Why You Can't Sleep on OKC
*Photo via Getty Images
Oh my, how soon we forget. We live in a society of "what have you done for me lately." But those in NBA circles may be wrapped up in what they've seen most recently more than the rest of the world.
The Golden State Warriors will enter next season as defending champs after a historical run to the Larry O'Brien trophy. The Cleveland Cavaliers made the NBA Finals and pushed Golden State to six games despite missing three opening-night starters, two of which were All-Stars. Thus far this off-season they have resigned Kevin Love, LeBron James, and Iman Shumpert. They intend to do the same with Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. They also added Mo Williams and are showing interest in big time scoring wingmen such as Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson.
The San Antonio Spurs held their core intact while adding LaMarcus Aldridge, the biggest name free agent on the market this year. Their front court only got better as they picked up former All-Star David West on a discount.
Boy have the Clippers been in the news this off-season. To make a very long story short, they re-signed the league's leading rebounder, DeAndre Jordan. Paul Pierce will be back home next year reuniting with Doc Rivers. They also added the talented but troubled Lance Stephenson.
Those are really the only four teams that are being discussed as serious title contenders going into next season now that the dust is starting to settle on free agency. Then there's a slew of teams that, with a little luck and maybe a piece here or there, could add their names to the fantastic four. The Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies have championship contending potential. Many expect, with any amount of health, the Miami Heat to be right in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference.
And still, there's a team that the hot-takers are leaving out. A team that deserves and demands attention when we talk about the powerhouses around the league. The Oklahoma City Thunder are coming and the retribution could be painful for the rest of the league.
Seems like the first conversation about the Thunder this off-season didn't come until it was time to make a decision on whether or not to match Enes Kanter's max offer sheet from the Portland Trail Blazers (which they did). But based on both history and the current roster, there's no reason to think that the Thunder cannot paint themselves back into the title picture.
A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
2010: 50-32,OKC Lost in First Round 4-2 to Champion Los Angeles Lakers
2011: 55-27,OKC Lost in Western Conference Finals, 4-1 to Champion Dallas Mavericks
2012: 47-19, OKC Lost in Finals, 4-1 to Champion Miami Heat
2013: 60-22,OKC Lost in Western Conference Semifinals, 4-1 to Memphis Grizzles •Westbrook misses all but 2 games of playoffs with meniscus tear
2014: 59-23,OKC Lost in Western Conference Finals, 4-2 to Champion San Antonio Spurs •Serge Ibaka misses first two games of WCF
2015: 45-37, OKC missed playoffs via tiebreaker •Durant missed 55 games, Ibaka missed 18 games, Westbrook missed 15 games,
The Thunder missed the playoffs in a tiebreaker to the New Orleans Pelicans, after Kevin Durant played just 27 games. That is a pretty amazing feat in the brutal Western Conference.
Before this year, they have lost to the eventual champions four of five seasons. And when fully healthy, the Thunder have not missed the Western Conference Finals since 2010. This is why I was against the firing of Scott Brooks. The 2012 James Harden trade changed things of course. But even with a lesser roster, they returned to the Western Conference Finals in 2014, and pushed the Spurs to six games after Ibaka's return. That takes nothing away from the Spurs, who were a better team, but if the Thunder had won that series, no one would have been surprised and they would have been heavy favorites over the Miami Heat in the Finals (who the Spurs dismantled in historic fashion).
So the reality is that, in the tougher conference, when Durant and Westbrook are healthy, all the Thunder do is win. The team makes it to the NBA's Final Four, every time. So they deserve a little more faith than they are receiving.
THE CURRENT STATUS
Out of sight, out of mind I've always been told. It is easy to forget Kevin Durants greatness. Let's put this in perspective. In a year in which he was playing on bad feet and never found a rhythm, he averaged 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, shot 51 percent from the field in only 33 minutes per game. Durant should still be universally recognized as the second best player in the world entering next season.
It was overlooked because of Durant's injury, but the late-season moves and free agency signings last year may have provided the Thunder with the best roster they have had during this run. Last summer, the team added some much needed sharp shooting in Anthony Morrow. This provides someone who can spot up and keep off-ball defenders honest instead of running at Westbrook and Durant as they penetrate.
Last February's trade was the key component. They added Kanter, who gave them a serious low-post scoring threat (really the first they have had). He is a liability on defense, but those weaknesses may be masked playing alongside Ibaka's. If teams target Kantner's inability on that side of the ball, they still have Steven Adams to go to off the bench, a nice component defensively.
