The Oklahoma City Thunder won 23 games last season. Oklahoma City will surpass that total this season barring a collapse of cataclysmic proportions.
The Thunder is 22-18 while still one game short of reaching the halfway point of the schedule. Oklahoma City has been one of the NBA’s biggest surprises this season.
“We’re certainly pleased with the direction of the basketball team at this stage in the season from the starting point of training camp to now,” general manager Sam Presti said. "With that being said, we still have a lot of season left to play and I know I speak for the rest of the organization when I say that although we're pleased with the direction we're certainly not comfortable or content with where we are.”
The Thunder would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, which would be an amazing turnaround. However, Presti is not looking that far ahead and wants to avoid putting too much pressure on coach Scott Brooks.
“As we go forward we want to continue to try to stay focused on the things that Scott and his staff came into training camp emphasizing, continuing to grow defensively, taking steps forward on that end of the floor,” Presti said. “The coaching staff, Scott in particular, has really put a big premium on controlling the things we can control as a basketball team.”
One of the most impressive parts of the Thunder’s turnaround is that the team is 10-9 on the road this season. Oklahoma City won just eight games away from home in 2008-09.
“We had some big road wins early,” center Nick Collison said. “It was good we got off to a pretty good start. Last year the difficult start shook us a little, especially late in games. A lot of times teams crumble in the fourth quarter when the crowd really gets into it. We've been able to get stops and avoid that bad stretch where a team makes a big run. We now have confidence we can win no matter where we play.”
Mental toughness has played a part in the Thunder’s road success, according to star forward Kevin Durant.
“It's tough to win on the road, especially places like Utah, San Antonio, Miami and Phoenix,” Durant said. “We've played complete games. We've played good defense and gotten stops when we need them.”
Rebuilding Looms for Wizards
Breaking up apparently isn’t going to be that hard to do for the Washington Wizards. It seems certain they will try to dump most of their veterans by the Feb. 18 trading deadline now that star point guard Gilbert Arenas has been suspended indefinitely by the NBA for possessing weapons in the Wizards’ locker room.
Forward Antawn Jamison came into this season believing this was the year the Wizards were ready to make a run in the playoffs. At worst, he thought it might happen next season. Yet Washington is 13-26 and last in the Southeast Division.
“I always believe that if we ever got healthy and stayed healthy that the pieces are here to be very, very good,” Jamison said. “That's the main reason I play, to play for a title. I want to play for one and I don't know if it's going to be here or somewhere else but I want one.”
Jamison is having a fine season amidst the turmoil as he is averaging 22.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 39.2 minutes a game with a 116 Offensive Rating and a 109 Defensive Rating. Thus, many teams would love to trade for him, chief among them the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I don't know where I'll be but I want a championship somewhere,” Jamison said.
Jamison is one of a number of forwards the Cavaliers are targeting in trades along with the New Orleans Hornets’ David West and the Indiana Pacers’ Troy Murphy.
New Jersey Sticking to Plan
The New Jersey Nets continue on their way to having the worst record in NBA history as they are 3-36, putting them on pace to finish 6-76. The record for single-season futility was set by the 1972-73 76ers, who were 9-73.
However, the Nets insist they will not make any quick-fix roster moves in an attempt to avoid ignominy. Their primary focus remains to clear as much salary cap space as possible for the much-anticipated free agent class this upcoming summer and they do not want take playing time away from such young players as Devin Harris, Courtney Lee and Brook Lopez.
“A business plan is still in place,” GM and interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe said. “I think we're going to stick to it. We're not going to look at band-aid solutions to bring in somebody to take Brook's shots or Devin's shots or Courtney's shots, whatever you want to call it. If we can improve our team, we will. Unless it's really significant, we will not go into next year's salary cap space to help our team. Again, like we have in the past, if there's something that makes sense, we will do it."
The only way the Nets would likely do that would be by taking a chance on a high-level free agent that might become available before the trading deadline. However, that seems unlikely.
“If you can shortcut the plan with a player that's worthwhile, we’d do it,” Vandeweghe said. “Typically, those types of players don't get traded easily, so I wouldn't count on that. But you're always looking at that stuff. If you can do it, absolutely you do it.”
Great Expectations for the Hawks
Expectations have apparently become very high in Atlanta.
The Hawks are 26-13, lead the Southeast Division and are on pace for a 55-victory season. Yet the talk-show callers and chat-room denizens are grumbling that the Hawks are not living up to their billing. The chatter reached its crescendo when the Hawks had a four-game losing streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 4 and it irked coach Mike Woodson.
“If I didn't know better, I'd think we were struggling this year,” Woodson said. “I mean, we're right there, man. We're right where we want to be in terms of what we're playing for and what's out there for the taking. I don't know where this idea has come from that we're not playing up to our capabilities.”
The Hawks players are also rather baffled by their fickle faithful.
“I can't understand why our fans are so torn about us,” forward Marvin Williams said. “We have our ups and downs just like every other team in this league. I love that we're even in this position.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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