2013-2014 Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview
As one of the few NBA teams set to begin the season with minimal roster changes, the Thunder is poised to have another successful season. The starting five will return, including Russell Westbrook whose knee injury during the first round of the 2012-13 playoffs effectively ended the Thunder’s bid. He hasn’t been cleared for full basketball activities yet, but it looks to be imminent. Last season’s 60-22 record led the Thunder to a top seeding in the Western Conference playoffs, and many indications point to a repeat performance. The Oklahoma City Thunder is a team built to win now.
The Thunder was victorious at the Orlando Summer League, suggesting complimentary pieces are in place. They appear well-poised for a deep playoff run with the obvious improvement of Reggie Jackson and rising Jeremy Lamb, as well as the addition of first-round draft pick, Steven Adams. All three should seamlessly transition into the fold and look to earn significant minutes.
In & Out
Additions: Steven Adams, Derek Fisher, Ryan Gomes, Andre Roberson.
Subtractions: Kevin Martin, Ronnie Brewer, DeAndre Liggins.
Five Guys Think…
When you have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on your team, there’s no reason to panic. However, the Thunder should certainly be concerned over whether they’re going to be able to keep pace with the rest of the Western Conference as currently assembled. This is the second offseason in a row where they appear to have regressed rather than improved. They’re banking pretty heavily on internal development; if Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka don’t have big years for them, they could be in for another early exit. Still, we’re talking about a team that has two of the best players at their position in Durant and Westbrook. The two of them alone should be enough to lead the Thunder to another Northwest Division title. Their goal is to win a championship, though, and that pack may have passed them up.
1st place – Northwest Division
- Yannis Koutroupis
For the first time since the Thunder became a contender, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook won’t have a clear-cut third scorer alongside them since James Harden is in Houston and Kevin Martin is in Minnesota. Unless Jeremy Lamb or Reggie Jackson is ready to step up and fill that role, Durant and Westbrook will have to carry the offensive load even more than in recent years. Even though the Thunder will be down an offensive weapon, they’ll still be one of the top teams in the West. Durant has improved each year he’s been in the league, Westbrook remains one of the top guards in the NBA and Serge Ibaka continues to get better. Not to mention, OKC has veteran role players like Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison, who know their role and fill it perfectly. The Thunder also have an edge over all of the newly assembled contenders when it comes to chemistry since this group has been battling alongside each other for years. Oklahoma City’s 2012-13 season ended prematurely due to Westbrook’s injury, but they’ll be back in the title hunt this year.
1st place – Northwest Division
Sam Presti has taken a ton of heat for letting James Harden go in what already looks like one of the worst trades in recent NBA history, but to be completely fair it’s hard to gauge how good (or how bad) OKC would have looked in the playoffs last year had Patrick Beverley not given Russell Westbrook one of the flukiest knee injuries hoops fans have ever seen. As good as Kevin Durant is, he couldn’t do it alone, but with Westbrook in the lineup, who knows what could have been? This isn’t a markedly improved team this year, but Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka should be as good as they’ve always been, and that’s enough to seat them among the West’s elite once again.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Joel Brigham
The Oklahoma City Thunder appeared poised to make a repeat trip to the NBA Finals, but a knee injury to All-Star guard Russell Westbrook in the first round of the playoffs derailed those hopes. Skeptics who doubt Westbrook’s importance to the Thunder should pop in footage of the team’s second round playoff elimination at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. Heading into training camp, Oklahoma City is once again positioned to rank among the league’s elite in 2014 but there are legitimate concerns. High scoring guard Kevin Martin departed to Minnesota in free agency and the team was limited financially to find a high quality replacement. The hope is second year guard Jeremy Lamb is ready to step into the nightly rotation. Lamb is extremely talented but the former UCONN standout played just 147 minutes last season. Forward Serge Ibaka will need to take his game to another level and become more assertive on the offensive end to alleviate pressure of Kevin Durant and Westbrook. Still, with the dynamic Durant in the fold anything is possible. Expect lots of winning.
