(In the past we've brought you a comprehensive Thunder preview as offered by both Zorgon and Sherman. This year we let the rookie KevinHFY join in on the festivities. Zorgon offers his customary in-depth analysis, Kevin offers a new set of eyes, and Sherman rounds out each topic with his famous last words.)
Team Name: The Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Year's Record: 60-22
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Moves? Hah. The Thunder, with Ibaka's new salary kicking in and a couple of draft picks, were right next to the luxury tax threshold. They've refused to go over that threshold before, dishing James Harden off to Houston instead of giving him a payday. So if they went over that threshold to pay Kevin Martin, it would've been absolutely absurd. Thus, K-Mart took his talents to Minnesota. The Thunder looked for a cheap option to replace him, but they couldn't even afford Dorell Wright, who signed for a measly 3 million a year. So the Thunder ended up doing nothing but grabbing a couple of minimum salary players in Derek Fisher and Ryan Gomes.
In terms of the draft, the Thunder went in two different directions. With their #12 pick, they desperately tried to move up by packaging it with Kendrick Perkins. The talent-bereft and cash-strapped teams at the top of the lottery laughed at the Thunder's offer, leaving the Thunder to draft a 2-3 year project in Steven Adams. Late in the first round, the Thunder traded up a bit to grab Andre Roberson, an experienced forward. He could help out the team in terms of defense and rebounding, and could possibly be a cheap replacement for Thabo Sefolosha next year. In the second round, the Thunder drafted Alex Abrines, a creative guard who they can stash in Europe, and Grant Jerrett, a three point shooting big who will need time to develop his all-around game.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
For me, the team's biggest strength at this point is the rock-solid production they get from Kevin Durant. It might seem really obvious, but I challenge anyone to find a single player in the NBA who has as few off nights. I mean, he was close to beating Jordan's record of so many straight 25 point games for a reason. He might be less efficient on some nights, but he'll get his points, come hell or high water.
Beyond that, I think their biggest strength is their familiarity. Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, Sefolosha, Collison, and Perkins have all been playing together for years now, and they know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Each player has a very defined role, and they can fill that role to a T. There's very little chance of drama, there's a great locker room atmosphere, and they all trust each other. Even some of the newer players (Fisher, Jackson) already have a nice handle on where they fit within the context of the team.
If we're going to talk about the Thunder as a team strategically, I think their high-tempo offense and defense can overwhelm a lot of teams. The trio of Durant, Sefolosha, and Westbrook (and Jackson, for a while) is still one of the best open-court gangs in the league, with lots of size, speed, and athleticism. Defensively, the Thunder are pretty good at nabbing back court steals and switching on screens, keeping the other team away from the basket and keeping the pace high. It might seem gimmicky, but it's gotten this team places before.
Our team's biggest strengths have to start with Kevin Durant. So much of the Thunder's success is reliant on him, and this is even more true with Kevin Martin in Minnesota and Russell Westbrook for the first 4-6 weeks of the season. Well, if you had to pick any one player in the NBA to lean on, Durant would likely be the second player picked after LeBron. He can carry an offense against anything less than two or three defenders, and the rest of his game has developed very nicely to go with it. As flimsy as our depth chart might look without Martin or Westbrook, having Durant to fall back to isn't bad at all.
Another strength, one maybe a little less prevalent in the minds of NBA fans, is the Thunder's defense. You'll rarely hear the Thunder's defense in the same sentence as that of the Pacers or the Grizzlies, yet they finished third behind them (tied with the Spurs) in defensive efficiency last season with allowing just 99.2 points per 100 possessions. Serge Ibaka is the clear standout defender with his shot-blocking, and the only regular rotation members they feature that are distinct negatives on defense are maybe the young guns in the backcourt, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
Perhaps the most important thing, however, is their mobility and athleticism as a team. That ability to move around quickly allows the Thunder to play a defense that conservatively cuts off the paint, but still recover well to outside shooters. It's rare to see a roster this young play such effective team defense, and while they still do make the mistakes that plague young players often (mistakes in rotating, overhelping on defense), it's very encouraging going forward.
