As the new year approaches, the Thunder are looking to turn a page in the 2014-15 season. It was not a pretty start for OKC as they lost their two superstars (among others) to injury and fell to a horrendous record, deep in the Western Conference. Now with Kevin Durant back (sorta) and Russell Westbrook playing like an MVP, the Thunder are finally digging themselves out of that hole. Where does OKC stand at this point in the season?
1) How many minutes should Andre Roberson get? Why?
Zorgon: 30, provided that Westbrook and KD are also on the floor. He may have no offense, but there's maybe maximum 2-3 plays a game where that will negatively affect the team. Most of the time, he stays out of the way, always gets his garbage points, rebounds well, and shuts down offensive threats. When we're facing dudes like James Harden and Klay Thompson in the playoffs, everyone is going to want this guy's jersey.
Kevin Yeung: Something like 20 minutes per game, probably. Roberson's at 24.2 right now, but that's been inflated by all the injuries. He's a terrific defender, and doesn't actively burn down the offense despite the total and complete lack of range. We know Scott Brooks loves having his lockdown defender next to Durant and Westbrook, and there's also something to be said for getting your young guy meaningful minutes. Morrow is basically the opposite of Roberson from an offense/defense perspective, and that makes him a good change-of-pace play to have come off the bench as the matchup dictates. Splitting their minutes about even isn't that bad of an idea, and of course, Jackson will have his minutes to play alongside Westbrook.
Justin: I think the 20-27 range is fair for a guy like Andre Roberson. Roberson is just 23 years old so he is still trying to find himself in the league. Is he just a defensive stopper? Can he find his shot? Those questions cannot be answered until the answers are evident. That being said, role players do not tend to play any more than 30 minutes per game (excluding the rare few). I am still a big fan of Roberson because I see him as a smart player that plays to his strengths. He knows that he is not the next Ray Allen and he is not detrimental to the offense. Once he finds his shot, or at least some offense, he can then be played close to 30 minutes per game or more.
Craig: I have been a fan of Roberson since college when he was a brief running mate of Alec Burks, who went to the same high school as me (GRANDVIEW BULLDOGS IN THE HOUSE!!!) Count me as someone in the camp of "He needs more minutes" because for the Thunder to truly be a complete team they need him to play more. Roberson is the perfect person to fill the defensive void left by Thabo Sefolosha for many reasons. The obviously one is that Roberson has learned to use his height and length to become an above average defender. I know that 2014 Kobe Bryant is not as good as Kobe circa 07-12 but Roberson was still able to bother and stifle him for much of the game. That means something right? Another reason why because there were so many times that Thabo tried to do too much. Mostly when it came to make moves on the dribble. Thabo would get into a lot of trouble when he thought his handle was better than it was and force the issue. You don't have worry about that with Roberson and you don't have to worry about him look for his offense. So far he understands his place on this team on the offense end but it is pretty easy to know your place on the offense end when you are playing with two of the top five players in the NBA.
Kyle: I like him around 25 minutes or so per game. It also depends on who he's assigned to, since I think that number should increase for when he's guarding guys like James Harden or Klay Thompson. He was incredible against Kobe, but he'll get even bigger challenges against the guys I just named. For now, though, he's still too raw offensively to be playing consistently into the high 20s or 30s, but that could change as he progresses and improves.
Kevin Nesgoda: I don't think he should be getting much more than 24 minutes a game. His offensive game doesn't really allow him to stay on the court for much more than that. If he could develop a consistent corner three point shot, then we could talk about him getting extra minutes, but with Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb (much better offensive players) sitting behind him on the bench he's also caught up in the deepest portion of the roster and those two guys need minutes.
2) What are the chances of Reggie Jackson re-signing next season?
Zorgon: I'd say 30%. Jackson is definitely in the cards during trade talks this year, and it's 50/50 as to whether he goes or not. I don't doubt a willingness on OKC's part, since Presti has moved Green and Harden under similar situations. But should Jackson stay on the team past the trade deadline, I actually think it's more likely he stays. He doesn't seem to have chemistry problems with anyone that's important (sorry Perk) and Brooks has no bones about using him as the defacto starting two. As long as Reggie posts good numbers and the Thunder make at least the second round, I'd say he stays here.