1st Place – Northwest Division
- Lang Greene
Before long, greatness is taken for granted in the NBA. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both great. Assuming that Westbrook is able to regain his form after sustaining a meniscus tear against the Houston Rockets in last year’s playoffs, the most interesting Thunder player to watch this season may actually be Reggie Jackson. Jackson performed quite well in Westbrook’s absence, averaging 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 per game during last season’s playoff run. Without James Harden and Kevin Martin, the Thunder desperately need at least two of their young players to emerge as meaningful rotation players if they are to continue their success in the Western Conference. With the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors improving themselves immensely, nothing is promised for these Thunder. Though they are a relatively safe bet to win their fourth consecutive division title, another 60-win season is not guaranteed. The Portland Trailblazers and Minnesota Timberwolves are both vastly improved teams and, if healthy, should provide significant resistance. The same should be said for the Denver Nuggets. Still, because of the individual greatness of both Durant and Westbrook, if the Thunder get even meager production from Jackson and one other youngster—either Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones or rookies Andre Roberson or Steven Adams—they should be in fine shape and ready to battle for the Western Conference crown come next April.
1st Place — Northwest Division
— Moke Hamilton
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant. While Durant makes a habit of improving various parts of his game each offseason, his offensive game remains his most consistent contribution. He nearly captured the league’s leading scoring title for the fourth consecutive year (28.1 points per game), and he became the sixth player in NBA history to join the prestigious 50-40-90 club (shooting over 50 percent in field goals, 40 percent in three-pointers and 90 percent in free throws). Durant’s offensive weaponry knows no bounds.
Top Defensive Player: Thabo Sefolosha. Long-recognized as one of the league’s top perimeter defenders, the starting two-guard perfectly fits the Thunder’s defense-first philosophy. His formidable 7’2 wingspan regularly works defensive magic on opponent’s top shooters. Last season, he had one of the best all-around statistical showings of his career. One important note: Sefolosha will enter the final year of his four-year contract with the Thunder which may drive him to even greater heights this season.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook. Leading his team in assists per game (7.4) and steals (1.8) last season and second only to Durant in scoring (23.2 points per game), Westbrook serves as the engine that makes the Thunder run. That fact was never more evident than last April when Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury in first round of the playoffs. Westbrook’s critics were wholly silenced as it became apparent his style of play is essential to this team’s success.
Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant. The clutch label deservedly goes to Durant for his impressive history in making critical free throws and shots when it matters. Though he displayed some clutch missteps in the Westbrook-less postseason, Durant still ranked fourth in per-minute clutch shooting throughout the playoffs last year. In the 2011-12 season, he was league-ranked second. They don’t call him “Kid Clutch” for nothing. When the game is on the line, the ball must be in Durant’s hands.
The Unheralded Player: Serge Ibaka. OKC’s starting power forward is much more than a shot-blocking machine. Tasked with improving his overall game following the James Harden trade, Ibaka’s game grew markedly on both sides of the court last year. He set career-highs in points (13.2) and rebounds (7.7); his effective field goal percentage of .586 was fourth-highest in the league. His blocking skills sometimes overshadow the rest of his game, which is expanding and has no defined ceiling.
Best New Addition: Steven Adams. The Thunder had limited cap space to acquire players, so they elected to keep quiet in the free agency season and instead looked to improve through the draft. With their No. 12 pick, they selected New Zealander Steven Adams. Undoubtedly a project, the seven-foot center has rare athleticism for a player his size, surprising many during his stint at the Orlando Summer League with his footwork and pick-and-roll defense.
Who We Like
1. Kevin Durant – His nice-guy image has not faltered; in fact, it just keeps growing both on-court and off. Durant possesses all those things that teammates and fans admire, such as selflessness, leadership and consistency. Not quite 25 years old, he’s still young, yet considered among the best players in the league today. He won’t hit his prime, in basketball terms, for a couple years. That’s an exciting prospect for his devotees and a scary one for his opponents.
