I suppose I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on this. (By the way, for citizens under the age of 30, recorded music used to come on large vinyl discs commonly called "records". If those records got scratched, the needle that played them would get stuck and play the same thing repeatedly. Hence, the phrase "sound like a broken record" refers to someone who says the same thing over and over. Explaining out of date idioms is just one of the many services I provide here at Clips Nation.) But I'm just fascinated by the widespread predictions that the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the best team in the loaded Western Conference, despite the fact that they clearly got worse -- probably a lot worse -- during the off-season.
Yes, the Thunder had the best regular season record in the Conference last season and the best point differential in the League. Yes, their best players are young.
But let's take last season for a moment. I get the feeling that pundits are looking at the return of Russell Westbrook as a bump for the Thunder, and while he was indeed sorely missed in the playoffs, he played 82 regular season games for Oklahoma City last year. In fact, neither Westbrook nor Kevin Durant missed a single regular season game due to injury (Durant sat out the final game of the season because it was meaningless). Durant was second in the league in PER, sixth in usage and second in total minutes. Westbrook was eighth in PER, second in usage and 17th in total minutes. For those expecting those two to be more productive this season, I have to ask, how much more productive can they possibly be? Where exactly is the headroom? Can they play more games? (No.) Play more minutes? (Not a lot more.) Dominate the ball more? (Not much.) Maybe Durant will simply be better than he was, but you're approaching ridiculous levels to ask that. As for Westbrook, while he could be better, some of his fundamental issues (he's neither a great shooter nor a great distributor) are unlikely to be ameliorated any time soon if ever.
During the regular season last year, the Thunder were two games better than the Spurs (a team that consciously chose to rest stars periodically at the expense of losing regular season games, btw), three games better than the Nuggets, four games better than the Clippers and Grizzlies. Yes, the Nuggets got worse along with the Thunder -- but the Clippers got better, the Spurs remain the same and were seconds away from an NBA title and the Grizzlies have a full season of a lineup that took them to the Western Conference Finals.
In ESPN.com's Summer Forecast series, there sit the Thunder, atop the West. The Thunder, a team that lost Kevin Martin, their third leading scorer. A team whose major off-season addition was Steven Adams, a rookie project who is widely considered to be several seasons away from being an effective NBA center. Oklahoma City has two mega-stars in Durant and Westbrook, a third great starter in Serge Ibaka, two good role players in Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison -- and a whole lot of question marks or worse after that. When either Durant or Westbrook sit, the defense will be able to focus solely on the remaining star. When (if ever) they both sit the defense will be able to grab a bite to eat at a local bistro. If either ever misses a game, the Thunder will probably be the underdog.
The West is simply too good. It would be one thing had the Thunder been dominant last season -- they weren't. They were very good, but they relied very heavily on their stars to win games, and asking those guys to do more seems unrealistic. I just don't believe that OKC can take an obvious, demonstrable step backward in losing Martin and not feel the loss -- significantly -- on the court.
It turns out, I'm not alone in that feeling. While the majority at ESPN think the Thunder will be the best team in the West (the rankings were arrived at by asking 215 ESPN journalists to predict the records of the teams in the Western conference and taking the average), at least one advanced stat expert sees it otherwise. Based on the loss of the highly efficient Martin with no replacement in sight, Brad Doolittle predicts a drop in scoring margin of more than seven points, the largest in the league (insider required).
No good team has as big a lineup hole as Oklahoma City has in the middle with nonproductive center Kendrick Perkins. The fifth starter, Thabo Sefolosha, is solid, but he's strictly a role player. Beyond the starters, the Thunder have talent but also a lot of unknowns. Can Jeremy Lamb take a step forward? Can Reggie Jackson repeat the gains he made in the playoffs after Westbrook was injured? Are any of DeAndre Liggins, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, Perry Jones III or Grant Jerrett ready to contribute? Is Derek Fisher really expected to do anything at age 39?
By the way, that question about Fisher may seem rhetorical, but in fact there is a correct answer: no.
OKC's league-leading scoring differential last season was 9.2 -- Doolittle's predicted 7.1 point decrease would put them at a +2.1 in differential. That would equate to about 47 wins, nowhere near the 58 wins predicted by the panelists. I don't think I'm quite that pessimistic -- but honestly it's more in line with my thinking. The loss of Martin, the complete absence of a reliable bench scorer, the essentially useless bench -- all of this is a BIG DEAL and OKC will certainly feel the impact.
The panelists place the Clippers second in the West with 57 wins -- which seems very strange for an NBA punditry that despised Vinny Del Negro and while glorifying Doc Rivers. We've long heard the theory that coaches don't matter -- if the Clippers are able to upgrade their starting wings while replacing a supposedly poor coach with a supposedly great one and add one game to the win column over the course of an entire season in the process, then I guess it's true.
I realize that I'm not unbiased in this discussion, a discussion that is ultimately irrelevant since we'll have to play the games to find out anything definitively. But here's the thing: I would accept an argument that the Spurs will be better than the Clippers next season -- they were better last season and they never seem to age, so it's difficult to argue against them. I would accept an argument that the Grizzlies will be better than the Clippers next season. I don't think they will, but the team played great after the Rudy Gay trade, they added much needed shooting with Mike Miller, and they could be better over the course of the full season than they were last year. I would even accept the argument that Houston will be better than the Clippers -- again, I don't agree, but the addition of Dwight Howard could make a huge difference, especially if he is the dominant force he was a few seasons back.
But I really don't see a justification for saying the Thunder will be better than the Clippers. OKC was four games better than the Clippers last year. If Doc Rivers is worth anything, if J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley are the upgrades everyone believes them to be, if the loss of Kevin Martin is anything close to what I believe it is, then don't we easily see a four game swing and more between those two teams?
Let's play the games and find out.