Which scenario will strike an odder chord when the 2016-17 NBA season fires up: Seeing Kevin Durant wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey taking passes from Steph Curry, or not seeing Durant in Oklahoma City with his running mate of eight years, Russell Westbrook? A team without No. 35 in Thunder blue wins our vote.
The Durant move to Golden State was obviously a devastating and mostly shocking loss for the organization on all levels. It was a painful and even personal loss for OKC fans who are relatively new to experiencing the heartbreak that can accompany professional sports. Fortunately, the Thunder managed to lessen the pain of losing Durant so abruptly in one swift action. The team accomplished the unexpected and signed Westbrook to a multi-year contract extension. Instead of facing a full rebuilding scenario, he has been handed the reins. This is Westbrook’s team now.
The Thunder have been busy in the offseason, adding many new players for head coach Billy Donovan to implement into the system. While still a very talented team that should make at least the first round of the playoffs this season, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Thunder took a giant step backward with Durant now out of the fold. They probably won’t be title contenders anytime soon. Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti continues to make roster moves, though, so perhaps there are more surprises to come.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
FIVE GUYS THINK
The bad news: Oklahoma City lost a top-five player in free agency this summer. The good news: Oklahoma City’s other top-five player elected to sign a contract extension and delay testing the free agency waters. While things could be better for the Thunder entering the 2016-17 campaign, things could be significantly worse. After receiving All-Star guard Russell Westbrook’s commitment, the team can at least begin to build for the future with confidence. Westbrook will be in the MVP conversation from day one of this season, but the team is far from a contender as currently constructed. If things go well, there’s no reason to count the Thunder out from making a playoff run. But the club will need to reload before challenging the powers out West for true supremacy.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
I wrote at length about my feelings on Kevin Durant’s departure, so there’s no need to harp on that here. Officially, I’m going with the Thunder to win the Northwest Division, even without Durant and Serge Ibaka. I could see the Trail Blazers stealing the crown, but I’m leaning toward Russell Westbrook and the main reason why is because I think he has yet to play his best basketball. When you think back to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers, the team that won the 2001 Eastern Conference was one that was beautifully built around his strengths. I think we are going to see something similar happen this season in Oklahoma City. Westbrook is the basketball equivalent of a blood-thirsty shark and Durant’s departure, for him, is an open wound in the middle of the sea. So long as he stays healthy, I think we will see his game go to another level, and that’s scary. The Blazers may prove to be the deeper, more talented team, but for now I’ll take my chances with the basketball versions of Jaws. I also believe we will see good things from Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter, so all is not lost if you’re a Thunder fan.
1st Place — Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
No human being in their right mind would ever count out Russell Westbrook. While the Thunder lost a former MVP in Kevin Durant over the summer, they kept Westbrook – who is arguably the most insanely driven player in the league right now. Westbrook, if he stays healthy, has a great shot at winning an MVP trophy of his own this year. At the very least, he’s going to lead the league in usage rate by a wide margin, and he’s a guy you actually want dominating the ball. The Serge Ibaka trade looks like it will work out well for the Thunder, who turned one fine asset into three really good ones. Victor Oladipo is the new Dion Waiters, while Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis aren’t bad Ibaka consolation prizes for the frontcourt rotation even if neither comes close to their predecessor in defensive ability. So the Thunder won’t be as good as they were with Durant, but they’re still going to be pretty good. If there is a Basketball God, he’ll pit these guys against the Warriors at some point in the postseason. There’s literally nothing NBA fans would rather see this spring.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
I can’t stress how excited I am to see pissed off Russell Westbrook putting up ridiculous numbers and racking up triple-doubles all season long. When Westbrook’s leash was removed in the past, he was insanely dominant. Now, with the departure of Kevin Durant, the leash is off and Westbrook is mad. I think losing Durant removes the Thunder from contention in the Western Conference, but I still have them winning a lot of regular season games, taking the Northwest Division crown and providing us with must-watch Westbrook throughout the campaign. (But as I’ve stated in previous Northwest previews, I have the Thunder, Blazers and Jazz all finishing within a handful of wins of each other. Honestly, the top three could shake out in any order and it wouldn’t surprise me).
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook
Expect even bigger things from Westbrook this season. A legitimate MVP candidate, his scoring output should explode as he puts the team on his back and attempts to prove to the world he can steer a Durant-less Thunder team to success. Last year, Westbrook averaged 23.5 points in the regular season (26 PPG in the playoffs) and this number could possibly spike to around, or even over, 30 points per game. Westbrook logged 18 triple-doubles last year, which matched Magic Johnson for a single-season record within the past five decades. Westbrook won the scoring title (28.1 PPG) in 2014-15, and in doing so provided a 39-game glimpse of what he can do without Durant (out with a Jones fracture) on the floor. He kept his team on the winning side with a 22-17 record and averaged 31.4 points, 9.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds. His supporting cast of players are much more talented now, so Westbrook, as the team’s sole superstar, should go nuts this season. It doesn’t hurt that he shines at the foul line (81.2 percent) and at grabbing steals (two per game) as well.
