One couldn’t have imagined a worse outcome for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2014-15 season. A massive plague of injuries kept the team below full strength for the entire campaign. Specifically, Kevin Durant missed 55 games, Serge Ibaka missed 18 games and Russell Westbrook missed 15 games.
The other four rotation players who started and finished the season with OKC – Anthony Morrow, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Nick Collison – missed between eight and 16 games each.
All those missed games ultimately led to the Thunder missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Still, the 2015-16 season will be one of hope. Massive changes were made to an aging and stale roster. Discontent backup guard Reggie Jackson and long-maligned center Kendrick Perkins were dealt away at the trading deadline. In return, the Thunder received Enes Kanter, a long-needed offensive presence in the post. The Thunder also snagged Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin, who should add 3-point shooting and ball movement.
An earlier in-season trade involved the acquisition of Dion Waiters. Reviews on Waiters are mixed, but he’s certainly capable of leading an offense under the right circumstance.
The last major move by the Thunder was the firing of long-time coach Scott Brooks. Billy Donovan, rising from the college ranks, was chosen as his replacement.
All of these moves form the backdrop of what the Thunder will be dealing with this season, Durant’s last before reaching free agency. The main struggle will be finding a way to make all of these new pieces fit together. Oddsmakers have put the Thunder’s over/under win total at a whopping 57 1/2. (Note to our overseas and Nevada readers: For action on this line, use this Betfred promo code.)
Here’s five things to watch while the Thunder are figuring things out this season.
1. How strict will Billy Donovan be?
Scott Brooks was notorious for letting Durant and Westbrook dictate their own games. Donovan will likely continue that general philosophy. In a recent interview, Donovan said, “Trying to create an environment where (Durant and Westbrook) can be who they are is very important to me.”
However, Donovan may be willing to step over a few boundaries that Brooks didn’t. In several interviews, Donovan has been quick to emphasize hard work and commitment. Also, during Donovan’s tenure at Florida, he was on the record as saying, “I’d much rather have a guy a little less talented that loves to play than to have a guy with great talent that doesn’t give it his all.” Durant and Westbrook have never had their work ethic or hustle questioned, but it sounds like Donovan isn’t afraid to replace a player who is underperforming.
Certainly, Donovan will command more respect among his players and peers. This is something that’s hard to quantify, but consider this: Last season, an ESPN poll ranked Brooks the 20th best coach in the NBA. This is despite the fact that Brooks has a .620 overall win percentage and is just a season removed from the conference finals. By contrast, Donovan was ranked as college basketball’s top coach in the summer of 2014. Furthermore, 12 of Donovan’s former players are currently in the NBA. That means almost everybody in the locker room is going to know someone who used to play for Donovan.
2. The health of the Big Three
There’s no question that Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are a proven core when healthy. They could carry virtually any NBA roster deep into the playoffs. But all three players have had major surgery in the past two years, and all three missed significant time last season.
Westbrook, for all intents and purposes, is ready going into this season. He had three separate arthroscopic surgeries on his right knee in 2013, raising doubts about his long-term health at the time. But Westbrook hasn’t had public problems with the knee since returning in February 2014. He did miss time last season, but that was due to two separate minor injuries. At season’s end, Westbrook was performing at a historically high level.
Ibaka and Durant may need some time to find their groove. Ibaka had knee surgery on March 16 and was expected to be out four to six weeks. Late-season reports indicated that Ibaka’s injury may have taken more time to heal than anticipated. During the offseason, Ibaka elected to sit out EuroBasket 2015 and the NBA Africa charity game in order to let his injury completely heal. It is expected that Ibaka will be ready to go, but nothing has been confirmed.
Durant’s situation is the most alarming of all. In the past six months, Durant had three major surgeries on his right foot. The last on March 31 came with a time frame of four to six months. Durant was cleared for all “basketball activities” in late September, the midpoint of that timetable. Long enough? Too early? After three surgeries in six months, who knows?
