The Oklahoma City Thunder are wondering what they need to do to get over the hump. They must answer a few glaring questions about their depth chart, but the combination of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka means that OKC will once again lead the pack and finish the year as one of the best teams in the league.
It’s time for an early look at how the Thunder’s season may unfold, and there are three categories that must be examined to predict what their final win-loss record will look like.
The first is the changes that have been made to the roster, which will have the greatest impact on the court. Secondly, it will be necessary to look at the NBA landscape as a whole to determine whether OKC faces stiffer competition or an easier path through the regular season. Lastly, a look at recent history gives us a good benchmark from which to base these predictions.
There were no major changes in OKC, but that wasn’t necessarily by design. Numerous individuals associated with the team made overtures to unrestricted free agent Pau Gasol, and such an addition would have been a tremendous help for the contenders.
Gasol chose Chicago, however, and the result is that this Thunder squad only underwent relatively minor changes.
The biggest of those was the loss of long-time starter Thabo Sefolosha. His elite perimeter defense will definitely be missed, but OKC is hoping that players like Perry Jones III, Andre Roberson and (eventually) Josh Huestis can fill that role.
Sefolosha's departure doesn’t move the needle for the Thunder too significantly, but there are questions about who will take his place in the starting lineup.
The best player is clearly Reggie Jackson, but it would be best if OKC kept the sixth-man extraordinaire on the bench to save some offensive firepower for a second unit that has no other reliable scorers.
|Bench Player||Points Per Game (2013-14)|
|Caron Butler (in Detroit)||9.7|
|Derek Fisher (in New York)||5.2|
|Perry Jones III||3.5|
If that is the case, Jeremy Lamb is the logical option to fill in for Sefolosha, but Lamb's inconsistency is a legitimate concern.
Free-agent acquisition Anthony Morrow could also factor into the conversation. The sharpshooter will definitely help the Thunder offense by providing a much-needed dose of perimeter shooting.
Minimum 150 three-point attempts
Whichever route OKC pursues, they will once again be filling in the starting lineup with a one-dimensional player (although both Jackson and Lamb have the length and athleticism to become effective defenders).
The rest of the personnel changes were relatively minor, like the losses of Derek Fisher and Caron Butler or the drafting of Mitch McGary.
All in all, this team is very similar to last year’s version. How that affects OKC’s title chances is unclear, but the Big Three alone mean this team should easily hit the 55-win mark, even in a brutal Western Conference.
Changes to the NBA Landscape
Nevertheless, only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls (assuming a healthy Derrick Rose) are on OKC’s level of talent, and the Thunder shouldn’t face too many problems dispatching members of the weaker conference like they did last season (to the tune of a 23-5 record).
Things will get trickier, of course, for the bulk of their schedule against the Western Conference, where every team is trying to win now and improve. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz are the only real pushovers in the conference, and no victory is guaranteed against the Western “middle class” of Dallas, Phoenix, Golden State and Denver (especially with Arron Afflalo).
The NBA landscape hasn’t changed too significantly, but the question mark at shooting guard could cost the Thunder a few games in their powerful conference.
Not many teams have been as successful as the Thunder in recent history, and they’ve consistently hovered around the 60-win mark for the past three seasons:
A full season of Russell Westbrook should offset the uncertainty of Lamb/Morrow/Jackson at the 2, and it would be surprising to see them not finish as a top-three seed in the West.
Head coach Scott Brooks needs to rely on a few young and unproven players this year, but having Durant and Westbrook on your team means that you can coast to 55-plus wins.
The veteran leadership of Fisher, Butler and Sefolosha will be missed, but it’s hard to imagine Durant and Westbrook winning fewer than 56 games, especially since both are still improving and haven’t reached their peaks yet.
Season Prediction: 59-23, 1st in Northwest Division, 2nd in Western Conference
Many would argue that the Portland Trail Blazers overachieved last year, and nobody else in the Northwest Division poses a credible threat to OKC’s reign as division champs.
Likewise, there hasn’t been much of a change at the top of the conference. San Antonio is sure to finish among the top three, but it’s hard to factor in Gregg Popovich’s rotation decisions and penchant for resting his key players. Also near the head of the table will be the Los Angeles Clippers (barring any boycotts related to the ownership situation of the team).
After those two teams, there doesn’t appear to be another true contender in the conference. OKC needs to find the right starter at shooting guard, but Reggie Jackson will play a lot of minutes alongside Westbrook in the backcourt regardless of who starts, and those two-point guard lineups have proven to be offensively explosive in the past. The Thunder will have enough athleticism and frontcourt depth to survive off the offensive gifts of their two leading men.