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Northwest Division preview: How will the Oklahoma City Thunder respond in the post-Durant era

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Minus Durant, can Russell Westbrook lead the Thunder back to the playoffs while winning a regular-season MVP award?

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Minus Durant, can Russell Westbrook garner both a playoff berth and regular-season MVP trophy?

Today we continue our Northwest Division countdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Just one game shy of an NBA Finals return, this off-season irrevocably shifted the future of Oklahoma City basketball. A draft day trade of former cornerstone Serge Ibaka served as a benign precursor to the fateful morning of July 4, 2016.

It was on this very morning that Kevin Durant, franchise pillar, jilted the only professional team he'd ever known. In an unforeseen turn of events, the 2014 MVP joined the same 73-win juggernaut that had just ended his OKC championship aspirations.

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, this season will be an exercise in re-branding amid the fallout of Durant's free-agency decision.

Fortunately, OKC does not advance unprepared. An advantageous return for Ibaka, coupled with the re-signing of a brave new leader has provided hope for the transitioning franchise.

2015/16 Record

55-27 (.671) 3rd in the Western Conference

Offensive Rating

109.9 (2nd in NBA)

Defensive Rating

103.0 (12th in NBA)

Net Rating

+6.9 (3rd in NBA)

Departures

Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors, Free Agency), Serge Ibaka (Orlando Magic, Trade), Dion Waiters (Miami Heat, Free Agency), Randy Foye (Brooklyn Nets, Free Agency)

Arrivals

Victor Oladipo (Trade), Ersan Ilyasova (Trade), Domantas Sabonis (Trade), Joffrey Lauvergne (Trade), Ronnie Price (Free Agent), Semaj Christon (Free Agent), Alex Abrines (Free Agent), Chris Wright (Free Agent), Daniel Hamilton (Rookie)

Retained Free Agents

Russell Westbrook (Three years, $85.5 million)

Projected Starting Lineup

(C) Steven Adams, (PF) Ersan Ilyasova, (SF) Andre Roberson, (SG) Victor Oladipo, (PG) Russell Westbrook

2016-17 Team Salary

$94,113,686 (19th in NBA)

X-Factors

Floor spacing and rim protection. With the loss of Durant, Oklahoma City -- 35 FG3%, 17th in NBA -- is set to regress further from last season's middling execution from deep.

The impetus for such regression this season is the feasible specter of Russell Westbrook (29.6 FG3%) matching his gaudy 2015 usage rate, combined with an increased offensive reliance upon Andre Roberson (31.1 FG3%, 4.8 ppg). This scenario leaves just two Thunder starters who are proficient three-point marksmen.

While Westbrook, Oladipo, and Ilyasova comprise a potent offensive trio, only the latter two are consistent floor-spacing threats.

Oklahoma City's reserve unit features capable outside shooting, however, neither Anthony Morrow nor rookie Alex Abrines are legitimate two-way players.

With its current roster construct, the Thunder would need Kyle Singler to rouse from his prolonged slump to sufficiently fill the massive floor-spacing void created by Durant's departure. Most pundits aren't expecting such good fortune.

With limited options in a "space-and-pace" league, Coach Billy Donovan will need to find alternative routes to maximize his unit's offensive productivity.

Rim Protection:

For OKC, an understated area of concern is the fact that 52% of the team's 2015-16 shot blocking left with Ibaka and Durant. To further exacerbate this problem, among a glut of offensively talented bigs, only Steven Adams (1.1 bpg) is an average rim protector.

The need for rim protection will lessen if Westbrook's offensive load doesn't interfere with his perimeter defense.

Projected Performance & Team Record

45-37, 2nd in the Northwest Division. Even with looming questions of floor-spacing and rim protection, the supporting cast surrounding superstar Russell Westbrook is an above-average collection of NBA talent.

Due to stark roster change, expect the Thunder to use the season's first 20 games to develop a solid identity.

With a potentially elite defensive starting unit, combined with mix-and-match bench options, Westbrook's singular greatness should be enough to hoist his team into lower-tier playoff status.

Lest one forget, this season’s leading MVP candidate proffered stellar averages of 31.4 points, 9.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds in 39 games sans Durant in 2015. In the midst of his lone wolf triple-double tear, Westbrook led that year’s Thunder iteration to a respectable 22-17 record.

When adjusted for an 82-game season, this record equates to 46 wins. The addition of burgeoning two-way star Victor Oladipo adds an element of unrivaled backcourt intensity that could see a Westbrook-led Thunder unit become a true threat at playoff time.

As a new era in Thunder basketball dawns, the motto “In Russ We Trust” will ring true throughout the upcoming campaign.