Projected Record: 58-24 (1st in West)
Head coach: Scott Brooks
2013-14 record: 59-23
2013-14 ORtg: 108.1 (7th)
2013-14 DRtg: 101.0 (5th)
Players in: Mitch McGary, Anthony Morrow, Sebastian Telfair, rights to Semaj Christon, rights to Josh Huestis
Players out: Caron Butler, Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha, rights to Giorgos Printezis
Projected Starting Lineup: Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
They deal with cheap ownership, an unimaginative offensive system prone to ball watching, and some of the internet’s most derisive rotational players.
Yet, they still keep Gregg Popovich up at night.
Almost by themselves, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka earns The Brooklyn Game’s top spot in the Western Conference, and a projected record of 58-24.
The Thunder’s three stars do it all. Kevin Durant holds the mantle as the league’s best scorer with the efficiency expected from a 7′ shooting guard, even if an injury will leave him out to start the season. In a league full of freak athletes, Russell Westbrook clearly belongs in the .001% percentile for an unfair combination of speed, strength and leaping ability. The team’s third banana, Ibaka, fell only eight votes shy of capturing the ’11-’12 Defensive Player of the Year Award because of his elite shot blocking and foot speed offering league-leading rim protection and the ability to obliterate a pick and roll. Oh, and his 18 foot jump rarely falls off target: he shot nearly 48 percent from mid-range last season after burying a league best 49 percent of his mid-range jumpers the year prior.
It’s not all perfect in Oklahoma City. Scott Brooks died and went to coaching heaven, yet he still sucks the air out of the room. The rotations are a topic of scorn: particularly the abundance of time for Kendrick Perkins, who can’t catch, shoot or commit multiple screens without fouling. If Derek Fisher didn’t decide to coach the Knicks, he’d be right there with Perkins, while younger guys flounder on the bench.
Their offense mostly consists of standing around while Durant or Westbrook go to work. (Yes, I enjoy watching too.) Reggie Jackson and Ibaka contribute, but not within the confines of a coherent offensive system. At least the addition of a sharpshooter like former Nets Guard Anthony Morrow, a career .428 three point shooter who drained more than 45 percent of his threes last year, can help ease the burden on the team’s superstars.
To Brooks’ credit, he keeps this team playing top-10 defense (rated 6th last year). The team’s unique length and speed allows them to help more aggressively in their zone, and traps pick-and-rolls more often than he has the team “ICE” them.
An item to watch on defense this season: the loss of Thabo Sefolosha. His length and acumen were a crucial element to the success of their aggressive zone. Players like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III can match the length, but not the IQ. That said, basically anyone on the Thunder’s bench can get off a quicker three-pointer.
Keep an eye on 20-year-old sophomore center Steven Adams. Like most gigantic rookies, he fouled everything (his 6.1 fouls per 36 minute statistics suggest he’d never last 36 minutes). Foul issues aside, he’s an athletic shotblocker that glides around the court on both sides.
Plus, his troll game has already matured to All-Star level:
Getting punched in the face by Z-Bo may have saved the Thunder from an embarrassing first-round exit. Can’t teach those intangibles.
This team is young, and every major contributor is at an age where they’re expected to get better. The reason this team can be so cheap with draft picks – like not signing their first rounder this year – is because only one thing can slow this down: injury.
It happened the last two seasons; and frankly, it looks like injury might be the only thing that stops the Thunder this year.