The Oklahoma City Thunder’s title aspirations were cut short by injury last year, but they’re right back in the hunt this season. The pairing of superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has been sensational, and the shrewd front-office moves have built a roster that can contend now and in the future.
Before looking forward, let’s take a quick glance at the impressive season they put together in 2012-13:
- Regular Season: 60-22
- Division: First place in Northwest
- Conference: No. 1 seed in the Western Conference
- Eliminated in the second round of the playoffs
Their biggest achievement was of course winning their conference and finishing with the second-best record in the NBA. Their progression over the last three years has been amazing—starting as an upstart fourth seed in the 2011 playoffs and finishing as the best in the West last year.
With such lofty goals, it was a huge disappointment that they couldn’t advance to even the Conference finals, but the injury to Russell Westbrook put them in an extremely difficult situation.
The coaching will come under close scrutiny this year, because the Thunder will be without Westbrook for the first month of the season. Will Coach Brooks follow the same formula as he did in playoffs, or will he be more flexible in experimenting with different lineups?
In addition, the hopes of OKC’s success depend on the rapid development of some of their youngest players, like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams. Brooks will need to live with some sloppy play and maybe even sacrifice some regular-season wins to ensure they get enough minutes so they can properly develop.
Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Ryan Gomes
Those aren’t exactly earthshaking additions, but as a legitimate contender, the Thunder didn’t need to make any drastic moves. They are also in the fortunate position to be patient with their first draft pick, Steven Adams, who is considered to be a project but could develop into the center they so sorely need.
Andre Roberson is a player they traded for on draft night. He brings an intriguing combination of length, athleticism and a willingness to do the dirty work. His offensive game needs some serious work, but he can develop into a versatile defender and great energy player off the bench.
Finally, the signing of Ryan Gomes wasn't exactly the “splash” that Thunder fans were looking for, but the veteran forward could provide perimeter shooting while spelling Kevin Durant at the small forward position.
Kevin Martin and Ronnie Brewer
Kevin Martin is biggest personnel change for OKC, and his departure to the Minnesota Timberwolves leaves a huge void. Martin filled in admirably for James Harden as the third scorer for the team and was arguably an even better fit for the roster by being an excellent spot-up shooter and providing floor spacing.
Ronnie Brewer was a good depth player, but he only played in 14 of a possible 26 games and only got a decent amount of playing time in the last few games of the regular season.
How Does Russell Westbrook’s Recovery Progress?
This is the most important storyline of the Thunder’s season, and it has two subplots. The first revolves around how long he takes to recover from his second knee surgery of the offseason. According to Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk, Westbrook was a limited participant in practice earlier this week.
The initial prognosis was that he would miss the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season, and the Thunder can be fine without him for that time frame. The more important question for them will be whether he’s the same old Russell Westbrook when he returns. And if not, when will he be?
Westbrook’s game revolves around relentless aggression and reckless abandon. If he’s not mentally recovered then he won’t be the player OKC needs him to be.
Development of the Young Guns
It sounds strange considering that the “Big Three” of the Thunder are either 24 or 25 years old, but the team is undergoing a youth movement of sorts. The starting five is set (that lineup played more minutes than any other lineup in the NBA last year, according to 82games.com), but Scott Brooks is relying on some young players for depth.
Reggie Jackson will be the starting point guard for however long Westbrook is out, and he’ll be the spark plug off the bench when Westbrook returns. Without Kevin Martin or any other proven scorer, Jackson will be the sixth man for this team by default.
Joining him as an offensive punch off the bench will be second-year player Jeremy Lamb—the centerpiece of the James Harden trade. Lamb barely played in the NBA last year, but he performed very well in the D-League and the Orlando Summer League this offseason.
Lamb has shown the potential to create his offense, a rare trait among the role players on the roster, and his development (and outside shooting) will be vital for the Thunder this year.
The last “young gun” to keep an eye on is Steven Adams. While he was originally considered a long-term project, he has looked good in the preseason and displayed a much better offensive game than expected. Even his peers have been impressed with his play according to Royce Young of CBSSports.
He has a long way to go in order to learn how to play defense in the NBA, but he already is the best offensive center on the roster.
Any production he gives them this year will be considered a bonus, but considering the rapidly decreasing effectiveness of Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder could really use Adams for significant minutes.
Where Will the Perimeter Shooting Come From?
It’s not just Kevin Martin’s scoring that will be missed—it’s his shooting. According to HoopData.com, Martin had the 11th-highest effective field-goal percentage in the league, and his ability to knock down spot-up threes was invaluable to the Thunder offense.
