For most teams, losing an undisputed top five player would result in a franchise rebuild. Most teams, however, are not graced with the ability to have another top five player already on the roster ready to be built around. This is the situation the Thunder have found themselves in, and they should be by no means ready to rebuild. With the moves the franchise has made this offseason, it is still very possible for the Thunder to get a top five seed in the west.
Keep in mind, the Thunder went 23-17 without Durant in 2015 when Westbrook was in the lineup, and the roster now is much better than it was then. While 40 games is not a huge sample size, it clearly shows that Westbrook is capable of winning games as the number one option. With the roster currently constructed as it is, the Thunder need to do these three things to prove they don’t need Durant to find success:
Control The Glass
The Thunder are going to be very tough to out-rebound this season. Steven Adams proved in last year’s playoffs that he can bang with anyone in the league down low, and the same can be said about Enes Kanter, who has always been a good rebounder off the bench.
To add onto that, Russell Westbrook is unarguably the best rebounding guard in the league, and he will keep plays alive with his nonstop effort to chase down rebounds on both ends. He averages the most rebounds per game of any guard last season, at 7.8 per game, and his numbers could possibly continue to rise without Durant. When Westbrook grabs a defensive rebound, his ability to run the break right away is one of the most difficult things to stop in the entire league, and with Durant gone, he will have more freedom to run freely.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Thunder added Domantas Sabonis in this year’s draft, who is going to be another strong presence down low to grab rebounds off the bench. Controlling the glass will be a huge advantage for the Thunder, because exerting less effort on the defensive end by limiting teams to one possession will give Westbrook more freedom to cause havoc on the offensive end as he always does.
Not only will rebounding ignite the Thunder on both ends, but it will also drain other teams’ energy and morale. It will be very frustrating for teams that try to run small ball against the Thunder, because unless the 3-point shot is falling at a high rate, they will be both bullied down low and their offense will feel more pressured to try to find the perfect shot, knowing they won’t grab offensive boards for second chance points.
Space the Floor
It is clear that the Thunder are now Russell Westbrook’s team, so the offense will be centered around his strengths. If there is one thing that Westbrook can do as well as anyone in the league, it is penetrating the paint. When Westbrook gets into the lane, unless multiple defenders collapse, there is almost no stopping him. His craftiness and strength make for a matchup nightmare for defenses.
Spacing the floor is the key to Westbrook being able to do this, because if multiple players are already in the paint, the help defense will have an easier time rotating to cut off Westbrook’s path to the basket.
The Thunder clearly understand this, as they have gone out and added versatile outside-focused players in Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova. Oladipo is the best shooting guard the Thunder have had since James Harden, so it will be nice for Westbrook to finally have another talented backcourt mate. Oladipo can also be used as the primary ball handler at times, which will open up Westbrook to display his ability to get open away from the ball.
Another way Westbrook affects the game at a high level is his ability to distribute once he gets into the lane. Having Adams down low when Westbrook penetrates gives the offense two options for the opposing teams to have to defend, and Westbrook usually makes the right decision. Collapsing on Westbrook will either leave Adams open down low for an easy basket, or it will result in someone on the perimeter getting an open look from three. If teams choose not to collapse, Westbrook has developed one of the best pull-up midrange jumpers in the league, plus he is a ferocious finisher at the rim.
Dominate the Post
The Thunder are blessed to be one of the few teams with big men who are skilled both inside and out. Adams has developed very well over the past few seasons, and Kanter has proven to be an established scorer from anywhere inside the arc.
Not many teams in the league have multiple big men who succeed scoring in the post due to the recent shift of focus by the league to big men who can stretch the floor. While that is very important, the Thunder have big men that can do both.
The Thunder drafted Domantas Sabonis this year to replace Serge Ibaka, and he showed in college that he has a plethora of post moves at his disposal, to add to his ability to knock down mid range jumpers. His touch around the basket is excellent, which helps make up for the fact that he lacks elite length for a big man.
Russell Westbrook, while only being 6’3″, uses his strength to out muscle opposing guards in the post as well. This is an underrated part of Westbrook’s offense, as he has an effective post-fade, and his distribution from the post is tough to stop.
Not only will the Thunder look to dominate the post on the offensive end, but they will also shut down the post on the defensive end. Steven Adams is emerging as an elite post defender, and the team is hoping that Sabonis will develop similarly.
With all of this being said, the Thunder could potentially be in for a great year that might surprise some people who are writing them off. The loss of Kevin Durant is not ideal, but it is not the end of the world for the Thunder organization.