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Westbrook’s Thunder try to start on right foot at young Sixers

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The Sixers have a full roster, but still come in as huge underdogs.

Don’t eat that kite, Westbrook! It’s electrified!
W Bennett Berry

The Oklahoma City Thunder open their 2015-16 campaign with a lot of expectations and a lot of growing to do. Westbrook is locked down for two years, so it's all about development at this point. Yet it will take a long time for memories of the Western Conference Finals to fade from the memories of Thunder fans. Thus, let the season of unrealistic expectations begin.

Who are the Sixers?

Everyone knows that the Philadelphia 76ers are a joke. Depleted for three straight years, the Sixers decided to switch strategies over the off-season. Philadelphia now boasts a competitive roster. Namely, the addition of veteran names like Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless, and Sergio Rodriguez over the off-season bring serious legitimacy to the Sixer roster. Furthermore, the Sixers should have a crop of young talent to work with this year. Ben Simmons, the #1 pick this Summer, should be ready to play by January. Dario Saric, the 12th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, will be active to start the season. Lastly, Joel Embiid, the 2014 #3 pick, should be healthy for the first time this season.

What do the new additions mean for the Sixers on opening day?

It actually doesn't mean a whole lot! Simmons, Noel, and Bayless are all out with injury. The Sixers still have a long way to go. In the pre-season, Jerami Grant ended up taking the most field goal attempts per game. Grant is mainly known as a shot blocker, but quietly averaged 13 points per game last season. Another player who saw time in every contest was Richaun Holmes. Holmes is a 2014 second rounder out of Bowling Green. But Holmes' averages of 11 points per game, 54% from the field, and 6.5 rebounds per game in the pre-season far exceed his regular season stats. The last old Sixer to see time in every pre-season game was T.J. McConnell. McConnell is a passing whiz with a high IQ, but he doesn’t have much offensive skill to back it up. McConnell did average 3.7 assists in 23.5 minutes per game. But McConnell had 2.4 turnovers as well, and only scored 7.4 PPG.

Last year, the Sixers played a fast pace, 6th in the league. The Sixers were also 7th in the league last year when it came to shots taken from within the restricted area. But when it came to mid-range shots, the Sixers hardly took any, coming second to last in the NBA. Corner threes were also clearly more emphasized than top of the arc threes. However, new additions should change some of what emphasis. Saric has a nice mid-range shot. Embiid and Grant have been working on their mid-range shots. Lastly, Henderson, Rodriguez, and Bayless are all legitimate top of the arc shooters. Thus, I’m expecting the Sixer offense to be more diverse. Also, perhaps with the addition of more bigs, the Sixers will be slower as well.

Who’s playing for the Thunder?

The starters seem to be more or less set in stone for Billy Donovan. Adams, Roberson, and Westbrook will return from last year’s starting lineup. Replacing Ibaka will be the rookie, Domatas Sabonis. Sabonis is the son of NBA legend Arvydas Sabonis, and went to school at Gonzaga. With those kind of accolades, Sabonis is mentally ready to play in the NBA from Day 1. Expect Sabonis to work exclusively within pick and rolls and pick and pops. Sabonis’ screens will be much more reliable than Ibaka’s, but Sabonis’ shot is not as good as Ibaka’s. However, Sabonis’ touch near the basket ab tough one on one defense may be what set him apart. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think Sabonis has a future in the NBA on some level.

The other starter newbie, Victor Oladipo, is more of a quagmire. Thunder fans know him for his 37 point performance in Oklahoma City on February 3rd. But take on the whole, Oladipo’s third season was a bit of a disappointment. Oladipo’s points per game dipped, and his shooting percentages continued to be low for his position. Having seen Oladipo in the pre-season, I know that he has a lot of trouble making decisions around screens. Furthermore, Oladipo’s one on one game is unimpressive, and his long range shot is well behind the curve for his position. So Oladipo’s value mainly comes when he can work on the weak side, receiving the ball in a scoring position. If I were Billy Donovan, I’d try to use Oladipo much like the Pacers and Mavericks have used Monta Ellis. Lots of weak-side shots, weak-side drives, and pop shots around screens. Not a lot of pick and rolls.

Off the bench, the three players who played in every available game were all big men. Kanter, Ilyasova, and Lauvergne should be locks for minutes tonight if the pre-season is any indication. Donovan may be very fond of a Twin-Towers strategy at times, rotating both Kanter and Lauvergne in at power forward. Ilyasova is a wily shooter. Athleticism left Ilyasova long ago on the NBA level, but Ilyasova’s wiliness makes up for that. Ilyasova will get fouls going towards the basket, nail turnaround jumpers, and take charges on defense. Ilyasova’s pick setting, rebounding and defense are all acceptable, if a bit below par for his position. Lauvergne is a huge tank. He sets excellent screens, but has very slow foot speed. Lauvergne isn’t afraid of contact like Kanter though, and will clog the lane. Lauvergne’s skills include a slow as molasses standing jump shot, as well as a slow as molasses off the dribble hook shot.

The backup point guard will probably be Semaj Christon. Ronnie Price had a guaranteed contract entering training camp, but couldn’t get defenders to respect his shot in the pre-season. Semaj Christon certainly wasn’t the perfect replacement, but he showed more promise than price. Christon has a very nice floater, and can hit shots around screens. And Christon’s defensive ability will help stop opposing bench point guards from making a run.

The wings off the bench could be any combination of Abrines, Singler, or Huestis. All of them missed a pre-season game each. So it’s hard to say who’s favored over the other. Singler had a very strong pre-season, averaging 10.8 points while shooting 57% from three. Singler’s shots were open though, and he’s been infamous for late game blunders. Meanwhile, Abrines has the length and shot, but may not have the athleticism to drive or defend well. Lastly, Josh Huestis has great physicals, but does he have enough of an offensive game? Is his defense all it’s cracked up to be? I see Huestis being most effective as a post help-defender.

How will tonight’s game go?

I’m predicting that the Thunder are going to blow a lot of early leads this season. Westbrook is a strike-first guy, and always plays really good team ball in the first quarter. So the question in this game becomes how well the second unit can hold the Thunder together through the lean times. Kanter can’t just bulldoze his way through these fellows, so I think Westbrook is going to have to save us with a fourth quarter run. Early season upsets are always possible, especially on the road. But given the difference in experience between the two rosters, I don’t believe the Sixers can pull this “upset” off.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 98, Philadelphia 76ers 94.

What do you think of tonight’s game? Drop a comment and let us know!

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Injuries: Alex Abrines (Questionable), Cameron Payne (Out), Dario Saric (Questionable), Ben Simmons (Out), Nerlens Noel (Out), Jerryd Bayless (Out)

Time: 7:00 PM Central Daylight Time

Location: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

TV: ESPN, Fox Sports Oklahoma, NBA League Pass