The Oklahoma City Thunder will open the 2013-14 season with several new faces, but with the same goal still in mind: NBA champions. But to reach that goal, certain players will have to rise up in the lineup.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are the obvious players that are extremely important to this team, as their past performance has been much of the reason the Thunder has had so much success the past several years.
But players that are expected to fill voids on offense like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams are also going to be needed for solid performances throughout the season.
It's a new year with a slightly different team. The Thunder can pretty much count on stellar performances from their proven playmakers (Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka), but with the departure of sharpshooter Jeremy Lamb and the injury to Westbrook which will keep him from play for the first four to six weeks of the season, other lower-profile players will need to rise to the occasion.
These are the five most important players for the Thunder going into the 2013-14 season.
Note: These rankings are based off players the Thunder need contribution from most for the Thunder to have success in the upcoming season.
The Thunder may not have the best scoring big men in the league, but they are certainly utilized in many other ways than scoring points. Whether it is rebounding, setting screens, clearing the lane or playing defense, the Thunder bigs have important duties.
For example, Kendrick Perkins is a player that nobody could possibly mistake for a scoring big man, but his contributions in other facets of the game are big for the Thunder.
Much of Perkins' worth isn't shown in the box score. He isn't a player who typically fills up the stats sheet. But his hustle and physical play makes a difference in games, even if it goes under the radar.
The same thing applies to Nick Collison, Hasheem Thabeet and Steven Adams. They hustle, which is all a coach can ask for when it comes down to it. They can make an impact in games without putting up a lot of points.
With that said, the Thunder bigs are still liabilities as ball handlers and shooters. This is the main reason they are only in the honorable mention category. It would be nice to say Perkins and company can still develop as scoring threats this season, but with all of the shooters and playmakers the Thunder have on the floor, the Thunder bigs don't really need to develop scoring ability.
With Russell Westbrook missing the first four to six weeks of the season, the Thunder will be relying on backup point guard Reggie Jackson to get the team off to a good start.
The bright side for the Thunder is that Jackson is Westbrook-esque in his playing ability. He's quick, explosive, aggressive and an absolute threat as a scorer. The video above only proves my point.
Jackson had his welcome-to-the-NBA-moment last postseason after replacing Westbrook in the Thunder's series with the Houston Rockets. He wasn't the type of playmaker as Westbrook—which is completely understandable—but he was pretty darn close.
Jackson showed last postseason he is more than capable of filling the void of Westbrook during his absence. And let's remember, we're only talking six weeks at most for Jackson to hold the offensive reins until Westbrook returns (my reason why Jackson is No. 5 on this list). After that, Jackson can go back to the role he is used to, which is coming off the bench to run point for the Thunder's second unit.
Thunder Nation will have their eyes on Jeremy Lamb this season as he attempts to fill the void of sharpshooter Kevin Martin.
Lamb was acquired by the Thunder in the infamous Harden trade which sent shockwaves throughout the entire NBA. He spent most of last year with the Thunder's D-League team, the Tulsa 66ers.
Martin was also acquired by the Thunder via the Harden trade, but with his departure this season, the Thunder are looking for Lamb to start contributing so they can prove the Harden trade was not a complete bust.
Note: You also have to remember the Thunder received the 12th overall draft pick from the Harden trade, and they were able to pick up Steven Adams, who is performing exceptionally for the Thunder so far. So don't call the Harden trade a bust just yet.
Lamb is known as a great shooter and offensive threat, but has been struggling this preseason with his shooting.
Royce Young on DailyThunder.com talked about Lamb's struggles in the preseason and the amount of pressure that will be placed upon his shoulders this season.
With the Thunder’s offseason so clearly based around confidence in both Lamb and Reggie Jackson being able to fulfill second unit roles replacing the loss of Kevin Martin as sixth man, the sluggish offensive start to Lamb’s season does raise some eyebrows. Oh, and the fact that Lamb was the centerpiece in the trade that sent All-Star James Harden to Houston, there’s some attention on that part of it too.
In the video above, you can see how easily Lamb can light up the scoreboard once he gets his rhythm. If he can translate that type of game into the regular season, then the Thunder will be much better off.
