Playoff Result: Lost in Second Round
Key Additions: Steven Adams (draft), Andre Roberson (draft)
Key Losses: Kevin Martin (free agency)
Projected 2013-14 Record: 57-25 (2nd in West)*
What to Expect: The Thunder have swiftly undergone a change in identity. At this point a year and a half ago, they were a dynasty in the making. Now? There are people who would be somewhat surprised if this team wins the NBA championship this year.
What’s changed revolves around Oklahoma City’s loss of James Harden and what they’ve gotten back for him. Kevin Martin filled a third-scorer role last year with precision shooting but is now in Minnesota. Jeremy Lamb could be primed for a breakout year, but for the most part the magnitude of his impending contributions are clouded. And finally, using the draft pick they picked up in the Harden trade, OKC selected Steven Adams with the 12th overall pick. Otherwise this team is just about the same as it’s previous few installments.
That is, until we learned of the seriousness of Russell Westbrook’s injury.
After a surgery to repair a torn meniscus Westbrook suffered during last year’s postseason, his expected return date is around early or mid-December. The Thunder will have to bear without him for a handful of games early on, and then must hope he returns to form as the Playoffs near to secure strong enough seeding and to knock off whatever rust is still clinging to him to seriously compete for the championship.
In all likelihood, Reggie Jackson will do a stellar job taking Westbrook’s spot as the starting point until he returns – and from that point on will excel at being the “third wheel” of the team. Jackson has improved year after year and brings something Harden and Martin never did – defense. What should be insanely fun (or brutal) to watch will be Durant manning the team’s offense basically all on his lonesome until Rus returns. Perhaps his added load will mean a big enough inflation in his scoring volume to nab him the MVP award?
55-60+ wins for Oklahoma City this season. They’re making the conference finals at the very least. This team is still crazy young, crazy talented and crazy good.
Matchup with the Hawks: The Hawks could end up being extremely lucky or unlucky come their first meeting with the Thunder. The game is scheduled for December 10th, meaning Atlanta may or may not have to worry about Russell Westbrook.
Last year, the Hawks managed to split the series with a win in their second game of the entire year. Now with Josh Smith guarding Kevin Durant, less help was sent in that direction than need be this season. DeMarre will have probably have the best shot at taking the three-time scoring champ, but he’s simply not up to snuff.
The importance of limiting Durant’s offense – especially if Westbrook is out or rusty for one contest – is pivotal. The Thunder’s offense is very basic and uncomplicated to keep under a tarp, with the major problems lying in guarding their two potent scorers. Outside of Durant and a healthy Westbrook, the team isn’t surrounded by many scoring threats or even specialized floor-spacers. You take away this team’s demolition duo – you take away their offense and you can very well come home with a victory.
Hawks win: Durant 22 points on 41% shooting, Westbrook 14 points on 27% shooting.
Hawks loss: Durant 41 points on 60% shooting, Westbrook 27 points on 43% shooting.
The Thunder’s defense can be overlooked because of their scorching offense – but they ranked 4th in DRTG, ahead of the Bulls and Heat. With the Thunder’s premier interior defender Serge Ibaka lurking, the paint is a military base and you’re on a tricycle trying to barge in. The best strategy in opening up the floor would be to drag Ibaka out of the paint, and thankfully the Hawks have two big men that can do just that.
Whoever Ibaka finds himself guarding – whether Millsap or Horford – should spend more time on the perimeter than usual. This makes for easier penetration for Jeff Teague and Lou Williams, but either could have to deal with Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City’s perimeter pest. Solving this is simple enough – play Lou a lot of minutes on these nights and right beside Teague or Schröder and the double dose of destruction (note: nickname for Horford/Millsap tandem work in progress) up front. The Hawks then have two driving threats, Ibaka is stuck between a rock and a hard place and the only remaining issue is hoping Kendrick Perkins doesn’t become twice as quick on his feet an- wait, OKC has stifling defender Reggie Jackson too.
Well, seems like Atlanta brought a knife to a nuclear bomb fight. Schematically, coaching-wise – I’d take Coach Bud over the simplistic Brooks any day. However, these two rosters are drastically different and one is drastically more talented than the other so… Thunder take both, in all likelihood.
*predicted record based on Bo’s ESPN Forecast projections for every team