At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, we believe the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2015-16 NBA season will be the most critical one thus far for the young franchise. The reason is simple: In the event that the season is unsuccessful – meaning the team fails to reach viable title contention – there’s a really good chance Kevin Durant answers the phone when 29 NBA teams call him up with free agency sales pitches next year. And if Durant walks, Russell Westbrook will likely do the same the following year. It’s a possibility that fans and supporters cannot bear to even contemplate. The decision-makers in OKC’s front office are trying to avoid that very worst-case scenario. Shortly after the abrupt end to their 2014-15 season, the coaching staff was revamped (Scott Brooks is out; Billy Donovan is in as head coach) and just minor roster changes were made. On paper, this is the deepest group of players to surround two of the league’s top players in Durant and Westbrook. Last season, a plethora of injuries to key players was the Thunder’s ultimate downfall. With all players now healthy and ready to make a run this season, it’s no understatement to pronounce this is the year that everything is on the line.
Basketball Insiders previews the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2015-16 season.
The Thunder were obviously limited by injuries last season, so it’ll be nice to see them at full strength in the 2015-16 campaign. Kevin Durant should be back to 100 percent and players who have been training with the former MVP say he looks better than ever before and is determined to have a monster bounce-back campaign. Russell Westbrook was excellent last season and it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue that success (or at least produce close to that level) while playing alongside Durant this year. If Oklahoma City can stay healthy this year, their starting lineup of Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter gives them a chance to be one of the West’s best teams. I loved the addition of 14th pick Cameron Payne, who was one of my favorite rookies in this class and someone who could be a very good sixth man for OKC as early as this season. The addition of head coach Billy Donovan was a solid move too, as he should be more creative on the offensive end and help that lineup reach its full potential. Oklahoma City has a chance to contend this season, but keeping everyone healthy is vital.
1st Place – Northwest Division
Everything depends on how healthy Kevin Durant can be this season, and based on how poorly his foot healed a year ago, there certainly are some doubts about whether he can stay on the floor for 82 games. Still, between Durant, Russell Westbrook and a Serge Ibaka, the Thunder should be the most dominant team in the Northwest, even if there are still some issues with their roster. Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters could help out a ton by making giant leaps forward this season, and it’s certainly time to see some progress from Steven Adams. Even without that, though, there’s enough star power to be a thorn in the West all season long, and with Durant healthy, they’re more than good enough for a title run too.
1st Place – Northwest Division
The return of Kevin Durant instantly boosts the Thunder back into contention in the West. Last season, despite their injuries, the team just barely missed the playoffs thanks to jaw-dropping performances from Russell Westbrook. The key to the Thunder’s success is health, both Durant’s and Serge Ibaka’s (who also suffered a season-ending injury). Watch for Enes Kanter, who was acquired last season from the Utah Jazz, to be an impact player in the middle. The Thunder also landed Cameron Payne with the 14th pick in this year’s draft. Payne is entering the league with a chip on his shoulder and an abundance of swagger. The rookie will be ready to get on the court and contribute while learning from two star players.
1st Place – Northwest Division
One word sums up the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2014-15 campaign: Injuries. There were a ton of them. Heading into training camp with the squad now fully healthy, the team looks to regain title contention form. It has been three seasons since the franchise made a run to the NBA Finals, so it’s acceptable to question whether the core group of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka has run its course. Durant, of course, will answer free agency questions all season long. So far, the All-Star has taken those questions head on, but will the rumors ultimately become a distraction internally? At the end of the day, the Thunder have the talent to make a Finals run. Let’s see if they get it done.
1st Place – Northwest Division
So long as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are healthy, the Thunder should be able to sleepwalk to the division title and challenge any team in the Western Conference. At this point, though, I’m not sure that I’d favor them in a seven-game series over either the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs. What could make the difference for the Thunder is whether Enes Kanter is able to flourish while sharing the floor (and touches) with both Durant and Westbrook. The other thing that may be overlooked here is the fact that a rookie head coach is going to be taking over the team. Billy Donovan will find himself in the same situation that Steve Kerr did last season; that is, being a rookie head coach replacing a beloved, experience coach on a championship contender. It is an unenviable predicament for Donovan to find himself in and one that has gotten the best of most of his predecessors. With talents like Westbrook and Durant, though, he may not necessarily meet the same fate. The other teams in the Northwest Division won’t have a shot at the Thunder this season, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to their foes in the Southwest. Along with the L.A. Clippers, I am most interested in seeing what the playoffs will hold for them, so if you want a prediction on my part, chalk the Thunder in as the fifth seed, at worst, and a tough out come April.
