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Clark Matthews’ 2011-2012 OKC Thunder Season Preview

5:00 AM EST on December 26, 2011

The Thunder Girls dance team performs in the second half of the NBA basketball game between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Friday, April 10, 2009. Oklahoma City won, 84-81. Photo by Nate Billings, The Oklahoman

Approximately two months after the NBA season should have started, five weeks after the season was declared dead by the Commissioner, and one day after the Thunder walloped the Magic to open the season, it's time to preview the 2011-2012 Thunder season.

Win Prediction:  48 wins

The vogue pick to win the Western Conference and the alternative choice by pundits to win the title, the Thunder are not sneaking up on anyone. Every team they play will come focused and motivated to bring their A-game. It shouldn't matter.

Oklahoma City features two of the ten best players in the league, the favorite for the "Sixth Man of the Year Award," a defensive stalwart who came to camp in the best shape of his life, and no significant changes to the roster (meaning no requirement to build cohesion through growing pains). The time has arrived for the team of the future.

Some might notice that my win total prediction is actually seven less than the win total that was only good enough for the 4th seed last year. But with 16 fewer games this season, the winning percentage is actually better.

What could derail them?

If Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook were to miss significant time with an injury, obviously that could hurt them. The less obvious problem might be rule changes.

After the lockout ended, the league announced changes to the interpretation referees will use in assessing fouls. Two of them could have a huge negative impact to the Thunder. The first was the end of the "rip move."

This was something Kevin Durant used with great success over the past two years. Basically, since there is no way of guarding him (his offensive repertoire is so versatile that he can beat a defender regardless of what he attempts) defenders encroach on Durant's personal space and put their arm above the ball. That way, if Durant goes into his shooting motion, he can't get a clear shot off because he'll bang arms with the defender. So, Durant calls their bluff and initiates the contact, but it looks ugly and both Durant and the defender know that the shot had very little chance of going in.

The thing is this is a foul. There is no question. It isn't like there is incidental contact or the defender was guarding him fairly. In essence, the defender is saying the only way I can guard him is to foul him, then getting angry when the foul is called. Somehow, the league agreed with the whiners. Now, the referee has been given the leeway to psychically decide if a player truly felt his shot had a chance of going in, and if the ref thinks it was a shot taken only in hopes of getting fouled, no free throw shots will be awarded. More on the ramifications of this in a second.

In the same vein, referees are now given the option of not awarding free throws to players who are fouled driving into the lane. Again, this gives a lot of subjective decision-making to the refs. Again, it affects the Thunder because Russell Westbrook charges into the lane a lot.

Those are two 90% free throw shooters who are accustomed to taking a lot of free throws that are likely going to see their attempts decline as a result. That could potentially cost the team four or five points that would normally be easy money for them (not to mention that free throw attempts can help players like Durant and Westbrook get into a scoring rhythm).

What else should we worry about?

Russell Westbrook is eligible for a contract extension. Unlike Kevin Durant, whose negotiations lasted two minutes, no deal has been struck yet. If Westbrook and management fail to reach a deal by the deadline and he plays the season trying to prove he deserves a maximum contract, we might watch Westbrook going into "Superman" mode (a nickname used for when the point guard attempts to beat opposing teams by himself as if he has no other teammates on the floor) much more often than he does normally...which is a lot.

Will James Harden crack the starting line-up?

Probably, but I hope he doesn't. Starting is overrated. He should certainly play starter minutes (about 35/game), but the infatuation with fans that six of those need to be directly after tip-off is misguided. Yes, he's the team's third best offensive player, and he is no defensive liability. However, as the anchor of the second unit, he is the best offensive option and a complete mismatch playing against opposing team bench players. If he starts, he will rest along with Durant and Westbrook and the best bench scorer will be...?

What has changed from last season?

Very little. The team drafted Reggie Jackson, a point guard out of Boston College. At best, he's the third string point guard behind Westbrook and Eric Maynor. More likely, he will spend most of the season in Tulsa gaining experience.

Byron Mullens was traded to the Charlotte Bobcats near the end of training camp. The biggest adjustment that will cause is to me for losing a deadweight player for me to make jokes about.

Yesterday, news came out that Nate Robinson, who came along with Kendrick Perkins in the trade of Jeff Green last season, was bought out of the last year of his contract. That will severely limit the number of airport videos. Otherwise, the team will just have to do without a 5'7" shooting guard who can dunk in one out of sixteen attempts. (OSU head coach Travis Ford thinks this will be the team's downfall.)

My prediction for the team...

I am always a pessimist. For instance, this was the greatest season in Oklahoma State football history, and as a die hard OSU fan, I was still convinced that the Cowboys would botch the Bedlam game. That being said, I would be absolutely shocked if this Thunder team did not manage a trip to the NBA Finals, and I would be disappointed if they didn't end up winning it all.

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