Top Defensive Player: Steven Adams
Power forward Serge Ibaka has been inserted in this category for the past several years, but a surprising draft-night trade sent him to the Orlando Magic. Adams, who just turned 23 years old, was a revelation in last year’s postseason, averaging a near double-double of 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds (including 3.4 offensive boards) in 18 games and serving as the Thunder’s driving force down low defensively. It was a remarkable leap given his season average of eight points and 6.7 rebounds, and resulted in critics and supporters alike taking serious note of the improving seven-foot center. It was an NBA breakthrough performance in every sense of the term. Adams is a true court warrior, unflappable in any situation, and he will undoubtedly have a larger role this year. He’s extremely mobile for his size, is a very efficient finisher and his pick-and-roll timing is already well-developed. Adams doesn’t have Ibaka’s track record as a rim protector, but he’s continued to improve there each year and he’ll get more opportunities this season.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
Westbrook has to be inserted into this category as well. The explosive point guard loves nothing more than having the ball in his hands, constantly moving, attacking and keeping the defenders guessing. He does tend to take too many jumpers off the dribble and shoot panic threes, but his decision-making skills have grown sharper over the years. He has shown tremendous improvement in looking to involve his teammates. Last season, he averaged a career-high 10.4 assists per game (which ranked second in the league) and led the category during the playoffs with 11 assists per game.
Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook
Yes, there is a trend here. Westbrook is the best all-around player on the Thunder’s roster, which is why he appears in multiple categories on these type of “top of” lists. As for clutch play, he’s the most reliable player to get the job done. He can be equally frustrating and exciting to watch with his insistence on taking the clutch shot, but he is the one most likely to succeed in a close game.
The Unheralded Player: Andre Roberson
The quiet, unassuming Roberson – who was already an underrated defender – revealed a different side to his game in last years’ playoffs. Coach Donovan showed great confidence in his abilities by moving Roberson to the power forward position in smaller lineups, and he ended up being a key player in the Thunder’s two blowout wins over the Warriors in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals. His teammates continued to try to build his confidence by involving him in plays as the Warriors basically ignored him, allowing him to demonstrate his versatility. Roberson, standing 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, is the Thunder’s best wing defender, habitually frustrating opponents with his length. Watch the way he moves without the ball; if his offense catches up to his defense, Roberson could develop into a really solid ball player.
Top New Addition: Victor Oladipo
The Thunder filled a need for a two-way shooting guard by landing Oladipo as the primary piece in their Ibaka trade with Orlando. A Thunder backcourt featuring a duo of high-octane players in Westbrook and Oladipo is a threat to opposing backcourts. The 6-foot-5 Oladipo averaged 16 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists last year in Orlando as he was shifted around between a starting role and sixth man duties. We saw glimpses of greatness during his three years with the Magic. In Oklahoma City, the 24-year-old has the chance to live up to his potential. He’s a slashing, attacking guard who can defend very well, and he should thrive alongside of his new backcourt partner.
– Susan Bible
WHO WE LIKE
1. Ersan Ilyasova
Ilyasova will be able to provide some of the things the Thunder lost with the departures of Durant and Ibaka. A true stretch-four, Ilyasova looks to become the Thunder’s starting power forward. He’s able to shoot three-pointers (hitting 37 percent for his career) and space the floor. Process of elimination leads us to believe Ilyasova wins the starting job: Enes Kanter settled in nicely in the sixth man role, Nick Collison turns 36 years old next month, Sabonis needs time to grow his NBA footing, Mitch McGary should be shown the door soon with news of a second suspension recently released (he will now miss the first 15 games of the season) and newly-acquired Joffrey Lauvergne is more of a bench player who could develop. Ilyasova has a natural instinct for getting to the proper spots at the right time, even leading the league last year in charges drawn despite averaging just 25.4 minutes. The eight-year veteran has career averages of 10.6 points and six rebounds in 24.1 minutes per game. Ilyasova is a tough, gritty hustler who fits the Thunder’s DNA perfectly.
