Five Reasons the Oklahoma City Thunder will be OK

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It’s easy to look at the net losses for the Oklahoma City Thunder and think they are going to fall down the standings dramatically. After all, they play in a stacked Western Conference, their franchise star defected to their conference rival, other teams have worked some magic over the off-season in the hope of closing the gap between the Warriors and Spurs and themselves – oh and did I mention the Thunder don’t have Kevin Durant anymore?

All jokes aside, the small forward’s departure has altered the balance of power in the LEAGUE not just the conference and the Thunder are entering a strange new era. KD isn’t the only absentee – power forward Serge Ibaka has also left the Western Conference finalist in a draft day trade to the Orlando Magic (Dion Waiters took his talents to South Beach and Randy Foye is now a Brooklyn Net). In short, it means that the Thunder have huge gaps in the scoring and rebounding department with the loss of these two.

But, all is not lost. Here are five reasons the Oklahoma Thunder are going to be OK.

 

They finally have a talented two way shooting guard

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The draft day deal that saw Serge Ibaka leave the Thunder, also saw OKC secure the services of a highly talented shooting guard in Victor Oladipo. Now, playing in Orlando hasn’t done much for his value as he was played out of position at the point guard spot in his rookie year, and then toyed with as a starter / 6th man for his next year. In spite of all this, he’s put up solid numbers and you can only expect these to rise as he becomes a more featured player on a more talented team. Dipo was a #2 pick for a reason – the guy can ball and he will show that in 2016/17. The Thunder have always longed for a two way player at the two-spot. They’ve had it by committee over the years, but this is the first time they have a well-rounded player to get the job done. Dion Waiters was solid and matured during his tenure with the Thunder and Andre Roberson is brilliant defensively but horribly limited on the offensive side of the ball – Oladipo is a great blend of these. He will need to work on his catch and shoot, he will need to be able to shoot a better clip from deep, but he can guard the best two-guards in the league, defends the perimeter well and ball hawks like a boss. Paired with Westbrook, these guys are going to cause plenty of headaches, opposition turnovers and transition highlights.

The Thunder now have two incredible players and athletes in the backcourt. Both are physical beasts who will put the hurt on opposing guards and bully smaller players in the post. They will run and run and run some more as they keep defenders on their heels and in foul trouble. It’s a bonus on BOTH sides of the ball two. Not only will it cause problems for anyone trying to guard these two (name a backcourt who could guard these guys at full flight – honestly. The Splash Brothers and even Dame / McCollum MAY have them covered offensively, but are they going to be able to stay in front of them?) it will also make life difficult to score against. Getting in the lane will be tough, finding open shots will be tough and keeping it up for 48 minutes will be even tougher. They are questionable shooters, so you could try your luck sagging off them and forcing to shoot outside, but something tells me they won’t be settling for anything this season.

 

 

The Rise of Funaki

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Steven Adams has slowly been building into a versatile and highly efficient centre for a couple of seasons now, but he really caught major heat in the NBA playoffs when he just started to get everything to click (despite repeatedly being kicked in the dick). Adams was always seen as a project when he was drafted by the Thunder , but his rise has been a little more rapid than one would have expected. Raw and mechanical out of PITT, Adams has worked hard to smooth off the rough edges, develop some really first class footwork and now some nice touch around the basket. He works hard, does everything the team asks of him and defends the paint / rim area, but this season – without Ibaka and Durant in the mix – it looks like Adams might be called upon for a little more output on offense.

Thunder fans should already be excited about seeing the Big Kiwi play a bigger role, but even more so when you put the perfect storm of Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan, Steven Adams and the pick and roll together. Adams’ screens are like a New Zealand Mountain Range – big, beautiful and a bitch to get around.  What we can expect to see is Steven Adams not just getting hustle baskets and put backs and not solely being relied on to defend, but we should see some simple sets run to make the most of his efficiency and improvement of offensive game and the Thunder will be better because of it. You don’t replace Durant and Ibaka with just a couple of pieces, you do it by committee – and Adams looks likely to feature heavily. Which brings us to the next point…….

