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What's That Sound? The Thunder Gaining Ground

After watching the Washington Wizards barely hold on against a really putrid Sacramento Kings team on Wednesday night, I skipped over the battle of Los Angeles (I knew the Lakers were going to beat the Clippers), and clicked over to Oklahoma City against Golden State to check out the other competition that the Wizards, unfortunately, find themselves in for the rest of the season -- for league's worst record.


We could be out of the gutter before Saturday. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The Wizards (9-32) put the pressure on the Thunder to keep pace, and it did, defeating the Warriors, 122-121, in exhilarating fashion as Prince George's County native and former Georgetown star Jeff Green hit a turnaround jumper off the glass as time expired. The victory was the Thunder's third in its past four games and it moved the team into a three-way tie with the Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers for the fewest wins in the NBA. The Thunder (9-34) has just a one-game lead in the ping-pong race.

When the Wizards defeated Oklahoma City on Dec. 27, the loss dropped the Thunder to 3-28 and had the team on pace to lose 74 games and catch the Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in NBA history. Since then, the Thunder (9-34) has gone 6-6, with two of those wins against playoff contenders Utah and Detroit. The Thunder is clearly getting better as the season progresses. The young core of Green, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook offers reason for excitement. Last night, Westbrook had 30 points and seven assists, Durant had 27 points and 12 rebounds and Green had 26 points.

Interim Coach Scott Brooks has impressed the front office and General Manager Sam Presti could be looking to eliminate that "interim" tag very soon. What impressed me last night was the body language of the Thunder players when Jamal Crawford rebounded a Durant airball and sprinted down the court to make what appeared to be the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds remaining.

Instead of sulking while the Warriors -- the same team that drilled the Wizards two days before -- were celebrating and chest-bumping, the Thunder looked eager to get the ball back. You could see the confidence, as if they knew how to win after spending the first two months learning how to lose.

And when the Warriors surrounded Durant, Green ran to the ball, caught the inbounds pass from Westbrook, turned and fired. Durant hopped on Green's shoulders afterward and Green didn't seem shocked one bit. He high-fived his teammates and walked toward the tunnel as if he knew it was going to finish that way.

Once the ball banked off the glass and through the hoop, I immediately thought to myself that the Thunder could actually enter the all-star break with a better record than Washington. It seemed impossible at the end of 2008, but the Thunder is playing better basketball than the Wizards right now and its schedule between now and the all-star break is slightly softer.

The Thunder has 10 games between now and the break, and its opponents have a combined winning percentage of .463 (195-226). The Wizards have 12 games against teams with a combined winning percentage of .497 (247-250). Four of the Thunder's next five games are against teams with losing records, beginning Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Wizards get five consecutive playoff contenders in the Los Angeles Lakers (tonight), Portland, Phoenix, Miami and Philadelphia.

Getting caught by the Thunder doesn't guarantee that the Wizards enter the all-star break with the league's worst record. Remember, there's always the Clippers. But keep an eye out for Jan. 31, when the Wizards host the Clippers. That game could determine a lot.

But if the Wizards lose their next two games against the Lakers and Portland (a very, very strong possibility) and Oklahoma City defeats the Clippers (another strong possibility) on Friday, Washington could be at the bottom of the league before the end of the weekend.



By Michael Lee  |  January 22, 2009; 12:31 PM ET
 
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Comments

The Wiz will finish with the worst record in the NBA and still NOT get the first overall pick.

I guarantee it!

- Ray

Posted by: rmcazz | January 22, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Anyone been going to games lately? Im trying to cop some tickets for the Nuggets game just to get out and have some beers and watch some ball.

Can you get lowers from scalpers for $25 outside?

Posted by: SA-Town | January 22, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

What makes it so bad is these other teams are playing with younger players getting major minutes and exposure. We on the other hand are running AJ and CB into the ground still losing and our young players are not getting any kind of consistent run.

I am starting to think this team is starting to operate like the Detroit Lions of the NFL. No forward thinking......

Posted by: BulletsFever | January 22, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Exactly, BulletsFever. It's the official return of the Bullets organization we all knew and hated.

Posted by: AndrewToussaint7 | January 22, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

For all those claiming that playing youngsters who aren't "ready" and getting blown out would lead to stunted development, take a nice look at the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Posted by: psps23 | January 22, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm... Playing the youngsters, letting them make mistakes and get better, so that they start winning games. What a concept!

Posted by: keithward64 | January 22, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Shhh, no one tell Tapscott. Gotta keep grinding with the vets. Don't want to hurt our playoff chances.

