The New Look Oklahoma City Thunder

In losing Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Dion Waiters, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be without three of Billy Donovan’s four leaders in total minutes played from a season ago. Throw Randy Foye in there, who signed with the Brooklyn Nets, and the Thunder are without four of their top seven leaders in minutes per game from last season.

Welcome to a new era of Thunder Basketball.

With fifteen guaranteed contracts in place, the Thunder’s roster may be set for the start of the 2016-17 season. For casual Thunder fans, and even some serious ones, it undoubtedly will take some time to grow accustom to the new names, faces, and on-court appearance of the Thunder.

The Thunder lose 116.7 combined minutes played per game by virtue of the Durant, Ibaka, Waiters and Foye departures; nearly half of the total combined minutes played per game per team (240). As long as he stays healthy Russell Westbrook will lead Oklahoma City in minutes, there’s no question about that, but with perhaps the biggest roster turnover in Thunder history there’s an uncertainty as to how the remaining minutes might be dispersed.

Oladipo will come in as the secondary scoring option, ball-handler, and playmaker as the Thunder will struggle to fill the massive void Durant left...

You can pencil in newcomer Victor Oladipo for 30 minutes per game, and if we’re playing a game of Over/Under, I’d probably take the over. Oladipo will come in as the secondary scoring option, ball-handler, and playmaker as the Thunder will struggle to fill the massive void Durant left in those departments. Additionally, we should see Oladipo get a lot of run with the second team given his playmaking abilities and the bench’s lack thereof.

Speaking of playmaking abilities, Cameron Payne is a safe bet to be a rotation regular, perhaps even a 20+ minutes per night guy. He found himself in and ultimately out of the rotation on last season’s talent-rich squad, but he’ll need to have made a significant leap in his game for this Thunder team to have the kind of season they and their fans would consider successful. He’ll shoulder much of the second-unit ball-handling duties, and if his game progresses sufficiently, he absolutely could work his way into the Thunder’s closing five.

You’ll certainly see a significant jump in Steven Adams’ minutes. His growth as a player was so palpable over the course of the playoffs – he blossomed from an average starting center to arguably being top-five in the league at his position. His 25.2 minutes per game in the regular season jumped to 30.7 in the playoffs, and I’d expect the latter number to be an accurate indication for the 2016-17 season.

Fellow compatriots Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova are somewhat mysteries as far as what their exact roles will be on the new look Thunder. Either could start at the power forward spot, but given that it’s his natural position, Ilyasova is the safer bet here. Don’t expect that to keep Kanter’s minutes down, though. You can bank on a steady dose of Adams-Kanter frontlines as the Thunder will be forced to exploit every advantage they have on their opponent, with rebounding still being their number one edge.

Barring injuries, you’re going to see a lot of Enes Kanter at that power forward spot, whether he starts or not. When he has space and gets his feet set the mid-range jumper has become very reliable, and the open looks will be abundant (i.e. Serge Ibaka, 2010-2016). It will be interesting to see if Kanter attempts to extend his range beyond the 3-point line; something with which he’s had moderate success in limited opportunities.

Three-point shooting is a glaring weakness on this Thunder roster. Anthony Morrow is still around, but his defensive insufficiencies have kept his playing time at a minimum (13.6 minutes-per-game last season). The Thunder might just have to bite the bullet and unleash Morrow for 20 minutes per game, as Jason Potter wrote here if only for his shooting and floor-spacing ability; both will be imperative in opening driving lanes for Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo.

If Morrow proves to not be the option, the Thunder will almost assuredly roll the dice with newcomer Álex Abrines. Abrines won the Euroleague Rising Star award this past season, so we know the kid’s got talent, but it’ll be all about how well he handles the learning curve transitioning to the NBA. Abrines is a stellar shooter, especially on the move, which is huge for creating space and flow within the offense. Over his last three seasons abroad, Abrines shot an efficient 42.5% from 3-point range, albeit from the shorter FIBA 3-point line, but a respectable number nonetheless. Much like Morrow, defense is still a huge question mark for Abrines given his slender frame.

Sticking to the defensive side of things; it’s one of the biggest question marks on this ’16-’17 Thunder squad. Subtract Serge Ibaka – a great defender, Kevin Durant – an above average defender, and Dion Waiters – an ever-improving defender, and replace them with Victor Oladipo – an above average defender, Ersan Ilyasova – a below average defender, and Domantas Sabonis – a rookie, and it’s clearly a net loss on paper.

But one must also account for the expected defensive improvements amongst the younger players still on the team, such as Steven Adams, who is already a bona fide defensive beast, and even the slow-footed Enes Kanter. With Serge Ibaka gone, Adams will unquestionably be the anchor of the Thunder resistance, a role in which one should expect him to flourish. Andre Roberson and Victor Oladipo, two on-ball defensive hounds, should adequately lock down the perimeter while Russell Westbrook Russell-Westbrooks around like a wild man, nabbing deflections, steals, and loose balls. Something tells me this Thunder team might just surprise some people on the defensive end.

All in all, it’s difficult to predict just how good or how average the new look Oklahoma City Thunder will be. There’s no denying their sheer talent and athleticism, but you also can’t ignore their glaring weaknesses. One thing is for certain, though – when Russell Westbrook is running the show, it’s going to be one hell of a ride. And just for the record, if I were to guess what the opening day rotation will look like, it would be as follows:

Rotation Projection

Position Player Projected Minutes
PG Russell Westbrook 35
SG Victor Oladipo 32
SF Andre Roberson 25
PF Ersan Ilyasova 21
C Steven Adams 31
6M Enes Kanter 25
SUB C. Payne / R. Price 20
SUB K. Singler / J. Huestis 18
SUB A. Morrow / A. Abrines 18
SUB D. Sabonis / N. Collison / M. McGary 15
Total 240


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