51Q: How good will the Thunder be without Kevin Durant?
We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.
When LeBron James left the Cavaliers via free agency in 2010, they went from 61-21 to 19-63.
When Chris Paul left the Hornets via trade in 2011, they went from 46-36 to 21-45.
When Dwight Howard left the Magic via trade in 2012, they went from 37-29 to 20-62.
When Howard left the Lakers via free agency in 2013, they went from 45-37 to 27-55.
When LeBron left the Heat via free agency in 2014, they went from 54-28 to 37-45.
When Kevin Love left the Timberwolves via trade in 2014, they went from 40-42 to 16-66.
But none of those teams had Russell Westbrook.
Teams usually fall significantly when they lose a star, and the Thunder will be no exception without Kevin Durant. They won’t win 55 games and reach Game 7 of the Western Conference finals again.
They’re also starting from a far higher point than most star-losing teams, and they return a superstar in Westbrook.
Oklahoma City will take a step back after losing Durant to the Warriors. It’s unfair to keep expectations so high for the Thunder. But they could also far surpass the star-less teams listed above.
A middling-to-low playoff seed seems realistic.
In 48 games without Durant the last two years, Westbrook averaged 30.5 points, 9.2 assist, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. Just how hard did he push himself in those contests? He also averaged 4.8 turnovers and 10.4 free-throw attempts per game.
Westbrook is unlikely to sustain that incredible usage throughout a full regular season, but he has a deep supporting cast led by Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo.
Critics like to point out that the Thunder missed the playoffs in 2014-15, when Durant missed most of the season. But Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Andre Roberson all also missed significant time. And Oklahoma City still went 45-37, which would’ve earned the No. 5 seed last season.
This year, the Thunder have enough bigs – Adams, Enes Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova, Joffrey Lauvergne and Domantas Sabonis – to throw at the problem. Between them, a viable rotation should emerge.
Depth on the perimeter is dicier. Beyond Oladipo and Roberson on the wing, Oklahoma City has major question marks in Kyle Singler, Josh Huestis and Alex Abrines, and coaches don’t seem to like the answer Anthony Morrow provides. Cameron Payne’s injury will force Ronnie Price into a larger-than-desired role at point guard.
Ultimately, so much of this falls on Westbrook’s shoulders. If his teammates are collectively anything more than OK, that’s just a nice bonus.
Westbrook embraced this, signing a contract extension after Durant left. This is his team.
It’s on him to prove it won’t fall into disrepair after losing a superstar like so many teams before it.