Enemy: Oklahoma City Thunder
3SOB Forecast*: 57-25
What’s the story in Oklahoma City?
I’ll let the words of Russell Westbrook perform the introduction here: “I’m baaaack.”
The delivery rings sweet in the ears of Oklahoma City Thunder fans and ominously in the minds of the rest of the league, as the dynamic lead guard for the Thunder rehabs from his first serious injury.
Suffered at the hands of a collision with Patrick Beverley, the torn meniscus of the previously remarkably durable Westbrook single-handedly derailed what was another year of dominant basketball for the Oklahoma City Thunder in spite of their trading away breakout All-Star James Harden to the Houston Rockets. It would be blasphemous on this site and pointless in practice to argue where the Thunder would have ended up when the book closed on the 2012-13 season had Westbrook not gone down, but it would suffice to say that it would not have made their chances worse.
What may have however made their chances worse going forward was losing Kevin Martin, the immediately effective yield of the Harden trade, for nothing in free agency. Martin was hit-or-miss in the postseason, but seamlessly filled the super-sixth man role that was vacated by Harden for the majority of the season.
With Martin gone, and a largely inactive summer behind them, the Thunder will look to Summer League sensation and fellow yield of the Houston trade, Jeremy Lamb, to step up and answer the bell as the dynamic scorer off the bench to alleviate the pressure off of Westbrook and Kevin Durant for stretches. His fellow youngster Reggie Jackson was similarly thrust into the fire when Westbrook went down, and did an admirable job for a guy logging most of his first career starts in the NBA during the Western Conference Semifinals. To be fair though, playing on a team with a guy like Durant does tend to make the game easier for all parties involved.
So why the inactivity? In part due to the necessity to be crafty with one’s cap situation in a small market and partially resulting from being hamstrung by the collective contracts of their big trio of Westbrook, Durant, and Serge Ibaka, plus Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder have been forced to choose between luxury tax hell and selective spending on their supporting cast — we Grizzlies fans should consider ourselves privy to the plight at this juncture. Oklahoma City’s choice to be selective has left them in an interesting position as a contending team that will call upon numerous unseasoned bodies to carry them through their run.
Who are they cooking with?
As a unit, the Thunder were the only team to function as a top five offensive and defensive unit by pure efficiency measures. That’s right, not even NBA finalists Miami or San Antonio managed to crack the top five on both sides of the ball. In addition, OKC logged some of the top shooting percentages in the league, ranking third in eFG% (52.7) and second in TS% (58.0), largely through doing a phenomenal job of getting to the foul line, and making the most of the trips that were awarded. The Thunder’s team free throw percentage sat at 82.8%, as they were the only team to eclipse the 80% mark, while getting to the line for a second-best in the league 2196 attempts on the year.
The only blemish on their team metrics came in the assisting department, where they fell to 24th in the league with 22.4 assists per 100 possessions. Westbrook has been the subject of a lions share of blame throughout his career for his unwillingness to defer and pass the ball in various situations, but the playoffs last season made it pretty apparent that Durant would welcome having his relentless running mate back in the backcourt, regardless of whether or not it diminishes his touches. It remains to be seen how Westbrook bounces back from injury, but if it does have a negative impact on his bounce, we could very well see him distributing a bit more until he eases back into form.
Regarding the mass of young bodies that I teased above, a combination of the Harden trade and previous positioning has set the stage for the Thunder to possess a number of raw assets, each with potential to be something greater. Joining the previously mentioned Lamb and Jackson, as well as last year’s 6’11 and versatile draftee, Perry Jones III, the Thunder have added a few more pieces for the future through the 2013 draft. Seven-footer and Marc Gasol fan Steven Adams out of New Zealand headlines the rookie group in Oklahoma City in the mold of an Ibaka-lite athletic big man. He is joined by Andre Roberson, who despite being chosen 26th in the draft, ranked out at 3rd overall in ESPN draft guru Kevin Pelton’s prospect rater, and Alex Abrines who will likely polish his chops overseas for the next few years.
How do the good guys stack up?
