The Russell Westbrook Orbit

New Faces: Victor Oladipo, Joffrey Lauvergne, Semaj Christon, Ronnie Price, Domantas Sabonis (R), Chris Wright, Alex Abrines, Daniel Hamilton (R), Ersan Ilyasova

2015-16 Regular Season Record: 55-27

2015-16 Regular Season Accomplishments1st: Offensive Rebounding, Total Reboundning. 2nd: Points, Offensive Rating. 2nd: 2-Point Percentage, Defensive Rebounding.  3rd: Field Goal Percentage. 4th: Blocks. 5th: Field Goal Percentage (Defense).  7th: 2-Point Percentage (Defense). 8th: 3-Point Percentage (Defense).  10th: Free Throw Percentage, Assists.

Leading Scorer: Kevin Durant, 28.2

Leading Rebounder: Kevin Durant, 8.2

It feels like yesterday when the young Thunder stirred up the NBA and went to the NBA Finals and faced the Miami Heat. But four years have passed since then and in that time the Golden State Warriors have filled the void and are the NBA darlings with their two stars, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, stealing a lot of the Oklahoma City Thunder small market spotlight and now stealing the Thunder’s best player.

So what happens to the Thunder now?

Russell Westbrook was drafted in 2008. As he grew alongside Durant and developed the ability to terrorize the league with explosion, shot making and athleticism, not to mention rebounding and toughness, he became a superstar in his own right.  And now his scoring talent and playmaking talent and rebounding talent and leadership talent are the center of the Thunder earth. Everything is in the Russell Westbrook orbit. Everything.

This is not the same Thunder team, no two headed monster. Only one head: Russ. In the backcourt is capable shooter Victor Oladipo but Oladipo has never been an All-Star nor has he played in one NBA playoff game.

If you look at past history, Oladipo’s inexperience should not matter. Russell Westbrook has been here before. He took over after a Durant injury and had the greatest season of his career: 28.1 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 steals. He was third in the MVP voting. But not to oversell Westbrook’s greatness, he also had the lowest field goal percentage and three point percentage in five years. But as a playmaker, Westbrook was the best he had ever been. As a rebounder he was the best he had ever been. Can 2014-15 repeat itself?

Now it’s a new normal with the exit of Durant and the expectations are not the same, regardless of how Westbrook is selling it to his new teammates. This is different. Westbrook appears to have embraced the reality of it. It’s not just Durant being gone. So is Serge Ibaka who was Westbrook’s teammate as long as Durant.

The Thunder championship or bust narrative is only being sung by the ever faithful, not looking at reality fan. The Thunder aren’t better talent wise than the Warriors, Spurs or Clippers.

The Thunder will have to develop chemistry with their new pieces which may take a while. In a twist of fortune, Billy Donovan is the best coach to take on such a project of adapting his system to the talents of new players he has to integrate quickly. It was the second half of last season that Donovan really became a NBA coach, his learning curve nearly over, until up 3-1, he lost.

If that 3-1 team had stayed in tact, the catastrophic misery of losing a chance to advance to the finals would have lingered into training camp. In a way, this Thunder team is starting all over again, a brand new slate.

Let’s keep it real though. No one is feeling sorry for the Thunder. They had a great player for nine years. They lost him. Just like Milwaukee lost Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Just like Orlando lost Shaquille O’Neal. It’s part of it, the dark side of a great team that falls short. But it’s a reality that happens. Move on.

Even as the NBA isn’t adaptation friendly, the veterans on the Thunder- Westbrook, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison- will lead the younger Thunder players. But games will come down to this: can they make shots? Can they stop shot makers? Do they have the poise to make the right play at the right time?

The Thunder’s offseason was spent trying to pick up the broken pieces of the Durant defection and then turning the page. Westbrook wants to be in OKC and he has the stubborness to want to make it work.

Enes Kanter, an average defender with not much explosiveness or quickness in the post, doesn’t do much to deter action at the rim. He is not a shot blocker. For better or worse, Kanter is a scorer.

The Thunder have an array of shooters to spread the floor but Andre Roberson is their one lock down defender who can guard anyone and every once in a while will make a three point shot. But you can’t depend on his offense. Still, the Thunder are going to need him on the wing against the potent Western Conference offenses.

Steven Adams is going to be the same annoying  irritant but quality defender in the paint. But do the Thunder have enough up front to battle LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin and LeBron James?

Prediction: 44-38

photo via llananba