ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 NBA Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Last season: Russell Westbrook was out and Kevin Durant stepped up with (or if you prefer, finally showed off) the well rounded, complete game we’ve always expected of him. He earned the league MVP with his carrying of the Thunder to 59 wins. OKC was again strong on both ends, seventh in the league in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating. Reggie Jackson stepped up as Thabo Sefolosha faded, and Serge Ibaka took another step forward with his game. With Westbrook back to his terrorizing form the Thunder entered the playoffs as title contenders but again they were undone by injury, a calf strain to Ibaka. The Thunder again made it to the conference finals but with Ibaka missing a couple games they could not overcome the eventual champion Spurs.

Signature highlight from last season: It’s almost impossible to chose, this team has so many. I think the best one was Russell Westbrook’s overtime corner three to beat the Warriors:

But if you prefer a Kevin Durant game winner, here he goes basically one-on-five to beat the Hawks:

Offseason moves: For a years now, coach Scott Brooks stuck with certain guys no matter what logic or eyeballs dictated, but a couple of those fallbacks are now gone. Thabo Sefolosha (a regular starter) was allowed to walk in free agency after a down year, while Derek Fisher retired and will coach the Knicks.Last year’s free agent pickup Caron Butler left as well. Oh, and they traded Hasheem Thabeet.

In their place they picked up Anthony Morrow as a free agent as well as Sebastian Telfair, plus they drafted Mitch McGary.

Keys to the Thunder season

Just stay healthy. Of course this is true of every contender, but two years ago it was Westbrook’s knee that ended their real playoff hopes. Last season Ibaka suffered a grade two calf strain in the playoffs that kept him out for a couple weeks, including the start of the series against the powerhouse Spurs. We don’t know how that series turns out if Ibaka’s healthy, but we know if this team can’t keep its big three healthy they can’t get back to the Finals. Not in this loaded Western Conference.

Is there enough around Durat/Westbrook/Ibaka? This is ultimately the question. They have a championship caliber core, but since the James Harden trade they have not been able to get back to the Finals (in part due to that health issue). The question is do they have the right role players in the right system to lift this team up to the Finals and to win a ring?

If the answer is going to be yes, it has to start with Reggie Jackson, who by the end of the playoffs last year had taken Sefolosha’s starting job and this season. He is going to get a lot of time paired with Westbrook in the backcourt and he brings a more dynamic offensive game with him to that role. He can make the Thunder offense that much more dangerous — and it doesn’t hurt this is a contract year for him (he’s a restricted free agent next summer if a contract extension is not reached by Oct. 31).

Another key role player is Steven Adams, who hopefully will supplant Kendrick Perkins this season (Perkins is another one of Brooks’ crutch guys). Adams brings toughness and defense, but more importantly a little better offense than Perkins. Defenses ignore Perkins (the Thunder try to get him going every game by giving him a couple early touches in the post) but Adams is a rim runner and more athletic, a guy defenses have to keep an eye on.

Finally, the Thunder need growth from Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III, they will need to play larger roles. Anthony Morrow needs to space the floor. If they can get something from the rookie McGary and the veteran Telfair all the better.

The pieces seem to be there, can Brooks put them in a less-predictable offense that makes the Thunder harder to defend? If so there is no limit to where the Thunder can finish this season.

How do the Thunder deal with Durant’s constant free agency questions? In every city — and especially in Washington, Los Angeles and New York — Kevin Durant is going to get questions about his 2016 free agency. Then reporters will ask the other Thunder players about Kevin Durant’s free agency in two years. Every answer will pretty much get national play. It’s a potential distraction and something the Thunder need to learn to deal with because it is not going away. (Durant doesn’t know what he’s going to do in two summers yet anyway, but staying with the Thunder is still the smartest bet.)

Why you should watch: Have you ever seen Durant and Westbrook play? Go look at the highlights above. This is as entertaining a team as there is in the league, with two of the game’s most dynamic stars leading them. Plus you should watch just to see what Russell Westbrook wears to the arena on any given night.

Prediction: 61-21, which will have them as one of the top two seeds in the West, maybe the top seed. Kevin Durant likely will pick up another MVP award (LeBron now has some real help around him and with that his numbers are likely drop a little, then guys like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will split the Clipper vote). But what really matters to him and the franchise is getting a ring. If they are relatively healthy, and if the role players have stepped up, the Thunder have a very real shot at that title. They are legit title contenders, the only real problem they face is that there are a couple others of those in the West.

If the Thunder don’t get back to the Finals, Scott Brooks could be the next change the Thunder seriously consider.