2012-2013 W-L: 60-22
New Faces: Ryan Gomes (Artland Dragons, Germany)
New Places: Kevin Martin (Minnesota)
Draft: Steven Adams (12), Andre Roberson (26), Alejandro Abrines (32), Grant Jerrett (40), Szymon Szewczyk (35, 2003)
The Spurs renewed, the Clippers reloaded, the Warriors reimagined, the Grizzlies retooled and the Rockets revamped. In an offseason marked by the rich getting richer in an already loaded Western Conference, the Thunder stand alone.
On the surface, Oklahoma City’s relative summer inactivity is most optimistically construed as a lateral shuffle compared to the competition’s varying degrees of ascendant steps. Losing a key if underrated cog in Martin without on-court compensation – not to mention adding developmental prospects like Adams and Roberson through the draft – means Oklahoma City will count almost entirely on internal progress from players already on the roster to pick up newly created slack. For most teams, that’s not an optimal let alone realistic means to improvement. Most teams, though, aren’t the Thunder.
Discounting the potential impact Martin’s absence could have on Oklahoma City is a major disservice to his play last season. He accounted for four of the NBA’s 10 best three-man units in terms of offensive rating last season; no other player in the league can claim that feat. Obviously, much of that incredible success stems from playing alongside Kevin Durant and/or Russell Westbrook, and the latter’s postseason injury and the Thunder’s resulting offensive struggles paint a more realistic picture of Martin’s limitations. He’s clearly not the bellwether force that such lineup data suggests, but he deserved more credit for his role in OKC’s near-historic level offense last season nonetheless.
Replacing Martin’s influence won’t be easy. In most any situation, the loss of such an efficient offensive player necessitates a single major offseason acquisition or a series of smaller ones; that production needs to be supplanted somehow, after all. But this is the Thunder, and they have an advantage – well advantages, actually – no other team has: Durant and Westbrook.
Approaching their seventh and sixth NBA seasons respectively, the Thunder’s superstars have improved in every year of their careers thus far. To expect anything less additional progress at this point – as they reach something close to the beginning of their primes – would be remiss. These guys combine otherworldly talent with unmatched work ethics and tireless, frustrated dispositions, and they’ll play this season another year wiser as 25 year-olds. Durant and Westbrook will be better this season, basically, and the Thunder are counting on that assumption to help soften the blow of Martin’s departure.
But they can’t play 48 minutes, and that’s where the play of this team’s ancillary pieces loom larger than ever. There’s no Martin or James Harden here to carry a primary offensive burden when one or both of OKC’s stars is on the bench. Reserve production will be a group effort this season as opposed to more of an individual one for the Thunder, and they’re relying on two young players, in particular, to lead the charge.
Reggie Jackson is the biggest benefactor of Martin’s defection. The third-year guard has been a wildly inconsistent performer in his career thus far, and was mostly an afterthought last season before finally getting consistent playing time after the new year. But Jackson’s overall talent has always been obvious, and he put together a quietly impressive playoff series against Memphis in May, averaging 13.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on 50% from the field. More consistency from beyond the arc is the next step in his development three-point shooting is next to come – he shot 23.1% from deep during the regular season and 30.2% in the playoffs – and should it come, Jackson will emerge as one of the league’s best backup guards. Not Martin nor Harden, certainly, but an extremely valuable player nonetheless.
Sophomore wing Jeremy Lamb will get his chance, too. Acquired last fall as a centerpiece of the now much-maligned Harden trade, he played nearly as many games (21) for the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers as he did the Thunder (23) last season. So while there weren’t many positives to glean from his rookie year, some point to his MVP-winning performance in June’s Orlando Summer League as reason for optimism this season and going forward. Let’s just say his Orlando numbers of 18.8 points and 3.8 turnovers per game on 39.1% shooting leaves a lot to be desired. But context matters here, too, and with the big boys Lamb will play a supporting role as opposed to the one he did this summer or even down in Tulsa. He can contribute at this level, we can all agree; the question now is to what extent.
This is mostly moot, of course. The fact is that Oklahoma City will be among the league’s three best offenses this season assuming health; development from Jackson, Lamb, Serge Ibaka or perhaps Perry Jones III won’t matter in that respect. Durant and Westbrook are simply that good. And once spring comes and rotations shorten, the presumed absence of a Harden/Martin-esque sixth man will prove inconsequential.
For the Thunder, it’s mostly about defense. Will they make sound rotations? Will Westbrook and Ibaka exercise restraint going for blocks and steals? Can they protect the three-point line? Will they pound the defensive glass when the game slows down? After last season, the answer to all those once-vexing questions are encouraging; OKC didn’t finish fourth in defensive efficiency by accident. There’s every reason to believe – the ‘loss’ of Martin and even addition of the ultra-versatile Roberson among them – they could be even better on that end in 2013-2014.
Which begs a final question: to which are those the Thunder don’t have a viable response? There just aren’t many if any, and that’s as encouraging a sign for this team’s championship hopes as anything else. Oklahoma City is top-heavy with talented depth, offensively-oriented but defensive-minded, and boasts a roster suddenly not so green on playoff experience. And though a list of simple offseason arithmetic won’t show it, they undoubtedly got better, too. This organization preaches patience, process and culture; this comparatively quiet summer ensures all three.
The Thunder are on a short-list of teams with legitimate title aspirations, just as they’ve been since 2011. And as long as Durant and Westbrook are around, odds are that will always be the case.
*Statistical support for this piece provided by nba.com/stats.