This might be the most important season yet for the Oklahoma City Thunder in their brief history. The direction of the Thunder franchise will be decided when Kevin Durant makes his decision next July, and that decision will most likely be affected by what happens with OKC between April and June.
What Happened Last Year
The New Orleans Pelicans clinched the final playoff spot from the Thunder on the last day of last season. But the bottom line is the Thunder should’ve done better. There are a lot of reasons why they didn’t make the playoffs, many good and understandable (KD missing most of the year chief among them), but they still should’ve made the playoffs. There are 5-10 games that could’ve gone their way that didn’t, but they put themselves in the position to lose those games. Losing seven of their final 11 is the real issue. They’d won four straight and were in position to not just get into the playoffs, but possibly catch the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 7 seed. Instead, they got obliterated by the Spurs, which started an ugly downward spiral.
That’s on ex-coach Scott Brooks. That’s on the players. There had to be some mental fatigue throughout the year, but it also came down to them not making the right plays to win. The Thunder gave it away more than it was taken from them.
If there was one positive to last season, it was Russell Westbrook. Seriously, just sit back and appreciate it for a second. Yeah, no playoffs, but Westbrook was ridiculous in the 67 games he played, putting as much effort and intensity on the floor on a night-to-night basis than most of us have ever seen. He’s still flawed and didn’t carry the team as well as Durant did the year before, but you can’t fault the effort. Westbrook had what will go down as one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the sport.
But in the end, it was an incredibly disappointing year. A team that at the start of the season was one of the favorites to win the title didn’t make the playoffs. They battled and fought all year. All the injuries to key guys, all the games missed, all the close games almost won; they kept on coming back, however, it just wasn’t enough.
All of last year Thunder fans kept waiting for the team to get healthy. They kept wanting to see what a full roster might look like. A roster with the stars and all those newly-added weapons such as Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler, but the day never came that we could see it become set. What we know right now is the Thunder, assuming everyone is healthy, should have a great year, and the league should be scared. This will be a starving team, with tons to prove.
What Happened This Summer
For the first time in seven seasons, the Thunder were in search of a new coach. OKC fired Scott Brooks and hired ex-Florida Gators coach Billy Donovan. I thought Brooks deserved another year because he had accomplished a lot as Thunder head coach and got kind of a raw deal with all the injuries last season. A fully healthy Thunder roster was going to be a contender this season whether coached by Brooks or Donovan.
But there were several cases against Brooks, including the notion that he’d taken this team as far as he could and the Thunder needed new ideas and a new voice, which they now have with Donovan. Also, I believe this season’s pressure had a lot to do with why OKC let Brooks go. This was a good chance for Thunder general manager Sam Presti to anticipate and not react. Presti also added former Pelicans head coach Monty Williams as Donovan’s top assistant, which was a significant win for Donovan because it added NBA experience to his staff.
The Thunder re-signed two players this offseason in Kanter and Singler after acquiring them in trades last season. Singler got a five-year, $25 million deal to kick off free agency for OKC, and while he wasn’t all that great in his brief time with the Thunder, the team remains high on him as a quality role player who provides depth behind Durant.
OKC then matched the Portland Trail Blazers’ four-year, $70 million offer sheet to Kanter. The big man was remarkable on the offensive end in his short stint with the Thunder last season, contributing a career-high 18.7 points and 11 rebounds per game in 26 games. The Thunder are certainly harder to guard with Kanter, although his defensive deficiencies can be covered much better by him coming off the bench.
But would Kanter be fine being the sixth man after getting such a big contract? If everyone’s healthy, Steven Adams seems to fit the Thunder’s starting lineup better, counting numbers aside. Kanter’s offense could be leveraged better at times when either Durant or Westbrook are off the court, and his defensive issues won’t be as big a problem if he’s not always facing the opponents’ stars.
I’d rather Kanter defend against Kosta Koufos than DeMarcus Cousins when facing the Kings. Or defend against a Cole Aldrich-Austin Rivers pick-and-roll game than a DeAndre Jordan-Chris Paul one. It’ll be interesting to watch how much Kanter has improved on the defensive end and how much the return of a healthy Serge Ibaka can help hide him.
Finally, with the last pick in the lottery, the Thunder selected Cameron Payne, sophomore point guard from Murray State. OKC currently has two other point guards on the roster, with Augustin being a free agent after this season. Payne might not play much his rookie season unless he can pressure Augustin for some backup point-guard minutes. We should know within the first couple of months whether Payne needs an entire season to develop and learn behind the two veteran point guards in front of him, or if he can vault past Augustin for the backup point-guard spot.
Waiters and Kanter need to mesh with Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook, whether it’s in the starting lineup or off the bench. With Waiters on the last year of his deal, there’s a possibility he views this contract season as a time to showcase his talent and earn a payday next summer. But the best chance for him to improve his market value is to show he can fit into a secondary role on a winning team. Will he cut out the fadeaway jumpers? Will he accept a bench role? Same goes for Kanter, as I’ve stated earlier. Will he accept a bench role? Has his defense improved? We won’t find out until the season starts, but we should have a better idea throughout the preseason.
But my most important X-factor is health. It’s as simple as that. This team is one of the best in the NBA when healthy. Injuries killed them last season, and injuries to key players can’t happen again if they want to compete for an NBA title.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will finish third in the Western Conference with a record of 56-26. The Thunder will then make it to the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in six years before falling to the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.