These are nervous times for the Oklahoma City Thunder. If OKC doesn’t do great things in 2013-14 (and even if they do) the Thunder could lose both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook sooner rather than later. That’s a bleak future, one that we’ll get a partial preview of on Wednesday night (9:00 p.m. ET, FSN) when the Thunder open their new NBA season in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz. The NBA lines have OKC laying six points for our NBA picks, despite the absence of Westbrook, who is out for the next 4-6 weeks while he recovers from knee surgery.
We Try Harder
Looking at the season as a whole, the Thunder look like they’ll get another title shot. They’re the No. 3 favorites on Bodog’s NBA futures market at 17-2, and even without Westbrook for the first month or so, their total of 52.5 victories (OVER –135) leaves plenty of room for a playoff seed even if they come up short. That’s what happens when you have a guy like Durant on your team.
Actually, there’s nobody in the NBA like Durant. He’s the consensus No. 2 player in the league behind LeBron James, and the No. 1 small forward by a country mile. The advanced stats agree. Here are the top three players in the league from 2012-13, ranked by VORP (Value Over Replacement Player):
Yes, that’s Westbrook in third place. Which is our key discussion point for Wednesday’s matchup. That plus-5.98 VORP is higher than Chris Paul’s (plus-5.80) because of Westbrook’s workload – he played 72 percent of OKC’s minutes last year compared to 59 percent for Paul. That’s 2,861 minutes, or 34.9 minutes per game after playing all 82 games during the regular season. No wonder his knee’s a mess.
In OKC’s case, the primary Replacement Player for Westbrook will be Reggie Jackson, a third-year guard out of Boston College with great hops and plenty of upside. Jackson’s regular-season numbers from last year aren’t eye-popping by any means: 14.3 PER, minus-1.31 ASPM, 0.26 VORP. But Jackson improved to 15.4 PER in the postseason after taking over for the injured Westbrook – remember, 15 is the indexed league average for PER, and it’s a difficult benchmark for younger players to reach.
Jackson will have to keep up that development, because after him on the depth chart, it’s the remains of Derek Fisher, who signed a one-year deal as a mentor and a mop-up player. Fisher posted an 11.2 PER during last year’s playoffs and is essentially done at age 39. The Thunder will also be missing the outside shooting of Kevin Martin (now with the Minnesota Timberwolves), who connected on a career-high 42.6 percent of his trey attempts in his lone season for OKC.
Johnny Hates Jazz
The good news for Oklahoma City: Game 1 of their 2013-14 regular season is against a team that has shed just about all its veteran talent. The Jazz (43-39 SU, 42-39-1 ATS last year) have jettisoned their starting frontcourt of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, not to mention guards Mo Williams and Randy Foye. Utah traded up in the 2013 NBA Draft to take point guard Trey Burke from Michigan, but he broke his finger earlier this month and could be out for another six weeks.
How bad are things in Utah? That over/under of 25.5 regular-season victories (OVER –130) is among the lowest on the NBA odds board. And while it might be tempting to follow Utah in their home opener against the Westbrook-less Thunder, the Jazz will be starting John Lucas III at point guard on Wednesday, with Jamaal Tinsley as his back-up. Reggie Jackson suddenly looks very good indeed.
NBA Pick: Take the Thunder –5 at William Hill