Not sure if you heard, but four-time scoring champion and ex-MVP Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State in free agency this offseason. How can the Thunder possibly recover? They have a wins total of 44.5 for 2016-17 on BetOnline NBA odds.
Think Shaq Leaving For L.A.
Have you ever been to both downtown Orlando and Oklahoma City? I have. Very similar situations. Both were sleepy downtowns without a major professional sports team until the NBA surprisingly landed in both, and those areas exploded around said teams. And allow me to compare what happened this offseason to the Thunder with what happened to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 1996.
The Magic were building a potential dynasty with the second-biggest star in the NBA in Shaquille O'Neal and his superstar sidekick Penny Hardaway. Those two led the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals -- that was the season Michael Jordan, obviously, the NBA's biggest star, returned from his retirement late in the season but the Bulls lost to the Magic in the playoffs. Orlando looked to be the top challenger to the Bulls over the next several years.
In the 1995-96 season, the Magic won a franchise-record 60 games behind Shaq and Penny and lost to the 72-win Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. O'Neal was a free agent after that season and Orlando had every advantage of re-signing him under the rules of that era. Except the Magic low-balled O'Neal and he took his talents to Los Angeles. The Magic still haven't fully recovered from that devastating loss.
Fast forward to this summer, and I believe Durant leaving OKC for Golden State is the most shocking free-agent defection since Shaq's. You might argue LeBron James, but I still believe Durant's is more surprising because he joined a super-team competitor that his Thunder almost beat in the Western Conference Finals. Really, the Thunder should have won that series. But they were set up to challenge the Warriors for years with their 1-2 punch of Durant, arguably the second-biggest star in the NBA, and Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder franchise is probably going to take many years to recover from Durant's defection much like the Magic still are.
At Least Westbrook Staying For Now
I won't even try to say that the Thunder can fill Durant's monster shoes. Steph Curry is the best shooter in the NBA, but Durant is the best all-around scorer because he's nearly 7-foot tall and thus basically not guardable at any position. Durant averaged 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 5.0 assists last year.
Now the Thunder clearly belong to Westbrook, whom the team was able to sign to an extension in August essentially through the 2017-18 season. He could have been a free agent after this season, and without an extension, the Thunder likely would have traded him or risk losing another superstar for nothing.
Westbrook is going to be a triple-double monster this season. He had an NBA-high 18 of them last year, averaging 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, and 7.8 rebounds. Westbrook reaching 25 triple-doubles wouldn't surprise me, nor would him winning the scoring title. It would be an upset if Westbrook doesn't lead the NBA in shot attempts. He is +330 on 5Dimes NBA odds to win the MVP title and +160 to win the scoring title. Over the past two seasons, Westbrook played 48 games without Durant and averaged 30.5 points, 9.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds with 11 triple-doubles.
So how much of a drop-off can we expect for OKC? The Thunder were 55-27 last year, and Durant had a value over replacement player score of 6.4, meaning he's worth 6.4 more wins than an average player. Yet BetOnline's NBA picks give Oklahoma City a wins total of 44.5, with the 'over' a -125 favorite.
Aggressive Thunder GM Sam Presti made what most believe was a great trade at the draft in sending power forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando for promising young guard Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013, forward Ersan Ilyasova and 2016 first-round draft pick Domantas Sabonis.
The Thunder's backcourt of Westbrook and Oladipo could be the league's most athletic. Center Steven Adams blew up in last year's playoffs and is a rising star. But after those three, questions abound. You are probably looking at Kyle Singler as the starting small forward and either Ilyasova or Enes Kanter at power forward. Not great.
NBA Free Picks: In those 48 games I mentioned above where Westbrook played without Durant, the Thunder were 25-23, which would equate to about 43 wins in a full season. I do like Westbrook for the scoring title but will go 'under' the wins for this NBA pick as OKC will likely lose any games Westbrook might miss and he tends to miss at least a few each year.