1st Place – Northwest Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant
Durant is so skilled offensively that even when he had what was universally termed a “bad season” last year, his statistical numbers remained enviable. During his injury-plagued campaign, wherein he appeared in just 27 games, he managed to average 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game. Nearly across the board, his shooting percentages (.578 in effective field goal percentage) topped his previous years’ numbers (.560). To the delight of those who love to watch him play, Durant recently proclaimed he is completely healthy and ready to go for the season. Of course, it’s difficult to forget all the foot surgeries last year. It’s hard to curb the notion that his foot issues might be a recurring problem. If he is indeed healthy and returns to that familiar and spectacular Durant form, nobody would be surprised if he captured his fifth scoring title or even his second MVP this season.
Top Defensive Player: Serge Ibaka
When you think of the Thunder’s defense, you have to think of Ibaka. He’s been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team three of the past four seasons. He’s led the league in total blocks four of the past five seasons, and he’s far more than just an extraordinary shot-blocker. Ibaka, who just turned 26, is that rare breed of player who spreads the floor on offense and fiercely protects the rim on defense. At 6’10, he’s a physical beast, able to consistently swat away and alter opponents’ shots and disturb their flow seemingly at will. His teammates appreciate the way he cleans up their mistakes, both inside and outside the paint, with his distinctive combination of pure athleticism, speed and timing. Even though some of his numbers decreased last year (partly due to nagging knee issues that led to season-ending arthroscopic surgery in mid-March), he seems to improve defensively every year. Last season, he introduced three-point shooting as part of his arsenal (averaging 1.2 makes per game), which baffled many who believe the team is best served without Ibaka’s long-distance shooting. To others, this skill was just another reason to stand in awe.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
The Thunder’s starting point guard has steadily earned respect since he entered the league in 2008. The way he carried the team on his back last season – both in performance and leadership – in an effort to push them toward the playoffs was particularly exceptional. However, in a stacked Western Conference, the Thunder’s 45-37 record (the New Orleans Pelicans had the same record, but held the tiebreaker) yielded a ninth-place finish. Last season will be remembered for the near-ridiculous amount of injuries that plagued the team (Westbrook even missed 15 games with a broken hand and facial injury), but it will also be known as the season Westbrook became an NBA superstar in his own right. There were multiple lengthy stretches last year when Westbrook’s name ruled all NBA talk due to his singular performances and beyond impressive game contributions. Let’s run down his stats from last season, all career highs: 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 8.1 free throws and an incredible 29.1 Player Efficiency Rating. He won his first league scoring title, and he led the league in triple-doubles (11) and Usage Percentage (38.4). He shattered too many records to list last season. He was in MVP consideration for months on end and had to settle for an MVP title of the All-Star Game instead. Not only is Westbrook the Thunder’s top playmaker, he’s a dominating force in nearly all facets of the game.
Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant
Durant didn’t get much of a chance to show his clutch skills last year, but we’ve seen what magic he can work when the game is on the line. Westbrook had his clutch moments last year as the best option without Durant on the floor. It might have been nice to see what Ibaka or even sharpshooter Anthony Morrow could have done in that type of situation, but clutch duties historically fall to Durant or Westbrook when needed. Durant was league-ranked among the very best in clutch shooting over the past few seasons, and if healthy (as expected this year), he should land high on the list again. With Durant having considerably better shooting percentages in two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws than anyone else on the team, he’s the one to trust late in close games.
