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2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview

Are the Thunder keeping pace in the ever-improving Western Conference?

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The Oklahoma City Thunder ended the 2013-14 regular season with the second-best record in the league (59-23) and anticipated a successful march to another NBA Finals appearance. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get past a determined San Antonio Spurs, the eventual title winners, in a Western Conference Finals showdown. The Thunder again suffered a postseason injury to a key player; in 2012-13, a season-ending knee injury befell starting point guard Russell Westbrook and last year, it was Serge Ibaka’s calf injury that squashed the team’s bid. The Thunder look to begin the new season with a healthy roster, minus a few players (Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Hasheem Thabeet) and with a few new faces (Anthony Morrow, Mitch McGary and Sebastian Telfair).

Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder.

Five Guys Think

Things just haven’t been the same in Oklahoma City since James Harden left town, but with an MVP player like Kevin Durant and another top-10 NBA star like Russell Westbrook, it’s impossible to say that they aren’t still in the championship conversation. Some players are good enough where they can make that happen all on their own, but Durant and Westbrook haven’t gotten it done all on their own, and this year’s roster doesn’t look any better than the ones that have fallen quite a bit short the last couple of seasons. They’ll have one of the best records in the West, but unless some of the younger players undergo a huge leap this season, they probably aren’t going to win a championship, not with all the really good teams in that conference.

1st Place – Northwest Division

-Joel Brigham

After reaching the NBA Finals in 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been sidetracked by injuries in the playoffs the last two seasons. All-Star guard Russell Westbrook suffered a knee injury in 2013 and last season forward Serge Ibaka missed playoff games which could have changed the team’s fortunes. The title window is still wide open for Oklahoma City with reigning MVP Kevin Durant entering his prime and Ibaka and Westbrook fully healthy. But the vultures are starting to circle in that Oklahoma air. Durant’s 2016 free agency is starting to become mainstream news and if the team keeps missing in the postseason, the chirping will only get louder.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Lang Greene

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Thunder were the heir apparent to the championship crown that many thought that the San Antonio Spurs would cede. Instead, with untimely injuries to both Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in each of the past two seasons, the Thunder find themselves still trying to find the success that has been lost since James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets a few years ago. As great as a team as they are, and as dominant as Kevin Durant can be, it is difficult to imagine the Thunder eventually winning an NBA Championship without a low-post force that can make the game easier for Durant and Russell Westbrook. Had Sam Presti managed to corral Pau Gasol this summer, he could have made all the difference. Instead, now, Anthony Morrow and Sebastian Telfair and rookie Mitch McGary will be the new faces that the Thunder hope can put them over the top. With the conference getting tougher each season, a look around out West sees a number of teams improving themselves and their stock. Frankly, the Thunder have failed to keep up as cost-cutting has become a high priority. In the end, their talent will take them to the top of the conference, but whether they can win it or not? They are, unfortunately, still mostly depending on natural progression and chemistry. It may not be enough to topple the Spurs, Clippers, Trail Blazers and perhaps even the Mavericks, though the Thunder should still rightfully expect to win their division, once again.

1st place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

Unfortunately for the Thunder, injuries have limited them in the playoffs over the last two years, with Russell Westbrook and then Serge Ibaka missing significant time in consecutive postseasons. This team is clearly stacked and, if they can stay at full strength, have all of the talent to potentially be the best team in the Western Conference. Kevin Durant somehow keeps finding ways to improve, and last season he was incredible. Internal development from Steven Adams, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson and Perry Jones should help the Thunder improve, as well as the additions of Mitch McGary, Anthony Morrow and Sebastian Telfair to their bench. At the end of the day, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka is one of the best trios in the league and the Thunder should be one of the best teams in the NBA this season.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

