Small Ball 2016-17 NBA Season Previews: Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder 2015-16 record (55-27)

Key additions: Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova

Key losses: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka

Last year could not have finished any worse for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team finally began to click down the stretch under first-year coach Billy Donovan and expectations were at an all-time high. Even with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs leading the way in the Western Conference standings, many experts pegged OKC as the favorites to win the title. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing at the top of their game and playing off of one another so well, they looked unstoppable.

Then we arrive at the Western Conference Finals. After taking care of San Antonio in 6 games the previous round, the Thunder had Golden State on their heels up 3-1 in the best of seven set. At this point, they were the clear favorites to win the title, and with that the likely favorites to win the Kevin Durant sweepstakes taking place that summer. However, one of the biggest collapses ever took place as OKC allowed Steph Curry and company to win 3 straight and move on to the NBA Finals. Perhaps even more disturbing, is that they eventually loss to the Cavs. It’s one thing to choke and get embarrassed against what would have been considered by most the greatest team ever, but they lost to Cleveland. Cleveland! Just rubbing salt in the wound.

Just in case that wasn’t enough salt, superstar Kevin Durant went on to sign with the Warriors in the off-season.

But fear not OKC fans, you are not even close to down for the count.  Here is why I believe the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder will be the most intriguing team to watch this season.

Season Outlook

Watching your franchise superstar walk away and getting nothing in return in hard to overcome. You can whine about it or as the GIF says, you can “DEAL WITH IT”. Most teams are faced with an obvious rebuild situation like when Shaq left Orlando or Lebron left Cleveland. The difference here is that OKC still has a perennial superstar and with that alone should be able to be competitive. Let’s face it. Russell Westbrook is a mean SOB.

Not only that, he is going to be playing with a HUGE chip on his shoulder this season. Even though he’s seemingly going out of his way to show he doesn’t care KD left, he has to care that KD left. The 6’3” point guard’s competitive edge is unmatched, and he will be playing with a lot to prove this year.

With arguably the most underrated signing this off-season, Thunder GM Sam Presti inked Westbrook to and extension potentially worth $85.7 million over the next three seasons. A move that not only locks up and all-star but gives his team stability heading into the season, knowing that Westbrook isn’t going to leave the way Durant did.

Presti also went younger and traded Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis. Serge Ibaka simply hasn’t been the impact player he was in the past, and bringing in two solid NBA rotational players at worst along with a high-upside big is more than they could have hoped for.

Oladipo is at nothing else a proven NBA defender with room to grow offensively. The former 2nd overall pick from Indiana has averaged 15.9 PPG during his 3-year career of 43.1% shooting. He hasn’t quite had that breakout season yet, but the all-star potential is still there. Playing alongside Westbrook should improve his stock. Defensively, the Thunder may already have the NBA’s strongest starting backcourt.

Ilyasova’s ability to knock down the 3 will only help stretch the floor. The ability to go small is something the Thunder never really took much advantage of with Durant primarily playing SF, but should be a lineup that Westbrook thrives in.

In order for the Thunder to be successful this season they will have lean on their defensive anchor, Steven Adams. Adams is still that hard-nosed, grind-for-every-rebound, steel-nut, New Zealand big dude who needs to play as tough as ever this season on the boards and defensively. Anything they get offensively will be a bonus.

Overall

This is not the same Thunder team that lost Kevin Durant for the season back in 2014-15 and failed to reach the playoffs. They are better prepared, better coached, deeper, and there is no longer any debate on who the alpha dog will be night in and night out. I suspect Oklahoma City fans will continue to bring the noise and make Chesapeake Energy Arena as tough a place to play as any this year. The Thunder will be playing for pride this season. And Westbrook will play like a man possessed, aiming at an MVP.

Record predication: 49-33

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