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Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is greeted by fans as he arrives for a news conference to announce that he has signed a contract extension with the Thunder, in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Figuring out the Thunder, Western Conference landscape

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

With just under six weeks until the 2016-17 season kicks off, we’re preparing for one of the most exciting Western Conferences in the last decade. Sure, this likely won’t rival 2008 or 2014, when it took nearly 50 wins to creep into the eighth seed. However, we’ve never had a greater mix of veteran talent, reinvigorated rosters and young teams on the rise.

Russell Westbrook is a lone superstar in Oklahoma City, there’s an Avengers squad in the Bay Area, the Clippers are trying for the sixth time to get over the hump and Minnesota injected itself with a heavy dose of Thibodeau — which is ironic, because the players will be feeling even more pain during practices.

To make sense of the Thunder’s offseason and upcoming projection, we called in Adam Joseph of Today’s Fastbreak and Welcome to Loud City. It was a lengthy email discourse, but one that provided great context and perspectives. You can follow Adam on Twitter here. Enjoy!

Shane Young:  Hello Adam, from across the globe!

It’s about time I hand it to you: Covering the NBA from Australia takes a unique type of patience and passion. The time difference not only holds you back from some of the best viewing experiences during the playoffs, but I imagine it also has its weaknesses in the writing and publishing department as well.  Still, you push through and create insightful content on the Oklahoma City Thunder and general NBA topics.

Let’s stick with your bread and butter first, shall we?

Congrats on being one of the ones to break the Russell Westbrook extension news in early August, by the way. That’s huge. I have to admit, I was floored at the decision Westbrook made, sticking it out for at least another season. His opt-out clause makes things interesting in the future, but buying time was all general manager Sam Presti needed.

How do you view the Thunder’s odds at convincing their star point guard — basketball wise — that this destination is best suited for success?  This coming season, they’ll be fielding a team with Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter to join Westbrook as the “faces” of the roster. Losing Durant AND Ibaka in the same offseason stings, even though they were for different reasons. Basically, do you believe Westbrook is genuinely thrilled about this new opportunity and 2016-17 adventure?

Adam Joseph: Shane! It’s a pleasure and hello from Melbourne.

It does present a challenge “down under.” If you want to commit to being a part of a world you literally do not live in, you have to work hard. It gives a different perspective and I appreciate your kind words.

And thank you! Our team at Welcome to Loud City did a great job and although we had a few people doubting us and saying some things that weren’t too pleasant, a lot of apologies arrived when Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted out his standard Woj bomb to make it all official.

I think the subsequent press conference for Westbrook’s announcement restored my confidence that he’s in Oklahoma City to stay. It felt genuine, the outpouring of emotion from the city and the way Russell responded to that was really impressive to me. He looked to be positively beaming to be taking the reins of the team full-time, and that’s what stood out most.

Let me tell you something about Russell Westbrook. He doesn’t mince words and he would never say anything to just say it. I believe our perception of Westbrook doesn’t accurately reflect who he is as a man, and he might be proving a lot of people wrong with how he will proceed now as the franchise player.

He appears committed to what the team is doing, but it’s how the team proceeds in roster building and free agency that determines whether he will be a Thunder lifer. I have a sneaky suspicion he’ll have a say in how that plays out, too. How do you perceive the summer’s activity in the state of Oklahoma?

Young: Look, Presti did about as solid of a job as anyone could do. You couldn’t ask GMs R.C. Buford (Spurs), Bob Myers (Warriors) or Danny Ainge (Celtics) to orchestrate a better plan than Presti has.  The man had an initial idea to “entice” Durant even more to re-sign, which was trading for Victor Oladipo and creating a better defensive identity in the backcourt. Oladipo also isn’t the type of guy that’s going to voice his frustrations about not having the offense flow his way — like Serge Ibaka reportedly did a few times, according to Zach Lowe’s podcast with Royce Young during the summer.

Even when Durant bailed for the Bay Area, the ability to present both options for Westbrook — either staying long-term or giving trade options to the destinations with the best assets — worked in Presti’s favor.

Sam Presti, left, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager, and guard Russell Westbrook, right, speak during a news conference to announce that Westbrook has signed a contract extension with the Thunder, in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

I’m just thrilled that we didn’t completely lose a top Western Conference powerhouse. Because if Westbrook was dealt, the West would’ve been one team weaker, with OKC scraping the bottom of the barrel and missing the playoffs.

I have to ask you, Adam: What specific qualities or tendencies of Steven Adams’ game do you expect to be improved this coming year? He’s already launched himself into the discussion of most productive centers on both ends of the floor, but he’s obviously not been given a high usage rate with Durant and Westbrook taking 417 total shots out of isolation during Billy Donovan’s first season as coach. What’s next for the testicle-healing New Zealander?

