Oklahoma City Thunder: 2016-17 Season Outlook

After losing Kevin Durant over the summer, what can be expected of Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder? Here’s their 2016-17 season preview.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oct 13, 2016; Tulsa, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) points into the stand in game against the Memphis Grizzlies during the first quarter at BOK Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Without question, the Oklahoma City Thunder were one of the NBA’s biggest losers this summer.

Though they got younger, locked in Russell Westbrook with a contract extension and swung a pretty nice trade for Serge Ibaka, the loss of Kevin Durant automatically removed them from the Western elite.

With KD out of the picture, the Thunder are entering a new era. They still have a franchise star in Westbrook, and with younger players on the rise like Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and the newly acquired Victor Oladipo, Billy Donovan‘s squad shouldn’t be overlooked, even if they’re not a real threat to win the title.

But as OKC turns itself over to Westbrook, what can be expected of the electrifying but simultaneously flawed superstar? And what can be expected of his supporting cast now that their names will be called more often?

With a new backcourt and plenty of questions to answer about how good this team will be without Durant, here’s a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2016-17 season preview and predictions.

2015-16 Vitals

55-27, 1st in Northwest Division, 3rd in Western Conference
110.2 PPG (2nd)/102.9 OPP PPG (15th)
113.1 Offensive Rating (2nd)/105.6 Defensive Rating (13th)

Team Leaders
Scoring: Kevin Durant, 28.2 PPG
Rebounding: Kevin Durant, 8.2 RPG
Assists: Russell Westbrook, 10.4 APG
Steals: Russell Westbrook, 2.0 SPG
Blocks: Serge Ibaka, 1.9 BPG

Honors
All-NBA First Team: Russell Westbrook
All-NBA Second Team: Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder

May 26, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) reacts after being called for a foul against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter in game five of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Roster

Alex Abrines, SG
Steven Adams, C
Semaj Christon, PG
Nick Collison, PF
Daniel Hamilton, SG
Josh Huestis, SF
Ersan Ilyasova, PF
Enes Kanter, C
Joffrey Lauvergne, C
Mitch McGary, PF
Anthony Morrow, SG
Victor Oladipo, SG
Cameron Payne, PG
Ronnie Price, PG
Andre Roberson, SG
Domantas Sabonis, PF
Kyle Singler, SF
Kaleb Tarczewski, C
Russell Westbrook, PG
Reggie Williams, SF
Chris Wright, SF

Offseason Additions
Alex Abrines (free agency, FC Barcelona {Spain}), Semaj Christon (free agency, Consultinvest Pesaro {Italy}), Daniel Hamilton (56th overall draft pick, Connecticut), Ersan Ilyasova (trade, Orlando Magic), Joffrey Lauvergne (trade, Denver Nuggets), Victor Oladipo (trade, Orlando Magic), Ronnie Price (free agency, Phoenix Suns), Domantas Sabonis (11th overall draft pick, Gonzaga), Kaleb Tarczewski (free agency, undrafted), Reggie Williams (free agency, Avtodor Saratov {Russia}), Chris Wright (free agency, Maccabi Rishon LeZion, {Israel})

Offseason Subtractions
Kevin Durant (free agency, Golden State Warriors), Randy Foye (free agency, Brooklyn Nets), Serge Ibaka (trade, Orlando Magic), Nazr Mohammed (free agency, unsigned), Dion Waiters (free agency, Miami Heat)

Quick Thoughts

In one summer, the Thunder lost two members of their former Big Three — one planned, and one unplanned.

In an effort to get younger, provide a little more backcourt firepower and move on from a player whose best years may already be behind him, the Thunder dealt Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Oladipo, stretch-4 Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Domantas Sabonis.

Though the frontcourt is exceedingly crowded — especially after trading for Joffrey Lauvergne — OKC bolstered its backcourt by adding Oladipo. His defense will be crucial alongside Westbrook, and if he can finally have the breakout season we’ve been waiting for, the Thunder will have one of the league’s most dynamic, athletic backcourts.