Posted by: keithward64 | January 22, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I know it's early and all but assuming we do what we do and wind up with Blake Griffin, what is our lineup next year?

Does Griffin supplant AJ and AB? If so, is AB relegated to backup C duty? (which then makes JM a 3rd stringer at best)

What I'm getting at is that the #1 pick does us little good by itself. No franchise guys in this draft. Next year, we're the same type of team with a new youngster who gets no time. When does this nightmare end?

I hope like heck that this multiyear microfracture/cartilage ordeal of Gil's is over by October. Otherwise I'll be typing this same stuff all next year.


Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

For all those claiming that playing youngsters who aren't "ready" and getting blown out would lead to stunted development, take a nice look at the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Posted by: psps23 | January 22, 2009 1:16 PM

OKC is rebuilding around their young nucleus. We're not. We're ravaged by injury. We figure (rightly or wrongly) to be in the playoff hunt next season. They don't.

Two different scenarios, with two different strategies on how to proceed. The young players who figure to contribute next year are getting major minutes now.

Posted by: jones-y | January 22, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

...speaking of which...Ivan, you have been conspicuously quiet about Gil and his rehab. The only tidbit you gave us is that you said to him that he'd be back and he agreed. That doesn't tell us a whole lot.

I can look at a guy warming up and shooting around and tell how he's feeling by how he moves, how much weight he's out on, etc. You've been watching Gil for years now and surely have some idea as to how far along he is in his progress based on your observations.

I can't help but feel like you've been muzzled by the team because they know he's not coming back but want to keep the 'carrot on a stick' out in front of the 'mules' (that would be the fans).

I also understand that your livelihood depends on your ability to get access to the team and gain the trust of players, insiders, etc.

I'm not asking you to compromise that trust but a REAL update on Gil and BTH's progress sure would be nice.

Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

...and I know this is Mike Lee's article but assume that Ivan reads this, too.

Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

"The young players who figure to contribute next year are getting major minutes now.

Posted by: jones-y"

Is this why Etan Thomas was getting comparable minutes to McGee and Songaila is getting more minutes than McGee?

This season, Thomas has less production in every single statistic than McGee. Everything from pts, rebounds, steals, blocks, turnovers, and +/-. Everything. Are you telling me that in another year, Thomas will/should be contributing more than McGee?

Not a chance. There is no plan with this coaching staff, other than "win now". And that's the wrong plan for this team.

Posted by: psps23 | January 22, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

WHERE IS GILBERT
WHERE IS GILBERT
WHERE IS GILBERT
WHERE IS GILBERT

WHY CAN'T ANYONE TELL US?

Posted by: sunnyman1 | January 22, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Is this why Etan Thomas was getting comparable minutes to McGee and Songaila is getting more minutes than McGee?

Does McGee figure to contribute next year?

Thomas will/should be contributing more than McGee?

Will? Yes. Should? That's a matter of opinion, and none of our opinions matter. matters.

Posted by: jones-y | January 22, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

"Two different scenarios, with two different strategies on how to proceed. The young players who figure to contribute next year are getting major minutes now."

Precisely. Comparing what the Wiz are doing to what the Thunder are doing is comparing apples and kiwi. The Thunder have no choice but to play their young players, because that's pretty much all they have (of the 15 players on their roster, only 5 have at least 5 years experience). One of the first things they did after drafting Durant and Green was to start dealing away all of their pricey vet talent (Kurt Thomas, Szerbiack, Ridnour) for future draft picks. They're in full-scale, long-term rebuilding mode. The Wiz aren't there yet.

Posted by: kalo_rama | January 22, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

"Does McGee figure to contribute next year?"

I don't see why not. At the very least, he figures to contribute more than Etan Thomas. Which, again, doesn't fit your theory.

"The Thunder have no choice but to play their young players"

This implies that if the Thunder had more experienced vets, they wouldn't be playing their young players that many minutes. That's simply not true. When they did have the vets, before trading them all off, 4 of the top 5 players in minutes for the Sonics (Thunder) were Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Nick Collison, and Chris Wilcox (in 2007).

Regardless of the differing big-picture situations these teams are in, the theory that 'you can't throw a player that is not "ready" to the fire for fear of stunted development' is simply not true. Most teams don't do it because it severely impacts the product on the court. For BOTH the Wizards and the Thunder, that does not apply this season.

Again, what value do the Wizards gain by leaving Javale McGee on the bench for Etan Thomas? Someone explain this to me. I still haven't received any kind of answer.

