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2013-14 NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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The Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in rather a precarious position as they prepare to begin their 2013-14 NBA season. Coming off a year that saw them win their second consecutive Northwest Division title and 60 regular-season games, their most since moving from Seattle, the Thunder could find themselves slipping from the penthouse of the NBA’s upper echelon.

In last season’s first-round playoff tilt with the Houston Rockets, OKC was rolling when, in Game 2, the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley overzealously barreled into Russell Westbrook’s right knee as he was calling timeout, tearing his meniscus and ending his season. And though the Thunder went on to capture that series in six games, they struggled mightily to do so with Kevin Durant receiving next to no help on offense, allowing the Rockets to come back in the series and make OKC sweat. For the Thunder, having Batman without Robin for the first time exposed their glaring need for folks who can put the ball in the hole. Without Westbrook, Durant was stretched paper-thin as OKC was served up on a silver platter as a sacrificial lamb in Round 2 to the Memphis Grizzlies. Even with Russ, the Thunder were no better than even money to survive it. Without him, the rugged Griz sent OKC home packing in five games.

It got worse over the summer as guard Kevin Martin, having replaced James Harden as as OKC’s third scoring option, signed with Minnesota.

After losing a major chunk of their offense and with their star point guard returning from major surgery, can Oklahoma City remain among the NBA’s elite? Will Westbrook return the same player he’s been his whole career or will his explosiveness be sabotaged by a knee injury, as has happened with so many players before him? Will someone currently on the roster emerge to offer a helping hand to the “Dynamic Duo” and score the ball on a consistent basis? Or will it take a midseason trade to find that guy?

The answers to these questions will go a long way toward determining just what to expect from the Oklahoma City Thunder this upcoming season.

Most Important Player: The knee-jerk reaction here would be to say Durant but it would be wrong. It’s Westbrook. For all those Westbrook bashers who harp on his turnovers and wildness, wondering how the Thunder would look without him, they got their answer during last year’s playoffs. They won’t be asking that question again.

X-Factor: The teams’ ability to replace the 14 points per game that Martin took with him to the Timberwolves. OKC can ill afford to lose a scorer and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious solution to that problem in-house.

Rotations: The Thunder go to war at the point with the inimitable Westbrook at the point, backed up by Reggie Jackson and the ancient Derek Fisher. Regardless of how well Russell recovers, the Thunder will find a way to get Jackson on the court much more than ever before; this could be a breakout year for him. The other backcourt spot is manned by defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha, followed by second-year man Jeremy Lamb and rookie Andre Roberson. At the wing, when Durant gets his brief moments of rest, recent pickup Ryan Gomes and young Perry Jones can be expected to break a very small sweat. Roberson could also swing over and see some minutes at the 3. As has been the Thunder formula, Serge Ibaka will continue to hold down the power forward spot with veteran Nick Collison in reserve to make his dependable, blue-collar contributions. The center rotation of Kendrick Perkins, Hasheem Thabeet and Summer League standout Daniel Orton isn’t eye-popping. But now add seven-foot rookie Steven Adams to the mix and an intrigued eyebrow is raised.

What Needs to Go Right: Durant needs to continue to savage NBA defenses, Westbrook shows no ill effects and attacks as ruthlessly as ever, someone besides them steps up as a legitimate offensive threat, and Ibaka shows a willingness on offense to play closer to the basket. Oh yeah, and it would be really great if Adams’ learning curve weren’t so … curvy.

It’s Really Bad If: Durant is averaging 32 shots a game, it’s December and Westbrook still hasn’t looked like himself, no one aside from them is averaging double figures in points, and Thabeet is ahead of Adams on the depth chart by the All-Star break.

Bold Prediction: Westbrook returns almost as good as new but OKC struggles to find enough offense to offset losing Martin. They make a monster trade that pays dividends in the playoffs but isn’t enough to prevent the Thunder from dropping to the mid-40s in wins as the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets zoom by them in the Western Conference hierarchy.


