We all know the story. The OKC Thunder looked poised for an NBA championship. After defeating a tremendous Spurs team in 6 games, the Thunder looked in control of the Western Conference Finals as they had a 3-1 lead on the Golden State Warriors. But ultimately, as the result of poor shooting and late-game management on the Thunders part as well as some ridiculous shooting by Klay Thompson in game 6, the Thunder fell in 7 games.
Still, with a young team, everyone knew the Thunder would be back. Not to mention, in a draft-day trade, the Thunder filled a much-needed 2-guard spot by acquiring SG Victor Oladipo in addition to PFs Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova, giving the Thunder arguably the best defensive backcourt in the NBA. But on July 4th, the outlook of the upcoming season changed drastically. Despite pledging loyalty to the Thunder organization for 8 years, Kevin Durant decided to leave the title-contending OKC Thunder in favor of the 73-9 GS Warriors, a team that was one win away from going down as the best team ever (and maybe even one less Draymond Green kick-in-the-nuts away). This led many people to believe the Thunder would be forced to trade Westbrook to avoid losing another star. However, Russell Westbrook, GM Sam Presti, and company were ready to move on with a new look, and on August 4th, Westbrook signed an extension with the Thunder, ensuring at least two more seasons in Oklahoma City and possibly setting him up for the largest contract ever a few years down the road. Throughout the offseason, Westbrook was questioned about his relationship with Durant, his team chemistry, Durant’s comments, etc., and Westbrook repeatedly delivered a consistent response: He is happy where he is happy where he is with the guys on the team right now, and he is eager to move on.
Without another top 5 player in the league by his side, Russell Westbrook’s expectations have skyrocketed, and he has become the sole face and future of the franchise. This has led many to put -Westbrook as the early front-runner for the 2016-2017 NBA MVP.
Through the first three games of the season, Westbrook has put up video game numbers, recording 116 points, 37 rebounds and 35 assists and becoming the first player ever to start the season with more than 100, 30, and 30 in these categories through 3 games. Westbrook, with help from his teammates, has led the Thunder to a 3-0 start. Even so, all three games have been pretty close against inferior opponents. Defensively, the Thunder have been very solid, but offensively, the Thunder need other guys to step up. So far, players like Oladipo, Adams, and Kanter have provided just enough of a boost to get the Thunder W’s, but the Thunder cannot rely on Westbrook so heavily against the league’s best teams.
Sure enough, upcoming for the Thunder are two road games against two of the league’s top teams. On Wednesday, the Thunder will take on the Los Angeles Clippers, and the next day, Westbrook will be playing on the same court as Durant but on the opposite team for the first time, as the Thunder take on the Warriors in arguably the most anticipated match-up of the early NBA season. As fun as it would be for the Thunder to face the Warriors on a well-rested night, back-to-back road games against tough opponents will make this one difficult for the Thunder.
What is the outlook for the Warriors season? On opening night, the Spurs embarrassed the Warriors 129-100 in the Oracle Arena. Last season, the Warriors never trailed by more than 16 at home. This game highlighted some key weaknesses for the Warriors: weak interior defense and a short bench. This leads to the question: Did Durant make the Warriors worse? Durant is undoubtedly one of the league’s best offensive talents, but does the loss of cap space offset the pros of adding Durant? In other words, does the loss of centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli as well as key role players outweigh the importance of Durant on the Warriors? That is not to say Kevin Durant is not one of the NBA’s best players, but it is something to think about. However, the Warriors still might have the best offensive team ever and surely have the best shooting team ever, and for that reason, expectations for the Warriors are as high as ever.
In the upcoming game between the Thunder and Warriors, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are poised to have monster games, as the Warriors do not have anybody to match up with them on the interior. But what about Westbrook? Part of me says Westbrook will go bonkers, but part of me says Westbrook doesn’t even care that Durant left. When asked about facing the Warriors in a back-to-back game situation, Westbrook responded, “We can play the Globetrotters for all I care.” Either way, Westbrook will be Westbrook, aggressively attacking the basket, creating for himself and his teammates, and if you have ever watched him, you know he has the capability of going bonkers on any given night. It sure would be great if it was this one.