Oklahoma City Thunder: Complete 2016-17 Season Preview

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder yells to celebrate during Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There'll be a moment during Russell Westbrook's 2016-17 season when it all sinks in, when the chest bump he's expected throughout his entire career never comes.

He'll barrel headlong into the lane, scattering bodies as he goes, before rising to flush a one-hander (plus the foul, of course) on some poor rim-protecting sap. He'll stomp scowling toward the baseline, unleashing a primal celebratory scream into the night, triumphant.

And then...nothing.

Sure, Andre Roberson or Steven Adams might be there to dap him up. But Kevin Durant won't, and that absence will define the Oklahoma City Thunder's forthcoming campaign for better or worse—but almost definitely worse.


Biggest Offseason Move

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 7:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for a portrait on July 7, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Big news on the concessions front, everyone. Rumor has it the Thunder's food-and-beverage director green-lit the switch from canola to vegetable oil in the popcorn poppers, which should really add a depth of flavor that...OH MY GOD: KEVIN DURANT IS GONE—EVERYONE PANIC!

No mystery here. Durant's switch to the Golden State Warriors changes everything about the Thunder's prospects. For a while, KD's exit and Westbrook's looming free agency in 2017 made it seem like OKC would completely tear things down, possibly following Durant's departure with a pre-emptive get-what-you-can Westbrook trade.

Westbrook signed an extension instead, which offered a modicum of stability—though it's worth noting teams inquiring about him will only be more interested if they know they can now keep him under contract for an extra three seasons.

All smiles at Westbrook's extension presser.
All smiles at Westbrook's extension presser.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

On the floor, this is officially Westbrook's show, and everyone expects the league's most ferocious athlete and feral competitor to wreak havoc as an unquestioned alpha.

Now, he does what he wants:

Head coach Billy Donovan talked down the Russ takeover angle on The Vertical Podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski: "He’s obviously proven he can score, but I think Russell’s also smart enough now to understand he’s got to take the group with him. I think from a style of play standpoint, we’ve got to maximize the people around him inside the system where they can be effective, productive and can help."

The idea of Westbrook not expanding his role to an unprecedented degree is nice in theory, but the likelier scenario involves him blowing away his 2014-15 usage rate (which ranked second all time when Durant was out for most of the year with injury) and dethroning 2005-06 Kobe Bryant as the single-season usage king.

Oh, and in any other offseason, trading Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova would have shaken the Thunder to their foundations. But thanks to the Durant move, it barely registered as a tremor.


Rotation Breakdown

Oklahoma City Thunder Projected 2016-17 Rotation
Russell WestbrookVictor OladipoAndre RobersonErsan IlyasovaSteven Adams
Cameron PayneAnthony MorrowKyle SinglerDomantas SabonisEnes Kanter
Ronnie PriceAlex AbrinesJosh HuestisNick CollisonJoffrey Lauvergne

Westbrook, Adams and Oladipo have to start, and though Ilyasova is not an objectively better player than Enes Kanter, shooting is at a massive premium on this roster. So OKC's newest power forward is likely to see time on the first unit, and he'll stay there as long as he's stretching the floor with his career 37 percent stroke from deep.

Leaning on Ilyasova as the lone source of spacing is a scary thought, but no on else in the starting lineup inspires consistent long-range fear in opponents.

Frontcourt versatility is a strength for OKC, though, and against more conventional two-big lineups, the Thunder will happily give time to the Kanter-Adams duo that pummeled the San Antonio Spurs during the 2016 playoffs. If opponents downsize, Roberson could leverage his length and athleticism as a small-ball 4.

Oladipo should see time as a backup point guard, with Cameron Payne possibly improving enough to take on a larger role behind him. Up front, Sabonis is an intriguing young piece, but his Olympic performance suggested he's not yet strong enough to compete against NBA size. Expect Kanter to dominate backups as a second-unit scoring leader while hiding his suspect defense.

Donovan, who tinkered with lineups throughout his first year, will likely spend 2016-17 conducting even more matchup-based experiments.

Unfortunately, the Thunder's wing spots are one-dimensional and weak, which means there may not be a perfect formula for Donovan to concoct. Kyle Singler has been a profound disappointment on both ends since joining the Thunder two years ago, while a historically accurate long-range stroke hasn't been enough to keep Anthony Morrow and his nonexistent defense in the rotation.

