This is part of SB Nation’s annual NBA Blogger Preview series. It’s put together by the legendary Jeff Clark of CelticsBlog. Check out the other previews if you want to be smarter than your friends about the NBA.
Team Name: Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Year's Record: 55-27
Key Losses: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Randy Foye
Key Additions: Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Joffrey Lauvergne, Alex Abrines, Domatas Sabonis, Ronnie Price
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
This off-season will perhaps be the most well-defined lore in Thunder history. Presti traded longtime Thunder staple Serge Ibaka to get younger. Durant decided to skip town to the team that beat OKC in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder responded with a few decent free agency signings, while Russell Westbrook doubled down on his commitment to the team. In the eyes of the NBA, the Thunder turned from small town powerhouse to wronged franchise. Oklahoma City will have to make a name for themselves again.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
The 30 minutes Russell Westbrook is on the floor. Aside from the fact that Westbrook IS this team, the Thunder are an extremely good rebounding club. Kanter is among the best in the business, and it’s listed as a strength of Sabonis out of college. Adams doesn’t have the rebounding numbers, but is great at clearing out boards for the Thunder’s big, athletic guards. Even the presence of Lauvergne should help keep the Thunder at the top of the rebounding heap. Lauvergne is huge, and can sub in for Adams and Kanter when they’re dinged up. Previously, the Thunder had no real third string center option.
I’ll also say that the Thunder are going to be awesome at forcing backcourt turnovers and generating points. The addition of Victor Oladipo will help out massively in this regard. Oladipo adds to a core of Roberson and Westbrook, who are already extremely steal-focused. But the bench should see more defense help as well. Josh Huestis got cameo appearances toward the end of last season, and has appeared in both pre-season games thus far. It’s likely that Huestis will play a role in help defense all over a floor, with his extremely long arms for his wing position. I’ll also give a shoutout to Ronnie Price and Semaj Christon. With the mysteriously ominous injury to Payne’s foot, the two defense-first point guards will be getting Westbrook’s minutes.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Without a doubt, shooting. Watching this Thunder try to space the floor on offense is a complete joke. We thought it was bad back in the Perk and Sefolosha days. But now the Thunder boast tons of players bereft of any offensive skill beyond 10 feet. It’s hard to imagine Morrow, the historically good shooter but awful defender, getting any major minutes. Outside of him, who is the rotation’s best shooter? Abrines? Ilyasova? Sabonis? The jury is out on Abrines, and Ilyasova and Sabonis are both barely considered three point shooters. The best the Thunder can hope for is that Sabonis and Ilyasova turn out to be consistently reliable from three. Having the power forward go out to that range will always be a threat. But the guards are simply going to have to rely on their superior athleticism to pull them through.
This team’s second biggest weakness is a lack of ballhandlers. Outside of Westbrook, there’s really no adept off-the-dribble scorers in the lineup. Price or Christon are capable of managing the game, but neither commands the offensive respect to move the defense. Oladipo can operate the weak side sometimes, but is a bit dicey at point. And it’s hard to watch Oladipo try to make decisions around screens, because I’ve seen him lose the ball so often in that situation. Really, it’s going to have to be up to Oladipo to become a better decision maker. Abrines will never have the athleticism to be a ballhandling option. And Roberson/Huestis are simply out of the question. As far as bigs go, there’s nobody who’s simultaneously an offensive threat and a good decision maker. Kanter can score, but not create. Adams and Sabonis can pass well, but not score. And Ilyasova’s shot creating days are long behind him. I expect the Thunder to mitigate this with a quick pace with minimal passing. Also, the Thunder’s athletic defense and rebounding should bail them out of a few games.
4. What are the goals for this team?
I think Westbrook has a ring on his mind. I also believe that the Thunder as a unit will definitely see Golden State as a big revenge game, so winning there will be paramount. Realistically, though, the goal should be to remain competitive. The Thunder have moved around more parts in the past year than we’ve seen in a good while, and it’s hard to tell how they’re going to work together. But I admire the Thunder’s brevity in trying something different. As long as Westbrook is healthy, the playoffs should be guaranteed. But I’ll be pretty disappointed if we fall short of the Conference Finals. If we fall to a Golden State super team, though....c’est la vie.
R.K. Anthony: “Realistic or not, the goal for any team is always a championship and this team is going about their business with that prize in mind. Obviously a lot of things will have to fall in to place very very quickly and the fracture to Payne's foot didn't help matters, but the core of this team came too close to take many steps back regarding expectations. The first order of business will be clearly defining an identity and that process may take much of the season. With so many new faces looking back at him, Billy Donovan will almost be back to square one with the possible exception of Westbrook and Adams and even their roles will have to be tweaked in this uncharted post-Durant era in which an elite scorer's offensive production will have to be made up on the defensive end of the floor.
More production from the starting SG position will help and Enes Kanter will likely see his minutes increase, but if he fails to take another step forward in his defensive development it will be for naught. Hopefully an improving shooting stroke from Andre Roberson will prove to be a boon as well:”
5. Could the Thunder be more entertaining than ever?
YES! That’s the beauty of this team. For all of the effectiveness of Kevin Durant, I’ve personally always gotten a lot more joy out of watching Russell Westbrook play. There’s just so much more emotion, passion, and fire. Sure, Durant is efficient. But it can get aggravating watching Durant run around screens or stand with the ball. Westbrook, even when failing, is pinging around like a wrecking ball. There is no such thing as a boring game watching Russell Westbrook.
But now, the Thunder have even added more athleticism. Oladipo may not be the shooter we’ve always wanted. But Oladipo is arguably one of the strongest, fastest shooting guards in the NBA. When you combine his abilities with that of Roberson and Westbrook, it could turn into something that revolutionizes NBA defense. On the other side, I can see the experiment blowing up in OKC’s face, as they scramble to trade for shooters mid-season.
Still, the Thunder only have a couple of defensive holes. On paper, this Thunder team will be the greatest ever when it comes to defense and rebounding. This Thunder team may even be the best ever when it comes to athleticism. Taken on the whole, I guess I could best describe my feeling towards this season as “Monstars”. I feel like this Thunder team is big and bulky, and they’re going to have serious muscle and attitude. But I also feel like this Thunder team is going to get out-grinded by some Jazz-like opponents, and will struggle against the elite shooting teams.
R.K. Anthony: “6. How big a setback is Cameron's Payne injury to Billy Donovan's plans?
Payne's injury, IMO, is more a setback for Payne than for the Thunder. Ronnie Price is a capable and experienced guard and the veteran leadership he brings in the early stages of the season is probably an uptick for the team at this point.”
Marina’s Record Prediction: 45-37
The Thunder have an arguably tougher schedule in the second half of the season. Normally I think this team could pull together for 50 wins, but the first few months of the season are going to be tough. Until a solid bench combo is formed, I could see the Thunder even having a losing record. But I have no doubt that the right combo will be found by the end of the season. The Thunder should be competitive with the league’s best teams, but it’s a stretch to call them dark horse contenders. As a Thunder fan, though, I still very much believe that the Thunder have a shot at it all. And that’s what I’ll be cheering for.