Kevin Yeung: Low - no greater than 5%. It isn't a financial problem (his next contract will be tricky, but not impossible, to fit into the Thunder's cap sheet), but one of fit. Jackson has made it clear he wants to be a starter in the NBA, but that was a slim chance at the start of the season and Roberson has since excelled as the starter at shooting guard. An even greater problem is that Jackson's shot-jacking tendencies have fully busted out this season (contract year Jackson, y'all), and him needing the ball in his hands to operate instead of being able to catch and shoot efficiently doesn't jive well with Durant and Westbrook. The Thunder may go in another direction in the offseason, with real cap space to use after Kendrick Perkins' contract (finally) expires.
Justin: As much as I don't want to see another spark plug go, Jackson's departure is inevitable. He wants to start, he wants money, he wants the spotlight. And OKC cannot afford to give him any of the three. Another team will gladly offer Reggie a large contract and a starting position, but Presti understands that the clock is ticking and he cannot stuff the cap space any more. OKC should be fine filling his spot, though. Roberson will most likely be the starter going forward, and a few bench guys have been filling in nicely in KD's absence (Lamb and Jones).
Craig: I think the chances Reggie Jackson re-signs with OKC is about 3%. This is a very interesting case study because two years ago everyone just assumed Reggie Jackson would re-sign with OKC and be happy being the back-up to Russell Westbrook. Then last season happened and he showed that he has the ability to be a starting guard in the NBA. So, now the Thunder find themselves in an interesting position. They have a very talented young player, who by all accounts is going to look for his big pay day in the off-season. The real question is do the Thunder look at trading Reggie Jackson this season to ensure they get something for him or do they stay the course to keep this core together and risk losing him at the end of the season and getting nothing in return. I am all in favor of trading Jackson to ensure that you get at least something for him. A role player and a mid/late first round pick would be the very least I would be looking for in return. Sign and trade deals in the NBA are the way of the dinosaurs and trade exceptions do nothing for me. OKC got one when Kevin Martin signed with Minnesota yet they did absolutely nothing with it. There is no reason to walk away empty handed from Reggie Jackson.
Kyle: Short answer: around 5 percent. Reggie wants to be a starter and there are teams out on the market that would probably be willing to pay him decent money to be one. If I had to guess, I can envision the Lakers or Knicks possibly making a run at Jackson and I don't think Sam Presti would be interested in matching those offers. It'd be interesting to see (based on his hot and cold play this season) if Presti would possibly try to make a deal at the deadline and get some better return on him than he might be able to get in a sign-and-trade this summer.
Kevin Nesgoda: No. Simply because he wants to start, there are teams out in the market that are going to pay him starter money and OKC will not match. Why won't OKC match? Because they'll have a big extension for Durant coming up in 2016 and crazy money is going to be thrown around there and because of the stance of the players union don't look for a hometown discount from Durant either. The players are going to be after every penny they can get and expect Durant to be the highest paid player in NBA history when it's all said and done. Having Reggie Jackson on the books won't allow the Thunder to do that.
3) Is it fair to say that Westbrook is a contender of the MVP?
Kevin Yeung: Right now, hell yeah! Westbrook is doing some crazy stuff on the court, and in spite of the hand injury, he's been one of the NBA's best players this season, full stop. There's no shortage of ways to frame his dominance. I'm just concerned that it won't sustain - Westbrook is leading the league in usage by a nearly five percent margin, and that's kind of hard to do with last year's MVP as a teammate. As Durant gets his legs under him, I expect the need for the Thunder to lean on Westbrook to fall. That might help keep Westbrook's stamina up across the season, but it won't help his MVP campaign.
Zorgon: No. Valuable players don't tank their team at the end of games. I think Russ, given Jim Traber's proverbial truth serum, might give the same response.
Craig: Not only is it fair that Russell Westbrook be in the MVP running I have him as a solid fourth in the NBA MVP race and he is slowly making a move for the third spot. My MVP ranking right now goes Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, then Kyle Lowry. The main reason why I have Westbrook solidly in the four spot and not 2 or 3 is because he missed an extended period of time compared to those players and their teams are better and both Harden and The Brow are major reasons why their teams are where they are at this point in the season. I don't know if there is a more polarizing player in the NBA than Westbrook. Everyone has an opinion on him one way or the other. No one is luke warm on Westbrook. They either love him (like I do) or hate him. I know Chris Paul is considered the best "true" point guard in the NBA etc. But for years I have contended that I would much rather have Westbrook mainly because he is still ascended and this season proves that. He plays with such fire and passion and athleticism and speed and is truly a marvel to watch. I don't know if Westbrook can do enough to catch the four people in front of him on my MVP ballot but it sure won't be for lack of trying.