I’d really like to know what Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were thinking as they watched teams like the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers load up this summer, while the best piece the Thunder were able to acquire is Anthony Morrow. If Durant ends up leaving in 2016, this franchise and its fan base are going to be devastated, but rather than directing their anger at Durant, it should go towards Thunder GM Sam Presti. The last significant move that Presti made was trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets, a move that the Thunder still have not been able to bounce back from. He may have been able to add a couple of nice young pieces like Steven Adams and Mitch McGary, and Reggie Jackson has come into his own in Harden’s absence, but this is a team two years removed from making it to the NBA Finals and since that point you can’t say they’ve done anything significant to improve. Durant and Westbrook are doing all they can on the court, but I don’t think the same can be said about ownership and management off of it. Unless the young guys that Presti is banking so heavily on really step up, I think this could go down as another disappointing season since the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors all look better on paper, with a couple other Western Conference teams like the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers capable of giving them a tough series as well. If so, there’s one more season separating Durant from free agency, and it’s hard to imagine him sticking around when franchises that are more willing to spend to put together a championship team are coming after him extremely hard.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant is not only the Thunder’s top offensive player, he proved to be the best offensive player in the entire league last season. He’s actually been the Thunder’s top offensive player for years now, and he will keep that designation this season as long as he remains healthy. Durant had a stellar season last year, leading the league in scoring (32.0 points per game), offensive win shares (14.8), player efficiency (PER of 29.8) and usage (33.0 percent). The impressive statistics don’t end there. He played more minutes, made more field goals, free throws and total points than any other NBA player. He topped his teammates in three-pointers made (2.4), field goals per game (10.5), free throws (8.7), True Shooting Percentage (63.5 percent) and Offensive Rating (123). Case closed.

Top Defensive Player: Look no further than last season’s Western Conference Finals to confirm why Serge Ibaka’s defense is so critical to the Thunder’s success. A calf injury in the last game of the semifinals versus the Los Angeles Clippers was expected to sideline him throughout the remainder of the postseason. Suddenly, all hopes of an NBA Finals appearance were dashed. An Ibaka-less Thunder allowed the Spurs to score an average 117 points – 60 of those, or 51 percent, in the paint – in Games 1 and 2 of the WCF. Then, incredibly, Ibaka was cleared to play in the series. With his defensive presence in place, the Spurs were limited to an average of 94.5 points in Games 3 and 4. Just 37 of those points (39.2 percent) were made in the paint. The freakishly athletic Ibaka, only 25, has led the league in total blocks for four straight seasons. In addition, he was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team for the third year in a row. Ibaka has evolved into an impressive two-way player, setting career highs last season in both points per game (15.1) and rebounds (team-high 8.8).

Top Playmaker: After five years with a perfect regular-season appearance record (394 straight games), a devastating knee injury struck Westbrook in the 2012-13 playoffs. By the time he had finally healed in February, 2014, he had undergone three surgical procedures. Fortunately, Westbrook returned with the same fearlessness, speed and energy we’ve come to know so well. In the 46 games played last season, he averaged 21.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 in three-pointers, with team highs in both assists (6.9) and steals (1.9). The remarkable part is how he elevated his game in the playoffs. During those 19 games, his averages jumped across the board to 26.7 points, 8.1 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals. In Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, Westbrook earned the distinction as being only the second player to log at least 40 points, ten assists and five steals in a playoff game. That other player was none other than Michael Jordan. Westbrook’s season assist percentage (an estimate of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor) of 40.2 percent was ranked fourth in the league, and his 24.7 PER was ranked seventh. True, he is not – nor will he ever be – your typical pass-first point guard. With the Thunder’s roster containing a full load of multi-positional players, Westbrook is allowed, even encouraged, to play his game. At times, he’s equal parts maddening in his decision-making and astonishing in his effort and finish, and he certainly deserves major credit for contributing to the team’s consistent success.

