cousins on Sunday, it wasn't surprising to see Pekovic insert himself into the situation and goad Cousins into a second shove that prompted an ejection.
29 Washington <a href=Wizards" title="Washington Wizards">
Last Week: 30
John Wall continues to struggle with his shooting, and his assist-to-turnover ratio in March is his worst for any month this season. But Wall is playing, at least, for the short-handed Wizards, and playing hard. Ditto his fellow rookies like power forward Trevor Booker and shooting guard Jordan Crawford, the latter seizing on the absence of Nick Young to put up 27, 25 and 21 points in his last three games. Like all March and April boomlets on a losing team, it is hard to know whether it is a harbinger of things to come or an obscure footnote for future trivia buffs.
30 Cleveland <a href=Cavaliers" title="Cleveland Cavaliers">
Last Week: 29
In the month since he was traded from the Clippers to the Cavs, point guard Baron Davis has played a measly 99 minutes. He came to Cleveland with a sore knee that caused him to miss three games. He then played three, went on bereavement leave for three when after his grandmother died, came back for one and has missed the last two because of back spasms. This marks the seventh time in Davis's 12-year career that he has missed at least 15 games in a season. But with Ramon Sessions playing relatively productive minutes at the point, the Cavs don't need backcourt help so much as a tall presence in the paint. With a starting frontcourt that measured 6-9, 6-9 and 6-6, Cleveland was obliterated by Orlando on Monday, as Howard and Bass shot a combined 18-of-21.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)