Joseph: It’s hard to argue Presti could have done better. Yes, it doesn’t look good from the outside that three stars of the previous core (Harden, Ibaka, Durant) have all left, but the reasons around that do need to be acknowledged. That’s a good point about Oladipo’s fit, and it’s promising that he and Westbrook have been working out together in Los Angeles. The mesh of their games is an intriguing sub-story that I’ll be following closely next season.

I think it can be argued that the due diligence and respect Presti showed Westbrook in negotiations played a factor. Whilst being absolute that they didn’t want to trade him, they also showed early on that they’d do the right thing by Westbrook if he wanted a fresh start. At the same time, they presented the fact they were fully behind him as their guy and would build the roster as such.

That was the scary part for fans and writers covering the team. The great unknown beyond Westbrook and Durant leaving town. Luckily after a month of torture, we were spared that becoming reality.

Expect Adams to have more touches and the ability to polish his game. Though you might not notice unless you watch them a bunch, his touch around the rim has steadily improved. His impact as a team defender is what he will need to keep elevating, and without Ibaka we will see how truly good he is at it. With Ersan Ilyasova and Kanter on the floor, that will be tested to the limit. I’m expecting something around 11.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. I’m all in on Khal Drogo.

Am I being unrealistic?

Young: You’re not unrealistic by any stretch, considering Adams averaged 11.4 points and 9.5 boards per 36 minutes last year. Donovan only gave him 25.2 minutes per game, which was the same rate as his previous year (under Brooks). He undoubtedly jumps into the 30s this time around, since Ibaka is in Orlando — pretty sure that’s not going to turn out as beneficial in the short-term OR long-term like Frank Vogel hopes.

Adams running more screen-rolls with Westbrook is what I’m looking for in the first month of play. Last year, he was exceptional as a roll-man for OKC, running about 148 of them all season, per SportVU. For context, Hassan Whiteside (Miami’s top frontcourt option) was credited with 199 screen-rolls last year. Adams shot 63 percent from the field in those scenarios, hitting 75-of-119 shots. This wasn’t the same rookie mentality Adams had early on, where he wouldn’t attempt many looks in the offense. That efficiency ranked him fifth league-wide of all players to have at least 100 possessions as the roll-man.

Bottom line: He’s effective, and that’s not the question anymore. The question is, will he be able to handle more defensive attention since Durant is out the door? Defenders aren’t going to play off the big men or non-shooting wings anymore. They’ll be staying home since there’s nobody to send doubles to. I say he can. He’s a smart player, contrary to what I think about Kanter. But that’s for another day!

I just see the 42-46 win total being in the cards for OKC, mate. Perhaps you disagree and would lean higher, but the West is like the devil’s kitchen. And there’s about to be a feast. What’s your way-too-early September projection?

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) smiles with teammates center Steven Adams, left, and guard Andre Roberson (21) during the fourth quarter in Game 4 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks Saturday, April 23, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

AP Photo/LM Otero

Joseph: I’m actually sort of optimistic on Orlando and am writing about them at the moment. The doubt on their roster will only play into their hands in my opinion. I’ll be keeping an eye on Serge this season, that’s for sure. Like Oklahoma City, they are loaded with bigs. As far as the Thunder go, Adams is the big that matters and now the whole NBA world will have his eye on them.

The question now, like you said, is how he responds alongside the rest of the Thunder offensively without the threat of Durant. Does Billy Donovan have the creativity on that end to keep them a highly functioning offense? Having a one-man offensive juggernaut in Russell Westbrook helps, but like the rest of the roster, he’s not a great shooter.

Andre Roberson has found effectiveness through last year and in the postseason as a screener, cutter and slasher. It stopped teams from ignoring him, though the Warriors found a way to nullify him by the end of the Western Conference Finals. Other teams aren’t that talented, however, and if Roberson can become even an average shooter, that is a great result. Here’s to hoping he spent his summer shooting nonstop from the perimeter.

Oladipo then slots in spotting up in the corners when he doesn’t have the ball, as he shot 40 percent from the left corner and 46 percent from the right corner last season. He’s terrible from above the break, hitting 31 percent or less from either side, but a respectable 37 percent from the top of the key. Donovan and his coaching staff will be aware of this. It seems Ilyasova will start unless he’s dealt before he can play.

Do you have faith that Donovan can run a high-level offense without his star small forward?

Young: I’m not as optimistic as you are regarding OKC’s offensive prowess heading into the season, and that’s understandable.  But I think it’s just because the core (outside of Westbrook) is extremely young and still trying to mold. Plus, they’ll be throwing out rookie Domantas Sabonis in certain lineups, and he’s talented but still raw and needs a couple years to groom.

We’re probably heading for a similar season to 2014-15 for the Thunder, which featured them having a net rating of +2.3 and ranking 10th in offensive rating to go along with 16th in defensive rating.