Lamb will get his fair share of open looks this season with Durant and Westbrook getting most of the attention from opposing defenses. His job is quite simple: Make open shots. Sure, it is easier said than done, but Lamb will prove to be the catalyst to the Thunder's success this season, and they need him to follow through.
More from Young on DailyThunder.com:
It’s hard to get adapted to the NBA. The speed of the game is hard to grasp and finding rhythm and confidence is difficult when things are buzzing by you and you’re trying to figure out how to make it all slow down. It’s just that those other players had the luxury of being given time to develop and progress without a spotlight of “They traded James Harden for this guy!?!?” beating down on them.
Is Jeremy Lamb going to be good? Is he going to validate Sam Presti? Can he be a suitable scorer off the bench? Will he ever make a 3-pointer? The questions are all fair and valid. It’s just way too early to try and answer any of them.
As you can see in the video, Ibaka had some major struggles in the Thunder's playoff run last season, missing wide open dunks, shots and showing total lack of confidence in his game.
Ibaka shot 53-percent from the field last year during the regular season, but his percentage dropped drastically in the playoffs to 43-percent.
Simply put, Ibaka will have to make more shots as he did in the regular season last year for the Thunder to have a chance at reaching their ultimate goal of winning an NBA title.
When Ibaka is making his shots, opposing defenses are forced to cover him and give players like Durant and Westbrook less attention. It opens up the Thunder's offense exponentially.
Ibaka is a great scorer; one of the best scorers on this Thunder team when he is confident. How do you get a player's confidence up? Well, you keep feeding him the ball and allow him to take shots. If you give a player like Ibaka enough opportunities, the shots will fall. And this team is most dangerous when Ibaka has found his rhythm.
This video might be pretty hard for Thunder Nation to watch, knowing Westbrook will miss the first four to six weeks of the season. But one thing is for sure, when Westbrook steps on the court again after making his comeback, it will be one of the greatest moments of the season for fans and the Thunder team.
Westbrook's injury last postseason was devastating, but it gave Thunder fans the opportunity to witness his true worth to the team. They simply were not the same in the playoffs after his injury. The offense was stagnant, inefficient and relied too heavily on the performance of one player named Kevin Durant.
There is some concern, however, of Westbrook's play once he does make his return. It can be argued he will not be the same player coming off of two knee surgeries. After all, explosive players like Westbrook put a lot of strain on their knees with quick cuts and sharp turns.
On ESPN LA Now, orthopedic surgeon Robert Klapper suggested concern of Westbrook's recovery (his comments start about 26 minutes in):
“Well, just like real estate, what do they say? Location, location, location. When we are talking about the lateral meniscus, the meniscus on the outside of your knee, versus the medial meniscus, the difference between the two is the lateral meniscus gets all the rotational pivoting when you make maneuvers. And that is Russell Westbrook’s game. It’s not just a pounding structure, it’s actually a rotatory stabilizer. So his game is absolutely going to be impacted because it’s the lateral meniscus and not the medial meniscus.”
We can read in to his speculations as much as we want to, but the fact of the matter is we will not know to what degree Westbrook will be impacted by last season's injury until he takes the court.
But even if Westbrook is not 100-percent coming back, it will still be a drastic improvement for the Thunder having him on the court even if he is 80 or 90 percent the player we are accustomed to. He's really just that good.
The No. 1 player on this list should not come as a surprise. It's Kevin Durant: KD, the Durantula, Sniper Jones, Trey Baller, Kid Clutch...
OK, I'm trying too hard, but you get the point.
The importance of Kevin Durant to the Thunder is immeasurable. He is by far the premier man in the lineup, and without him, well, we won't even speak of Thunder life without Durant.
He can seemingly do it all. He already has three scoring titles in his career, as well as membership into the prestigious 50-40-90 club, which consists of players shooting 50-percent from the field, 40-percent from three and 90-percent from the foul line.
The scary part about Durant is that he gets better in at least one facet of his game every year, due to his work in the offseason.
So what has Durant enhanced in his game this year? He's definitely gotten some size in his upper body which leads you to think he may be working on a post up game. And how scary would that be for opposing teams?
He can shoot over you, drive to the hoop, hit the Dirk-patented fadeaway jumper and utilize a nasty floater in the paint.
There is no question Durant is the most important player to this team. The awesome thing is, you can count on him, which is exactly what the Thunder have done since their existence in the league just five years ago.