This should be a time of joy, of hosannas sung loudly and heard far and wide. Kevin Durant is back!
After missing 55 games with fractured bones in his right foot that required three surgeries in six months, the 2013-14 NBA Most Valuable Player has returned to lay waste to defenses, to prove he's the best in the world, and to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder back to top tier of NBA championship contenders.
Once the rush of endorphins subsides, though, delight gives way to doubt. Is KD really back? If he is really back, how will he work alongside Russell Westbrook, who led the NBA in scoring and became an MVP candidate in Durant's absence?
Most importantly: is the 27-year-old Durant — who will enter unrestricted free agency after this season, which you might have heard some chatter about — back for good? Or is he nine months away from changing the complexion of the NBA and the state of basketball in Oklahoma City?
While Durant's injury was the biggest reason the Thunder missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, it wasn't the only one. Oklahoma City just could not stay healthy, which cost them dearly in a late-season scramble with the New Orleans Pelicans for the West's eighth seed.
All-Star Game MVP Westbrook missed 17 games with a broken hand and a broken face. All-Defensive big man Serge Ibaka missed 18 games with a right knee injury. Starting center Steven Adams missed a dozen games with a broken hand. Starting shooting guard Andre Roberson missed 15 games with foot and ankle sprains. Veteran forward Nick Collison missed a couple of late-season weeks with an ankle sprain. First-round pick Mitch McGary missed 50 games with foot and shin injuries.
All told, the Thunder lost the NBA's sixth-highest number of player games due to injury, according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes. A lower number likely would've prevented the combination of a double-clutch buzzer-beater by Anthony Davis and a season-ending Pelicans win from leaving OKC on the outside of the playoffs. Even if it did, though, it might not have saved Scott Brooks' job.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti said the decision to fire the 2010 Coach of the Year was based not on last season's results, but on the best course for the long-term success of a franchise that seemed destined for greatness after its 2012 Finals run, but that has seen three straight devastating injuries — Westbrook's meniscus tear in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs, Ibaka's calf injury on the verge of the 2014 Western Conference finals, and Durant's Jones fracture — leave the Thunder as bridesmaids.
What's best for the long-term success of the franchise, of course, is keeping Durant, and the best way to do that is to finally put together the championship campaign that has thus far eluded OKC. With Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka all ready to go, backed by arguably the deepest and most talented supporting cast they've ever had, and led by a new coach whom Presti believes can get this crew over the top, the stage is set for what promises to be a wild and pressure-packed ride.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
— Tony Markovich (@T_Marko) March 23, 2015
BUT ALSO 💯🔥💯🔥
But ultimately 💔.
Did the summer help at all?
It allowed Durant to get healthy enough to get cleared to do stuff like this:
... so yeah, it was a pretty decent summer.
Aside from a couple of tweaks — adding 2014 first-rounder Josh Huestis, famously stashed in the D-League last season, to the main roster; taking mid-major point guard Cameron Payne with 2015's No. 14 pick — the Thunder return nearly the same roster that finished last season. They re-signed the restricted free agents they acquired at February's trade deadline, agreeing to a five-year, $25 million deal with reserve forward Kyle Singler and, after a long think, matching a $70 million offer sheet to keep offensive-minded Enes Kanter in the fold.
Those decisions make this year's Thunder exceptionally expensive. Even after shipping out Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III for nothing but financial relief, Oklahoma City enters the season with a payroll either just under or just over $100 million. They're over the salary cap, over the luxury tax, over the "apron" ... Presti can maneuver a bit on the margins, but this, it seems, is their team. Good thing it's loaded.
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Go-to offseason acquisition:
Billy Donovan, who received a five-year, $30 million contract to take the dream job of coaching Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. That privilege comes at a price, though. Donovan must step in for the ousted Brooks and tackle one of the more daunting challenges a first-year pro coach can face: immediately returning OKC to title contention and convincing Durant to stick around.
Some might've sniffed at the hire, considering what happened the last time an NBA team gave Donovan the keys and a five-year deal. But Donovan was a phenomenally successful college coach, rolling up 502 wins over a 21-year career, 59th all-time in men's college hoops. And while many coaches have fallen short when jumping from college to the pros due in part to an inability to adapt to the challenges of managing a locker room full of professionals, Donovan's "unique ability to not only create but sustain an elite program" is just what the doctor ordered, according to Presti.
