It feels unbelievably fitting that, through eight games of the 2016-17 NBA season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 6-2 with losses coming at the hands of 2 of the best 4 teams last season, the Warriors and the Raptors.
Oklahoma City remains an exceedingly talented and worthy team despite the departure of Kevin Durant this offseason. What OKC is not, though, is a title contender. The Thunder do not have the bodies to compete with the best teams in the NBA this season: the Warriors, Spurs, Cavaliers, and now apparently the Raptors. They could beat anyone else on any given night, but the Thunder are safely below tier one of the league.
In their fourth game of the season, Oklahoma City defeated the Los Angeles Clippers on the road, holding the Clips to 83 points. That was followed by a blowout loss to the Warriors in which the game was non-competitive after the 1st quarter.
Even if a championship seems out of reach for 2017, the Clippers win speaks to the heights this team can still get to this season. Durant is gone, but Russell Westbrook still remains, and he has a load of talented help around him. OKC is surely hoping to compete for a trip to the conference title this year. If the seeds play out as everyone assumes, that would mean defeating the San Antonio Spurs in the second round and facing the Warriors for the West title. Getting to that juncture would be a massive success.
Westbrook himself has goals for this year as well. Namely, winning a league MVP award. He may never say it aloud to reporters, but Westbrook wants to prove he is better than Durant. Maybe the team won't be able to prove they are better without the Slim Reaper, but Westbrook personally can defeat Durant, in a way, by being named the most valuable player in the sport.
Hopefully Westbrook's pursuit of such accolades doesn't take too much away from his teammates. At the moment, Westbrook leads the NBA in usage rate at an unsustainably high 41.7 percent. For comparison, that would blow away the all-time record set by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06, as well as topple Westbrook's own record that he set when Durant missed major time in 2014-15.
With players like Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter signed for years to come, one final goal of OKC this season has to be creating an environment for success under head coach Billy Donovan. Outside of Westbrook, these other guys, as well as youngsters like Cam Payne and Domantas Sabonis, must develop into a cohesive unit. The Thunder need to find consistent outside shooting. They must build a frontcourt rotation. They need to learn what type of talent Oladipo is playing alongside a ball-dominant point guard.
These are facets and yearnings of the season that can motivate a team to greatness, even if that team is unlikely to reach the season's ultimate goal of a championship ring. Not every winner raises the trophy at year's end. But that doesn’t mean that OKC can’t find real success as this season unfolds.