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Meet the Competition: Oklahoma City Thunder

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OKC plummeted from the ranks of NBA royalty last season, thanks to a spate of injuries. The team long-known for its continuity and commitment finally shook things up over the past year, bringing in a number of fresh faces while shipping off some familiar ones.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

When you ask Clippers fans about the teams they hate most, you'd expect to see the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors at the top of most lists. And understandably so, considering the animosity between those teams and the Clippers over the past few years. But somehow over that time I've gained a grudging respect for those teams.

No, for me the team I dislike the most is the one who dispatched them in 2014. It's not so much any of the individual players, or even the team as a whole, but after that playoff series it's extremely hard for me to not root against that team in any context. I even went back and wrote close to 5,000 words about that fateful Game 5 earlier this year.

I'm talking, of course, about the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team that once upon a time was considered to be a future dynastic power in the Western Conference. And to their credit, the franchise probably should have a won a championship by now. Even after trading away James Harden, the Thunder only posted the best point differential since the 2008 Celtics (later overtaken by the Warriors). Despite having an inferior record to the Miami Heat that season, they were arguably the best team in the NBA and the championship favorite. But then Russell Westbrook fell to a knee injury, and the team has since been plagued by injury woes in the regular season, as well as the playoffs.

The Thunder team today might not be as good as their 2013 outfit, but they're certainly a championship contender nonetheless. There are more question marks and unknowns today than in previous seasons, but the core of the team remains unchanged. Whether this will be the case a year from today remains to be seen.

What Happened Last Year?

Injuries struck even before the season began, as Kevin Durant fell victim to a complicated foot fracture that eventually ended his season. The blows didn't stop there; Westbrook was sidelined in the team's second game (against the Clippers, actually), and eventually, most of the rotation fell into various states of disarray. The team was forced to resort to giving guys like Sebastian Telfair and Lance Thomas big minutes, and at times could barely field eight healthy players.

As players slowly returned, we began to see flashes of the old Thunder, but the team was never really able to reach the same gears they had in years past. In spite of his overall brilliance, Durant wasn't able to stay on the court and eventually was shut down for good following the All-Star Break.

Meanwhile, GM Sam Presti, who to that point had shown reluctance to meddle with the Thunder roster, decided to change his tune. The team acquired down-on-his-luck gunner Dion Waiters as part of the trade that sent J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland, and later made a flurry of moves at the trade deadline, shipping out Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson. What happened to Jackson might have also been the case with Eric Bledsoe, had the Clippers not traded him before the season began.

New additions Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, and Kyle Singler were part of a Thunder team that forsook its trademark defensive excellence to instead become an offensive power. Westbrook went supernova in February and March and reached historic usage rates with no Durant to fetter him, putting up incredibly counting stats with questionable efficiency. His play was almost enough to carry the Thunder to a playoff spot, but they fell short to New Orleans on a tiebreaker.

Reserves like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III were sent away for cap relief this offseason, as the Thunder matched a Portland offer sheet for RFA Enes Kanter in one of the more controversial moves of the summer. More importantly, OKC decided to finally move on from Scott Brooks, and chose to replace him by calling up Billy Donovan from the college ranks.

Who's Playing This Year?

PG Russell Westbrook D.J. Augustin Cameron Payne
SG Andre Roberson Dion Waiters
SF Kevin Durant Anthony Morrow Kyle Singler
PF Serge Ibaka Nick Collison Mitch McGary
C Steven Adams Enes Kanter

Oklahoma City has a fair amount of depth, but it remains to be seen how good and/or reliable their supporting cast can be. Brooks had a famous tendency to overplay certain veterans, especially Perkins and Derek Fisher, but even if he were still around, there aren't any of those players left on the OKC roster.

Going into training camp, the shooting guard spot is the only real area of uncertainty in the starting unit. Despite his massive contract, most Thunder observers are in agreement that Enes Kanter will come off the bench, while Steven Adams will return to the starting unit.