Steven Adams, C
Strengths: This year’s first-round selection out of Pittsburgh. Good post defender and capable shot-blocker, very athletic, can run the floor and finish at the basket with finality, scores on alley-oop lobs and stick-backs.
Weaknesses: Offensively, still very raw. With hard work he could develop a reasonable post game. Defensively, needs to get stronger to maintain post position against the stronger centers in the league.
Season Prediction: Adams is a project who will likely be brought along very slowly, probably getting 12-15 minutes per game backing up Perkins as he becomes acclimated to the pro game.

Nick Collison, PF/C
Strengths: Tough defender, rarely makes mistakes, brings a “lunch-pail” work ethic, cleans up missed shots, a quiet “by example” type of leader.
Weaknesses: Slow and not super-athletic, he can get abused at times by the NBA’s great forwards.
Season Prediction: Collison is the type of gritty, unsung player contenders need to have on their roster. This season should be another of scraped knees, bruised elbows and recovering lots of 50/50 balls.

Kevin Durant, SF
Strengths: Along with Carmelo Anthony, the league’s most effortless, versatile and unstoppable scorer. Can hit from anywhere on the floor 35 feet and in. Can also take it off the bounce, jet by defenders and throw down posterizing dunks. Listen man, KD does what he wants. But get this, Durant’s game is actually still improving (shudder!). Last season he showed more vocal on-court leadership, attacked the boards and dropped dimes like we’ve never seen him. He even recorded his first career triple-double.
Weaknesses: We’re getting a little nit-picky here, aren’t we? When you’re universally recognized as the second-best player on Earth, one has to reach a bit. With that said … Durant could definitely expand on the one area of his offensive game that was lacking—his post play. Last season, he was noticeably more determined to score on the block and he was quite effective; with his length and quickness, he’s a nightmare matchup down there for just about everyone. Now we need to see him make it a permanent part of his tool box and add a move or two. Also, he could use a little time in the weight room. And continue to improve his concentration and engagement on defense, where he made great strides last year.
Season Prediction: KD averages 30, wins another scoring title and becomes a more complete player than he’s ever been. There are whispers of King James possibly relinquishing his throne.

Derek Fisher, PG
Strengths: The 39-year-old, three-time NBA champion is back for another season. He’s made a career out of burying crunch-time shots in big moments, especially in the postseason. Not to mention the stabilizing presence his leadership brings to the locker room and the huddle.
Weaknesses: Did I mention that he’s 39 years old? He’s lost two or three steps from his prime years and is now strictly a situational player.
Season prediction: With the Thunder slipping in the conference standings, what Fish has left in the tank will probably be wasted. Expect this season to be his last in the NBA.

Ryan Gomes, SF
Strengths: He’s shown an ability to score the rock, not a bad passer, can rebound the ball when engaged.
Weaknesses: Limited athletically. Not big enough to guard 4s, not quick enough to guard 3s.
Season Prediction: Strictly a spare part, don’t expect to see much of Gomes unless the Thunder are up or down 20 in the last five minutes of games.

Serge Ibaka, PF
Strengths: Shot-blocker extraordinaire, he’s led the league in that category the past two seasons. He’s also the Thunder’s only rim protector. Good post defender, especially in help situations. His jumper from 16-18 feet is money. On occasion, will put it on the floor and power to the hole. Critical piece to the OKC puzzle.
Weaknesses: Offensively, it’s past time for the 6’10” Ibaka to unveil a post move, even if it’s just your basic jump hook; nobody with his size and athleticism should live on the perimeter so much, especially on a team so lacking in big bodies. Could also rebound more than he does.
Season Prediction: “Serge Protector” will continue to give OKC what he always has while having his share of 18 and 11 nights.

Reggie Jackson, PG
Strengths: Lightning-quick and athletic, he has a scorer’s instinct. Opened eyes with some stellar play in the Summer League, including a 35-point game. He could be ready for major minutes.
Weaknesses: A shoot-first point guard who needs to become more adept at finding open teammates … sounds almost like a poor man’s Russell Westbrook, does it not?
Season Prediction: Coach Scott Brooks shows more faith, gives Jackson 25-28 minutes a game and he responds with the best season of his young career.

Perry Jones, SF
Strengths: Massively talented, super-athletic, good ball handler for a big guy, can score both inside and out, solid defender.
Weaknesses: Lack of toughness both mental and physical, doesn’t show enough activity and focus to warrant more meaningful minutes.
Season Prediction: Will play when Durant sits. Which means “sparingly.”

