Oklahoma City wears the very uncomfortable title of Best Franchise Without A Championship, and the crown fit snuggly once again last season. The Thunder found themselves up 3-1 on the reeling Warriors in the Western Conference finals and then swallowed a grapefruit. OKC lost its chance to erase the memories of its 2012 Finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat and then, compounding matters, was Kevin Durant’s decision afterward to bolt via free agency and join the Golden State Warriors. It appears, then, that the championship window in OKC has been slammed shut, right on the fingers of Russell Westbrook. He may reap the Kia MVP this season, but not the ultimate team award. Wow, basketball can be cruel.
The franchise suffered a significant loss when Kevin Durant left after nine seasons to sign as a free agent with the Golden State Warriors … Before Durant’s defection, OKC was proactive, essentially trading Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova … Rather than continue with the Dion Waiters Experience, the Thunder opted not to re-sign him, and he landed with the Miami Heat … With a first-rounder obtained in the Ibaka trade, OKC took Domantas Sabonis, the son of Hall of Famer and former Portland Trail Blazers standout Arvydas Sabonis
In hindsight, Presti’s decision to match the Portland Trail Blazers’ offer sheet for Enes Kanter in 2014 was wise. Kanter’s money looks much more reasonable these days, and coach Billy Donovan could experiment with Kanter and Steven Adams on the floor together.
Donovan has the chops to coach in this league and he proved that in ousting the San Antonio Spurs and future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich in the Western Conference semifinals. Nobody will blame him if OKC falters a bit. As long as Westbrook likes him, he’s good.
Cameron Payne has the chance to be known for more than his goofy pre-game dance with Westbrook. Although he’ll miss six weeks with a foot injury, Payne is fearless has the look of a potential sixth man. He has more upside in his game than anyone except Adams.
MAN ON THE SPOT
In trying to replace James Harden, OKC has tried Kevin Martin (who fizzled quickly), Dion Waiters (a major disappointment) and others. Now comes Oladipo, who if nothing else brings the best credentials in the post-Harden era. He’s an exciting player in the open floor, a pesty defensive presence and he can get to the rim. His shooting remains suspect, but he’s still young and developing. There’s much at stake for OKC and Oladipo — who’s playing for money this season — for this replacement to finally make good.
Steven Adams | 8.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.1 bpg
Gradually improving big man brings toughness and grit
Enes Kanter | 12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 0.4 apg
OKC may keep bringing him off the bench. Either way, he’s a great scorer
Andre Roberson | 4.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 0.7 apg
Solid defensive swingman could replace Kevin Durant
Russell Westbrook | 23.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 10.4 apg
Capable of carrying the load — and may not have a choice
Victor Oladipo | 16.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.6 spg.
Can he compliment Westbrook? Signs are promising
Anthony Morrow | 5.6 ppg, 0.9 rpg, 0.4 apg
Dangerous when left open at the 3-point line
Domantas Sabonis | Rookie
Big man brings physical post play and solid rebounding
Kyle Singler | 3.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 0.4 apg
Role player brings range but not deserving of big minutes
THE BOTTOM LINE
Remember when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Westbrook wasn’t a superstar? Westbrook is going full blast this season to disprove those notions and could average nearly a triple-double. The bigger issue lies with the prosperity of his team. OKC without Durant isn’t suddenly a team sitting on the playoff fence and 45-50 wins is doable. But can they stay among the elite? Not unless Adams has a breakout season, Oladipo is a borderline All-Star and OKC’s defense is top-five. That’s a lot of what-ifs and a best-case scenario. This team is capable of playing into May. Anything beyond that seems like a wish.
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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