His presence created more space and driving lanes for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to do their thing. Without Martin, the Thunder don’t have a reliable three-point shooter not named Durant.
Through the preseason, the Thunder are shooting 26 percent from beyond the arc, a far cry from the 38 percent they shot last year as the third-best three-point shooting team in the league.
Jeremy Lamb is one player that is expected to provide some perimeter shooting, but he has been incapable of finding the range in the preseason and is shooting just 16 percent from three-point land so far.
The lack of shooting is a serious concern for the Thunder, and they may have to make a roster move to get more shooting on the team.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
|2013-14 Depth Chart|
|Center||Power Forward||Small Forward||Shooting Guard||Point Guard|
|Kendrick Perkins||Serge Ibaka||Kevin Durant||Thabo Sefolosha||Russell Westbrook|
|Steven Adams||Nick Collison||Andre Roberson||Jeremy Lamb||Reggie Jackson|
|Hasheem Thabeet||Perry Jones||Ryan Gomes||Rodney McGruder||Derek Fisher|
For a breakdown of the players individually, you can check out the Thunder player power rankings. Here is how each position stacks up.
Kendrick Perkins is a front-runner for the title of “Worst Starting Center in the NBA.” He has absolutely no offensive game, and his defensive performance has gotten worse every year. He brings a lot to the table in terms of toughness and leadership, but his on-court production is only going to decrease as he gets older.
Steven Adams is an intriguing young prospect, and there’s a chance that he could assume the starting role at some point this year. We still haven’t seen him play regular-season action against NBA competition, so it’s tough to know how he will perform this year.
Rounding out the centers is Hasheem Thabeet, one of the biggest busts in the recent history. He provides a huge body and some good shot-blocking, but he fouls at a high rate and, like Perkins, has no semblance of an offensive game.
Power Forward: B
Two-way big men are an incredibly rare commodity in today’s NBA, and Serge Ibaka is a very capable offensive player in addition to being a dominant rim-protector.
He’s athletic, runs the floor extremely well and has an excellent mid-range jumper with range that extends to three-point land. Throw in the fact that he’s only 24 years old and Ibaka still has plenty of room to develop his offensive game.
Backing him up off the bench is Nick Collison—the "glue guy." He isn’t a particularly talented player, but he’s fundamentally sound, makes good decisions and makes plays with his energy.
Collison is an active defender with the foot speed to defend the pick-and-roll effectively and take a ton of charges. On offense, he has a decent mid-range jumper but is a good passer and finisher around the rim.
The last power forward on the roster, Perry Jones, is somewhat of a tweener. He is purely a developmental prospect, but he has incredible upside and is a great third option.
Small Forward: B
First and foremost, Kevin Durant is definitely an A+. Not much explanation is needed there, but he’s one of the best and most efficient scorers in the game and has developed a phenomenal all-around game.
The problem with the small forward position is its startling lack of depth. Durant played close to 39 minutes per game last year, so there isn’t much opportunity for a backup small forward anyway, but it would be beneficial for the Thunder and Durant if he got more rest during the regular season.
Unfortunately, that won’t be happening this year. Andre Roberson has great potential as a defender and rebounder, but he is incredibly raw and it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to contribute this year.
Behind him is Ryan Gomes, a 31-year-old veteran who played last season in Germany after being unable to find a roster spot in the NBA. Gomes can space the floor and play some effective defense, but it remains to be seen what he can add to the Thunder.
Shooting Guard: C
Thabo Sefolosha is a great perimeter defender, but his offensive game is weak. He doesn’t possess a reliable outside shot, and he can’t create offense for himself or teammates.
The other shooting guard is Jeremy Lamb, who has a ton of potential but hasn’t put it all together yet. He could be a good scorer and he has all the tools to be a very good defender. Until he shows us what he can consistently do on the court, however, this grade is stuck as average.
Rodney McGruder is still on the roster, but it doesn't look like he will have a meaningful role in the rotation.
Point Guard: A
With a healthy Russell Westbrook, this is one of the best point guard pairings in the league. Westbrook is a top-five player, at least according to ESPN he is.
Reggie Jackson had his coming out party in the playoffs last year and he has shown the ability to be an aggressive scorer and a facilitator for the offense. His outside shot still needs some work, but he has a solid mid-range jumper, can finish around the rim and is a good pick-and-roll player.
Then there's Derek Fisher—the wily veteran. He doesn’t provide much on the court, but he is smart, reliable and can hit clutch shots. In addition, he is an excellent locker room presence and can be just what you need from a third-string PG.
