Thunder will have to make do without Durant for first month of regular season…
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The Oklahoma City Thunder have fallen consistently short of their ultimate goal in recent years, will this season be any different for Kevin Durant and Co?
Despite the lengthy absence of point guard Russell Westbrook through injury, the Thunder still managed to claim the second seed in the Western Conference with a 59-23 record.
A tough first-round playoff series win over the Memphis Grizzlies was followed by an impressive triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers, but that was as far as the championship push went again as the San Antonio Spurs advanced to the NBA Finals.
Kevin Durant secured the league MVP award after averaging 32 points per game, while Westbrook’s return in the second-half of the season was a huge boost for the team and they will look for the pair to have a similar effect this time round.
Are Durant and Westbrook enough to take the Thunder to an NBA championship?
It’s been a criticism that has been handed to the Thunder for several seasons now, and although their deadly duo continue to take them to the brink of the NBA Finals, can they really make it count at crunch time?
Durant is arguably the best player in the league after averaging 32 points, 5.5 assists and 7.4 rebounds per game last season. Westbrook’s post-injury form was impressive, and he ended the regular season with averages of 21.8 points and 6.9 assists per game.
However, the initial concern will be how the Thunder cope without Durant for the opening month of the season after he underwent foot surgery. Beyond that, they will hope that the issue doesn’t become a concern through the remainder of the campaign.
Serge Ibaka undoubtedly emerged as a third option with his inspired play on both ends of the court, and ultimately his injury ahead of the Spurs series was perhaps the defining factor in why Oklahoma City didn’t go on to make the Finals.
Reggie Jackson is a talented guard to come off the bench and make an impact while Steven Adams showed enough last season to suggest that he can become a solid center in the league. However, beyond that, do the Thunder really have the depth required to make a legitimate push with Durant and Westbrook playing significant minutes throughout the season?
Caron Butler, Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha and Hasheem Thabeet have all moved on and not a lot has come back in terms of reliable options. Add the concern over whether or not coach Scott Brooks has the tactical brain to put all this together and win a championship, and there are some serious questions about OKC.
Athleticism and raw scoring power from Durant and Westbrook will ensure that the Thunder are back in the mix at the top of the Western Conference. However, those doubts simply don’t go away and the pressure is on with speculation already starting about Durant’s future in 2016.
Given that the Thunder continue to make it work with the Durant-Westbrook partnership firing them to the top of the Western Conference, it is difficult to go against a similar finish.
However, the Spurs remain full of depth and will arguably cope best through the regular season, while the Los Angeles Clippers look ready to launch a genuine assault on the top two. I still place the Thunder ahead of the chasing pack that will fight it out for the 4-8 seeds, but a third place finish could be on the horizon.
With Durant already down for the first month, it will be crucial that he doesn’t suffer from any setbacks thereafter while there are obvious doubts over Westbrook after multiple procedures on his knee.
Nevertheless, if all holds together, expect Oklahoma City to grab the third spot and make it through to the second round of the playoffs at least.
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Reggie Jackson
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Steven Adams
Sixth Man: Jeremy Lamb