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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Russell Westbrook's return to health could put the Thunder over the top (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

Everyone’s feel-good, second-favorite team hasn’t felt right in about a year. The Oklahoma City Thunder may never feel like themselves again, which is an unfortunate occurrence for a team that failed to win a title while acting as “themselves.”

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It was in the days following training camp and the exhibition season in 2012 that the Thunder dug in to deal James Harden to the Houston Rockets, gifting Houston an All-Star for the price of one year of Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a mediocre team’s lottery pick. The money-saving move could have been seen as passable if the Thunder had hung onto Martin past his contract’s expiration date in July, but the team’s ownership group declined, stating luxury tax concerns and the team’s small market.

All of this would make sense had Thunder fans not routinely filled up the team’s arena in droves since the franchise moved from Seattle in 2008, making four postseasons along the way while earning the team’s duplicitous owners scads of cash. Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon declined to pay for a winner, though, going cheap in the face of a general manager in Sam Presti that had smartly milked the NBA’s draft of four fantastic prospects in Harden, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.

Quite the bummer, you’ll agree, and as a result the Thunder’s ownership are now paying for a top-heavy roster with three massive contracts that is sliding perilously close to the luxury tax, without much depth to cling to as it attempts to play through June. The team’s chances of doing as much in 2012-13 were shot to hell when Westbrook went down with a meniscus tear during the playoffs, the first notable injury of his playing career, something he won’t full be recovered from until mid-December. If not longer – it’ll take a while for the perpetually healthy Westbrook’s mental game to adapt to the fact that he’s fallible.

Kevin Durant’s all-around brilliance is the fallback plan, here, and it’s not a bad one. Westbrook’s absence means that the Clippers and Spurs could take advantage and take what could be a season-long hold of the standings, but the Thunder will remain formidable with a seething Durant as the focus. Lamb struggled mightily in the exhibition season, missing nearly 65 percent of his shots and 22 of his 26 three-point attempts, and starting point Reggie Jackson is far from a Westbrook approximate, so it’ll fall on Durant to pile up the LeBron-level stats to keep the Thunder afloat.

Even for someone that wants to play deep into June, Durant can manage the workload. He’ll have to, because the combination of Westbrook’s absence (and eventual slow return) and this limited rotation will have the Thunder searching for points. Yes, Serge Ibaka’s offensive game appeared to turn the corner during the preseason, and the Thunder finished tops in points per possession last year, but that was with Westbrook going all out and Martin around to pin down off of their screenin’ bigs.

If Lamb is up to the task of replacing Martin (much less Harden), he hasn’t shown it yet. The second year guard struggled to crack the rotation last year, and doesn’t appear like a good fit thus far in coach Scott Brooks’ Durant-centric offense. The youngster badly needs to find a way to at least look like a dangerous option at times, because Brooks’ offense gets bogged down in the face of opponents that are allowed to load up on his team four-to-seven times over the course of a playoff series, and the Thunder needs someone else that can contribute after breaking a play.

If the outlook seems pessimistic, it shouldn’t be. The Clippers and Houston Rockets haven’t proven a thing on this stage, and the San Antonio Spurs may have peaked with their co-champions run from last season. This is still a young team with championship potential, and if he regains full health, Westbrook’s stay on the shelf will seem like last century’s news by the time April rolls around. The goal is the title, and the Thunder remain a championship-level team.

You have to wonder if they’ll ever get there, though. Especially with the organization’s ownership group so clearly committed to hamstringing its roster in order to keep their version of fiscal sanity in place.

Projected record: 59-23

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Kevin Durant forces the referee to strike a familiar pose (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Thunder for … Kevin Durant: Solo Artist, auditioning sidemen.

Watching Durant play is exhilarating by itself. The 25-year-old forward combines unreal grace for someone 6-foot-10 (at least, we think) and a Heisenberg-pure jumper, even from way downtown (he shot 40 percent from between 25 and 29 feet out last season, according to NBA.com’s stat tool). His scoring seems effortless, almost noble, but it’s grown louder and more ferocious over the years, too – his improved handle basically constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and his combination of length and athleticism while driving often make it seem like he’s expanding in mid-air, like Barry Allen’s costume or Jordan in “Space Jam.”

