Losing a top three player in the league in free agency should cause mass panic in a fan base as they brace for their team to crash towards the bottom of the standings. We all remember the carnage in Cleveland after “The Decision,” when a perennial Finals contender suddenly found itself drafting in the top five every year.
But despite Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City, Thunder fans have mostly maintained their cool, believing Russell Westbrook will be able to keep the Thunder a viable Western contender. It’s not just Thunder fans who feel this way. Westbrook currently has the best odds to win league MVP, an honor that is usually reserved for a player able to propel their teams to a top seed in the conference.
All of the optimism surrounding Westbrook and the Thunder can be traced to Russell’s maniac campaign in 2014-15, when Kevin Durant missed 55 games due to injury. Westbrook, who dealt with injury issues of his own that season, averaged 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds and a league-leading 28.1 points per game. As crazy as those numbers are, they still don’t capture how physically dominant Westbrook was night after night in his first prolonged opportunity to run his own team.
What seems to be forgotten though was that as impressive as that season was for Westbrook, the Thunder only won 45 games and missed the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, an outcome I expect them to replicate this season. For as good as Russell Westbrook is, this Thunder roster will struggle to mesh and crack the top eight in the West.
The biggest thing to happen to the Thunder this summer other than losing KD was the draft-day trade that sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and a pick that was used on Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis. That trade was likely made with the belief inside OKC that Durant would re-sign. It netted the Thunder a promising rookie, a solid veteran and restricted free agency rights on a versatile guard in Oladipo, an intriguing prospect who’s never been in a position to succeed since being drafted second overall in 2013. Meanwhile, Ibaka was coming off the most disappointing year of his career and is entering his contract season.
But that trade, combined with the loss of Durant, has left the Thunder bereft of outside shooting threats. The Thunder will face a spacing crunch that could limit Westbrook’s ability to get to the rim and diminish the effectiveness of Steven Adams’ rolls to the rim.
Think about the choices that defenses had to make last season on every Westbrook-Adams pick and roll. With Durant and Ibaka dotting the three-point arc, opposing teams dreaded helping to slow down Westbrook or bump Adams on the roll to prevent an alley-oop.
The overlapping skill sets of Westbrook and Oladipo make them an awkward pair in the backcourt. Both players are most effective with the ball in their hands, and they don’t have much gravitational pull off the ball. Westbrook shot an ugly 29 percent from three last season, while Oladipo connected on only 34 percent of his own. Even in catch-and-shoot situations, Oladipo only managed to knock down 35 percent of his attempts.
The Thunder would be wise to split the two of them up and let Oladipo run second units, something he proved to be capable of for stretches in Orlando. Of course by doing that, the Thunder will have to rely a lot on Andre Roberson, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Singler and Alex Abrines to be effective rotation cogs. Singler was abysmal in the first year of his five-year contract with the Thunder. Abrines, a rookie out of Spain, was unable to crack his own national team’s rotation in the Olympics. Morrow and Roberson have gaping holes in their games; I bet Sam Presti wishes he could mush them together into Andrethony Morroberson.
The Thunder were not a great defensive team in the regular season, ranking 12th in defensive efficiency, but they were able to find another gear in the Western Conference Finals. The key to their improvement on defense was an embrace of an aggressive switching strategy that leveraged their incredible length and athleticism at every position.
The reason Stephen Curry is such a nightmare is because opposing guards cannot let the MVP see a sliver of space when he’s fighting over screens in the pick-and-roll. The best way to stop Curry, and the other point-guard marksmen in the NBA, is to have a big man capable of switching on screens who is able to contest any shot and move his feet enough to deter a drive.
Last season, the Thunder had three players 6’10” and taller who were capable of pulling off such a strategy. This year they’re down to one.
And it’s not just that OKC is losing two huge athletic freaks; they’re replacing their minutes with defensive liabilities. Ilyasova is a world-renowned flopper, but doesn’t offer much else on D. Sabonis is a rookie with a short wingspan. Enes Kanter is one of the worst defenders in the NBA. New acquisition Joffrey Lauvergne is nothing to write home about.
The Thunder will be a compelling team to watch every night this season. Russell Westbrook is just that kind of guy. But even if he finishes with Oscar Robinson numbers, I have a hard time believing the Thunder are going to make the playoffs.