Thunder: Greatness on a (surgical) knife’s edge

Thunder Cover

In the next two weeks, the Armchair crew will be taking on the NBA Regular Season preview. We will be taking on each team individually and looking into what to expect from each.

Last Season: 45-37, 9th in West

Additions: Enes Kanter’s enormous contract, Luke Ridnour (briefly, before he was traded to the 1994 Supersonics)

Losses: Cap space, Jeremy Lamb

Let’s get this out of the way early: if Kevin Durant is healthy last season, there is no way OKC finish ninth. All of the offseason buzz about the Thunder’s transactions – most notably their seemingly crazy decision to sign a defensively inept Enes Kanter to a $70-million contract – should be viewed through that prism. Other than that one error, the Thunder had a quiet offseason. Scott Brooks was fired to bring in Florida’s Billy Donovan, and they briefly possessed Luke Ridnour before the need for cap space and constraints of general relativity dealt him to their 1994 iteration. Otherwise, the Thunder have stayed put.

And why wouldn’t you? Provided everyone is healthy, they are one of the most dominant teams in the NBA: Kevin Durant remains the league’s second best player – a supernatural scorer who can seem to go weeks at a time where he doesn’t miss a shot; Russell Westbrook remains the most athletic point guard in the league and, while not as consistent as Durant, is liable to go off for 40, 15, and 10 at any moment; Serge Ibaka is an excellent shot blocker, and Steven Adams and Mitch McGarry have given them added depth at centre. In fact, the Thunder have one of the deepest benches in the league this season, and Donovan seems ready to introduce a more flexible and refined offense to a team defined by heroball and endless isolation plays during the Scott Brooks era. There will be growing pains –particularly as he figures out how to integrate Kanter in a way that doesn’t force Ibaka to defend two positions at once (particularly given that the Spaniard already struggles against stretch fours as-is) – but we should see a more sophisticated and unpredictable Thunder team than in seasons past.

For the Thunder, it all comes down to two things: 1) Kevin Durant’s health. The foot injury that plagued him last season is notoriously tricky to heal, and it may well be an irritant for the rest of the Slim Reaper’s career. Without him, the Thunder simply aren’t as dominant – even if they’d made the 8-seed last season, they would have been blown out by the Warriors. If he’s healthy, and happy with the new dynamic of the Donovan era, then this team will be fire and his future in OKC is likely. If he goes down for lengths of time again, or clashes with Billy Donovan, then this season – and Durant’s long-term future in Oklahoma – are in doubt. 2) Billy Donovan. Scott Brooks is not a very good coach, but he was well liked by the Thunder locker room and was respected by the team’s stars. If he can’t figure out how to make all the pieces click tactically, or if he battles Westbrook or Durant, or if he plays Enes “has heard of, but not internalized, the concept of defending” Kanter too much, then the team could struggle.

Plausible best-case scenario: Durant is healthy and firing on all cylinders, Donovan gets his tactics right, Thunder bulldoze the Western Conference and beat Cleveland in the Finals. Durant signs a long-term contract at the end of the season.

Plausible worst-case scenario: Durant’s foot injury remains unresolved, Donovan clashes with Westbrook and Ibaka, Thunder either miss the playoffs or are eliminated in the first round, Kevin Durant signs with the Wizards in the 2016 offseason.

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