30 Teams 30 Days
30 Teams 30 Days
30 Teams 30 Days
30 Teams 30 Days

30 Teams in 30 Days: Westbrook eager to put Thunder on his back

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell


Sep 26, 2016 4:47 PM ET

Since the Cavaliers won their first NBA title back on June 19, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason. NBA.com's Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise -- from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2015-16 to the team with the best regular-season record -- during the month of September as we look at 30 Teams in 30 Days. | Complete schedule

Today's team: Oklahoma City Thunder

2015-16 record: 55-27

Who's gone: F Kevin Durant, G Randy Foye, F Serge Ibaka, G Dion Waiters

Who's new: PF Domantas Sabonis, SG Daniel Hamilton (via Draft); SG Ronnie Price (via free agency); SG Victor Oladipo, F Ersan Ilyasova, G/F Alex Abrines (2013 Draft), F/C Joffrey Lauvergne (via trade)

The lowdown: One of the top teams in the NBA over the last half-dozen years, the Thunder lost a 3-1 lead in the West finals and then lost Durant in free agency.

So, what's next? That's the question everyone's asking in OKC, now that the numbing has worn off and the season is approaching. This franchise is dealing with twin curses: Never winning a championship with the Durant-Russell Westbrook combo, and now, losing Durant in free agency. Otherwise, life has been great in OKC.

And so, what's next?

Let's address another question first: What just happened? Well, Durant evidently had more confidence in the Warriors than the Thunder. That's the bottom line. He saw better teammates, a better place to do business off the court, a better place to live and most definitely a better chance to win a championship (or a string of them) with Golden State. And he's probably right.

Besides, Durant gave OKC eight years of his prime. Plus, he was an asset to the Oklahoma City community with his charitable deeds and whatnot. He owed the franchise and the city nothing. That's how it goes in free agency; you're free to go anywhere. Whenever folks are critical when Durant or anyone else decide to leave town, that's insane. Then why have free agency if you're not really free? Again, Durant gave OKC eight glorious years filled with good times, All-Star appearances and an MVP season. He wanted a change. The team and city should wish him the best and thank him for all he did.

And yet, OKC wasn't exactly a franchise ready to crash. You could make the argument that OKC with Durant was just as dangerous, and maybe even better, than the Warriors without Durant. But whatever. He's gone and now OKC and Westbrook are left to pick up the pieces.

Lucky for OKC, Sam Presti is a smart GM. Yes, he did lose Durant and James Harden, but neither was his fault. In the case of Harden, ownership wasn't willing to go beyond the salary cap and pay the luxury tax. In hindsight, Harden should've been kept (he had another year left on his rookie deal) while OKC bit the bullet for a few years; it's not like Clay Bennett would've gone broke.

Presti did achieve a small victory, which has the potential to be a major victory, when Westbrook agreed to play at least one year beyond this season. The contract extension essentially gave Westbrook a $9 million raise this season just to guarantee that he'd delay free agency until 2018.

Before Durant made his decision, Presti swung a great deal that on paper would benefit the Thunder with or without Durant. He sent Ibaka to the Magic and received a pair of promising young players: Oladipo and Sabonis.

Oladipo instantly becomes the backcourt partner for Westbrook and made Waiters expendable (OKC chose not to extend his contract). Oladipo's jumper is a work in progress, but like Westbrook he brings a high motor and speed and is aggressive on defense. This backcourt has the same type of entertaining energy seen in Portland with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but lots depends on Oladipo taking the next step.

Sabonis is the son of Arvidas Sabonis, the former Blazers great, and the rookie brings a sense of toughness and fearlessness that will help smooth his transition into the NBA. He's strictly a trenches guy, an old school back-to-the-basket power forward who should be a good compliment to Enes Kanter and Steven Adams.

Ibaka had solid years in OKC but his value was at its highest, and therefore Presti had to do the deal. OKC must find a rim-protecting replacement for Ibaka, although Adams has grown in that area.

Westbrook doesn't appear ready to give OKC a long-term commitment, and why should he? By keeping his options open until the summer of 2018, he can survey the scene and see if OKC is right for him. Undoubtedly, Westbrook is poised for an MVP-type season, but how deep can OKC go into the postseason? Also, can they add enough quality pieces in the next two years to convince Westbrook to sign yet another extension?

It's his team now, and the stage is set for him to put up massive numbers and possibly win the MVP. But if you asked Westbrook and the Thunder, they'd rather have kept Durant no matter how great this season will be for Westbrook.

Coming Next: Toronto Raptors

To check out the rest of the series schedule, click here.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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