During the 2016-17 NBA season, headlines will be dominated by Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors on a daily basis. However, having a super-team doesn’t guarantee a championship; just look at the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers. Everything can change and anything can happen in the NBA. A team can implode, the injury bug could strike, or a team simply might not play to its potential. In this Last Word On Pro Basketball series, we’ll break down which two key factors will determine the fate of each NBA team in the upcoming season.
In this edition, we’ll take a look at the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Two Key Factors to a Successful Oklahoma City Thunder Season
It was quite an eventful off-season for the Oklahoma City Thunder, as superstar Kevin Durant left the both the franchise and the entire city in shock by bolting for the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. Just four months ago the Thunder were minutes away from advancing to the NBA Finals, yet they now find themselves in a state of uncertainty. What needs to go right for the Thunder to maintain their status as a top team in the Western Conference?
Well, it’s unanimously expected that Russell Westbrook will put up monstrous numbers with Durant no longer commanding half the attention on offense. It’s clearly Westbrook’s team, but what do he and his teammates need to do to maximize their potential?
First Key: Westbrook’s Leadership and Maturity
Without Kevin Durant in the picture, Russell Westbrook is the undisputed leader of the Thunder. The roster is extremely young, with just two players over the age of 30 – Nick Collison and Ronnie Price – meaning Westbrook, 27, will be viewed as a veteran to look up to more so than he ever has been in his career. It will be a challenge that Westbrook must embrace and excel in if the Thunder want to make some noise in the playoffs.
For Westbrook, the skill set is there, the athleticism is there, and now the free range to do as he wishes on the court is finally there permanently. With more freedom comes more responsibility, which will be crucial for Westbrook to control.
Westbrook needs to take on the role as the leader of this team in every aspect – emotionally, physically, and mentally. He needs to be the extension of the coach from the sidelines more so now than ever. Westbrook will need to think the game through Billy Donovan‘s mind in a way he probably hasn’t had to do throughout his professional career. In order to help the Thunder win, he won’t be able to rely strictly on his athleticism anymore; he’ll need to use his brain just as much as the rest of his body.
It will be easy for Westbrook, a very emotional player, to get frustrated at times. He’s never entered a season as a superstar in this league with such little talent surrounding him on the court. With a majority of the scoring pressure now on his shoulders, it’s easy to expect Westbrook to heave up a few more “bad shots” than we’ve been accustomed to. It will be essential for Westbrook to minimize this, keeping his composure even when it may be difficult.
The Thunder will only go as far as Russell Westbrook takes them. No one is doubting his ability to average a triple-double, but there are concerns with his ability to lead a young team. Westbrook has never been known as a mature, responsible player; it will be imperative for him to incorporate this new attitude into his game this year in order to help the Thunder thrive.
Second Key: Victor Oladipo as a Secondary Scoring Option
Westbrook will undoubtedly need help – lots of it. Without Durant and Serge Ibaka, who was traded for Victor Oladipo on draft night, the Thunder are missing 40 points per game from last year’s team. Oladipo, who has shown flashes of brilliance many times throughout his young career, will need to blossom with his new team right from the start.
The former second overall pick, who is just 24 years old, still has the potential to become one of the game’s brightest stars His energy and versatility make him an intriguing talent. A career .431/.339/.808 shooter, Oladipo will need to boost his efficiency this season. Playing alongside a player who commands so much attention from the defense, like Westbrook does, should benefit Oladipo.
Victor Oladipo will be relied on as a secondary scoring option from the perimeter, and his ability to excel in this new role will be essential to the Thunder’s success. No other perimeter player on the roster is able to consistently create his own shot like Westbrook and Oladipo can. Of course he won’t be asked to replace Kevin Durant, but in the sense of providing a reliable scoring option other than Westbrook, Oladipo will have to at least partially fill those shoes.
As a career 15.9 point scorer, Oladipo is more than capable of playing a significant role on offense for the Thunder. Whether he takes the next step as a more reliable, efficient scorer will be what’s most important.