Lee Eric Smith:
“Everybody knows that OKC would’ve won that series if Russell Westbrook hadn’t gotten hurt!” Surely you’ve heard that one before. Instead, he WAS hurt and the Grizz took the West Semis 4-1. There is still plenty of talent here, and we’re looking at a well-coached, deep team that has been together for a while — just like the Grizzlies. The question mark for me about The Thunder at this point is at the SG position. James Harden went to Houston where he blossomed last season, and his replacement, Kevin Martin, bolted for Minnesota. That likely means that they will start Thabo Sefolosha at SG (as usual), but will be relying on young players like Jeremy Lamb in reserve. It also bears watching how Westbrook recovers from injury. I think he’ll be able to play, but will he lose some of that athletic recklessness that makes him so dangerous? But as long as KD35 suits up, these squads will go at it and it’ll be a lot of fun to watch. Season Split 2-2.
Brad Graham (of Buckets Magazine):
Don’t get too excited, Memphis fans. While your team might’ve defeated the 60 win, top-seeded Tornado Alley assault in five games, Scott Brooks’ armament hasn’t lost any of its capabilities (despite Sam Presti’s dollar saving tactics being exposed and Kevin Martin jumping ship). Plus, there’s just no predicting what an angry Russell Westbrook can do and best believe he’s out for blood after the Grizz slapped around K.D in the 2013 Post-season.
The loss of Kevin Martin (and his 14ppg) hurts but the addition of Ryan Gomes helps — and offers a new kind of flexibility, should the 6-7 Forward duplicate his 2008-09 stats. In fact, having Gomes allows the Thunder to be even more versatile, should OKC want to go small with Serge Ibaka at the five and Durant at the four (a seemingly nightmare scenario for Memphis because it not only limits Zach Randolph’s and Marc Gasol’s capacity to clog the paint but it tires them out). The flip side of course is playing Nick Collison or Kendrick Perkins with Ibaka and Gomes up front, and having Durant and Westbrook in the backcourt. Remember, K.D can even play PG now and showed in the 2013 Playoffs that he can adopt a LeBron James like role for OKC. Playing K.D in the backcourt isn’t as crazy as it sounds but its success relies heavily on Gomes being his 2009 self or him finding a way to channel Jeff Green (whoops).
Both squads are weakest (in terms of production and depth) at the Shooting Guard spot but both backcourts offer real X-factors. Reggie Jackson, who posted 14 points per game (in 38 mins per) during their second round Playoff clash also allows Brooks to run dual Point Guards now that Westbrook is back. Interestingly, Jerryd Bayless posted 18 points per against the Thunder in 2012-13, so Jackson, now a Bayless-like figure for OKC, will be asked / looking to inflict similar damage on the Grizzly D. If either guard makes a major impact, it’ll help their team’s cause immensely.
Worth noting, Westbrook wasn’t exactly a Top Ten player against Memphis last season. In fact, he under performed against the Grizz (19.3ppg, 36% shooting) but after dude was forced to watch the Bears ravaged his favourite picnic basket, the dynamo will be stubbornly set on extracting revenge. That could spell trouble for Mike Conley although it’s likely Tony Allen will see his name listed across from Westbrook’s on the team’s Whiteboard. Likewise, Thabo Sefolosha will likely be tasked with containing and chasing Conley.
With Perkins, Ibaka, Collison, rookie mountain Steve Adams, Daniel Orton and Hasheem Thabeet, Brooks will be hoping the Thunder have more than enough skilled bodies to play Memphis straight up but – and there’s always a but — their three regular season outings will ultimately come down to Westbrook vs. Conley. Whoever gets the upper hand in their delicious duel should see their squad get over the line (that is, unless of course K.D catches fire… and should that happen, the Grizzlies’ starting five will have to form a Devastator-like combatant.
These teams don’t like each other, continuously get in each others way and really, anything goes when they match-up. In the red corner, the Thunder have the best offensive pairing in the pros (Durant + Westbrook) while in the blue corner, the Grizz offer an imposing trio of All-Defensive talents. They’re two of the four best teams out West and it’s a shame they can’t face off 25 times each campaign.
When and Where do they square off?
December 11th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
January 14th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
February 3rd: 7:00PM at the Chesapeake Energy Arena
February 28th: 7:00PM at the Chesapeake Energy Arena
For more Thunder content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Daily Thunder.
*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.