Coming into the 2014-15 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder figure to continue to be one of the league’s true title contenders. What’s different? A big free agent signing, the continued development of young talent, and finally a change in the starting lineup. Should everything work out, this could be the strongest Thunder team ever.
Hovering over this potential perfect storm is a world of doubt. The Thunder have remained contenders for three or four years now but still have little hardware to show for it. So far, fate has served as an effective excuse. The team’s youth. James Harden’s paycheck. Russell Westbrook’s meniscus. Serge Ibaka’s calf. But there comes a time when the excuses begin to run out and fans get restless. For the Thunder, that year might be this year.
Here are five things to watch with the Thunder this season.
1. The new starting shooting guard. With the departure of the consistently frustrating Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder will finally be forced to make the first permanent change in their starting lineup since the trade deadline of 2011. Who gets the spot? Talent says Reggie Jackson, easily the Thunder’s fourth-best player and third best 1-on-1 scoring option. But Jackson has been most effective at running the point amongst a bench with very little scoring power, and it’s hard to see him moving out of that role. The Thunder don’t have anyone to effectively replace him there, and as fans of James Harden know, coach Scott Brooks likes to have a scoring guard on the bench.
Positionally, it might make most sense to slot in Anthony Morrow. The free agent arrival is the team’s most talented shooting guard and figures to be the long-range threat that Sefolosha never was. But slotting Morrow at the 2 would be a serious defensive downgrade. It’s hard to manage that downgrade when you’ve already got Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook primarily focusing on the offensive end.
It’s entirely possible that we could see a specialist such as Andre Roberson or Perry Jones III take the position, simply so Brooks can have size and length on D. Heck, there are even those who would call for Jeremy Lamb to start, even though his shooting simply hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant giving him serious playing time. So he may be the least likely option.
Whatever the final decision may be, it will definitely be semi-permanent, one would think. Brooks almost never experiments with major lineup changes at all and has been notoriously devoted to his starters in the past.
2. Frontcourt options: Experience or talent? For now, it would seem that the Thunder’s frontcourt rotation is set. Serge Ibaka will get the lion’s share of minutes at around 30, while Steven Adams will get about 20. The two veterans, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, will both get 15. The rest of the time is taken up by lineups that feature Durant at power forward.
A lot of things could break that harmony, though. Ibaka is probably as good as he will ever be, but sophomore Adams and rookie Mitch McGary both could be in for breakout seasons. At the same time, Perkins and Collison are both significant locker room presences, and it remains to be seen what effect reducing their minutes could have on morale. Collison was already effectively pushed out of the rotation during portions of last season’s playoffs, but Perkins has never registered a healthy DNP.
3. Kevin Durant’s MVP chase. As the reigning winner on a proven team with a trusted coach, it would appear that Durant is the early season favorite to win MVP. Durant’s primary competitor, LeBron James, is still very capable of being a factor, but his new situation in Cleveland is less stable than it was in Miami. Durant’s no stranger to media attention, but claiming a second MVP would do a ton to solidify his legacy as a player.
We all know who could potentially take that crown from Durant on other teams, but what about the dangers that lurk within? Durant will undoubtedly have to give up a few more possessions to Morrow, as well as Jackson and Adams, as their games improve. Can Durant maintain his fantastic numbers? Moreover, can Durant continue to consistently outshine Westbrook? The latter question may seem old and tired, but Westbrook posted some really impressive numbers during the postseason and may be in for his first truly healthy season in two years. That’s a lot of time to improve.
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4. Reggie Jackson’s contract year. Money is the elephant in the room when it comes to the Thunder. Should Jackson continue to play at his current level, the Thunder will have to go over the luxury tax next year to keep him on the roster. Famously, the Thunder didn’t go over that barrier two years ago, instead opting to trade Harden for future assets. They could do the same this season before the deadline, but it would be a horrible PR move.
More than likely, the Thunder are going to have to pay Jackson, who is eligible for an extension before Oct. 31 but may not get one, which makes him a restricted free agent next summer. How much money he gets depends on this season’s performance – another reason why he may continue to come off the bench.
Jackson is guaranteed to get around 30 minutes per game and will have the ball in his hands a lot. That should allow Jackson to maintain his reputation as one of the NBA’s top 20 point guards, which would warrant something well over the mid-level exception. As far as we know, Jackson is happy in Oklahoma City, although he may take exception if he doesn’t get the starting shooting guard role this season.
5. The clock is ticking on Scott Brooks. Fans in Oklahoma like to win. Anyone who goes to a college football game in this state during a bad season could tell you that. And despite the Thunder’s extended, consistent run near the top of the NBA, the honeymoon is starting to end. If the Thunder don’t manage to at least reach the NBA Finals this season, there will be serious questions. All of them are likely to fall in the lap of Brooks, who has been accused of underperforming for years.
Brooks certainly has changed throughout his tenure and has shown a greater ability to adapt on the fly and draw up decent offensive sets as time has gone on. Still, there are a number of legitimate criticisms levied against him. For example, Perkins has remained a starter for the sake of locker room sanity for far too long. Furthermore, Brooks’ offense isn’t very organized and is bad at finding the hot hand. Lastly, Brooks has never been able to find a consistently effective bench lineup, especially when it comes to moving the ball and getting good shots.
I don’t see any of those issues rectifying themselves this season, but I could certainly see them as grounds for Brooks losing his job should the Thunder come up short of their lofty but realistic goals.
Zebulun Benbrook is the manager of Welcome to Loud City, an SB Nation blog covering the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has written about the Thunder since their arrival and is a longtime NBA fan from Oklahoma City. You can follow him on Twitter @WTLC.