"We wanted to identify a person with the traits associated with high achieving leaders in their respective fields; a continuous learning mentality, the ability to adapt, evolve and innovate, intrinsically motivated, humility, and great tactical competence,” Presti said in the statement announcing Donovan's hire. “While we created a comprehensive analysis regarding the qualities we were looking for, it became quite evident that Billy was the ideal fit for the Thunder as we look to transition our team into the future."
Presti also lauded Donovan's "emotional intelligence [and] commitment to the concept of team," qualities that figure to be important when taking over a club whose stars liked the old guy. Ultimately, though, Donovan will be judged based on whether he represents a substantial improvement over Brooks when it comes to putting Thunder players in better position to make plays, break down defenses and shut down opposing attacks, especially late in close games against elite competition.
There's reason for optimism there. He'll be prepared, with a staff featuring former head coaches Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks, longtime NBA player and coach Mark Bryant, and former NBA guard/player development assistant Royal Ivey ensuring that Donovan won't fly blind as he learns pro personnel and acclimates to the differing rhythms of the NBA game.
By most accounts, he'll be flexible, too. He told ESPN.com's Royce Young that he won't necessarily be beholden to the schematic staples of his Florida tenure, referencing the need to adjust pick-and-roll coverages based on personnel — he's shown a willingness this preseason to move away from high-hedging pressure in favor of a more dialed-back approach aimed at forcing ball-handlers away from the middle of the floor.
Whether he'll make the sorts of stat-supported tweaks Brooks rarely did — staggering the minutes for Westbrook and Durant so that one of them is always on the floor, having a quick hook for underperforming players dragging down Thunder lineups — remains to be seen. His prior use of and continuing interest in analytically sound decision-making, though, ought to provide hope for fans who got pretty sick of Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher over the years.
Oklahoma City can win the championship. Donovan was hired to make that happen. In a very real way, the future of the franchise may depend on whether he succeeds.
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Propensity for season-crushing injuries? If everyone's healthy, though, I'm not sure Oklahoma City has one.
The Thunder have two of the 10 best players in the world, elite shot-creators and playmakers eminently capable of carrying their team for stretches, quarters, games and even weeks at a time. They've got a frontcourt rotation chock full of young talent — Ibaka, a premier rim protector who can stretch the floor; Kanter, an excellent interior scorer who feasts on putbacks and post-ups; Adams, a two-way bruiser who gets under opponents' skin while contributing without the ball; and McGary, who proved helpful on the glass and as a source of ancillary offense as a rookie.
D.J. Augustin provides a steady veteran backup at the point who can also play alongside Westbrook. Payne can offer fresh legs in reserve units. You'd like a more complete answer at shooting guard and a knockout 3-and-D perimeter stud, but defense-and-athleticism-first Roberson, sharpshooting Anthony Morrow, shot-creating (for better or worse) Dion Waiters and Singler make up a wing rotation that should be able to chip in what OKC needs night-to-night. Collison and Steve Novak offer cheerful veteran leadership. Rumble the Bison seems chill.
At the risk of being numbingly obvious, it mostly comes down to the Thunder getting their three best players on the floor together as often as possible. Lineups featuring Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka blew opponents away by 11.4 points per 100 possessions in just over 600 minutes last year; by 7.4 points-per-100 in 1,200 minutes two years ago; by 11.4 points-per-100 in nearly 2,200 minutes three years ago; and by 7.3 points-per-100 in nearly 1,700 minutes four years ago, all elite marks. Get them to springtime safely and the only thing glaring will be the lights ABC uses during Finals broadcasts.
Contributor with something to prove:
Kanter, who's got a bad reputation to shake and a giant contract to justify.
After essentially pushing his way out of Utah over frustrations about his role, Kanter landed in OKC. With Durant sidelined and Westbrook pleased to have a teammate who could do something with the ball, Kanter got all the touches he could handle and put up monster numbers after the trade. He averaged 18.7 points and 11 rebounds in 31.1 minutes per game, shooting a blistering 56.6 percent from the field and pulling down 17.5 percent of his team's misses during his time on the court, an offensive rebounding percentage that would've been second-best in the NBA over the course of the full season.