However, I’ll say they switch the two this coming season. Don’t think it’s unrealistic to see their offense dwindling due to Durant’s perimeter gravity and playmaking heading out the door. Defensively, young active bodies like Oladipo and a better Adams should improve them despite Durant’s length being missed against opposing small forwards. People will finally see just how hellacious Oladipo is against his matchups — which also includes point guards when Donovan wants to give Westbrook a breather and place him on someone else off the ball.  My projections for OKC are to finish ninth defensively but around 17th offensively. It seems fair.

Let’s switch gears for a second, Adam.

How do you view the tier under Golden State in the West? They’ll obviously lock up home court. But who follows? There’s a fun mix with the Clippers, Spurs, Blazers, Jazz, revived Grizzlies and maybe even the Thunder.

Joseph: I think that’s fair enough when it comes to OKC. The more time that passes, the more pessimistic I have grown about the team. The danger of not making the playoffs is very real, and I think loyal fans refuse to believe (or just don’t realize) that it’s very much in play. Donovan is going to be tested more than ever.

Because of the youth of key parts on the roster at both big and wing positions, that will be the main part of the team’s growth on both ends.

Ninth and 17th is interesting, but I would go slightly higher on offense I think. Top 12 on both ends isn’t unreasonable, but there are so many good offenses nowadays it will be tough reaching.

For sure, it’s Golden State’s conference as Durant’s departing decapitated their biggest rival. It was brilliantly heartbreaking. I think we’ve got a couple of tiers: Golden State, then the Clippers, Spurs and Jazz (who I think will take a huge leap with health). Below them it is a mess, with the Blazers, Thunder, Rockets and Grizzlies, and even the Mavericks and Timberwolves have a chance.

How do you perceive the Western hierarchy?

Young:  Utah still has a lot to prove before we all jump full-fledged on this ship of them becoming a top threat. I agree their summer was about as good as any team not named Golden State, but I’m wondering what type of production George Hill can provide for that offense — which shot 44.9 percent from the field last year (18th) and scored 105.9 points per 100 possessions (16th). You have to admit, a lot of people aren’t taking injuries into consideration. Are we really expecting their starters to stay away from nagging problems? Usually every team experiences something, so it’ll be up to how their bench steps up in moments of need. It can’t look any better than Boris Diaw as a backup big for them, however.

This blew my mind back in March when I was calculating my team passer ratings. Did you know Utah passed the ball 354.8 times per game last year? It was far above any team in the league, including the Knicks, who specialized in the triangle offense — a system predicated on constant movements.

FILE - This Sept. 28, 2015, file photo, from left to right, shows Utah Jazz's Derrick Favors (15), head coach Quin Snyder, Rudy Gobert, of France, and Gordon Hayward (20) posed for a photograph during an NBA basketball media day, in Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz find themselves in a bit of a predicament on the eve of the 2015-16 NBA season. General manager Dennis Lindsey kept the core of the team together after a strong finish to last season. He stuck to the slow rebuild philosophy and resisted the temptation spend lavishly in free agency.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

That said, I do think Portland’s ceiling is higher than Utah right away, and that’s simply because of the shot creators (and makers) they’re filled with. Evan Turner on his new contract seems absurd, but Terry Stotts will find ways to use him properly. I believe Portland finishes fourth out West. We do agree on Minnesota being in the playoff hunt, though.  Do they have enough ready talent to let Thibodeau guide them into the eighth spot?

Joseph: There’s no doubting that, but it can’t hurt to get in early, right? Utah’s offseason was spectacular and added to an already promising core. Yes, injuries are always a concern but it’s the same with everyone, right? In a month after training camp, every team’s outlook could have changed. I really like their potential, particularly in the postseason. It’s a team built to win and grind out games, and they can do that going super big and now with Diaw and Joe Johnson aboard, going small too.

I did not know that stat about Utah’s passing! That is a crazy stat. I’m praying for a Warriors-Jazz Western Conference Semifinals. But hey, it’s September and there’s a lot more to play out.

I’m just not high on Portland, certainly in the postseason. That’s because I didn’t like their offseason. $145 million on Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner? EVAN TURNER? They should have just paid Crabbe. It’s a shame because until this offseason, I liked where they were heading. Terry Stotts is one of the league’s great coaches, though, and like you said, he’ll figure it out.

Minnesota is in a great spot. I have them at around 40 wins this season. If they get less, we’ll say it’s because they are still developing. If they get more, we’ll praise the impact of Thibodeau at such an early stage. It’s win-win. They’d need a lot of luck to go their way, but it’s not hard to see them competing in that range of 40+ win teams.

Young:  Whole-heartedly agree on the Wolves, considering Sam Mitchell had them losing so many games within three to five points because of his horrendous rotations and playing the wrong guys. Plus, he couldn’t figure out what the hell he wanted to do with Zach LaVine. Thibodeau has experience on title teams in Boston and a strong East competitor in Chicago.

41-41 is where I have Minnesota slated, which would bring a smile to the late Flip Saunders for developing this team in the early stages.

Thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, Adam. Keep working hard, and let’s start this season!

Figuring out the Thunder, Western Conference landscape

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