Bringing over Alex Abrines from Spain improves the team’s wing depth, but there are concerns about how well Oladipo and Andre Roberson can spread the floor, even in small-ball lineups that don’t include non-shooting bigs like Enes Kanter or Steven Adams. In this way, the Thunder may rely on Ilyasova’s perimeter touch more than they’re comfortable with.

Westbrook’s driving lanes are going to be clogged like never before, and though the Thunder are going to HAMMER teams on the boards, their shooting flaws could be very noticeable unless Oladipo takes a major step forward.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Sep 23, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) poses for portraits during Oklahoma City Thunder media day at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Three Key Storylines: 1. The Russell Westbrook Show

Hell hath no fury like a Westbrook scorned.

Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold.

The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. 

Choose whichever menacing quote you like; Russell Westbrook will embody it during the 2016-17 season.

Ever since he entered the league, Westbrook has played the game with a relentless amount of fire and passion. After being betrayed by his superstar partner Kevin Durant, Russ is about to take that insane competitive streak to another level.

Last year, Westbrook averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game, tying Magic Johnson for the most triple-doubles in a single season (18) over the last 50 years. This year, with Durant gone and Westbrook fully seizing the reins, he could very well pull off Oscar Robertson‘s Herculean task of averaging a triple-double for an entire season.

Remember, in the 2014-15 season where KD missed 55 games, Russ led the league in scoring, averaging 28.1 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game.

Already this preseason, Westbrook has destroyed one rim, put the ball behind his back for a layup in transition, nearly got in a fight with Marc Gasol, and been rejected by another rim. The man is simply going to be must-watch television in 2016-17.

Whether that’s because he’s a triple-double machine programmed to destroy the world or because he’ll be a regular threat for an in-game meltdown remains to be seen. But the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of Westbrook’s game will be amplified like never before, and bearing witness to it all will make the Thunder one of the league’s most entertaining teams no matter their record.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oct 11, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo (5) leaps to keep the ball in bounds during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Thunder 114-109. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Three Key Storylines: 2. Opportunity For Oladipo

The only player who will be under as much scrutiny as Westbrook this season is Victor Oladipo. Heading into restricted free agency in 2017, this is the best chance for the former No. 2 overall draft pick to prove that his potential as a two-way star wasn’t overblown.

In 2014-15, Oladipo put up a promising 18-4-4 stat line while improving his field goal percentage (43.6 percent) and three-point percentage (33.9 percent) from his rookie year. Last season under head coach Scott Skiles, however, he saw his role fluctuate back and forth between the starting lineup and sixth man duty.

Oladipo averaged 16.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game in that season, improving his three-point efficiency to a career-high 34.8 percent. His league-wide value took a hit, but Skiles and the Magic could hardly be seen as an environment conducive to growth. OKC should be different.

Orlando making the premature decision to give up on this 24-year-old wing could be a blessing for OKC, a team that have grown accustomed to making playoffs runs and is led by a vicious floor general who knows what it takes to win.

However, the next phase of Oladipo’s career is entirely on his own shoulders. He’ll need to shoot a respectable percentage from downtown, anchor the backcourt defense when Westbrook gambles too much, push the tempo to turn defense into instant offense, and finally enjoy a breakout season to warrant a contract extension when he hits restricted free agency next summer.

As of right now, Westbrook and Oladipo will form the most athletic backcourt in NBA history. But in order to prove his long-term value and help the Thunder reach a higher gear, he’ll need to make the highly anticipated leap by spreading the floor, expanding his offensive repertoire and improving on his already impressive defensive skill set for a playoff team.

Oklahoma City Thunder

May 10, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Andre Roberson (21) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in game five of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Three Key Storylines: 3. Three-Point Concerns

In a pace-and-space league, the Thunder came within one win of a trip to the NBA Finals last year despite sub-par three-point shooting. They ranked 17th in three-point percentage (34.9 percent), three-point attempts (23.7 per game) and three-point makes (8.3 per game).

With the loss Kevin Durant, who is of one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and is also a career 38 percent shooter, the Thunder will struggle to spread the floor in the same way as before. That floor-spacing could become crucial with defenses keying in on stopping Westbrook’s dribble penetration.

Looking up and down this roster, the answer for where Donovan can find that spacing feels elusive.