Early season injuries to Durant and Westbrook forced the Thunder to play uphill for all of last season. Durant’s returns and exits illustrated that he was not entirely healthy when he chose to come back. With his free agency looming, it is unlikely that he will mortgage his future for the sake of an extra week or three of rest. And if the Thunder struggle in his absence, that could create a quandary.
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3. Who starts at center?
Donovan has already been asked about his starting lineup. He would only reveal that Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka would be guaranteed spots. Brooks ended last season with so many injured players that it is almost impossible to tell who would have won the spots on a full roster. The last time the Thunder had a full squad was on February 11, and they started Perkins and Roberson.
Donovan has explained that Durant will play the stretch-4 in certain situations, but not the majority of the time. That means Donovan will likely give the lion’s share of minutes at center to Kanter and Adams. Whether Kanter or Adams starts is a very important question.
Kanter is an extremely effective pick-and-roll partner with Westbrook and is a monster on the boards. However, Kanter has the sixth-worst defensive real plus-minus among active players. Having Ibaka at power forward didn’t alleviate Kanter’s defensive issues last season, so it is hard to say how effective Kanter could be with the starters. However, it is almost certain that Kanter would be a force to be reckoned with off the bench.
Adams presents more of a sure thing as a starting center. Despite being younger than Kanter, Adams has brought the same skill set since entering the NBA. He is the king of effort, an adequate rebounder and one of the NBA’s better rim protectors. But Adams hasn’t expanded his offensive repertoire much beyond basic hooks and putbacks. A run on the bench might give Adams more opportunity to expand his offensive game.
Regardless, Donovan’s decision about the starting center will define the Thunder’s identity. Kanter makes the Thunder a team focused on scoring and rebounding, while Adams make the Thunder a team focused on forcing turnovers and getting out in transition.
4. Who starts at shooting guard?
Similarly, Donovan has a plethora of options when it comes to who he can start at shooting guard. Morrow and Waiters are more offensively oriented, like Kanter. Roberson is more defensively oriented, like Adams.
But even these guards have their subtleties. Morrow is more of a complementary piece. Offensively, he’s the perfect option to take pressure off Durant and Westbrook. Morrow is able to hit extremely quick 3-pointers and has a capable floater as well. But Morrow can’t create much on his own and is undersized defensively.
On the other hand, Waiters is an exceptional creator. He scores best in 1-on-1 situations and loves to drive the basket. But Waiters is a poor catch-and-shoot guy and doesn’t defend very well despite an imposing physique. So even though both Waiters and Morrow are offensively oriented, either option would give the Thunder a very different look.
Looming as the third option is Roberson. He is known for his defense, owning the highest defensive rating on the Thunder last season among players who played more than 50 games. Roberson also is noted for his willingness to pass and exceptional offensive rebounding ability. However, he brings very little on the offensive end. Brooks liked Roberson the most, but a lot of fans would like to see more production out of that position.
5. Do the younger players get a shot?
Right now, the Thunder have two talented younger players that could feasibly make an impact this season. The most likely contributor is Mitch McGary, an athletic big man selected 21st in the 2014 draft. McGary was always a presence on the boards last season and usually found a way to score as well. Over the offseason, McGary reportedly dropped 30 pounds and made improvements to his game. It will be hard for the 35-year-old Collison to hold a rotation spot over McGary for long. But for now, Collison is the better passer, screener and defender.
The other possible contributor is guard Cameron Payne, the 14th pick in the 2015 draft. Payne is a talented scorer from a small college, Murray State, with a variety of skills. Most notably, he has a really versatile floater that he can hit from multiple distances. The floater is a shot that no other Thunder player possesses. If Payne wants to get minutes on a healthy team, he will need to successfully manage the game better than Augustin.
Marina Mangiaracina is the manager of Welcome to Loud City, a SB Nation blog covering the Oklahoma City Thunder. She has written about the Thunder since their arrival and is a longtime NBA fan from Oklahoma City. You can follow her on Twitter @MarinaWTLC.