There's no replacing Durant, and Roberson will defend well as the presumptive starting 3, but OKC's small forward spot might be the worst single position in the league.


Reasons for Confidence

Tell me this man's not confident.
Tell me this man's not confident.Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A team with Westbrook, indisputably one of the best players in the NBA, can only be so bad. Even if the offense struggles and Westbrook's efficiency dips, having a superstar talent means the Thunder can compete with anyone.

There will be plenty of games won exclusively by Russ' eye-popping triple-doubles. And as an aside, he equaled an NBA record with 18 of those last year—the most put up in the past 50 seasons.

Prepare for him to push toward 25.

If his younger sidekicks step forward, Westbrook could lead the Thunder to a playoff berth. Oladipo and Kanter are 24, while Adams is only 23. Every member of that trio could improve, and Adams' playoff exploits (10.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 61.3 percent shooting with terrific defense) indicate he's ready to join the league's upper echelon of centers.

Losing Ibaka and Durant is significant, especially because their absences push weaker defenders such as Kanter and Ilyasova into larger roles. But if Donovan schemes effectively to minimize their negative impacts and instills a shutdown mentality in the guys with legitimate defensive chops, there's a scenario where Oklahoma City builds a defense-first reputation and pushes its defensive rating into the top 10.


Reasons for Concern

May 10, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in game five of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobu
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

We've addressed the shooting issues that'll plague the Thunder, but the even bigger problem is more obvious: The offense as a whole is going to suffer.

Oklahoma City ranked second in offensive rating last season with 109.9 points per 100 possessions. But with Durant off the court, it checked in with 106.7. With both Westbrook and Durant on the bench, the Thunder scored 101.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAWowy.com.

That last number would have ranked 26th in the league, right between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. Westbrook could average more minutes per game than anyone in the league this season, but he'll still sit for nearly a quarter of every contest.

During those stretches, the Thunder simply won't score.

Even with Westbrook on the court, the lack of shooting could be fatal. For example, the Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll sounds fantastic on paper, but try to imagine how it's going to work when every guard goes under the screen and dares Russ to pull up for mid-range jumpers. Then envision a bogged-down lane as every help defender crashes in to stop Adams, begging for kickouts to Roberson or Oladipo.

The spacing crunch is real, and it's not just because Durant is goneIbaka was also one of the best perimeter bigs in the game.

Compounding the issue, Oklahoma City is short on facilitators. Outside of Westbrook and Oladipo, there aren't any drive-and-kick threats in the rotation. So in addition to a lack of shooting, the Thunder will be wholly dependent on two guards for decent ball movement.

Add all that up, and it's entirely possible the Thunder post one of the five or 10 worst offensive ratings in the league.


Player to Watch

Adams is vital to OKC's success this season in almost every way.

He's the defensive anchor who'll have to protect the lane and switch out onto guards in the pick-and-roll when Westbrook invariably dogs it around high screens.

At the other end, Adams' work on the offensive glass—along with Kanter's—could be the most important factor in preventing the Thunder from scoring at a bottom-10 rate. Last season, Oklahoma City led the league in offensive rebound percentage, and considering the offense it's losing without Durant and Ibaka, we should expect an even more determined pursuit of second-chance points.

Opponents will know this, and the smart ones will punish OKC's crashing with transition attacks. If Adams isn't a big-enough factor on those offensive boards, the Thunder could surrender tons of breakaways and fail to prop up a shaky half-court offense.

Defensively, Adams is indispensable because an injury would result in Kanter anchoring the D. On the other end, those flashes of slick passing Adams showed in the postseason could be vital on a team whose lack of facilitators looks like a major weakness.



OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder before the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Play
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Thunder are right on the edge of the playoff picture, and it's difficult to find a team with a wider range of possible outcomes.

If Westbrook misses any time or the offense falters even more than expected, we could be looking at a mid-30s win total and a lottery berth. But there's an alternate scenario in which organic improvement, Donovan's lineup wizardry and a true MVP-quality season from Russ push Oklahoma City closer to 50 wins and a top-four seed in the West.

For now, the safe bet is expecting some serious offensive hiccups, a mostly sound defense and just enough improvement from the likes of Adams and Oladipo to sneak into the postseason as a No. 8 seed.


Final record: 43-39.

Division standing: Third in Northwest.

Playoff berth: Yes.

B/R league-wide power rankings prediction: 14th.


Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

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