Tapscott has not been coaching for the future. He's been coaching for the now. And that is the wrong direction for this team, this season.

Posted by: psps23 | January 22, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

"This implies that if the Thunder had more experienced vets, they wouldn't be playing their young players that many minutes."

Absolutely positively unquestionably dead wrong.

It implies that the reason the Thunder have so few vets is because they purposely implemented a strategy by which they divested themselves of most of their vets, leaving them with almost nothing but young players. It implies that the Thunder are a team that is in an active process of rebuilding around their young players, leaving no room for high-priced vets who are not in their future plans, therefore they made a concerted effort to dump such players.

The Wizards, in the past 3 years, have spent major money sign several veterans (some their own, some from other teams) with the intention of building around a veteran core.

See the difference?

What the Thunder are doing means jack-all to what the Wizards are doing.

Posted by: kalo_rama | January 22, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

"Absolutely positively unquestionably dead wrong.

It implies that the reason the Thunder have so few vets is because they purposely implemented a strategy by which they divested themselves of most of their vets"

No, not dead wrong. You said "The Thunder have no choice but to play their young players." It's exactly the opposite. They actively chose to play their young players, even when they had veterans, then cemented that choice by trading away those veterans.

Again, to repeat myself, regardless of the differing big-picture situations these teams are in, the theory that 'you can't throw a player that is not "ready" to the fire for fear of stunted development' is simply not true.

And again, to repeat myself, I know the Wizards are attempting to do things differently than the Thunder. What I'm saying is what they're doing is wrong (IMO). This season, the Wizards should be taking a lesson from watching the Thunder develop their youngsters by putting them on the court (this is in reference to McGee).

"The Wizards, in the past 3 years, have spent major money sign several veterans (some their own, some from other teams) with the intention of building around a veteran core."

You're exactly right. They're attempting to build around a veteran core. Right now, the veteran core is not ready. Therefore, the "building" should be top priority. AB, NY, DM, and JC have lately been given ample opportunity to build themselves up for next season. There's no reason why McGee shouldn't be in the same boat.

Posted by: psps23 | January 22, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

"You said "The Thunder have no choice but to play their young players." It's exactly the opposite. They actively chose to play their young players, even when they had veterans, then cemented that choice by trading away those veterans. "

Again and still dead wrong.

You are complaining because the Wizards coach won't play the young guys (putting aside, for the moment, the irrefutable fact that he is, in fact, playing the young guys). And you're attempting to draw a parallel between how the Wizards coach and the Thunder coach are handling the young players. But that comparison is utterly invalid. The Thunder coach has no real choice but to play the young guys because the Thunder's GM made a concerted effort to shed the team of most of it's vets, meaning that the coach had no choice but to play the young guys. If the coach had a choice would he play the vets? Possibly, but we can't know because management went out of their way to take that choice away from him. Again, that's a completely different set of circumstances from those the Wizards coach is in and attempting to equate the two serves no purpose and has no meaning.

Posted by: kalo_rama | January 22, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

"You are complaining because the Wizards coach won't play the young guys (putting aside, for the moment, the irrefutable fact that he is, in fact, playing the young guys)."

Posted by: kalo_rama

Once again, a failure to read the comment properly.

(1) This quote from my post above("AB, NY, DM, and JC have lately been given ample opportunity to build themselves up for next season") directly refutes your incorrect analysis that I am "complaining because the Wizards coach won't play the young guys". The one and only complaint is about Javale McGee sacrificing minutes for Etan Thomas (before he was injured) and Darius Songaila (when he plays at the 5).

(2) I don't care what "choices" the Thunder's coach has. I'm not sitting here clamoring for the OKC coaching staff to come to the Wizards. I don't care what they were forced into, or what situation they're in.

The simple fact is the Thunder are playing their youngsters, even when they were severely overmatched early in the season, and the results are paying off because their youngsters have improved. I don't care whether the decision has to come from Tapscott or Grunfeld, but the Wizards should make sure Javale McGee is playing regularly.

Nobody compared Oklahoma City's situation to the Wizards' situation but you and jones-y. All I said was that Oklahoma City has provided a live example of how playing guys that aren't deemed as "ready" can pay off. It does not stunt development. At this point, this season holds no future value for the Wizards other than to prepare for next season. And seeing as how Javale McGee has far more upside than Etan Thomas, he should be playing.

Posted by: psps23 | January 22, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

And they will have a lottery pick plus 2 more in the top 30. They are going to be great.

Posted by: bailey5 | January 22, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

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