By Michael Kinney
When the Oklahoma City Thunder kick-off their season Wednesday in Philadelphia, they will have a different look about. I’m not just talking about the obvious departures of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, two mainstays since the franchise came to Oklahoma.
With changes up and down the roster, this version of the Thunder are a complete departure from the squad that appeared in four Western Conference Finals, one trip to the NBA Finals and were one win away from a second appearance last season.
The team that is going to take the court this week is one that has a mission to prove people wrong. To show they should be considered a destination franchise and not just a launching pad for top tier talent. But they can only do that by winning.
As they enter another pivotal campaign, here are the biggest questions surrounding the team.
1. What to expect from Russell Westbrook? With no more Durant to share shots with, Westbrook pretty much has free reign to put up as many shots per game as his right arm can handle.
For his career Elgin Baylor holds the record for most field goals attempted per game at 23.8. Michael Jordan is right behind him at 22.9. I can easily see Westbrook eclipsing those numbers as he tries to lead the Thunder into the postseason. He averaged 18.1 last year with Durant on the team.
Many analyst are predicting a MVP worthy season in which he comes close to averaging a triple-double. That was the Westbrook that dominated the game in all areas and the one best suited for this version of the Thunder.
However, it could be a nightly battle which Westbrook we see.
“I think Russell each year comes back better and better just because of his approach to it,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s hungry to be a great player. You can see it. He’s a great competitor. So I think those type of players always get better. I think he has grown. You can see his leadership on the floor. He’s always been tough to deal with because he can hurt you in a lot of different ways. The one thing about him is he’s unselfish. Probably doesn’t get enough credit for that.”
2. What is Steven Adams ceiling? The 7-footer from New Zealand gained a reputation as much for his ability to get under players skin as he did for his actual play on the court. But that changed in postseason last year where he became a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the court. He averaged 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds
Now, as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, the 23-year old is expected to be highly valued when he becomes a restricted free agent. As one of the few true centers in the league, he will command lots of attention.
“Some of the things we were trying to do offensively last year to start the year, it took those guys some time to develop that rapport,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I really thought as the season went on, Steven got more comfortable in those spots and areas of the floor having a feel of what Russell was going to do or what was open for him. They’ve created a great combination in pick and rolls together.”
But how much better can he get? Many consider the Timberwolves Karl Anthony Town as the best big man in the Western Conference already. How much farther down the list do you go before Adams’ name appears? We will find out this season.
3. Is Mr. Feathery the 2-guard answer? Since the day James Harden was traded, the Thunder have been looking for a complete two-guard to run along side Westbrook. They’ve had several who could only thrive on offense and others who made their name on defense. But no one who could do work on both ends.
That may have changed with the addition of Victor Oladipo (aka Mr. Feathery). The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft obviously has the talent to be an elite player. But his first three years In Orlando had him playing on losing teams and to little fanfare.
Now, playing on a squad that not only has playoff expectations, but title aspirations, Oladipo has a chance to prove he is a game changer. If he is, the Thunder could have the most potent backcourt this side of Oakland.
“The biggest thing is playing downhill, not playing east and west, but playing north and south,” Oladipo said. “When you do that, it’s easier to make reads. You’re more of a threat going towards the basket than away from it.”
4. Can the Thunder compete with NBA elite? Not many people are giving Oklahoma City a chance to make it back to the Western Conference Finals, much less the NBA Finals.
But quietly, General Manger Sam Presti has put together one of the deepest teams in the West. With rookie Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis and veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova, the team finally has the 3-point shooting threats they have needed for past six five years. Enes Kanter is a force on in the paint and on the boards and Andre Roberson is one of the better defensive guards in the league.
The Thunder are also putting a lot of faith in rookie Semaj Christon, who they kept instead of veteran guard Ronnie Price.
“It feels great to still be in Oklahoma and be with the guys,” Christon said. “They always told me to trust the process. When I got the call, I’m happy that I did trust the process. It took me a longer route, but I’m happy that I’m here.”
If Cameron Payne comes back healthy and Josh Huestis has a breakout season in his first full year in the NBA, the team has a chance to go 10 or 11 deep with quality players Billy Donovan can trust.
Very few teams in the league can lay claim to that.
But is that enough to matchup with the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers? That is the question that remains to be seen and only a full season of basketball will tell the truth.
Michael Kinney is a freelance writer (Eyeamtruth.com)