He’s breathtaking, and while it was unfortunate to see Russell Westbrook go down, it was fascinating to watch Durant battle without his All-NBA pal, knowing he had to go full El Mariachi to survive and advance. His efforts were unsuccessful -- as it turns out, you can’t beat the Grizzlies with a one-man offense, even if that one man is the world’s best scorer. Still, it was remarkable to watch Durant face five defenders on every play and generate points, averaging 31.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists in 45.1 minutes per game without Westbrook.

Durant’s individual output couldn’t mask OKC’s overall decline without Westbrook, though; the Thunder averaged just 100.3 points per 100 possessions over the postseason’s final nine games, 10 points-per-100 less than their season mark. Complementary pieces Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson struggled not only to replace Westbrook’s scoring and playmaking, but also to convert their own opportunities without him drawing defensive attention and serving up open looks. The Thunder will face the same issues this fall, thanks to an arthroscopic procedure on Westbrook’s repaired right knee expected to keep him out for at least the season’s first month. (Or maybe less; he’s already participating in parts of OKC practices.)

The Westbrook-less period will act as an audition for roles coach Scott Brooks will need to fill come the spring, when the Thunder again figure to be in the thick of the Western title chase. (Brooks, too, will face scrutiny, especially if the best no-Westbrook offense he can muster continues to be Durant vs. Everyone.)

If Ibaka can provide a No. 2 scoring option and establish a pick-and-pop partnership with Jackson, it’d help assuage fears that his awful playoff run showed the true limits of his game without Westbrook. If Jackson builds on his pressed-into-duty postseason work -- 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, 47.2 percent shooting from the field, 89.7 percent from the line -- by impressing as the quarterback of the offense in Westbrook’s place, he’ll alleviate stress about depth in a backcourt that looks whippet-thin. Ditto for second-year man Jeremy Lamb, who goes from 147 rookie minutes to filling a slot previously occupied by first- and fourth-place Sixth Man of the Year finishers. The 21-year-old seemed tentative and out-of-rhythm in the preseason, shooting under 37 percent from the floor and 17 percent from 3-point range, but an intriguing array of skills and attributes -- headlined by a 6-foot-11 wingspan, 38-inch vertical and instincts that can combine them in momentum-shifting defense -- could make him valuable and versatile ... if he can take a deep breath and find his stroke.

If you’re thinking that’s a lot of ifs for a team as high on the NBA food chain as Oklahoma City, you’re right. There's more uncertainty facing the Thunder now than at any point in their development from curiosity to contender. That, in part, is why I think this might be their most interesting season yet -- what’s more exciting than the unknown? (One legitimate possible answer: Kevin Durant. That’s the other part.)

Honorable mentions: How Westbrook returns from the first serious injury and lengthy shelving of his basketball life; rookie center Steven Adams, who’s had an impressive preseason and might merit more than mere table-scrap minutes; the press-conference gymnastics Brooks will have to perform to explain continuing to play Perkins so much in a post-illegal-screen-point-of-emphasis-call world.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

Serge Ibaka has the misfortune of being known as the player the Thunder chose to retain over James Harden. That designation is not entirely accurate — Harden was sure to get more money than Ibaka in any possible situation, and a team rarely makes these decisions by pitting two players against each other with a list of pros and cons — but it’s apparent that one impressive young player stayed and the other was dealt away for what (for the time being) looks like a pennies on the dollar. Every time Harden takes over a game or puts up gaudy stats for the Rockets, the decision looks worse. Ibaka, through no fault of his own, looks somewhat diminished, as well.

It would seem unlikely that Ibaka would be able to match Harden for the rest of their careers, because the Rockets star is the best offensive player on a potential title contender. However, for as long and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook stay in OKC, Ibaka will be one of the key x-factors in the NBA, a player whose contributions can mean the difference between a very good team and one that wins titles. He can hit open jumpers, protect the rim, and potentially improve considerably in his next few seasons. At only 24 years old, he has a bright future.

Yet, due to Harden’s emergence, expectations for Ibaka have risen. It’s no longer enough for him to play well — he must also make the arguments about the Thunder’s decision to extend him and not Harden look explicable. Like many players on contenders, Ibaka’s career is no longer defined simply by what he does. He’s at the mercy of external judgments over which he has fairly little control.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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