For the 2016-2017 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors are clearly the team to beat. Improved, even after posting the best record in NBA history, this team appears to be a juggernaut that will destroy any team in its path. I, however, can still envision the Oklahoma City Thunder being competitive against this Titanic of teams.
Before you dismiss this article as a poor attempt at click-baiting, consider this: Andre Iguodala described last season's Thunder team as the best in the playoffs. While losing a top 3 player in the league always hurts a team, the rest of the roster improved. Instead of 6 or 7 players, the Thunder may have 9 or 10 guys capable of contributing in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, despite the top end of Golden State getting better with Durant, and even considering the number of ring-chasing veterans who signed, Golden State isn't without its own roster concerns. I don't believe them to be unbeatable, and I think it's quite possible that, even after Kevin Durant's Decision 2.0, this Thunder team could give the Warriors a run for their money.
Reasons OKC Could Beat GSW in a Playoff Series
1. Russell Westbrook
When looking forward to next season, it's important to remember the Oklahoma City Thunder still have one of the best players in the league in Russell Westbrook. Assuming, of course, that Westbrook is still part of the roster next season, we could witness one of the greatest individual seasons of all time (perhaps we should start calling him GOATbrook?). Russ is already one of the best and most athletic point guards in NBA history, but without having to share a leadership role with Durant, he could put up numbers unrivaled by players both current and historic.
Ultimately, the success of next season comes down to Russ' ability to lead the offense without pushing himself past reasonable limits. If he can continue to refine his balance of distributing and scoring, the Thunder offense could again be one of the league's most efficient. While losing a player as offensively skilled as Durant obviously hurts the Thunder, it will also remove the stagnating "your turn, my turn" offensive sets, allowing Russ control of what can be a well-oiled machine.
When it comes to playing Golden State specifically, Russell Westbrook presents a key problem. While he hasn't been particularly effective against them during the past two seasons, he still draws double teams and forces the Warriors' coaching staff to try and hide Steph Curry on a less offensively-oriented player. This has had mixed results; Westbrook is defended more successfully, but the second guard on the floor has found easy opportunities to score over Curry, a mediocre defender.
Perhaps the best example of this in effect was during the overtime loss on February 27, 2016. You know, the one with Curry's 40-foot pull-up 3 to win the game. If you will recall, Kevin Durant fouled out just one minute into the overtime period, leaving the Thunder with Westbrook, Waiters, Roberson, Singler, and Adams on the floor. In those 4 minutes, OKC scored 10 points; 2 from Westbrook, 4 from Serge Ibaka, and 4 from Andre Roberson. But Roberson and Serge were able to score because Westbrook drew a double team. All four baskets came at the rim, after Russ drew in the defense. That will be the key for the Thunder offense to remain efficient against the Warriors, even without Durant.
2. Defending the (new-and-improved) Death Lineup
For consecutive seasons, Golden State posessed a lineup that was renowned for its ability to go on incredible runs. The grouping of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, and Draymond Green put up an astounding Net Rating of +47. For comparison, the Thunder starters were a solid +17.8. By getting Durant, Golden State was actually able to, theoretically, improve this lineup more so. The difference between Harrison Barnes and Kevin Durant is significant on both ends of the floor. There is little doubt this lineup will post remarkable numbers next season.
With that said, this Thunder roster is uniquely constructed to match up with the new lineup of death. If, to counter this grouping, OKC plays Westbrook-Oladipo-Abrines-Roberson-Adams, they will have an athletic advantage at 4 out of the 5 positions. Westbrook is more than capable of defending Curry if he sets his mind to it. Oladipo, while smaller than Klay Thompson, is much more athletic. His strength will allow him to defend the interior game of Klay, while his speed and agility will help him in contesting (or preventing) the back-breaking 3 point shots. While Abrines is less athletic than Andre Iguodala, Iggy simply isn't equipped to make the Thunder pay for that matchup. We've seen Adams defend Green; with another year of improvement and with added motivation, I have no doubt he can completely shut him down.
However, what could be the most crucial (and, perhaps, entertaining) matchup is that of Roberson and Durant. I said before the season started that, while I would love to watch Roberson defend KD, I hoped I would never get that chance. Unfortunately, with KD leaving, that will be a reality. Roberson is perhaps the best-equipped player in the league for defending Durant. He has the body strength to hold his ground in the post. He is quick enough to keep up on the perimeter. While he is smaller than KD, he has remarkable length, allowing him to contest shots. Besides, we know from past seasons that Durant struggles with smaller defenders (flashback to the numerous turnovers in crucial moments). Most significantly, though, is the experience Roberson has gained in practice. Being able to play against a guy daily, learning their tendencies and weaknesses, is better than any scouting report.