The Unheralded Player: Dion Waiters
There were mixed reactions when the Thunder acquired Waiters last January. Drafted fourth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012, it didn’t take long for the young shooting guard to be labeled a poor decision-maker and an inefficient shooter – terms that don’t seem to fit the Thunder prototype. By the time he landed in Oklahoma City in the middle of an unstable season, supporters chose to welcome a healthy player who had the ability to put points on the board instead of focusing on any shortcomings. Given the injury circumstances of so many players, Waiters was thrown in the rotation immediately, and the team relied on him to contribute in all ways humanly possible. In 47 games (20 as a starter), Waiters averaged 12.7 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 30.3 minutes. Critics point to his woeful shooting percentages (.392 on field goals, .319 on three-pointers and .625 on free throws), but his numbers did improve as the season progressed. He’s the only Thunder two-guard who can play both offense (Andre Roberson, a solid defender, struggles with scoring) and defense (Morrow, a dead-eye shooter, is a defensive liability). This is why many believe Waiters should land the starting job and let Morrow serve as the offensive spark off the bench. It will be interesting to see how Coach Donovan uses him and how he develops (remember, he’s just 23 years old) playing alongside healthy Thunder stars. He still displays that habit of looking for his own shot first and calling for the ball way too much, but he looks comfortable in a Thunder uniform.
Best New Addition: Cameron Payne
As pointed out, there wasn’t much of a roster shake-up during the offseason. The Thunder parted ways with Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, and drafted point guard Cameron Payne with the 14th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and selected 7’0 center Dakari Johnson with the 48th pick. The only other addition is forward Josh Huestis, who they selected in last year’s draft before making him the first domestic draft-and-stash player. It’s not known how much playing time Payne will see this season with back-up point guard D.J. Augustin (in his final contract year) in place. He may log time with the Thunder’s D-League team (Oklahoma City Blue) or he may exceed expectations and end up taking over Augustin’s role as Westbrook’s primary back up sooner rather than later. Payne, 6’3, averaged 20.2 points, six assists and 1.9 steals per game in his final season at Murray State. He possesses that Thunder DNA: humility, great character and a strong work ethic. The left-handed guard has terrific potential in this league with his excellent court vision and scoring ability.
Who We Like
The Coaching Staff: Exactly one week after the season ended in disappointing fashion last April, the Thunder’s GM and executive vice president Sam Presti fired head coach Scott Brooks. It was a move more reflective of desiring a new, fresh direction rather than the failings of Brooks. Make no mistake, some of the criticisms lodged toward Brooks were deserved, but Presti decided the time was right to overhaul the coaching staff for this impending pivotal season. Instead of going with an experienced NBA coach, as expected, Presti chose the University of Florida’s head coach Billy Donovan. In a year where championship expectations have never been higher, was it risky to name someone with no history of NBA coaching to lead this supremely talented team? Perhaps. What we do know is Donovan can coach basketball as evidenced by taking Florida to two national championships and four Final Four appearances in his two decades there. Donovan was smart to name Monty Williams (ex-New Orleans Pelicans head coach) as an assistant and to secure the return of Maurice Cheeks (ex-Thunder assistant coach with a ton of previous NBA coaching experience) to the coaching staff. Donovan also brought in Anthony Grant, his longtime assistant at Florida and a previous head coach at Alabama and VCU, as well as Darko Rajakovic, the former OKC Blue head coach with 10 years of head coaching experience overseas. It’s an extremely talented collection of coaches. Without question, all eyes will be on Donovan during this pressure-filled season to see how smoothly he transitions to the big stage and how he manages a team expected to make it to the Finals this season.
Steven Adams: The midseason trade of center Kendrick Perkins opened things up for seven-footer Adams in his sophomore season, and he was able to show just how much he’s progressed defensively in a starting role (7.7 points, 7.5 rebounds in 25.3 minutes). That role lasted until he missed games due a hand injury and ensuing surgery, and by the time he returned, Kanter had joined the team and Adams was relegated to coming off the bench. The most concerning issue for Adams is his free throw shooting. Shooting .502 from the foul line last season (regressing from the previous year of .581) and opposing teams employing Hack-an-Adams with greater frequency, Adams simply must improve in this area. This is especially important given he was ranked second on the team in total free throw attempts (202). With Kanter on board, it’s hard to say if Donovan will start Adams or keep him with the second unit; the latter appears probable. Adams’ likability factor remains off the charts with his menacing physicality on the court and his earnest comments laced with hilarity off the court. Just 22 years old, Adams is a perfect fit for the Thunder, and his upside is phenomenal. Nothing fazes him – no matter what grief opponents give him, he never takes the bait.
