There are lots of questions surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder as they head toward the Sept. 30 start of training camp.
Will Russell Westbrook be the same explosive and deadly player he was before tearing his meniscus last year? Can Reggie Jackson continue to play as well as he did during the 2013 NBA playoffs when he averaged 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game?
The biggest question though is whether anyone on the roster is capable of filling the hole in bench production originally made by James Harden's absence and now the departure of Kevin Martin. A lot of Thunder fans think Jeremy Lamb is ready to step into that role, but I'm not sold just yet.
The Thunder have a lot to figure out in terms of depth if they want to be serious title contenders in a Western Conference that seems to get deeper and more competitive every day.
Thunder 2012-13 Results
- 60-22 overall record (.732)
- 1st Place in Western Conference
- 1st Place in Northwest Division
- Lost in conference semifinals to Memphis Grizzlies (4-1)
Key 2012-13 Stats: The Good and the Bad
The Thunder had the third-most explosive offense in the NBA last season—averaging 105.7 points per game—thanks in large part to Kevin Durant, who was the NBA's second-leading scorer with an average of 28.1 points per game.
In addition to dominating the offensive flow of games, the Thunder also held their own on the defensive side of the ball—averaging 43.6 rebounds per game (sixth best in NBA) and holding opponents to just 96.5 points per game (ninth best in the NBA).
The one area in which they struggled heavily last year was in distributing the offensive production between everyone on the team. The Thunder averaged 21.4 assists per game, which ranked 21st in the NBA.
Their lack of facilitation points to their offense being tied to a few players who can create their own offense, instead of being an entire team effort. That doesn't need to completely change next year, but players coming off the bench do need to be able to both produce and facilitate for the Thunder to be successful.
There's no doubt that the offensive production will be there with Durant and Westbrook on the court. The Thunder just need to figure out how to be more of a team when either one of those stars is on the pine.
Biggest Storylines Entering Training Camp
Russell Westbrook's return is undoubtedly the biggest storyline for the Thunder heading into training camp.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti added a level of complexity to Westbrook's return when he made the following statement during his annual "state of the franchise" address, according to Sports Illustrated.
"I wouldn't say that he will be (ready) and I wouldn't say that he won't be,'' Presti said. "We've got to see how the next month goes.''
On one hand, Westbrook needs to be smart with his return to the court and only get back to full speed when he's fully capable of doing so. On the other hand, the Thunder don't want a "Derrick Rose situation" where Westbrook timidly backs off returning because he lets fear take over.
Knowing the kind of player Westbrook is, I don't see that happening, but I thought the same thing about Rose.
Another major storyline for the Thunder is the continued development of Jeremy Lamb, especially after an impressive performance during the summer league where he lit up the scoreboard on a regular basis and even nailed a game-winner.
Yes, Lamb looked like he found his game again this past summer. But let's not forget that he was playing against summer league talent, which isn't necessarily comparable to the kind of talent he'll be going up against during the preseason and regular season.
If Lamb reverts to his 2012-13 ways, though, the Thunder will be left without much depth on their bench once again.
Key Additions and Key Losses
Key Additions: Ryan Gomes, SF (one year, $1.86 million), Steven Adams, C (five years, $15 million), Andre Roberson, SF (five years, $6 million) and Grant Jerrett, PF.
Biggest Addition: Ryan Gomes, SF
If Ryan Gomes' name sounds familiar, but you can't quite remember where he played last year. Don't worry, you're not alone.
Gomes spent last season playing overseas in Germany where he averaged 11 points in 10 games. While that doesn't mean he'll be able to easily transition back into the NBA, it's a good sign that he's still got some game.
If Lamb's summer league success doesn't transition into the regular season, Gomes could have a great second chance to revitalize his NBA career.
Gomes averaged 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in six seasons in the NBA, and there's no question that he can put up those numbers coming off the bench behind Durant out on the wing. He has the size, athleticism and range in his game to be a difference-maker for the Thunder.
Biggest Loss: Kevin Martin, SG
The Thunder's first attempt at replacing Harden was rather successful. Martin came in and averaged 14 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 27.7 minutes per game.
Unfortunately, he decided to take his talents to Minnesota, which has left a gaping hole in the Thunder's second unit.
Now, the best player on the Thunder's bench is Reggie Jackson, who had a great postseason run replacing Westbrook. The question with Jackson is just how well he'll fit into a bench rotation once Westbrook returns.
Next in line coming off the bench is Lamb, who turned a lot of Thunder fans into believers when he owned the summer league this past summer.
It's going to be interesting to see how big of an impact Martin's absence will have on the Thunder's success. Replacing his production isn't going to be easy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.
2013-14 Depth Chart
|PG||Russell Westbrook||Reggie Jackson||Derek Fisher|
|SG||Thabo Sefolosha||Jeremy Lamb|
|SF||Kevin Durant||Ryan Gomes||Andre Roberson|
|PF||Serge Ibaka||Nick Collison||Perry Jones||Grant Jerrett|
|C||Kendrick Perkins||Steven Adams||Hasheem Thabeet||Daniel Orton|
Training Camp Battle to Watch: Jeremy Lamb vs. Reggie Jackson vs. Ryan Gomes, a.k.a. the Sixth Man Battle
Your first thought probably is "but these guys don't play the same position."
