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Sam Presti Scores Again

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A Daily Babble Production

There is probably a ceiling to how much a fan base can enjoy a 13-41 team.  But it's hard to imagine that Thunder fans aren't close to it considering what they have to look forward to for the years to come.

Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti hit it big again yesterday, acquiring Tyson Chandler from New Orleans for Chris Wilcox, Joe Smith and the draft rights to DeVon Hardin. 

The center becomes the fourth integral piece of the promising foundation the Thunder are building.  While he has been saddled by injuries this season, Chandler has only fallen short of 70 games played once in his previous seven seasons in the league.  When healthy, he will add a legitimate defensive presence in the middle for this team.  He will also immediately be the most prolific rebounder on a squad that has no one averaging so many as seven boards per game. 

While he will find scoring a bit more of a challenge without Chris Paul throwing him alley-oops on a regular basis anymore, Chandler's tenacity on the glass will likely get him his share of garbage baskets without taking a ton of shots.  Once back to full strength, he'll almost assuredly help the team's 21st-ranked defense, and he will join three young players who already know a thing or two about putting the ball in the basket.

Kevin Durant needs no introduction.  As we discussed in Monday's awards column, the one-time Texas Longhorn is having a bonkers sophomore campaign.  The lanky forward continues to show that he can score from anywhere on the floor.  He is hitting nearly 43 percent of his threes, pulling up smoothly from mid-range and causing opponents all sorts of trouble when he decides he wants to attack the rim.  The NBA's fifth-leading scorer has already put up at least 30 points in 15 games this year, breaking 40 in three of those efforts.  He has earned double-digit attempts at the free throw line 11 times, including a 24-of-26 in his 46-point show against the Clippers in January.  Durant is tied for the team lead in rebounding to boot.  The smiling face of the franchise is likely reason enough for fans around the league to watch every night.

But he isn't alone.  Drafted fourth last June, Russell Westbrook took over the starting point guard's role earlier this season and currently pushes the offense for the team that plays the seventh-fastest pace in basketball.  The UCLA product isn't a natural point guard by any means, and as Welcome to Loud City's Mr. Pappagiorgio reminded me recently, Westbrook has plenty to learn about becoming a creator for his teammates. 

But he plays fearlessly, attacks the rim hard and has already come up with several awe-striking performances for this team.  Westbrook has gone for 20-plus points 10 times, including four 30-plus point games.  He is averaging 15 points and nearly five assists per game.  Sure, he turns the ball over too much and hasn't shown that he can shoot.  But he turns 21 in November and has plenty of time to develop as a player.  He isn't the most fun player in the league, as WTLC's Pappa claims, but he sure is exciting.

Not to be lost in this shuffle is Jeff Green, the Georgetown product whom Presti selected for the then-Sonics with the fifth pick acquired from the Celtics in the Ray Allen trade.  The second-year forward does a little bit of everything, scoring 16.6 points and grabbing 6.6 boards per game, while playing a bit of defense, too.  But it is his shooting that has really made the noticeable improvement in year two.  Of the 14 shooting zones tracked by NBA.com's sweet hotspots page, Green has improved his percentage in 11.  Only 93 of his 728 field-goal attempts for the season have come from the other three spots.  He has also jumped from 27.6 to 41.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc, hitting nearly as many threes (73) so far this year as he took all of last season (76).  That's the sign of a guy who worked over the summer.

Chandler is 26 years old.  None of the other three are older than 22.  The Thunder have Green and Durant on rookie contracts through 2011 and Westbrook through 2012.  Chandler and once-promising former Nets power forward Nenad Krstic have player options for 2010-11.  Beyond that, the Thunder's only commitments past 2010 are to Nick Collison and Kyle Weaver.  Collison and his $6-plus million per year could be gone by that point, and Weaver will make less than $1 million in 2010-11. In the meantime, Presti has done a fine job accumulating draft assets, highlighted by his earning a total of three first-rounders from the Suns and Spurs in exchange for the monumental task of holding on to Kurt Thomas for half a season.

The two worst-case scenarios are that Chandler plays so well that the Thunder can't afford to keep him after 2010 (presuming he opts out) or that he fails to get healthy and busts, thus deciding to take his option in 2011.  One of those two supposedly bad situations involves the Thunder getting an excellent year from an upper-level defensive center and then extra cap room in the summer of 2010.  The other leaves them with a large expiring deal to trade in 2010-11.  And no matter what, they still have Westbrook, Green and Durant and whomever Presti manages to acquire with his stock of draft picks.  Not exactly awful.

With all this looking at the future, it's worth remembering that the situation is already improving in the short term.  Sactown Royalty's Tom Ziller writes on occasion about frustrating it is not just that the Kings lose regularly these days, but how often they simply fail to compete.  The same was true of the Thunder at season's start.  Under P.J. Carlesimo, not only did the Thunder drop 12 of 13 to start the year, but the team lost nine of those games by double-digit margins.  Since Scott Brooks took over, the team has gone 12-29 and lost only 10 of the ensuing 41 games by double-digit margins.  Not the most impressive stat around, no doubt, but this is a team taking small steps.  They have played a bunch of overtime games, lost two one-possession games to Denver and beaten Utah, Detroit and Portland at home. 

The Oklahoma City Thunder have one of the game's most impressive youngsters.  They've got two more recent draftees who aren't half bad, as well as an abundance of future draft picks.  Management is committed to making the team better, as evidenced by today's trade.  Combine that with the fact that the team is playing hard for its new coach and becoming more watchable with each passing week, and 13-41 sure isn't as bad as it could be.

***

Recommended reading: Pappa has some quick thoughts on the Chandler move at Welcome to Loud City.  Meanwhile, At the Hive's ATH tries to sort out the ramifications of what amounts to a salary dump for his beloved Hornets.  As is the case so often with ATH, his piece is entertaining and informative, and it even features the author doodling in Microsoft Paint.