2. Reggie Jackson - The guard made a name for himself when he assumed starting point guard duties after Westbrook went down. Jackson had never appeared in a playoff game to that point. Jackson went from averaging 14.2 minutes in the regular season (5.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists) to averaging 33.5 minutes in 11 postseason games (13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists). He shot .479 from the field, added 1.3 three-pointers and kept turnovers down at 1.9 per game. Despite the enormous pressure, Jackson looked confident, even comfortable, under the glaring lights. Will this be the case when he leads the second unit this year as expected?
3. Derek Fisher – This is will be Fisher’s first full season in Oklahoma City. He was picked up late the last two years, appearing in 20 regular season games in 2011-12 and in 24 games last season. It’s not about his regular season contribution, which isn’t particularly note-worthy, it’s what Fisher provides in the playoffs. He was dialed in last postseason as a reliable spot-up shooter, averaging 2.2 in three-pointers and 8.7 in field goals. Not only does he bring a wealth of experience and leadership, he has an obvious calming influence over the players. It’s quite a sight to see him kneeling in front of players, arms waving and fingers pointing, to explain what he sees on the court. Fisher, 39, seems destined to be a full-fledged coach in the not-too-distant future.
4. Jeremy Lamb - It hasn’t been confirmed, but the consensus thought is Lamb will play a significant role this year with Kevin Martin gone. Lamb was a first-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets in 2012 and moved to Oklahoma City a few months later in the Harden trade. He appeared in just 23 games at 6.4 minutes last season while logging time in the NBA Development League with the Tulsa 66ers. He had a nice showing in the Orlando Summer League, averaging 18.8 points and 4.0 rebounds in four games. Lamb, 6’5 and just 180 pounds, has impressive athleticism; his 6’11 wingspan allows him to shoot over smaller defenders. His defense is questionable though. At just 21, the Thunder may begin all-out concentration on his development.
5. Russell Westbrook - Westbrook was the picture of a supportive teammate when the postseason injury abruptly ended his season just two games into the playoffs. He could be spied at every home game thereafter on crutches, away from the bench, with his leg outstretched in a cast trying to will his team to victory. At least his regular season record remains – he hasn’t missed a single one during his five years in the league. He was having a terrific season in 2012-13, too. He averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.2 in threes with a 23.9 PER (Player Efficiency Rating). In those two playoff games (wherein he played two quarters after the injury, with a torn meniscus), he posted 24.0 points, 7.0 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 steals with a 25.6 PER. His return will be a welcomed sight.
The Thunder’s core group has been together for several seasons now. Together, they have steadily improved as a unit; impressively, they were ranked first in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating last year. General manager Sam Presti values versatility in players and has created a team full of players who are capable of mastering multiple positions. The Thunder relies on the development of younger talent; thus, expect Jackson to take the sixth man reins and Lamb to crack the rotation on a regular basis. The league’s leading scoring duo – Westbrook and Kevin Durant – remain the Thunder’s unparalleled primary strengths.
The glaring weakness of this team is interior scoring. Center Kendrick Perkins, never a reliable scorer, posted the worst numbers of his career last season. Fortunately, the team is stocked with shooters, but a scoring player in the middle is lacking. With the departure of sharpshooter Kevin Martin, attention must be given to perimeter shooting. Defensive rebounding occurs by committee (league-ranked third), but offensive rebounding is another story as they ranked 25th in the league last season. Another huge issue continues to be the high number of turnovers. What will the departure of assistant coach Maurice Cheeks (now head coach of the Detroit Pistons) mean to the Thunder’s group of guards?
The Burning Question
Will the Thunder make it to the 2013-14 NBA Finals?
Had the Thunder pushed through last season’s playoffs with their full roster intact, they just may have made a repeat performance in the Finals versus the Miami HEAT. Durant tried, admirably, to put the team on his back, but the loss of Westbrook was too much to overcome. With many of the key pieces returning and a long offseason for their young players to improve, the Thunder might be hungrier than ever this season. A key consideration standing in their way is the fact that many Western Conference teams got deeper in the offseason.