Well, that's a valid thought, and while they won't be battling for a spot at one position, they will all be trying to prove their value as the Thunder's main option coming off the bench.
There's no doubt that Jackson has the upper hand in this battle because he had such a dominant outing in the playoffs last season.
We all know, though, that players can peak during special runs, and that could be the case for Jackson.
Next is certainly Lamb because of the efficiency and range he showed during the summer. If that can translate into success during training camp, I have a hard time believing head coach Scott Brooks won't find significant time for him in their rotation because of the impressive athletic advantage he gives the Thunder.
Gomes has an outside chance at winning this battle, mainly because of his past NBA experience. He does, however, have lots to prove if he's going to beat out the two younger players ahead of him.
He needs to show that he brings more versatility to the floor than Jackson and Lamb, and that's going to be tough to do.
Battling for a Roster Spot: Hasheem Thabeet (C), Perry Jones (PF) and Daniel Orton (C)
While 15 players can make an NBA roster, only 12 of them will be able to suit up and play during games. That means there are three players battling for one final spot on the end of the pine.
First on the list is Perry Jones, who has more to prove than any other player on the Thunder roster. He was considered a steal of the 2012 NBA draft when he was selected with the 28th overall pick.
Instead of him proving those 27 teams that passed on him wrong, he's made their case for not drafting him even stronger. Jones only averaged 2.3 points and 1.6 rebounds in 7.4 minutes per game last year.
He needs to prove his value during training camp, or he'll be wearing a Tulsa 66ers jersey for the majority of the season.
Now on to the two centers competing for a roster spot. Thabeet is a legitimate 7-footer, while Orton is only 6'10''. Orton makes up for that with his impressive athleticism and range, proving a little more valuable as an asset on the bench.
With the Thunder drafting Steven Adams, the chances of Thabeet and Orton beating out Jones are a bit slimmer.
Biggest X-Factor: Serge Ibaka, PF
We all know Durant will be in the NBA MVP conversation again this year. He's just that great of a player.
There's a high likelihood Westbrook will return and be in pre-injury form, if not better.
The biggest question in the Thunder's starting lineup is the continued growth, development and maturity of Serge Ibaka—the man the Thunder chose instead of Harden.
Last season, he averaged 13.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and three blocks per game. He also shot 57.3 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc on .7 attempts per game.
For the Thunder to remain dominant in the West, Ibaka needs to increase both his offensive production and his tenacity on the glass. There's no reason why he can't average a solid double-double while continuing to be the dominant defensive force that he is.
What's difficult for Ibaka is figuring out a healthy balance between dominating the paint and extending the floor with his increased range. Last year, Ibaka relied a bit too much on his mid-to-long-range game near the end of the year. That both helped and hurt OKC at times last year.
Finding a balance between the two will help the Thunder have a stronger sense of identity and "team flow" on offense.
Thunder Best-Case Scenario for 2013-14
The ultimate best-case scenario for OKC is a Western Conference title before dethroning the Miami Heat. Is that a realistic scenario, though? Yes and no, but let's backtrack for a second.
Another 60-win season would be a great season for the Thunder, and there's no reason they can't obtain that level of success—especially if Lamb is the player we all think he can be.
After hitting the 60-win mark again, meeting the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals isn't out of the question. Saying that they could reach the NBA Finals is a bit too much before we've seen their bench rotation in action.
Thunder Worst-Case Scenario for 2013-14
Westbrook returns and isn't the same player he was before his injury. He isn't as aggressive, explosive or efficient, and the Thunder's offensive capabilities take a serious hit.
That happening doesn't seem realistic, though, because Westbrook isn't the kind of player that would be held back by the mental aspect of recovering from an injury.
The absolute worst-case scenario for the Thunder involves a low-seeded entrance into the playoffs thanks to a 40-to-45-win season—maybe as a sixth or seventh seed. That wouldn't be awful, but it certainly would be a stretch from their reign of dominance as of late.
2013-14 Official Prediction
Even without a solidified sixth man at this point, there's no reason why the Thunder can't be the best in the West once again.
With Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder's offense is too explosive for most teams to hang with and stop.
Their biggest challengers in the West will be the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets, and the Thunder can certainly hang with them throughout the regular season.
Durant will have his name in the MVP race and the scoring title this upcoming season because he has a lot on the line after making some bold statements this offseason, including a mini-diss on Dwyane Wade.
Westbrook will come back stronger than before with a chip on his shoulder, trying to prove that he can be a top-three point guard in the league even after a torn meniscus.
2013-14 Prediction: 61-21, second seed in West, lose to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
There's a bit of time before the Thunder's regular season gets underway, but the most important part of their season is right around the corner. Training camp is going to give us a great idea of how good the Thunder can be and how well this team will continue to jell.