Rounding out the roster is Diante Garrett, an athletic guard with good size who has shown questionable shot selection. He can be provide some defensive energy off the bench, but he won't do much more than that.
What to Watch For
As one of the few legitimate title contenders, there is plenty of intrigue surrounding the Thunder’s upcoming season.
The most important thing to assess moving forward is the coaching acumen of Scott Brooks. This is going to be a challenging season, and it will reveal whether Brooks is capable of matching wits with some of the best in the business, like Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.
Breakout Player Prediction: Reggie Jackson
There is also a chance that Jeremy Lamb breaks out and serves as a terrific consolation prize in the James Harden trade, but he is probably a year away from truly breaking out.
The best bet is Reggie Jackson, who already burst into the spotlight during the postseason. His role will be even bigger this season as the starting point guard at the beginning of the year and the primary bench scorer when Westbrook returns.
Without much offense on the second unit, Jackson will have all the responsibility of scoring and making plays, and he should thrive as the sixth man.
Team MVP Prediction: Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is going to be in the conversation for league MVP, so he’s a no-brainer as the team MVP. Russell Westbrook’s absence only puts more of the onus on Durant, and he’ll have to carry the team for the first month of the season.
Most Disappointing Player Prediction: Jeremy Lamb
There is no player on the roster that has bigger expectations with no actual evidence to support those expectations.
Lamb is very capable of being a scorer and all-around stud for the second unit, but he hasn’t faced much NBA competition and it’s just as likely that he struggles with his outside shot, defensive lapses and sloppy turnovers from trying to do too much.
When the Thunder let Kevin Martin go, they were hoping that Lamb and Jackson would be able to combine for his production. Jackson looks like he’ll be a fine sixth man, but Lamb has been very shaky throughout the preseason and will probably experience some growing pains in his first real NBA season.
He has all the potential to be a great two-way NBA player, but his time to shine will probably be next year.
Player Most Likely To Be Traded: Hasheem Thabeet
There isn’t really any player that is likely to be traded from this roster. The largest expiring contract is Thabo Sefolosha who is making just under $4 million this season, and he is valuable to the Thunder’s title hopes this year so it’s very unlikely that they trade him away.
Kendrick Perkins is the player that they would most like to get rid of, but he has two more years left on his contract and is making way too much money for anybody to trade for him at this point.
Hasheem Thabeet is a player who is still young enough at 26 to pique the interest of a team that thinks they can develop him into a serviceable role player. Even trading Thabeet is a long shot, however, and the most likely scenario is that the Thunder make no trades this year.
Biggest Rivalry: Miami Heat
This is an easy pick. The Thunder players showed a definite dislike for the Miami Heat last season as you would expect after they lost to them in the Finals.
The Thunder are one of the biggest threats to Miami’s hopes of a three-peat, and there has also been a fair bit of trash talk between Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade this offseason.
Unfortunately they only face each other twice in the regular season, but a Finals matchup would be a heated affair (no pun intended) between two teams that legitimately hate each other.
Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios With Predicted W-L Record
Westbrook comes back quickly and completely healthy, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb are excellent off the bench and Kendrick Perkins perfects a low-post move. Okay, that last one is impossible, but the first two scenarios are very plausible and they would make the Oklahoma City Thunder a convincing contender.
If those things happen, they could still have issues against some of the bigger teams in the playoffs (e.g. San Antonio Spurs or Memphis Grizzlies), but they would be so dangerous offensively that they would probably be the second favorite behind the Miami Heat.
Jeremy Lamb can’t make the transition to significant minutes in the NBA, nobody can hit three-point shots and the offense stagnates.
Discounting Westbrook not recovering (since that is obviously the worst possible outcome), the worst-case scenario for this team is a shockingly possible outcome.
They would still have the talent to make the playoffs, but if these things happen then their hopes of being a title contender go out the window unless Serge Ibaka has transformed himself into a low-post scorer.
What’s startling is that, even if this happens, they could still be a top-four seed in the Western conference since their deficiencies would only be exposed in the playoffs. They would get soundly beaten by an elite team, however, and would likely make an early exit from the postseason.
Predicted W-L Record: 56-26
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are good enough to win 50 games, but this team should fall off a little bit with the lack of a proven scorer and what should be a slow start without Westbrook and with young players figuring out their roles.
For OKC, their season will be defined by their playoff success. This is a motivated team and anything less than a championship will be a disappointment. Regardless of how they perform this year, with players like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams on the roster, the future is very bright for the Thunder.