Top Clutch Player: Mr. Clutch himself, Kevin Durant, didn’t have career-best clutch performances in the regular season last year, but he’s still the best on his team. League-wise, he was third in clutch points (3.9), yet averaged just 37.9 percent in field goal clutch situations. The story was quite different in last season’s playoffs. Durant was first in clutch field goals made (1.9), second in clutch points (5.2) and recorded 51.5 percent in field goal shooting. Westbrook wasn’t too far behind in these statistics, but Durant’s got to take this category. He had, arguably, the top postseason clutch play during Game 2 of the opening series versus the Memphis Grizzlies, making a four-point play with 13 seconds left on the clock. At times, the two All-Stars seem to battle over who should take the shot in close games. Both have confidence in spades, but give the ball to the best scorer in the league.

The Unheralded Player: During his two years in the league, Perry Jones III has worked hard to earn consistent minutes under Brooks’ system. While it hasn’t quite paid off yet, things may change this season for the Thunder’s 28th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft should the youth movement be indeed embraced. We’re curious to witness why Durant thinks Jones is the best athlete in the league. His offensive versatility is evident, but Jones is now proving himself to be more than capable on the defensive end as well. The turning point came last January when Jones was unexpectedly tasked with guarding LeBron James during the third quarter in a game set in Miami; it was a key move which ultimately led to not only a Thunder win, but a huge boost in Jones’ confidence. Standing 6’11 with a 7’2 wingspan, Jones can cover big players in the league and has the athleticism to switch out to the guards. He demonstrates a real ability to hit the outside jumpers, too. Quiet and unassuming by nature, Jones is an ideal complement to the team. The Thunder are highly invested in his development; now it’s time to loosen the strings and increase his role and minutes to see if he can shine.

Best New Addition: The Thunder missed out on the offseason Pau Gasol sweepstakes, and instead acquired perimeter specialist Anthony Morrow, thereby fulfilling one of its most critical needs. With career averages (in six years) of 10.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 46.8 percent in two-point field goals, 1.5 three-pointers at 42.8 percent and 88.6 percent at the foul line in 23.7 minutes, Morrow can flat-out shoot the basketball. The Thunder have never had a player quite like him. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Brooks has new rotational options. Having a pure shooter to provide a barrage of points in a pinch or to lighten the scoring load of Durant and Westbrook, the Morrow addition should be welcomed factor this year.

– Susan Bible

Who We Like

Kevin Durant: Durant was finally awarded the league’s Most Valuable Player award last season, and it was a well-deserved achievement. Not only did he demonstrate excellence by the numbers, he was a beast when Westbrook missed so many games during a midseason knee procedure. Durant’s MVP acceptance speech was one for the ages and will surely be remembered by sports enthusiasts (and not just basketball followers) for years to come. As he went down the line and spoke about each of his teammates and coaches, and ending with his special words about his mother, we all got a glimpse of what a mature man he has become. Durant continues to be the very definition of selflessness and humility, which is evidenced both on and off the court. There was plenty of disappointment to go around when he suddenly withdrew from Team USA’s roster this summer, but we figure he’s well-rested now and ready to lead the Thunder to another successful season.

Jeremy Lamb: Last year could not have been easy for Lamb. The season’s start was promising with Brooks working him into regular rotation right off the bat. When Westbrook was sidelined in late December, Lamb was relied upon even more. There were periods of ups and downs – to be expected for a second-year player who averaged 6.4 minutes in his rookie year – but for the most part, Lamb was growing as a player and showing increased confidence. Prior to the All-Star break, he averaged 10.0 points, 1.3 three-pointers, 2.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 22.1 minutes. Around that time, the Thunder acquired Caron Butler, who effectively took over Lamb’s spot. After the All-Star Break, Lamb averaged 5.0 points, .74 in three-pointers, 1.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 13.9 minutes. In what had to be a difficult reality to accept, Lamb was never spied sulking or holding contempt about his fate. He cheered heartily for his teammates from the bench. Lamb had a couple solid outings in the Western Conference Finals, but his confidence level was measurably low.

