Five Things to Watch: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Russell WestbrookWe’re entering Year Six of Thundermania here in Oklahoma City, and the level of expectation surrounding the team is as high as it has ever been. But with that expectation comes a certain degree of uncertainty.

After all the years of hearing about how the Thunder were an organization based around a true “team” concept, fans are now coming to accept that the Thunder are a two-headed horse. There’s simply no way that this team could hoist a championship banner without a healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

But last season’s collapse in the conference semifinals can’t be blamed on Westbrook’s injury alone. Serge Ibaka was a huge part of it, disappearing offensively once he didn’t have anybody to feed him the ball. Kevin Martin also played a large role, perpetually disappointing Thunder fans with his inconsistent shot. And I would be remiss to forget the performance of Kendrick Perkins, who went from serviceable to useless, even when he was in his element against the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” Grizzlies.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the Thunder made next to no moves in the offseason. In fact, they ended up losing Martin because Ibaka’s new contract kicked in and they could not afford to go over the luxury tax. About the only significant gains came in the draft, where the Thunder took on a long-term project in big man Steven Adams. They also picked up Andre Roberson, who in a best-case scenario is a successor to the defensive-minded Thabo Sefolosha.

However, there is hope for the ever-elusive title run this season. Despite the Thunder’s losses, they still boast one of the youngest cores in the NBA, with room for improvement and growth as time goes on. All of the other potential contenders in the Western Conference are either dealing with age issues, injury issues, or will need to adjust to new personnel in key areas.

The Thunder will surely make some noise in the West. How loud that noise is depends on a variety of factors. It’s impossible to chronicle them all, but here’s the five most important things to watch this season.

1. The emergence of Jeremy Lamb. After coming to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade, Lamb spent more time in a Tulsa 66ers uniform than he did in a Thunder uniform last season. But after a year of development in the D-League, the hype on him is as high as ever.

His long wingspan comes into use offensively, as he can just shoot over his usually smaller defenders and doesn’t need to get overly creative near the rim. His range from the arc seems unlimited, as he regularly successfully pulls up from IbakaDurant territory.

However, Lamb wasn’t able to consistently perform at a high level in the Summer League, and his flaws seem to stem from his strengths. His long wingspan and lack of creativity will work against him when he has to face help defense in the paint, and his range can lead to some really bad shot selection. Moreover, he doesn’t have nearly the court vision that James Harden had, so he will have to rely on Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher to do the majority of the ballhandling.

2. The continued progression of Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has an excellent reputation as a hard worker, staying behind long after practices and working on his shot well before tip-off. His tireless perfectionism has paid off, as he has gone from a raw talent who routinely committed mental errors to a refined power forward who can shoot almost as well as Sefolosha.

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