Last Year's Record: 55-27
Key Losses: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Randy Foye, Nazr Mohammed
Key Additions: Alex Abrines, Domantas Sabonis, Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, Ronnie Price, Semaj Christon, Joffrey Lauvergne
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Let’s get it out of the way; Kevin Durant has headed to the Bay Area with the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder’s greatest all-time player joined the Thunder’s greatest rival and in the process beheaded the only franchise he has ever known. Prior to Durant’s departure, OKC had already jettisoned Serge Ibaka to Disneyworld. In a criminal haul, the Thunder received Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and 11th NBA Draft Pick Domantas Sabonis for the shot-blocking stalwart.
The most fortuitous summer move for Oklahoma City was Russell Westbrook’s unexpected contract extension. This benefits both parties and certainly delays his inevitable Free Agency decision. Most importantly, it has brought a fanbase and franchise back from the brink. Now the ball is in Westbrook’s court to determine his legacy in Oklahoma City.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Athleticism, length and strength. This roster is full of incredible athletes and bigs that will beat up their opponents inside. The defensive potential of Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Westbrook and a to-be-determined fifth lineup member is scary, and gives Sam Presti something to build around heading into the trade market.
The team now has something of an identity to build around going forward, and thus can afford to be opportunistic in the market. The backcourt of Oladipo and Westbrook has incredible potential and a devastating ability on both ends. One of the best backcourts in the league awaits if they can figure out the kinks in the early days of their on-court relationship.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Shooting and wing depth. The incredible hole left in Durant’s wake is gaping, and the Thunder have nothing resembling a replacement. You don’t replace a Kevin Durant, but there is nothing even close to a palatable fill-in on the roster. Andre Roberson will slide to small forward from shooting guard, but with Kyle Singler’s struggles to recapture his stroke, there is a huge need at the three for the Thunder.
There aren’t a heap of options on the market for Oklahoma City. Therefore Sam Presti may have to wait until another team falls apart and a player suddenly becomes available before he can make his move. However, this strategy severely limits OKC's options. In the wake of these developments, fans' high standards of this team need to be lowered. They are no longer a contender - they’re human again. And after being spoiled for years, that’s okay.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Start with being competitive. That includes keeping Westbrook, Adams and Oladipo healthy. Adams has already sat out time with a bung ankle and the Thunder’s defense became non-existent — particularly on the interior. That simply cannot continue. A ring and Championship parade is not a possibility at the moment, but the goal is to maximize the potential of the roster around franchise cornerstone Westbrook.
A goal for OKC’s superstar Point Guard must be to prove he is not just a stats padder, but a true leader of this team and city. Competing with Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs is a huge task. Even so, going a rung down the ladder, OKC must still contend with Utah, Portland, and Houston for crucial playoff positioning. For the Thunder to be a conference player, a lot of “if’s” have to come to fruition, but it’s within the teams' grasp.
5. Twitter Question #1
This is a tricky question. The Memphis Grizzlies spent years overcoming this exact issue, despite the same doubts every season about their ability to stay competitive. Offensive rebounding from the likes of Adams, Lauvergne and man-mountain Enes Kanter will be vital — particularly with Kanter and his ability to beat up on second units.
Billy Donovan found ways in the Playoffs to place Andre Roberson on the move to make defenses account for him. Weak shooters will need to slash, use back cuts and screens to catch the ball in motion, and become effective offensively.
Additionally, the likes of Alex Abrines and Anthony Morrow will need to see serious minutes to space the floor. Teams can survive a lack of shooting; to have none at all is basketball suicide. Morrow didn’t see a lot of minutes last season. With Durant gone and Cameron Payne on the sidelines for now, that cannot continue.
6. Twitter Question #2
It’s most likely a first round exit - not meaning to come across as overly negative, but this is the most likely outcome. If the Thunder finish in the 6-8 seeding that means having to face the Warriors, Spurs or Clippers in the first round. This scenario poses a very tough matchup even if the team is playing to their full potential.
The second round/Conference Semi Finals is not out of the question. If the Thunder can finish 4th or 5th it’s certainly possible. However, this is a huge task for a roster in flux after losing a generational talent in Durant. There’s going to be a slight adjustment period on court, and this may linger into the season. This is a natural occurrence when a key player leaves a team; the Thunder are likely to be no different.
There is also the very real possibility the team may not make the Playoffs. Oklahoma City faced that pain in 2014-15 and can again. That aura of invincibility around the team is gone, but the talent still remains. There’s still plenty of life in this Thunder team.
7. Twitter Question #3
Oladipo becomes the #2 offensive option alongside Westbrook. Enes Kanter most likely shares that duty when the three players are on the court together, but he’s almost certain to come off the bench this season — barring injuries to starters.
His defense will become vital. It will also be interesting to see how much Westbrook defers to him and focuses defensively as the team’s sole leader. Can Westbrook commit to defense with such a heavy offensive burden, or will he delegate as other teammates help him lighten the load? It’s a fascinating subplot.
The Thunder’s new starting shooting guard is going to thrive however. His athleticism, potential to terrorize opponents defensively and better than advertised shooting is going to be a welcome addition to the team. Heading into restricted free agency, the Thunder will be paying him big-time to secure his future in Oklahoma City.