Kanter developed instant chemistry with Westbrook in the screen game, finishing the feeds that fueled the point guard's seemingly nightly triple-doubles — more than 38 percent of Kanter's field goals as a member of the Thunder came off direct feeds from Westbrook. From the second he got there, he was the best interior scorer Oklahoma City had ever had, a nightly 20-and-10 threat whose consistent offensive performance seemed to suggest he was 100 percent right in calling for a featured role.
And yet, there was the other end of the floor.
Before trading Kanter, Utah ranked 26th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency, and gave up 4.2 more points per 100 possessions with the Turk on the floor than they did when he sat. After trading him, the Jazz became the NBA's best defensive team.
To be fair, a lot of that had to do with just how good 7-foot-1 Frenchman Rudy Gobert is. But there was also an addition-by-subtraction bump from canning Kanter, who often looks lost when defending pick-and-rolls, making help rotations or dealing with opponents' pump fakes and feints.
Oklahoma City's defensive numbers after Kanter's arrival were equally damning. The Thunder allowed 101 points-per-100 before the All-Star break, a top-10 mark. They hemorrhaged 107-per-100 after the trade, 27th out of 30, and a staggering 110.4-per-100 in Kanter's minutes. Opponents scored like the 2012-13 Big Three Miami Heat with Kanter in the middle, and like the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns when he did so without Ibaka, who missed the final 18 games of the season after right knee surgery.
By season's end, with Durant and Ibaka sidelined and Westbrook running on fumes, Kanter's ability to get buckets and extend possessions had real value for a Thunder team trying to make a playoff push. No matter how much he added offensively, though, he always seemed to give it all back on the other end. A version of the Thunder that has both Durant and Westbrook available doesn't need to work through a center in the post. It needs a low-usage complement who sets screens, makes the most out of limited touches and helps anchor the back line. That's not Kanter — really, it's Adams — which, as Basketball Insiders' Ben Dowsett writes, makes Kanter a curious fit.
Kanter would make one hell of a second-unit focal point, bullying reserve frontcourts and dominating on the glass while getting to avoid opponents' primary pick-and-roll playmakers. But after the role-definition ruckus that landed him in Oklahoma in the first place, and after becoming OKC's third-highest-paid player, would he be willing to accept a move to the bench?
Kanter and his teammates say he's worked hard to improve defensively, and that with the benefit of a full offseason and training camp, the 23-year-old will look much more comfortable and play much more effectively this season. If that's true, the Thunder's chances of topping the West get that much stronger. If it's not, Kanter will continue to face questions about just how good he really is, and Donovan will face some tough rotation decisions.
Potential breakout stud:
"Breakout" might be a bit of a stretch, but McGary could take a step forward.
The Michigan product logged all of eight total minutes in the first three-plus months of the season, after a preseason foot fracture and shin inflammation kept him on the shelf until February. When he did get on the court, he made an impact, notching consecutivedouble-doubles before the All-Star break. McGary made the most of the opportunities he found, using his touch around the basket and his hustle for loose balls to average 6.6 points on 53.4 percent shooting to go with 5.4 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game over the Thunder's final 30 contests.
By now, we're well-conditioned to take reports of summertime physical transformation with a grain of salt, but McGary reportedly shed nearly 30 pounds, impressing Kanter by "looking faster [and] more athletic" in camp. He's worked on expanding his range, knocking down a pair of corner 3-pointers this preseason. He's been whistled for just four personal fouls in 55 minutes of preseason floor time, a marked decline from his rookie hack rate. If he keeps it up, he could slide ahead of Collison in the rotation and earn more minutes as the season wears on.
Everybody stays healthy and they win the whole friggin' thing. Durant re-ups on a five-year, $144 million contract that cements him as an Oklahoma City institution, providing the inspiration for Westbrook to do likewise next summer.
If everything falls apart:
One of their principals once again goes down for a significant enough period of time to leave them on the outside of the playoff bracket for the second straight year. Unmoved by the argument that this is where his best chance at winning lies, KD decides to bid farewell to the Sooner State, relegating the Thunder to the category of great teams that never quite got over.
These are the stakes: championship or bust. No pressure, guys.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
55-27, fifth in the West.
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