There's less consensus on the wing. Clearly Kevin Durant will start at one position, but OKC has three potential starting options at the other wing. Roberson was the starter when healthy last year, while Waiters also started games when other players were injured.

However, the best fit for the starting unit might be Anthony Morrow. An ace shooter and questionable defender, Morrow could complement the starting unit by spacing the floor (not unlike J.J. Redick for the Clippers), while his defensive deficiencies would be minimized by playing with three to four good defenders (depending on Westbrook).

In the end, it's likely the Thunder choose to stick with Roberson, perhaps even more offensively challenged than Tony Allen. But that matters less than whom the Thunder choose to finish games with.

Off the bench, Augustin projects to stay as the backup PG. Some Thunder fans believe rookie Cameron Payne might eventually usurp that role, but it's an unlikely goal for a first-year player on a championship contender. Kyle Singler might also be a rotation player, but there's a lot of competition for minutes on the wing. McGary might be better than Collison now in a vacuum, but the Thunder can't play him alongside Kanter — and Collison's veteran presence will likely be welcomed by Coach Donovan and the bench unit.

Questions

What can we expect from this bench? The Thunder bench as currently projected features a fair amount of offensive firepower, but will it be enough to compensate for their defense?

There might not be a single plus defender on that second unit, apart from perhaps Nick Collison. Regardless of who starts at shooting guard, the starting lineup's defense should be very good; prior to last year, the Thunder had a top-5 defense two seasons in a row. OKC always had minus defenders coming off the bench, but perhaps never this many.

It all starts as Kanter, widely regarded as the worst defensive big (and perhaps worst defender overall) in the league. A lineup can play above-average defense even without a single dominant defender, if they play smart team defense — but it's hard to do that with Kanter at center.

Kanter's only 23 and extremely proficient on the offensive end, but it may be wishful thinking to expect any sizeable improvement on the defensive side. ESPN's Amin Elhassan called into question even his offensive BBIQ, stating that Kanter had trouble memorizing the Utah offense; according to Elhassan, his success in the heartland stemmed from the Thunder simplifying his role offensively to just screening, rolling, and crashing the glass. If Kanter can't stay on the floor, OKC could have an issue with frontcourt depth (although this could be mitigated by playing more smallball lineups).

Dion Waiters is another question mark, between his shot selection and his putrid shooting splits. He was considered a malcontent while in Cleveland, although we haven't really heard much of that talk in Oklahoma City. He might not be a locker room problem, but the on-court chemistry is still concerning. His midrange shooting is competent, but he can't really shoot from anywhere else. When he's shooting and missing, the bench might not be able to produce the offense to make up for what could be a sieve-like defense.

How will Billy Donovan be in his first year? Steve Kerr proved himself to be extremely competent in Year 1, but he also spent years around the NBA and alongside brilliant basketball minds before making the jump. David Blatt might be a better comparison for Billy Donovan, illustrating some of the issues with transitioning to coaching NBA players.

But the atmosphere in Oklahoma City is very different from the one in Cleveland last year, and there shouldn't be anywhere near that level of dysfunction from the top down. Donovan might not have experience coaching professionals, but he's well-connected and respected within the league. In any case, having ex-players with head coaching experience as his assistants (Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks) should be a valuable asset.

The questions here are mostly on the court. Under Brooks, the Thunder were known for stagnant offense in the fourth quarter (which, despite being a tad overblown, wasn't an inaccurate critique). We'll see if Donovan can change that and bring more movement and dynamism to the OKC offense. There might be growing pains adjusting to a new system to start off the year, but like with Cleveland I wouldn't doubt the Thunder to come around by the end.

What's the prognosis?

Oklahoma City will be judged by their playoff success, and it certainly won't be easy sledding in the West. Their star players are good enough to compete with any team in the league, but the main concern is how reliable the supporting cast can be in the postseason. If the depth pans out, this could be a sixty-plus win team once again. In a worst-case scenario, they'd still certainly be better than the Clippers' bench last year, but that's not a high bar to clear.

Forecast: 3rd Seed (60-22) (57-25), Western Conference Semifinals