2. Ronnie Price
The primary reason we like Price is the veteran leadership he will provide to a team that doesn’t have many veteran voices. As the third point guard, he figures to have the ear of sophomore Cameron Payne, who needs to show what he can do this year. Price, 33, is known as a good locker room guy; he was voted best teammate on the Phoenix Suns in the 2016 NBPA Players Choice Awards. In addition, the defensive-minded Price can still play, recording a career-best 49.7 percent in effective field goal shooting last year.
3. Billy Donovan
The decision to fire Scott Brooks as head coach of the Thunder and replace him with Donovan last year was met with varying reactions. Brooks hadn’t done anything particularly wrong; in fact, he probably did the best any coach could really do with the Thunder’s injury-plagued rosters during the playoffs over the past three seasons. But Presti opted to bring in a fresh perspective and went with Donovan, the decorated former Florida coach with no previous NBA experience. It didn’t take long to realize the vast difference between Brooks and Donovan: The new coach’s penchant for shaking up rotations depending on matchups and how the game was flowing, especially in the postseason. Brooks was a stickler for keeping the same rotations and schemes, but Donovan showed a knack for offensive creativity, in-game lineups and a knowledge of who to insert or remove and when to do it. He showed a lot of confidence and coaching maturity in each round of the playoffs against highly respected coaches such as Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Golden State’s Steve Kerr. Some would say Donovan out-coached these revered leaders in many aspects of the game.
4. Enes Kanter
It was a joy to watch Kanter play for the Thunder last season. Not only is it obvious he is immensely happy being on this team, he quickly fell into a pivotal role off the bench as the Thunder’s sixth man. That role should continue into the new season, and he should remain one of the Thunder’s top scorers. Last year, he averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in just 21 minutes per game. His defense is still suspect, but he brings so much on the other end that value remains. Kanter reminds you that this is a game meant to be enjoyed by players and fans.
– Susan Bible
SALARY CAP 101
Losing Kevin Durant was clearly a blow to the Thunder, but with the All-Star off their books, the team was able to get under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap. While some of that space was used to acquire Ronnie Price, Joffrey Lauvergne and Alex Abrines, the bulk of it went to Russell Westbrook in a contract restructuring and extension. The Thunder now have 15 guaranteed players, but they will presumably make room for Lauvergne, whose $1.7 million salary is $854,860 guaranteed. Mitch McGary, who is under suspension for 15 games for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy, could be the odd man out via trade or waiver.
Next summer, the Thunder could reach about $33 million in spending power under a projected salary cap of $102 million. That assumes the team takes the rookie-scale options of Cameron Payne, Josh Huestis and McGary before November – although McGary’s $2.4 million is not assured. Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson are all eligible for extensions by the end of October. While Ersan Ilyasova is eligible to have his contract renegotiated like Westbrook’s, the Thunder do not have the necessary cap room.
– Eric Pincus
An angry Westbrook is typically a productive Westbrook, and you know he has a chip of massive proportions on his shoulder right now. He will want to show the NBA, and really the universe, that he’s ready to be the number one man and leader of this team. The local fan base has already thrown their full support his way. With as much production he’s sure to dole out and a sky-high usage rate, he may just average a triple-double this season. Even though there are new teammates to get acclimated to, the chemistry Westbrook already has with bigs such as Adams and Kanter is huge and should ensure effective pick-and-rolls keep flying. All of a sudden, this is a relatively young team with a solid frontcourt and exciting new backcourt. The Thunder have elite rebounding guards who penetrate the paint and a very promising defender and finisher in Adams. Donovan has a lot of options and versatility to experiment with, and we know he won’t hesitate to do it.
– Susan Bible
Losing a player of Durant’s caliber can only be looked upon as the ultimate loss for this franchise, and is the biggest problem they have to somehow overcome going into the new season. There is no way to totally make up for what he brings, and as it stands now, the Thunder are woefully lacking at the small forward position. The Thunder ranked second in offensive rating last season; it’s daunting to think how much that rating will fall without Durant’s numbers in the mix. This group needs to have confidence that all is not lost. Defense, once a Thunder standard, has really dipped in recent years. This needs to be a main focus in training camp and throughout the season. Another consideration is the tough schedule they face this year. According to Full Court Press Radio, the Thunder have the fourth-toughest schedule in the league.
– Susan Bible
THE BURNING QUESTION
How far can Russell Westbrook take the Thunder this season?
As you can tell, the spotlight is squarely on Westbrook this year. It’s up to him to pilot the Thunder through battle in a grueling 82-game season. He can handle the pressure and any criticism that comes his way – we all know that – but can he lead the group to the playoffs? Once there, he’ll need to have enough faith in his teammates to share the ball, trust their play and refrain from reverting to panic shots. Westbrook will need to become a real team leader who inspires all the players around him on the court and on the bench to do whatever it takes to win.
– Susan Bible
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