 

Depth and balance

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Ironically, the only position the Thunder aren’t set at is the Small Forward spot. Well duh. It’s not for lack of numbers – they do have multiple bodies they can throw in the three spot (Anthony Morrow, Josh Huestis, Kyle Singler – and even Andre Roberson in a pinch with a small ball line up) but none of these guys are really ready to step up and grab the starting position. The only hope the Thunder have is for a pre-season trade or trade deadline move if they want production out of the SF spot. The good news is, they really don’t have any other glaring weaknesses in the depth chart. If Cameron Payne is ready to roll then he is the backup point guard. The Thunder also have Ronnie Price and Semaj Christon to call on if required. Westbrook can play the two-guard spot and likely will through various stages, but Morrow, Roberson and Alex Abrines can all provide a body in the backcourt when called upon.

The Thunder are stacked with frontcourt personnel. Steven Adams is a lock as the starting centre, but then it gets a bit clouded. Will Enes Kanter start at power forward or will he continue to play a 6th man role off the bench logging quality minutes each and every night? Ersan Ilyasova is new to the Thunder line up and how will he be used? A veteran presence who can also space the floor with a reasonably reliable outside shot would be handy in the starting unit. Domantas Sabonis has quality NBA pedigree, is mature and physically ready for the NBA and is energetic and fundamentally sound. However, he is a rookie and will take time to adjust to the pace of the game. You then have Joffrey Lauvergne who OKC acquired from the Denver Nuggets during the off-season to find minutes for (which should be made easier by the fact Mitch McGary won’t be eligible to play for the first few weeks of the season AND is highly unlikely to be on the Thunder roster when the season commences in just over a months time). Nick Collison will largely play a mentoring role and isn’t likely to see many minutes, but he’s there as well (as is Nazr Mohammed).

So, the sum of all parts means the Thunder are as deep and as balanced as they have ever been AND they have a variety of assets that could be used should Sam Presti decide an upgrade at the small forward spot is required.

 

Billy Donovan is one smart cookie

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You can point to the talent that he has at his disposal, but that wouldn’t be doing head coach Billy Donovan any justice whatsoever. In just his first NBA season, Donovan showed he was the real deal on the sidelines. Yes he had a terrific team to work with, but it was the way he made them work that was a thing of beauty. Ball and player movement was featured more than it had even been before. Playmaking was done not just from the point guard position, but from every position. Iso-heavy offenses weren’t sighted anywhere nearly as regularly and the in game and game to game adjustments were brilliant. And it’s only going to get better. Now, the majority of this Thunder team have bought into the philosophy and teachings of Billy D so the second season is going to be an extension of the basics and a more polished result. Opposing teams should be quite fearful of what a full flight Russell Westbrook and sophomore season of Billy Donovan will look like.

Donovan knows he doesn’t have a pure scorer like Durant at his disposal anymore, so he will have to manufacture ways to put points on the board. Luckily, Donovan is a brilliant basketball mind and has shown that during his successful tenure at Florida and already in his inaugural NBA campaign. Look for Steven Adams to have more of a role on offence after a great NBA Playoffs, look for ball movement and spacing to be a key feature as they try to draw defenders out of the lane to let Russ go to work. Thunder fans have always had faith in Presti, and now it is time to trust Billy Donovan. He’s about to give us something special.

 

Russell Westbrook

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The Thunder managed to get Russell Westbrook to ink an extension and become not only the saviour of the franchise (and city), but the unmistakable leader of this team. For years there was some jostling for “face of the franchise” and “teams best player” – but all that ended when Durant skipped town. This is Russell Westbrook’s team, he is their leader on and off the floor and he is without a doubt their best player. He is still a top 5 talent in the league and will now be unleashed upon the rest of the NBA in full fury. You thought Russ was great to watch when KD was out injured – you wait and see what the games most explosive player cooks up this campaign.  He’s got a point to prove, a team to will to the NBA playoffs and some unfinished business when he gets there. He has a new running mate (Victor Oladipo) and two big men who he relished playing with down the stretch a couple of seasons ago (Adams & Kanter).

Strap yourself in, this is going to be one HELL of an exciting ride.

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