Reggie Jackson: You have to hand it to a player who publicly lays it on the line. Reggie Jackson did just that when he said at the close of last season that he wants to be a starter in 2014-15. With Brooks having positional options now, Jackson may start with Westbrook to present a formidable backcourt duo in facing opponents or he may have the sixth man role locked up. In any case, Jackson had one impressive regular season last year (13.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists) and a head-turning postseason (11.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists), pretty much saving the opening series in Game 4 against the Grizzlies and shining in the Spurs WCF series. His minutes were doubled (from 14.2 to 28.5) last year while he played double duty of both the sixth man and the starting point guard role (when Westbrook was sidelined). Jackson, the Thunder’s top free-throw shooter, was lauded for his efforts last season and rightly so.

Steven Adams: We implore you to find a video of Adams, then just sit back and enjoy the experience. In addition to his New Zealand accent and unfamiliar word choices, the guy is downright hilarious. He brings a joyful spirit to the team and what he offers opposing teams, in abundance, can only be described as an annoying presence. On court, nothing gets to him. No matter what happens, he remains expressionless and calm, which drives his opponents crazy. Besides that, Adams is developing at a rate far quicker than anticipated. The seven-foot physical beast with a surprisingly soft touch plays extremely hard and is a true student of the game. He’s the heir-apparent to the starting center position and may supplant Kendrick Perkins sooner rather than later.

– Susan Bible

Strengths

During the team’s exit interviews last season, head coach Scott Brooks indicated that positions will be up for grabs. This is quite a departure from what most perceive as Brooks’ stubbornness in sticking with the same lineup year after year, no matter what opponent they face. With the Sefolosha exit and the addition of sharpshooter Morrow and rookie McGary, along with the increasing talents of Lamb, Jackson and Adams, Brooks has options when crafting his lineups. The time and effort that has been devoted to developing the younger players should pay off this season. This upcoming season marks the fifth year featuring “The Big Three” starters of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka playing together. All three are now considered veterans to this squad, and none have even reached their prime playing age in basketball terms. These players continue to build chemistry with one another, and they make a habit of starting each new season with improved skills in areas that were lacking the season before.  And of course, with MVP Kevin Durant on the roster, their primary strength is already nailed down.

– Susan Bible

Weaknesses

Lack of scoring off the bench was a huge problem for Oklahoma City last season. They ranked 14th among all teams in average bench scoring during the regular season (32.3 points per game), and of the 16 playoff contenders last season, they came in tenth (an astonishing low 25.5 ppg). It should come as no surprise that the Spurs were first in both the regular season (45.1) and in the playoffs (41.6). Durant and Westbrook are phenomenal basketball players and have proven they can carry the team, but the two can only carry them so far. They need reliable help. Durant looked simply worn out in the Thunder’s final playoff series as if the demands of a long season finally caught up to him. If Jackson is moved to the starting lineup, will sufficient bench depth exist? Morrow’s contributions should take some pressure off the two stars, and hopefully, Lamb and others are ready to provide consistency. Offensive rebounding (ranked 18th in the league), turnovers and personal fouls continue to be issues for the Thunder.

– Susan Bible

The Salary Cap

The Thunder value traded player exceptions, sending $550k to the Atlanta Hawks in the Thabo Sefolosha sign-and-trade (in exchange for a $4.2 million TPE).  The team also sent Hasheem Thabeet ($1.3 million TPE) and $100k to the Philadelphia 76ers, instead of simply waiving his non-guaranteed salary.  Oklahoma City spent carefully, giving part of their $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception to Anthony Morrow ($3.2 million) but not enough to trigger a hard cap at $80.8 million ($3,278,001 would have done the trick).  If the Thunder dip into the $2.1 million of their remaining MLE, or use any of their $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception, they will have a hard cap.  Instead, the team can look to acquire players via their three trade exceptions (including a small one for $884k for Ryan Gomes).  Meanwhile, the Thunder have 14 guaranteed players and have yet to sign first-rounder Josh Huestis (29th overall). He is expected to spend the season with their D-League affiliate.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

