It has been a tumultuous past couple of months for the Oklahoma City Thunder, to say the least. They lost a heartbreaking series against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, a series which they dominated the first 4 games only to see Golden State come back and crush their championship hopes.
On draft night, OKC traded big man Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for guard Victor Oladipo and the No. 12 pick, which they used to draft Domantis Sobonis. Then, in the beginning of July, superstar Kevin Durant hit free agency and joined the very team that ended the Thunder’s playoff dreams weeks earlier. As if that didn’t cut deep into the die hard, blue-blooded veins of the OKC faithful, reports surfaced in the following days that Russell Westbrook wouldn’t sign a contract extension “under any circumstances.”
Fast forward a few weeks later, and now Thunder fans can breathe a lot easier. Despite all of these earlier reports that Westbrook was all but gone, Russell and the Thunder agreed on a 3-year, $85 million contract extension, with a player option for the 2018-2019 season. Given the short length of the contract, it appears that Westbrook will be looking to cash in after the next salary cap jump next summer, while giving GM Sam Presti a couple of years to lure another star to OKC to play alongside Westbrook.
While losing a player of Kevin Durant’s caliber is a huge blow, the Thunder will still be a very good team next season. While they most likely won’t score as much as they did, they will be a very physical, defensive team. This, I believe, will be their calling card next season. With Westbrook and backcourt mate Victor Oladipo, they may very well be the best defensive backcourt in the NBA. They will be able to give fits to any backcourt that opposes them. And in today’s guard-heavy league, this will be greatly beneficial to OKC. Andre Roberson is a solid defender in his own right. Down low, OKC has two brick houses that will bring toughness inside in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Adams is the better defender/rebounder, while Kanter will be able provide some reliable low-post scoring. With the departure of Ibaka, 3rd-year man Mitch McGary projects to see a solid increase in minutes at the 4, with Ersan Ilyasova and the always reliable Nick Collison to relieve him.
With two guards that love to drive the lane, having guys that can hit shots from the outside is a plus, and OKC has them. Anthony Morrow, Ersan Ilyasova, Kyle Singler, Cameron Payne, and Alex Abrines are all guys who could thrive off of getting open looks from OKC’s backcourt driving the lane and causing the defense to collapse.
Given the pieces that they have, and an extra motivated Westbrook that will be on a mission to destroy everything in his path next season, I expect the Thunder to be in the thick of the playoff race in the West. My projection is a 6 seed.
Huge Bucks, Packer, Brewer, Predator and Badger fan. But above all, just a lover of sports in general. Can’t wait to bring you some sports articles from a serious, yet humorous, perspective.