A young franchise, with up and coming players and a star to build around struggled for the first two months of the season, only winning two of their first 24 games.
Your 2009-10 New Jersey Nets? Yes. But also your 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Tonight’s game at the Izod Center should be an interesting matchup for the Nets, not only because the Thunder come to town with a 15-14 record, and their main guy, Kevin Durant, playing like a superstar, but because the Thunder are a great example of a young team that struggled initially, but was able to grow together and become a much better team. As Nets fans, we can only hope this year’s team, can follow the same trajectory as last year’s Thunder.
Granted, the Nets don’t have a player on the level of Kevin Durant currently on their roster, but in Devin Harris and Brook Lopez, they have two guys who have flashes of superstardom. If you add in a high lottery pick in June, the continued development of young role players like Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Terrence Williams and Yi Jianlian, and of course a free agent or two, and suddenly the Nets not only resemble the Thunder, but they could possibly grow at an even quicker pace into one of the league’s better teams.
Don’t take my word for it, just hear what coach Kiki Vandeweghe has to say about it, as reported by the always fantastic Ben Couch:
“Could they have won more games letting the veterans go, retarding the growth of a Durant?” Vandeweghe asked, rhetorically. “Yeah, they probably could have won a few more games, but that’s not the path they chose. It took them two years to get there; we’re trying to do it within a year, but it’s a tried-and-true method (of) almost force-feeding your guys. And that’s what they did in Oklahoma, they force-fed their guys and they got good results.”
The Thunder finished with 23 victories last season, after finishing December with only 4. While they were able to take advantage of their schedule, grabbing some victories against bottom-feeding teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings, as the season wore on, they were able to pick off some of the league’s best teams, including the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs (twice).
This season, the Thunder have already beaten the Orlando Magic at home, and the Spurs and Phoenix Suns on the road. Of course when you talk about the improvement of Oklahoma City, a lot of the focus starts with Durant, who in his third season, is averaging career highs in points per 40 minutes (27.9) and Player Efficiency Rating (23.12).
But the improvement doesn’t stop with Durant. Jeff Green, a 23-year-old forward, is utilizing an improve turnover and assist ratio to raise his PER from 13.99 to 14.4 this season. Starting Center (and old friend of the Nets) Nenad Krstic, has improved since coming back from Russia last year, averaging 14.5 points and 9 rebounds per 40 minutes, on 48 percent shooting, good for a PER of 14.06, after essentially playing himself out of basketball in 2007-08, his last year with the Nets. Rookie James Harden is a sparkplug off the bench, averaging 10 points, on 36 percent shooting from three. Another rookie, Eric Maynor, was recently acquired from the Utah Jazz to back up Russell Westbrook at PG. Westbrook is having a similar season points-wise to last year, but has also improved his turnover and assist ratios, to jack up his PER and pure point rating.
Outside of Durant, and possibly Westbrook, these are not yet household names, yet the Thunder are keeping their young heads above water in the tough Western Conference. While there’s still a lot can that go wrong for the Nets, the Thunder should hopefully provide hope for what can go right. While adding someone on the level of LeBron James or Chris Bosh is nice, it’s not a necessity. The Nets just need to stick with their plan of rebuilding, even if it means an ugly record in November and December.