October 21, 2009
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
Oklahoma City Thunder
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Thunder

This is a team that needs patience and time, and that's always difficult. Think about the Bulls, who had a plan with their young guys [such as Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler] and then threw it out the window and started over again. Player-wise, they could use a big guy -- like a lot of teams -- as well as a couple of more outside shooters. Overall, it looks like the direction of the franchise is to build around Kevin Durant with some young guys who are athletic and versatile to provide some interchangeable parts, and then develop their fundamentals in order to make the most of their athleticism.

Durant benefited last year from having a different coach in Scott Brooks [who replaced P.J. Carlesimo last November] and a different approach. He had more freedom and at the same time he showed he wasn't going to abuse that freedom. In his rookie year, he was shooting a lot of [ill-advised] three-pointers, but last year he toned that down [and his three-point percentage improved from 28.8 to 42.2]. Some of that responsibility goes on him and understanding how to get better shots as he matures. For a face-up player at 6-foot-9 with his ability to put the ball on the floor combined with his touch, you're going to see his shooting getting better and better as he goes along. He has a nice stroke to begin with.

The most valuable thing with Durant is his length, because when the defense focuses on him, he can literally pass it over the top. He's a pretty good passer for a young guy. He sees the floor well enough. The one guy he reminds me of that way is a young Lamar Odom. He had all those things, too, though you can argue Odom didn't have it in him to be a great player. It just depends on the guy, how driven Durant is and how good he wants to be, and until you're actually coaching him, you don't know what drives him. Is it fear of failing, wanting to be the best, financial reasons, marketing, the attention, the glory?

To defend him, it seemed like the best idea was to put a smaller player on him and get into him and try to make him uncomfortable. But if he has developed the extra strength and balance, he should be able to take a 6-5 guy into the post and make him pay. In the past, you've been able to push him off the box and manhandle him with smaller guy, but as he gets older, you won't be able to do that anymore.

Will he be a great player? It's going to be another three years before we find out. A guy like LeBron James was physically a specimen when he came into the league, so he was ahead of Durant immediately. Durant is probably more like Kevin Garnett was when he was young -- you see a lot of talent but the body isn't ready. The thing that's going to make the biggest difference is whether he learns to and wants to defend. Is he going to have that pride? I haven't seen that in him. In fact, that's how you negate him right now. You go back at him and put him on his heels defensively. He's too young [21] to be showing real leadership skills because he's still in the process of positioning himself in the league. He needs to get himself straight before worrying about others on his team.

Russell Westbrook is a tremendous athlete and a really solid defender with a chance to be one of the better defensive guards in the league. He has the length, athleticism, foot speed, strength, all of that stuff. He was pretty good defensively last year for a rookie, though he got tricked out a little bit. You could see the ability in keeping his man in front of him, challenging shots, getting through screens on the pick-and-roll. The hardest thing for young players to get is the defense, and from a coach's standpoint, defense is what has the biggest impact on winning, especially with the rules the way they are. You see a lot more top-of-the-key action with the point guards putting the ball into the middle of the floor, and you need somebody to negate that defensively. When you have a good team, you've got somebody who can negate it defensively and provide it for you offensively.

Westbrook is at his best offensively in the open court. It's harder to function with him in half-court sets because of his shooting, though I'd say he's underrated in that area because he was advertised coming into the league as a poor shooter. He's not that bad. His shot is not broken. Even though you know he's going to his right hand, he can still get to where he wants to go. He's pretty good at banking in the mid-range shot from 15 feet on the wings, though if he's shooting from straight away, you'll want to give him that shot. He can build on what he has and improve, and if a point guard can develop that stop-and-pop game from the free-throw area, it makes you a complete guard. When you get the defender on his heels and you're able to pop up for the shot, he isn't going to know when it's coming or what you're going to do.

I don't know if Westbrook is ever going to be a prototypical point guard. But Durant is going to have the ball in the set offense more than anybody else on the team, with Westbrook usually handling it the rest of the time. So it's not like they're going to be needing a point guard to set everybody up all of the time. Westbrook has a chance to be a star because of his strength, athleticism and potential for defending. Now we'll find out how good his court vision is and how fast he can learn.

Jeff Green appears to have found his niche at power forward, where he can cause problems with his outside shooting. He fits the up-tempo style they want to play because he's going to run the floor better than most of the big guys he's playing against. Some of the things that have worked for Shawn Marion at power forward should work for Green. He can stretch his shot out to 19 feet, and he can pop it at the elbows on the pick-and-roll. He complements Durant by taking on the heavy lifting of rebounding and screening and springing other guys open. I see toughness in him as a young player. He doesn't back down and he's not always looking for the refs to bail him out. Defensively, he'll have problems with all of the typically difficult matchups at power forward -- Garnett, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol -- but you see him trying to make it as hard as he can on them and not giving in. And then the hope for them is that his offense will offset the problems he has on defense as a result of his limited size.

Rookie James Harden is a good shooter and that's what they've needed, a catch-and-shoot guy to spread the floor and make open shots off screens.

I've noticed that if Thabo Sefolosha misses a couple of shots, he becomes too passive because he doesn't have that scorer's mentality. But he's a good, versatile piece to have because you can slot him into different lineups and he can make something happen with his passing or shooting. He's pretty good defensively the way he uses his length. I've always felt that guys who pass and know how to play are better defenders because they see plays happening and they know what's going on.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Shaun Livingston fits into this whole thing. Now that he's [slowed down after major knee surgery], maybe he can be used as a small forward in that Don Nelson point-forward role. He really can pass the ball. He was making some progress with the Clippers with his shooting before he was injured. He has the length and the size, and if he's playing small forward or on the wing, he's not going to miss his speed as much as if he was the point guard.

Nenad Krstic was a great signing. I always thought he was under the radar to begin with, and that he was better than Darko Milicic right from the start. He's a piece they can build with, a good, young big man who can shoot it and has a little bit of post-up game. I didn't see any signs of him dragging his leg around coming off his knee surgery of a couple of years ago. Defensively, he's a European big guy, which means he's focused on his offense. But he's 7 feet and getting stronger, and while I'm sure they'd prefer him to be more physical, you have to focus on the good things he brings.

Nick Collison is reliable -- not the answer to you problems but a guy who can score and rebound, and he's been around the block so he's not going to hurt you on rotations and all the game-plan stuff. He's a pro who is reliable and predictable in his behavior, and it's good to have that on any team.

Etan Thomas will provide them with a different look as the beefy-type big guy. He won't shoot it as well as Collison, but he understands how to use his size.

Kyle Weaver can give them some minutes in a shooting slot. He isn't a great three-point shooter, but he'll be one of the few guys they have who can knock down an open shot from the perimeter.

Brooks is a solid, even-keeled personality, and as a coach he's competitive to the point where he's not going to let his team feel it can give in just because he may feel undermanned. He's the right guy because it isn't a this-year type of team, so now they have a young coach who can grow with that, sort of like the way Nate McMillan has grown with Portland. The team definitely improved when he became coach.


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