Enes Kanter: Leave it to Presti to surprise the NBA world by managing to obtain a player not even linked to the Thunder when all of the trade deadline rumors were swirling last February. It was both refreshing and endearing to see how happy Kanter was to have landed in Oklahoma City. He seemed to be playing with pure joy, always smiling and cheering for his new teammates from the sidelines. It was quite a change from what he displayed in Utah. In 26 games as a starter, Kanter averaged career highs in points (18.7), rebounds (11, including five in offensive boards, something the Thunder desperately needed) and field goal percentage (.566). Both the rebounds and field goal percentage were also team highs. In Kanter, the Thunder finally have a legitimate low-post presence for easy buckets. Another young player at just 23 years old, the knocks on his defense are valid, but he has potential to improve. He has the quickness and strength to develop on the defensive end with proper teaching. Not to mention, playing alongside Ibaka should help hide some of his deficiencies on that end of the floor. His double-double ability should keep Durant happy, which is of paramount importance.
Sam Presti: It’s not always easy – or even wise – to make a decision that could alter the path of an already successful NBA team. Notwithstanding last year, the Thunder have been among the best of the best for several seasons now. Even though ‘The Dreaded Season of Injuries’ last year had nothing to do with Brooks’ coaching efforts, Presti saw that the timing was right to change sideline generals. Making a head coaching shift from a proven winner in Brooks over seven seasons (338-207 record in OKC) to a coach with no NBA experience was a move we have to respect. Finding a way to secure Kanter, that one missing piece the Thunder has long needed, is another one. And keeping last years’ roster largely intact is one more reason to give Presti credit.
Durant and Westbrook, both celebrating their 27th birthdays very soon, are entering their prime. Both are regarded, deservedly so, as dominant stars of this league. They are highly skilled, richly experienced and are nearly impossible to stop on the court. Presti has surrounded them with the best cast of supporting players yet. The team is stocked with long-range shooters, offensive and defensive post players, an athletic freak in Ibaka, veteran voices and a strong bench. The roster depth is tremendous. The one unknown is the new head coach. Donovan is a proven leader and winner, and he has all the motivation in the world to succeed with a talented coaching staff behind him. He has a complete team ready to buy into a new system and prepared to make noise. We like how Donovan stayed in town during the summer to cultivate relationships with his players. This is the season the Thunder may achieve their true potential.
One of the biggest concerns going into the 2015-16 NBA season is Kevin Durant’s health. Will he really return at 100 percent? The Jones fracture he suffered in last years’ training camp melded into an up-and-down season-long problem, requiring three surgeries over a six-month span. He dealt with a sprained ankle and toe too. When the reality of the situation set in, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Durant had missed just 16 games over a seven-year career; last season, he missed 55. Ibaka missed 18, Adams missed 12, Westbrook missed 15, Nick Collison missed 16, Roberson missed 15 and Mitch McGary missed 50. Injuries can bring down any team, but last year, the constant injuries were almost comical. Another concern is the distraction factor of Durant’s uncertain future with the Thunder. Because he’s about to enter the final year of his contract, the three-ring circus potential is very real.
Lack of ball movement has been an issue, and Donavan has vowed that the team will show improvement in that area. Establishing chemistry between the coaching staff and players may take time. It’s remarkable that Durant has yet to share the court with Kanter. Individual player weaknesses include Kanter’s defense, Adams’ free throw shooting, Waiters’ inconsistency as well as his on-an-island style of play, and Morrow’s defense.
The Burning Question
Will the Oklahoma City Thunder win the NBA title this season?
Barring a repeat of last year’s unbelievable rash of injuries, all the tools are in place for the Thunder to be one of the West’s best teams and seriously compete for the championship this year. The formidable one-two punch of Durant and Westbrook returning will be a welcomed sight. They are veteran players now and are eager to finally get that ring. If they fall short, Durant’s future in Oklahoma City is not at all certain. Donovan has assembled a solid coaching staff and is inheriting an experienced roster full of star power and solid depth in all positions. Home-court advantage during the playoffs, if attained, will be huge for them with their devoted fan base still as loud and energetic as ever. The pressure is on in Oklahoma City and, now more than ever, this season may be championship or bust.
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