Oklahoma City Thunder

2016-2017 Season Preview: Thunder embark on a new era

Jim Cowsert/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire
Jim Cowsert/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

All of Basketball Twitter is having fun making jokes referencing the Golden State Warriors blowing a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals last season, unless that section of Basketball Twitter roots for Oklahoma City, a team that blew that very same lead in the Western Conference Finals.

Not only did the Thunder have a 3-1 series lead over a team that won 73 regular season games, but they did so convincingly by margins of 6, 28, and 24 points in their three wins.

It’s not a secret what happened from there. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were incredible in the last three games of the series, Westbrook and Durant weren’t, and the Warriors overcame the series deficit only to blow a 3-1 series lead of their own in the Finals (I had to get one joke off).

The Thunder’s Offseason

After they were eliminated from the playoffs, it’s difficult to imagine a worse offseason for a contender. While Durant didn’t ever publicly say he was coming back, it seemed as though it was inevitable. He would return to Oklahoma City for one last run with his running mate Westbrook, be eligible for the 10-year maximum contract in the summer of 2017, and then secure the largest contract in NBA history with the Thunder or any other team.

That isn’t what happened.

Durant left for the Warriors, and thanks to a draft-day trade that sent the third member of the Thunder’s “Big Three”, Serge Ibaka, to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis, and Victor Oladipo, the Thunder will look completely different to start the 2016-2017 season than they did to start the 2015-2016 season.

The Thunder’s first regular season game is October 26th, against the Joel Embiid-led Philadelphia 76ers, which leaves about one week to answer one of the most pressing questions Oklahoma City has had to answer since its inception: How much time will Joffrey Lauvergne see?

It’s possible that a more important question to answer is who fills the void left by Durant. The obvious answer to the question is nobody and everybody at the same time.

Who picks up the slack?

Durant is a former MVP and a top-3 player in the league because he’s irreplaceable. Durant is one of the very few players that makes a team a contender simply upon arrival, but if he leaves a team, that team is no longer a contender.

Durant had a 30.6 usage percentage last season, per Basketball-Reference (percentage of possessions that the player ended by shots, turnovers or free throw attempts). The average is 20 percent, leaving a significant percent of possessions to be filled by Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and the rest of the Thunder roster.

Forced to choose one player to become Westbrook’s second banana, Adams seems like the most appropriate answer. He may not have the highest usage percentage outside of Westbrook, but he will have to lead a defense that’s always had Ibaka at the helm and a seven-footer on the wing to provide emergency rim protection.

Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams, center, looks for driving room during a NBA Global Games basketball match between Real Madrid and Oklahoma City Thunder in Madrid, Spain Monday Oct. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

 (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Adams will be the anchor of a defense that slipped to 13th in defensive rating last season — they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions last season — after being one of the best defenses in the league in the previous years when healthy.

Adams will have two plus defenders on the wing, with Oladipo and returning starter Andre Roberson capable of shutting down almost any opposing wing. But he’ll also have to account for whoever starts along with him in the front court on opening night (possibly Ilyasova) and Russell Westbrook, a player whose reputation on defense far surpasses his production over the past few seasons.

Adams and Westbrook should be two of the leaders of a Thunder team that is in a situation unlike the organization has been in before — one without two of its three franchise players.

Best-case scenario

For the team to reach the high-end potential, Westbrook has to be Westbrook but in a lesser manner than when the team was without Durant during the 2014-2015 season. Westbrook was incredible during that stretch, but trying to use every possession doesn’t help the younger players on the roster develop, and for the first time in a long time, there are many young players on the roster.

Along with Westbrook, Adams has to be incredible in order for the Thunder to reach their ceiling. Anchoring a top-10 defense, improving his playmaking ability with the ball, and being able to provide some efficient scoring are all necessary for the Thunder to reach their goals this season.

Roberson developing into at least a passable three-point shooter, finding a suitable partner next to Adams in the closing lineup (if Ilyasova isn’t the answer), and developing or acquiring depth on the wing (something every non-Warriors team covets) are all things that happen in the best-case scenario. If these things happen, the team could reach 50 wins and finish with the three or four seed in the playoff picture (50 wins was good enough for the five seed in last year’s playoffs).

Worst-case scenario

The floor for the team could be lower than any other team with a star of Westbrook’s caliber.

There’s little dispute that Russ puts up his incredible counting stats, but a decrease in efficiency combined with his lackluster defense of the past few seasons might make him into just a player that puts up great stats on a subpar team.

Adams was great on defense last season, but if he’s unable to lead the defense to an acceptable rating, the offense might not be good enough to carry the team on its own.

Roberson’s inability to shoot, Kanter’s inability to defend, and Kyle Singler’s continued poor play from last season are all real possibilities and could drag the team close to the floor than the ceiling.

The biggest issue that could lower the team’s ceiling is the lack of space on the floor. The projected starting backcourt of Westbrook and Oladipo are both below average shooters from three (and below average is kind when describing Westbrook’s percentage), Roberson shot 31.1% from three last season — his personal best by a wide margin — and Adams isn’t pulling centers away from the rim with his outside shooting.

Ilyasova is the only projected starter that can shoot from long-range, and the bench is littered with players that can shoot and not defend, or players that can defend and not shoot. In the team’s worst-case scenario, teams pack the paint against the Thunder, forcing tougher attempts for Westbrook and Oladipo around the rim, and the Thunder are unable to shoot teams out of it, leading to around 40 wins.

The most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle, a 45-37 record and a competitive first-round series.

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