It was another offseason of relative angst for Oklahoma City fans, as the Thunder did little to upgrade the roster.   If the Thunder do advance to the NBA Finals as they hope, who will guard LeBron James?  If they match up with Golden State, San Antonio, or the Clippers in the West playoffs, who is a longer option to put on their point guards?  If Scott Brooks wants to go small, who is the fifth option with Westbrook, Jackson, Durant and Ibaka? With Kendrick Perkins unplayable offensively, yet still on the roster with a $9.7 million cap number that could have been amnestied, what big man depth is there behind Steven Adams?

The Thunder tried to answer some of these questions with their pursuit of Pau Gasol in the summer, but it was unclear exactly how much money and how many years were offered. He signed with the Bulls.  Instead, Anthony Morrow, Mitch McGary, and Sebastian Telfair are the only “major” additions to a squad that sorely needs another effective big man and a two-way wing.  Morrow has quietly been one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history in his career, but has always struggled to stay in the lineup due to his defensive deficiencies.  McGary is presumably even less ready than a typical 21st pick since he missed almost the entire college season with a back injury.

Thus, it appears that the Thunder will go as far as their stars can carry them. If they all stay healthy, perhaps that is far enough.  But the Thunder were just not good enough on either end against the Spurs, even accounting for the fact that Ibaka was hurt during the series.  They are relying almost solely on internal improvement to change that this year.  It could happen given the age and talent of this roster, but they are not making it easy on themselves.

Best Case

65-17

The Thunder managed 59 wins a year ago even with Westbrook missing about half the year.  It is reasonable to expect a slight regression shooting the ball from Durant, but there is no reason to believe he will not be a top-two player in the league this year.  Westbrook looked fully recovered from his knee issues during the playoffs, and Ibaka is recovered from his calf injury.

In the positive scenario, Steven Adams earns the starting job in camp and evolves into a stopper and offensive glass-eater in this second season. He and Ibaka power the defense into the top three in the league. Jeremy Lamb matures into the two-way wing the Thunder have needed since they moved to Oklahoma City and gives Brooks the option of closing small or big.  Reggie Jackson takes another step forward in a contract year, and the Thunder blow through the Western Conference en route to the number one seed.

Worst Case

55-27

The Thunder floor is very high with the trio of Ibaka, Westbrook, and Durant.  Unless one of them suffers a major injury, 55 wins is about the baseline for this squad even if all of the youngsters fail to improve.  But there is no guarantee players like Lamb, Adams, Jackson, and Perry Jones will get better, especially on defense.  The offense is always going to be great in the regular season with the star talent on hand, but getting the young guys to use their athleticism to be part of a truly dominating defense could be the key for a Thunder team that is more easily stopped in the playoffs due to their lack of ball movement offensively.  Without improvement from Adams and Lamb in particular, the Thunder could be a bit worse than last year due to age-related declines from Perkins and Nick Collison.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Have the Thunder added sufficient pieces to make it to the 2014-15 NBA Finals?

The Spurs exposed the Thunder’s weaknesses when they paraded to a 4-2 victory in the Western Conference Finals. With a long offseason to enable players, coaches and the front office to dissect what all went wrong in the postseason and plan for remedies, the clock is officially ticking for this group to reach the ultimate goal. The pieces appear in place for the coming season. It surely hinges on the continued growth of Adams, how McGary adapts (here’s hoping he learns the tricks of the trade from Nick Collison), the young trio of Lamb, Jones and Andre Roberson taking on more and Morrow proving to be the knockdown shooter they’ve needed for so long. If these all occur as planned, this year might be the biggest ever for the franchise. The will-he-or-won’t-he speculations regarding Durant’s contract and future in Oklahoma City will undoubtedly stay perched atop the NBA headlines next year. Hopefully, the topic won’t overshadow the season or interfere with what the team is working toward.

-Susan Bible

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