The most efficient candidates are Ersan Ilyasova (37.1 percent from long range last season) and Anthony Morrow (38.7 percent last year, 42.5 percent for his career), but Ilyasova is currently coming off the bench behind rookie Domantas Sabonis, while Morrow has struggled to find consistent minutes under Donovan thanks to his abhorrent defense.

Alex Abrines, a 6’6″ sharpshooter who converted 41.7 percent of his three-pointers with FC Barcelona last year, still has to prove himself in his first NBA season. The regulars on the perimeter don’t inspire much hope either.

Oladipo’s career high in three-point percentage was his 34.8 percent last year. Andre Roberson’s three-point shot is a complete disaster at 31.1 percent. Backup point guards Ronnie Price (a career-high 34.7 percent last year) and Cameron Payne (32.4 percent) can’t be relied upon. Kyle Singler also shot just 30.9 percent from deep last year.

Finally, there’s Russell Westbrook, an irresponsible gunslinger from three-point range who made just 29.6 percent of his 4.3 attempts per game last year. He’s a 30.2 percent shooter from deep for his career, but despite it being one of the weaker parts of his game, he continues to jack them up.

The Thunder are going to need three-point spacing now that both Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka are gone. With a bunch of unproven and ineffective long range threats trying to fill the void on the perimeter, Westbrook’s driving lanes may be closed off more than ever before, which may severely limit what was the NBA’s second-ranked offense last year.

This could very well serve as OKC’s biggest obstacle in returning to the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oct 18, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter (11) react to a call as Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) looks on during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

 Best-Case Scenario

Russell Westbrook proves to be everything OKC hoped for in a franchise player and more, leading the Thunder in a way we never go to see in the Kevin Durant era. Averaging a triple-double and leading his team to a top-four seed, Russ wins his first MVP Award and silences his many critics.

Steven Adams emerges as one of the breakout candidates of the year, Sabonis earns some Rookie of the Year votes by holding his own in the starting lineup and Enes Kanter proves himself as a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

Oladipo finally enjoys the breakout season we’ve been waiting for, shooting a respectable 36 percent from three-point range, bringing stifling perimeter defense to the table and expanding his all-around game to become a two-way nightmare for opponents.

The Thunder win 50 games, earn the fourth seed in the West, and advance to the second round of the playoffs before succumbing to Kevin Durant’s new team, the Golden State Warriors.

Worst-Case Scenario

Russ puts up huge numbers, but as was the case in 2014-15 when Durant missed 55 games, a Westbrook-led Thunder team once again misses the cut for a postseason berth.

Oladipo struggles with the increased pressure to produce on the offensive end, leaving the Thunder in a bit of a bind deciding what to do with his restricted free agency. Adams fails to take the next step forward coming off the most impressive postseason of his career, Payne struggles to stay healthy and OKC’s lack of three-point shooting makes life difficult for Westbrook and his penetration.

Sabonis struggles in his starting role, which in turn angers Enes Kanter as he continues to handle mop-up duty off the bench. Oklahoma City wins around 40 games and finishes ninth in the West, just outside the playoff picture.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oct 16, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Predictions

Russell Westbrook will be fearsome to behold on most nights, and though he’ll fall just short of actually averaging a triple-double for the whole season, he’ll come about as close to replicating Oscar Robertson’s unbelievable feat as anyone in the modern era.

Oladipo and Adams are set for breakout seasons, but OKC’s perimeter shooting woes will make life difficult for Westbrook’s penetration and for Donovan’s rotation. The Thunder’s crowded frontcourt is bound to make somebody upset, and Enes Kanter trade rumors — warranted or not — will crop up at some point.

Thanks to their Westbrook-Oladipo backcourt, the Thunder will be able to overwhelm teams with their athleticism and quickness, though their lack of three-point shooting will make them a bit easier to defend in the half court.

Behind Westbrook, a deep frontcourt and the league’s most powerful rebounding team, the Thunder win 45 games and return to the playoffs as the West’s seventh seed. They fail to make it past the first round, but the future looks considerably brighter as Blake Griffin — a former Oklahoma legend and native — hits free agency with his eye on OKC.

This article originally appeared on

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