"Whenever I start getting sad about where I am in my life, I think about the last words of my favorite uncle: "A truck!"" - Jack Handy
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Zorgon: I think we know that most people want to jump on the Thunder's center problem, but I really don't think that's going to be a huge issue for the Thunder this season. Kendric Perkins' performance during the playoffs tends to cloud people's judgement when they consider how good of a player he is during the regular season. He's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but he's been working to develop a semi-consistent jumper, communicates well with Ibaka on help D, and only looks bad when he accidentally switches onto a guard or does his stupid full-court pressure intimidation thing. All in all, it could be worse, and he really only struggles against the top centers in the game, like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Really, I think this year's problems will center around the team's ballhandling. They're going to struggle to survive with Reggie Jackson at point early on in the season, because he's mostly a scorer. But even when Russell Westbrook comes back, the team's bench is still bereft of a true distributor. Fisher was never that player, Jackson has a long way to go, and Lamb is an isolation scorer. And don't even think about looking at the offensively bereft Nick Collison. At the end of the day, the Thunder are going to continue to struggle while Durant and Westbrook aren't on the floor.
Furthermore, the Thunder are still going to struggle with a lot of the little things. They're way too reliant on Kevin Durant for rebounds. Serge Ibaka is spending too much time on the perimeter. They still don't have a legitimate post scorer. Jeremy Lamb will struggle to be efficient. Reggie Jackson might complain about his role. Derek Fisher will be prone to off-nights. Thabo Sefolosha still won't be able to consistently hit threes. Kevin Durant will turn it over too much. The list goes on and on. But none of these issues will pop up every single night, and all of them can be covered up or remedied, depending on the situation.
This team's biggest weakness might be depth after their core of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. (You can probably see where Martin's departure and Westbrook's injury can tie in to this one.) Thabo Sefolosha and even Kendrick Perkins are more than serviceable defensively, as well as Nick Collison on the bench. However, there's a noticeable drop-off between those two groups of players, the most worrying one perhaps being a lack of reliable depth scoring. For that depth scoring, the Thunder might have to turn to Jackson and Lamb.
Jackson and Lamb are a pair of young players on the come-up, but they don't yet come with a whole lot proven. Lamb could easily shoot 40% this season from the field in his first stint of prolonged NBA action. Jackson was at least able to step up big time in last season's playoffs, but three-point shooting probably remains a weakness to some degree even heading into this season. These two players look like potential x-factors to the Thunder's season. Scott Brooks' relatively simple offensive sets aren't helping them or the rest of the team much, but playing with Durant probably means the open looks come one way or another.
One more weakness of interest might be the Thunder's lack of size. They're one of the many teams in the NBA turning to small ball, but unlike some of those other teams, the Thunder are almost entirely devoid of 7-footers altogether. They do have the 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet, but his extra inches aren't exactly making up the difference. After Thabeet, their tallest player is the 6'11" Perry Jones (who is more of a forward than a true big man) and then a handful of 6'10" bigs. Kendrick Perkins might be able the only one able capable of matching up physically with some of the West's bulkier big men. Against some of bigger teams in the West (for instance, the Spurs or the Grizzlies), this lack of size could make it easy for opposing teams to bully their way down low. Even smart scheming and Ibaka's length will falter against the likes of Zach Randolph or Dwight Howard.
"I drank what?" - Socrates
4. What are the goals for this team?
Zorgon: The goal this year remains the same as it has for the past two seasons: An NBA Championship. Sure, it might seem a bit unrealistic, with the roster of this team only getting worse over the off-season in the eyes of the public. However, I think it's something that can happen this season. The Thunder aren't the favorites, and they might not even be considered dark horses if the right things go wrong. But they have a lot of legitimate prospects on the roster, and still have lots of room to grow, along with a very solid base of 7 playoff-savvy players. If guys like Lamb, Roberson, Jones, or Gomes can come into their own this season, this could very well be the strongest Thunder team ever. But if a few things go wrong, like another Westbrook injury (knock on wood) or a terrible showing from Jeremy Lamb, then this could very well be the worst Thunder team since 08-09. The key word for this season is uncertainty, which, in my eyes, only makes things more exciting.
Just like so many other teams out there, the Thunder are looking to knock off the Heat from their throne. Westbrook's injury might hurt their chances some in the early going, but come playoff time, this team is looking to win four in the Finals.
One has to figure they have a pretty legitimate shot. Were it not for Westbrook's injury, the Thunder were looking at solid odds of matching their 60 wins and first seed from last season. Losing him probably translates into a few less wins and a drop into the middle seeds in that top-heavy Western Conference. Barring another injury to Westbrook, though, he'll be back for the playoffs. While they might have to go through the fifth or sixth seed in the first round rather than the seventh or eighth, this team is still one primed to go all the way.