Jeremy Lamb, SG
Strengths: Decent outside shooter who can also put it on the floor and get to the lane, possesses good size and long arms, gets after it on the boards.
Weaknesses: Needs to add a few pounds to his wiry frame, stronger guards will take advantage of him. Needs to play under control and not force shots.
Season Prediction: After playing well in the Summer League, Lamb has to show that he can carry it over with the big boys. Has a legitimate chance to crack the rotation.

Daniel Orton
Strengths: Kentucky product who also opened eyes in the Summer League; if put-back dunks were a statistical category, he might have led the league. Strong post presence, ferocious rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, will hit the occasional face-up 15-footer.
Weaknesses: Needs to work on his post game and improve his awful free-throw shooting (just 52 percent from the line last year).
Season Prediction: Orton is still quite a ways from realizing his potential but he should get more of an opportunity to play this year. The question is, is what we saw from him in Orlando indicative of what we’ll see from him this season? Or simply a case of lesser competition?

Kendrick Perkins, C
Strengths: Toughness, physical interior defense and intimidating presence on a team that desperately needs it. Solid rebounder.
Weaknesses: Has a tendency to get caught up in “mano a mano” moments with opponents, drawing technicals and committing stupid fouls. A non-factor on offense. During his days in Boston, he could actually score around the basket and knock down the 12-footer; games of 13 and 8 were not all that uncommon for him. Then came the knee injury he sustained in the 2010 Finals and that was the end of his offense.
Season Prediction: A perfect example of an “intangibles” guy, he’s a perfect candidate to be included in a deadline deal to bring in a scorer.

Andre Roberson, SF
Strengths: Rookie out of Colorado, excellent defender, long and wiry with good wingspan, runs the floor superbly and can finish emphatically in transition, can score around the basket.
Weaknesses: Not a good shooter, poor free-throw shooter.
Season Prediction: His defense will earn him significant minutes and his nose for the ball will have him involved in lots of important plays before season’s end.

Thabo Sefolosha, SG/SF
Strengths: Lockdown defender, “dagger” three-point shot maker.
Weaknesses: His role is to guard the opposing team’s best player and hit open shots when they present themselves; Sefolosha has done an admirable job in that respect. The question now is, is it time for the Thunder to upgrade at shooting guard? Has OKC run its course as a title contender driving a Buick at the 2 when they could have a Jaguar?
Season Prediction: Look for OKC to move him if the right deal comes along, most likely involving a big-time scorer.

Hasheem Thabeet, C
Strengths: At 7’3″, 260 pounds, he runs the floor well. Um … carries the team Gatorade cooler with nerves of steel and is also Durant’s go-to guy for his dry-cleaning pickups.
Weaknesses: Thabeet still has no concept of how to participate on the offensive end of the floor. He doesn’t alter or block enough shots for a guy his size. Needs to improve in virtually every area to have even the slightest chance of sustaining an NBA career.
Season Prediction: In all fairness to this young man out of UConn by way of Tanzania, Africa, he is still learning the game. As of right now, he can’t play. At the very least, he gives coach Brooks six extra fouls to play with every night.

Russell Westbrook, PG
Strengths: Attacks the rim with a ferocity not seen in a player his size ever. His energy and ability to push the pace while getting to the rack at will are essential to the Thunder’s success and identity. He’s one half of the league’s most potent one-two scoring punch and he has the ability to take over games for stretches and hit clutch shots.
Weaknesses: The flip side of Russell’s maniacal energy is that he will still sometimes play out of control, making critical mistakes with the rock. He also has a tendency to jack up ill-advised shots that needlessly waste possessions. He still doesn’t facilitate and find open teammates at the level of other elite points, but his primary role is to put pressure on defenses, not the typical point guard job description.
Season Prediction: Westbrook starts slow but finds his rhythm and has the usual year: 20+ points, 6-8 assists per game, another All-Star selection, lots of turnovers and 9-for-28 shooting nights. And the Thunder will need all of it.

OKlahoma City Thunder 2013-14 Season Prediction: 47-35, second in the Northwest Division, sixth seed in the Western Conference.

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