I fully expect the lineup I mentioned above for OKC will be one of the most successful groups at defending the new lineup of death. Whether the offense can score efficiently enough to take advantage will be key for winning those games.
3. Roster Versatility
While losing Durant really took a substantial amount of versatility from the Thunder roster, the additions of Oladipo, Abrines, Sabonis, and Ilyasova could give the Thunder even more options for causing matchup problems. Right now, OKC is capable of playing big lineups as well as any team in the league. The Kanter-Adams pairing is more than capable of being effective on both ends of the floor, and with both players being under 25 years of age, it is likely that we see majors improvements in their games.
On the flip side, players who can play as both guards and forwards, such as Abrines, Roberson, and Morrow, allow OKC to put out a variety of small lineups. Each player has a different skill set, allowing Coach Donovan to choose based on current needs.
Ultimately, versatility is a function of depth. While the Warriors are undoubtedly better at the top of the roster, Oklahoma City has a larger group of players capable of making a consistent, positive impact.
Synergy is a term that is often ambiguous and, perhaps, cliche. However, I think it is a perfect descriptor of what could make Oklahoma City function better with their newfound set of players. Last season, it was common to see 5 Thunder players at a time, each playing at their own individual level. In an attempt to maximize the two most capable players, it was quite common to see 3 of those players not be involved in a set. Ultimately, those 3 players weren't making the team better at that moment; they simply were taking up space. When it was their turn, they supplied their individual contribution, but when it wasn't, they filled the need for 5 players on the court.
Consider, instead, the option of having 5 players moving and interacting to make one another better. No longer are players limited to just their own skills, but they can begin to draw on the skills of teammates to fill the holes in their personal game. Adams can't shoot outside, but he can set a pindown screen for a shooter to get an open look from 3. At the same time, on the opposite side of the floor, Roberson may set a screen for Westbrook to get to the lane; Roberson may not be good at driving himself, but with the defense focusing on both players, he gets an open layup. Suddenly, players are creating opportunities for each other, maximizing their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses.
Almost all of the players OKC acquired this offseason have one thing in common; they have high basketball intelligence. Most of them are good or great at moving without the basketball. If Donovan can incorporate those skills into the offense, we could see a level of efficiency that exceeds expectations. The end result? The total is greater than the sum of the parts: Synergy.
It's impossible to know what really is going on inside players' minds, but I will take an educated guess of what emotion Thunder players will feel when playing Golden State. Perhaps it's best shown via a Disney Pixar character:
From Kanter describing the Decision 2.0 as "a betrayal" to Durant admitting he hasn't talked to Russ since, it's quite clear the Thunder players didn't take the exit well. Seeing a player who was an enormous component of this franchise for 8 years compete for a heated rival will undoubtedly raise heightened tension in the teams' matchups.
How could this play a key part in a series? There are two conceivable results: Oklahoma City either plays out of control, or with an added cold focus. With the players on the Thunder roster now, I suspect the latter with dominate. Players will hustle extra hard for every rebound or loose ball. Blocks will have extra emphasis. Russell Westbrook will break at least one rim clean off of the backboard. In a game where individual possessions matter, this could be the key to wins.
On the flip side, Durant will likely have to deal with myriad emotions that serve as distractions. For the first time, an entire fanbase will boo him with a passion born from betrayal. He will have to face an arena he called homecourt for those 8 years now as an enemy. Any regrets that linger from the decision will resurface, and some that hadn't yet might materialize when he walks into Chesapeake Energy Arena. Will it detract from his game? Will he try to prove something, taking away from the Warriors as a whole? It's hard to say. But consider this: in game 5, when Durant believed it was time for him, as a superstar, to take control and prove himself, he choked. He doesn't play well when pressed, and if the emotions associated with Oklahoma City cause him to press, it could sabotage the Warrior team.
I'll make my bold prediction to close this out: OKC, as currently constructed, will beat the Warriors at least 4 times next season (playoffs included). I firmly believe the Thunder are still better than they get credit for, and I think the reasons outlined above give the Thunder a chance to be competitive, even against the seemingly already-anointed champions.