The trade also gave the Thunder a very capable, underrated backup point guard, D.J. Augustin, after trading Reggie Jackson. This probably helped locker room chemistry as well. OKC players have openly noted Jackson was unhappy with coming off the bench and diminished playing time in general.
The trade gave another needed shooter (as mentioned above) in Kyle Singler. Oklahoma City resigned Singler to a $5 million per year deal this summer.
The team still has Serge Ibaka, Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The team will feature Dion Waiters streaking scoring ability, Steven Adams Kendrick Perkins-like willingness to do the dirty work, Nick Collison's savvy, Andre Roberson's defense, and first-round pick Cameron Payne's ability to run the screen and roll.
THE BIG ISSUE
The Thunder are simply stacked. That's not the issue. The question is whether or not they can stay healthy.
In a recent interview at a summer league game, Durant seemed confident he's on track to return in August. There's no reason to suspect he will miss any of the early season. Tall, lanky guys suffering from feet injury is scaring. And this specific toe injury has a high recurrence rate. Westbrook has had multiple knee surgeries over the past couple seasons. Ibaka has missed his fair share of time.
Injury concerns apply to every team in the league. However, it seems to be becoming a trend for this team. There is not a contending team that injuries wouldn't derail, but it seems more glaring to the Thunder because it is two of the top five players (arguably) in the world missing time.
The good news is the team is not filled with players like Greg Oden, Sam Bowie, Brandon Roy, or Yao Ming. We are not talking about players who are cursed. There's every reason to believe they'll have as good a chance as any team at staying healthy. If they do, may God have mercy on the rest of the league.
The injury struggles they have suffered the past two seasons could be a blessing in disguise. Durant and Westbrook had never seen life without one another, now they have. Durant carried the team to 59 wins during the 2014 regular season. But when he hit the Western Conference Semi-Finals things were not so smooth. The Grizzlies' stifling defense wore down Durant. Despite being in many of those games down the stretch, Durant came up very small in the clutch moments of the fourth quarter of that series. Westbrook put up astronomical numbers with Durant in street clothes. Just like Durant while Westbrook was out, Westbrook looked exhausted down the stretches of games without Durant. The two probably may have a greater understanding of the each other's value, having had to carry the burden alone.
The wild card in all of this is new head coach Billy Donovan. The former Florida coach is expected to be an upgrade over Brooks. That's a tall order as Brooks led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals three times in four years. If Donovan can offer a refreshing perspective as far as X's and O's are concerned, he may yield to be the upgrade many have billed him. The Thunder offensive under Brooks was often unimaginative and non-creative. If Donovan does not go through the struggles that many college coaches have in their transition to the NBA, the change alone greatly benefits Oklahoma City.
As high as expectations are from people like myself, there are certainly issues surrounding this team. From Durant and Westbrook's health, to whether the roster is as good as it looks on paper, can Westbrook and Durant coexist are each having virtually solo seasons, to Donovan, there are several question marks. But the positives far outweigh the negatives. When I think of Oklahoma City, I do not think of an injury-riddled team with a coach going down the Rick Pitino road. I think of a phenomenal team everyone has forgotten about with two of the five best players in the NBA, a stacked supporting cast, playoff experience, and a winning culture.
After most of the free agent dust settled, oddshark.com puts Oklahoma City's odds to win the 2016 championship at 17/1, fifth best in the league.
Cleveland Cavaliers 11/4
San Antonio Spurs 3/1
Golden State Warriors 11/2
Los Angeles Clippers 12/1
Oklahoma City 17/1
If healthy, I would have no problem having the Thunder at the very top of the list. Realistically analyzing the coaching change and health risk, I would put them third on my personal list behind San Antonio and Cleveland.
The Thunder will need to prove me right, as the summer of 2016 and all the inevitable Kevin Durant drama it entails is swiftly approaching. It is hard to envision Durant leaving a perennial contender where he won MVP. There will be no shortage of suitors, including his hometown Wizards who will offer him whatever he wants. Teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers will try to convince Durant he has outgrown the small market. The small market of Oklahoma City seems to perfectly fit his personality. Until Durant signs on the dotted line, the conversation will be ongoing.
What is the easiest way to settle that drama? Win a title this year.