Kyle: Based on how on fire he's been when on the court this season, I would say without a doubt. Based on what goes into a usual MVP's resume, though, it's tough to say yes. From a statistical standpoint, Russell's averaging career highs in points (27.4), field goal percentage (46.2 %), and free throw attempts (9.9), all while playing 31.2 minutes per game. However, I think the struggle here is that the Thunder are still a sub-.500 team and he's missed a decent chunk of time already this season (14 games). In fact, since the 2000-01 season, no MVP has missed more than 11 games (Allen Iverson missed that many in '00-01). So while he may be the Thunder's MVP so far, he is going to have to really play lights out from here on out and stay on the court to be considered for the league MVP.
Kevin Nesgoda: He's definitely in the conversation and I know the whole Westbrook-being-Westbrook argument about him doing the hero ball thing and it tends to pay off here and there, but until he's a consistent 25-11-5 guy that has splits of 50-85-40 and turns the ball over less than four times a game, he'll give his detractors more than enough ammo to fully keep him out of the convo. Yes, that's a lot to ask for, but he's created a reputation nationally.
Justin: OH YEAH!!!! Westbrook has been playing out of his mind. In the past 5 games, he has averaged 33 points per game and is tallying nearly a triple double in several of the past few matches. Westbrook is showing no further hand complications and just seems unstoppable. The only obstacle standing in his way is his teammate. Once Kevin Durant returns, Westbrook's usage rate will decrease immensely, subtracting a lot of his scoring attempts out of the equation. But for now, Westbrook is definitely in the conversation.
4) What seed will the Thunder finish with?
Justin: It is so hard to tell. The Western Conference is your worst nightmare. It is a never-ending pit of death and it is extremely hard to climb the rankings, especially against teams like the Warriors, Grizzlies, and Spurs. They are currently 2.5 games out of the 8th and 5 games out of the 7th spot. It shouldn't take time for OKC to adjust to life with KD, so making a 7 or 8 seed should be no issue. I believe that they are capable of grabbing a 5-6 seed simply because the team is THAT much better than last season when everyone is healthy and ready to go. Steven Adams and Andre Roberson have taken big strides this season, and the bench is actually semi-reliable.
Craig: The Western Conference is an absolute blood bath this year. Brutal does not do it enough justice at all. Fortunately for OKC they are competing with two other teams for the last playoff spot. By the way, let that last sentence sink in for a few minutes. The Thunder are fighting for the FINAL playoff spot...it sounds to foreign. The two teams the Thunder are battling with for that last spot are ones that can easily be picked off. The Suns have had a disappointing start to the year after a surprise season in 2013-2014 where they were able to sneak up on a few teams and catch them off guard. I LOVE Anthony Davis so much while at the same time hating his supporting cast so much. That is a team with a young and amazing superstar but a bunch of parts that look good on a fantasy roster but don't fit on the court. Things look in OKC's favor to make the playoff, as far as seed I think they get as high as 6. That is how deep the West is this year.
Kyle: Every time I look at the Western Conference standings, the hill the Thunder have to climb looks more daunting every time. Realistically, I think the 4th seed should be the target for OKC, though I think there's a better chance that the Thunder end up at 6th or 7th. It's hard to imagine a team in the top 6 right now (Warriors, Blazers, Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavs, Clippers) losing too much ground, but the Thunder have already shown that they can ignite win streaks of their own, so you never know. It is all really reliant on KD and Russ staying healthy for the remainder of the season. Once the Thunder get in the playoffs, though, I foresee them kicking it into another gear and playing like they are the number 1 or 2 seed.
Kevin Nesgoda: With a healthy Durant they can finish probably in the 5-7 range, maybe even swing up into the four spot if they catch some breaks, as they are only eight games out of the fourth spot right now with 53 to play. 50 wins will get you to the 8th spot, the Thunder will have to go 37-16 from here on out or just win 69.8% of their remaining games. 58-60 wins is going to get you home court in the first round, so going on the low end of that, that's going 45-8 the rest of the way or winning 85% of their remaining games. Okay, going with a 6-8 range here. Probably Seven, six? One of those.