"18 straight whiskies - I think that's the record." - Dylan Thomas
5. Zorgon's key question: What's the lowdown on the Thunder's young guys?
Well, there's good and bad. Jeremy Lamb is the Thunder's most hyped player, but I think that it will take a few more season for him to reach his full potential, if at all. I know there's been a lot of talk about how his game has changed and improved vastly, but from what I've seen of him in the D-League and Summer League, I just don't agree. Most notably, he doesn't know how to play within himself. He's prone to pull up for tons of deep threes, he's way too blatant about driving to the basket, his defense is nothing to write home about, and he doesn't know how to pass out of traffic. He's not a terrible player and he's got a ton of potential, but he just needs a lot more seasoning before he can become the next James Harden (or even Kevin Martin).
A name that I think more people should be excited about is Andre Roberson. He was a late pick, but by all accounts he looks like he's ready to play in the NBA. He's probably going to slot in as a strong defender, in the same vein as Thabo Sefolosha. He really doesn't have much to offer offensively, but he's a lot bigger and more athletic than someone like DeAndre Liggins or Kyle Weaver. Moreover, he's a really strong rebounder, which is something that this team desperately needs. He won't set the world on fire, but I do think he'll provide us with another solid role player, in the 10th man role.
As for the rest of the young guys, I don't think we'll see a lot out of them. Perry Jones was notably worse than Jeremy Lamb with the 66ers last year, and his game is more developed. Plus he's had constant and nagging minor injury issues, and can't really find a role for himself. He was great in last year's Pre-Season and Scott Brooks said he'd get minutes, but that commitment never materialized. I've got him pegged as a bust for now, but it could change. Steven Adams, meanwhile, will only see the floor in the rarest of circumstances. When I talked to Cardiac Hill (the SB Nation Pitt Blog) about Adams' future, they said he wouldn't even surpass Thabeet or Orton this season. Strong words.
Also, no, I don't think Daniel Orton will impress us all this season. I've seen him airball too many jumpers.
6. Kevin's Key Question: Could Westbrook's injury be a blessing in disguise?
The narrative with Westbrook's injury has been the wins it'll set us back in the early going, and how we'll fare (or generally, what we'll endure) with Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb thrown into heavy playing time. It's not difficult to agree with either of these statements. There is a steep drop-off from Westbrook to Jackson and Lamb, and it will lead to a few more losses and some potentially awful basketball. With that said, I'm going to take the contrarian view and say that this might actually be a good thing. Mainly, in that by struggling through a lack of Westbrook early, the front office can learn a couple things about this team and decide if they want to tinker with it by making a trade or signing a free agent.
What they might prioritize first is assessing just what they have in Jackson and Lamb. They can see if Jackson is who they want in the sixth man role, and if Lamb is ready to be a contributor for a contending team. With Kevin Martin gone, assessing these two players for the playoffs and further will be very important for the Thunder. Being pushed into a big role temporarily also puts pressure on both of those players to iron out wrinkles in their game and get past any growing pains that might exist early, especially for Lamb.
From there, the Thunder can decide if they feel the need to make an acquisition. It gives them an early edge on trying to hammer out a trade (which could be important, given a general lack of trade assets) or picking through free agency. The extra time means more time to get their decision made and more time for any newcomers to get familiarized with their new team, which is exactly the type of minor detail that could make a difference in the playoffs.
The cost of losing a few extra games early isn't one that will probably mean much to the Thunder. It's worth mentioning that their early schedule isn't exactly imposing, but I'm comfortable with the odds of the Thunder even as a fourth/fifth seed rather than as a first/second seed. Personally, I'm not too bothered with that trade-off for establishing Jackson and Lamb early and finding out if the team would benefit from making an acquisition or not.
6. Sherman's Key Question: This season has not even begun and it already looks bleak. How will we manage to push forward?
How do you think the Thunder will do this season? Let us know in the comments!
More from Welcome to Loud City:
- 2013-14 Pre-Season Game 2: Oklahoma City Thunder defeat the Philadelphia 76ers, 103-99
- Zorgon Discusses Istanbul, Westbrook Injury on Down to Dunk Podcast
- 2013-14 Pre-Season: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Philadelphia 76ers video highlights
- ICE-ing the Pick and Roll: Coach Nick breaks down how to defend the side pick and roll play
- 2013-14 Season Look Ahead: featuring Reggie Jackson as Russell Westbrook