Championship or bust. This team has two of the NBA's very best players, and the third member of their core isn't too shabby either. They've eclipsed a .700 win percentage for three straight seasons, and regular season success doesn't feel like much of an accomplishment anymore. The time is now for this team to win a championship, and anything but that is a disappointment.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
1st in Northwest Division - 2nd in Western Conference
Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, Russell Westbrook had his right knee surgically repaired after tearing his meniscus in the 2013 NBA playoffs. Westbrook was limited throughout the offseason and would miss all of training camp, but he made an early return just two games into the regular season. All seemed well until Christmas time... then it happened again.
In late December, Westbrook experienced yet another setback and was forced to undergo his third surgery in order to repair cartilage in his right knee. This one would force him to miss 27 consecutive games over a two and a half month span.
As tough and frustrating of a blow as that was, the Thunder were able to stay afloat thanks to one of the best individual stretches of basketball we have ever witnessed from Kevin Durant. Throughout those 27 games with Westbrook on the sidelines, Durant exploded to average 35 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game to lead the Thunder to a 20-7 record, including a 10-game winning streak. The Durantula put the team on his back and assumed responsibility as team captain in one of the best displays of leading by example you could have ever expected.
Durant went on to put up a career high 32 points per game on 50% shooting, while grabbing 7.4 rebounds and dishing a career best 5.5 assists per game on his way to the first MVP award of his career. At age 26, I'll go out on a limb and say there's more where that came from.
He wasn't the only one to step up in Westbrook's absence, however. On top of being named to his third consecutive All-NBA Defensive 1st Team, Serge Ibaka took the challenge of taking on more offensive responsibility. The five-year vet posted career highs in shot attempts (12.1 per game), scoring (15.1 PPG), rebounding (8.8 RPG), assists (1.0 APG) and free throw percentage (78.4%) while leading the league in total blocks (219 - 2.7 BPG) for the fourth year in a row. That mid-range J is steadily improving, as well.
With Westbrook out of action, it was Reggie Jackson's time to shine. In his third year, the former Boston College Eagle put together a breakout season with career highs across the board, averaging 13.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per contest while starting in 36 games. Jackson made the most of his opportunities and proved that he is an outstanding two-way combo guard that is going to have a steady job in the NBA for a long time.
Directly following mid-February's All-Star break, Westbrook returned to action and reminded everybody of the kind of impact he is capable of making when healthy. The three-time All-Star returned to form and played terrific basketball through Oklahoma City's postseason run. Throughout the playoffs, Westbrook had six games scoring 30 points or more, highlighted by a 40-point performance in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, and accumulated three triple-doubles. Perhaps his most impactful performance came in Game 7 of the first round, where he posted 27 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds to lead OKC to a relieving series victory and help them advance.
Unfortunately, they would fall just short of another NBA Finals appearance as the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs took them out in six games in the Western Conference Finals. That's really nothing to be ashamed of, as they destroyed the two-time defending champion Miami Heat even quicker in five games; nobody was beating the Spurs last year. It just wasn't going to happen.
However, the goal isn't to compete for championships. The goal is to win them. Oklahoma City will certainly reassert thmselves back into the mix going forward, but for the time being, they've got some unfinished business to take care of.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Anthony Morrow, Mitch McGary, Sebastian Telfair
Key Losses - Thabo Sefolosha, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher
After a five and a half year tenure as Oklahoma City's starting two-guard, Thabo Sefolosha exercised unrestricted free agency and left the Thunder for an opportunity with the Atlanta Hawks. Sefolosha put together a quality run in OKC, but experienced somewhat of a down year last season as he performed inconsistently and shot a career low 41.6% from the field. Sefolosha also shot under 32% from beyond the arc, which is a significant drop-off from the previous two years where he shot an accumulative 42% from deep.
Sefolosha will be particularly missed on the defensive end of the floor, but general manager Sam Presti went out and brought in a quality replacement on the wing in Anthony Morrow. The sharpshooter signed a three-year deal worth over $11 million total, with the third year being a team option, and will provide the Thunder another reliable weapon on the perimeter. Morrow has frequently bounced around and will make the Thunder his sixth team in seven years, but make no mistake about the fact that the guy's jumper is absolutely lights out. He is a perfect fit in OKC, will get plenty of opportunities and may have finally found a home.
To fill out the backcourt following Derek Fisher's retirement as a player, Oklahoma City also brought in former Celtic Sebastian Telfair, who has bounced around quite a bit himself. Since entering the league out of high school in 2004, Bassy has played for seven NBA teams and even spent some time playing professionally in China last season, where he averaged 26 points and six assists per game. The ship has sailed on Telfair ever living up to the hype he received as a teenager, but he will act as a capable third point guard in OKC and will be able to give Scott Brooks solid minutes running the offense when called upon.
Perhaps the most intriguing long-term Oklahoma City acquisition from this summer is Mitch McGary, who fell into Sam Presti's lap on draft night due to red flags regarding a back injury. Does that remind you of anyone, Celtics fans? If McGary can overcome those concerns and stay healthy, the Thunder will have gotten one of the biggest steals of the draft. At 6'10" 265 lbs., the former Michigan Wolverine possesses a great feel for the game, has a soft touch, is an outstanding rebounder and has a chance to become an impact rotation big on both ends of the floor. His game is somewhat reminiscent of Brad Miller. Whether he ever reaches Miller's level of production remains to be seen, but with McGary and last year's first round pick Steven Adams, Oklahoma City has brought in a terrific pair of promising young centers.
Let's hope Perk ate his Wheaties this summer. Sure, he's in a contract year but he's got some extra competition on the floor.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Kendrick Perkins / Steven Adams / Mitch McGary
PF - Serge Ibaka / Nick Collison / Perry Jones / Grant Jarrett
SF - Kevin Durant / Lance Thomas
SG - Jeremy Lamb / Anthony Morrow / Andre Roberson
PG - Russell Westbrook / Reggie Jackson / Sebastian Telfair
X-FACTOR - Jeremy Lamb
One of the main ingredients Oklahoma City has lacked since the departure of Kevin Martin is a reliable third scorer. With Sefolosha out of the picture, Lamb is likely going to receive more opportunity than ever, and he will have a chance to elevate his game to new heights. On the surface, Lamb is a terrific athlete that plays well off the ball and is a legitimate threat to score from most areas on the floor. However, his role decreased in the second half of last season and he played just 9.1 minutes per game in the playoffs.
The starting shooting guard position has yet to be declared, but with two years under his belt in Scott Brooks' system, the spot may be Lamb's to lose. Anthony Morrow will give him a run for his money in what should be an hard-fought battle in training camp, but if Lamb can step up and put together a breakout year, it would help the team as much as any other factor you could name.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
With Kevin Durant coming off an MVP season and Russell Westbrook finally at full strength, you can expect the Thunder to contend for a championship and play better basketball with Batman and Robin together for more than half the season. This team isn't going anywhere, and they're as hungry as ever to get over the hump and not only advance to the Finals for the first time since 2012, but take home the hardware.
Dethroning San Antonio is one hell of a task but of all Western Conference competitors, Oklahoma City has the best chance to get it done.
1st - Northwest Division
2nd - Western Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the Indiana Pacers team preview, coming tomorrow morning.