Zorgon: Let's take this team-by-team. The Thunder are 10th. They'll certainly leapfrog Phoenix and New Orleans, whom both have flawed rosters. That puts them in 8th, and at this point it becomes a matter of "who drops off" rather than "how well do the Thunder do". OKC is just digging out of Telfair's hole at this point, and don't really have enough time to eclipse any of the top 6 teams that manage to go at least .500. The Spurs, in 7th, are more mathematically in reach. But years of history say that the Spurs will recover and finish the season in stride. So I'm betting the Thunder finish as a rock solid 8th seed. I really don't see any of the top 6 teams collapsing, barring a major injury to a star player. Still, if there were a team to bite the dust and fall behind the Thunder, it would be Portland or Houston. Both teams rely too much on a single presence in the post, and don't have great bench bigs.
Kevin Yeung: I never would've guessed the Thunder to be right back in the thick of it this early - railing off that win streak right as Durant and Westbrook returned sure helped. But the competition gets a lot tougher starting from the 7th seed and up, where each of last season's non-Thunder playoff teams are projecting relatively well going forward (WEST). In the end, I'll say the Thunder can play catch up all the way to the fifth seed.
5) Who has been the biggest surprise so far? Who has been the biggest disappointment?
Kevin Nesgoda: Kendrick Perkins has been my biggest surprise. He has proven to be shockingly useful here and there! Biggest disappointment has been Nick Collison. Sadly, his time in the league is just about done. If Mitch McGary was healthy I could see some of Collison's minutes being cast to him and it breaks my heart, I love Nick! We've had meatloaf sandwiches together in Madison Park along Lake Washington!
Zorgon: Surprise: Obviously Roberson is #1, but I like to think of Perk as a really solid second. Perk's bad D is nothing new, and his offense and tenacity have really seen a solid uptick.
Disappointment: Nick Collison. Dude just looks to have lost it out there. Gets no respect from the refs on D and can't hit a jumpshot to save his life. By the way, Lamb and Jones can't really disappoint because they were always just hype, IMO.
Kyle: Biggest surprise: probably Andre Roberson. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role this season and he has even show some flashes of offensive prowess (although many other flashes of offensive ineptitude). Roberson will be important come playoff time, when he's called on to guard some of the NBA's best guards and wings in the Western Conference. Biggest disappointment: Mitch McGary. His string of injuries has cost him a lot of development and playing time, especially when the Thunder were without Russ and KD. I really liked what I have seen from him in D-League action and I think his skill set would be very helpful to the Thunder bench. McGary could end up being a key part of the future in OKC, but for now, he's got to get healthy and get some real NBA experience.
Justin: My biggest surprise has been Steven Adams and the improvements he's made at such a young age. He is averaging 7.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game to go along with 1.2 blocks in just 25 minutes. Per 36, he averages 11 and 10. He is finishing well around the rim and his defense keeps getting better and better. He has been a pleasant surprise, even during his rookie season, with his unexpected developments. As for disappointments, Mitch McGary and Kevin Durant. I understand they cannot help getting injured, but I expected great things from both of them, especially McGary. I could not stop talking about Mitch after Orlando Summer League, and now it seems like injuries may plague hi throughout his career. I expected him to be a big part of the season.
Kevin Yeung: I think Roberson has impressed me the most. I wasn't against starting him per se, but I voted Jackson as my starting shooting guard for a healthy Thunder squad (in retrospect, I also should've considered how dire the backup point guard situation is). But while I knew Roberson was terrific defensively, I didn't imagine he'd be this consistent as the regular starter. He genuinely seems like a part of the solution going forward, something I never expected to think so quickly this time last year. Not impressed with Jackson, though. Mentioned it earlier, but he's been the painful one to watch this season. He has every reason to want to look good in advance of hitting free agency, but forcing the issue may not be the best route. Jackson has regressed, sometimes interfering with the offensive flow - so much for being the crucial third option to have in relief of Durant and Westbrook.
Craig: My biggest surprise has been Steven Adams. We all know I am someone who was not a fan of the James Harden trade. I continue to think the Thunder got nowhere near enough for someone who is the best player at his position in the NBA. ANYWAY, At the end of last season Adams really started to show great signs on the defensive end and that has continued this season. For me the part that has been most surprising for me with Adams is his offense. It looks a little funky at times but he makes it work and has been able to contribute at that from time to time. My biggest disappointment this season has been the reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant simply because he hasn't been able to stay on the court. When he is on the court he has been the classic Durantula we have all grown to know and love. I mean, he freaking dropped 30 in one half vs. the Warriors before injuring his ankle. KD only playing 9 games is a huge disappointment.