Every summer NBA franchises make decisions that positively or negatively effect their future. This is the first in a series of articles detailing transitional teams. I.E., teams that have had notable offseasons, and thus, are must-watch television during the 2016-17 season.

Loyalty.

It’s a word that plays a role every summer. During each NBA free agency period we hear about star players who choose to stay or leave their current franchise. For example, in 2010, LeBron James was faced with a dichotomy: winning or loyalty. He chose to go somewhere where being an NBA champion was possible. Then, in 2014, LeBron was given another opportunity to return to Cleveland for purposes of loyalty and winning.

This summer, though, loyalty has played a bigger role than anytime in recent memory. First, Kevin Durant chose the “guarantee” of winning (whatever that means) over loyalty to his franchise. Pat Riley and the Miami Heat chose finances over loyalty to the team’s long-time star, Dwyane Wade. And finally, Al Horford chose a big market and a young team over loyalty to the team that drafted him.

Thus, until Thursday, winning, money, and other reasons won over loyalty time and again. On August 4, 2016, however, Russell Westbrook chose loyalty over things such as economics, guaranteed winning, and fame. When listening to his press conference, three things were clear: Russ highly values loyalty; he wanted to stay in Oklahoma City; and, individually, he will do whatever it takes to win. Let’s look at some of his quotes from the press conference:

  • When giving a prepared statement, Russ noted: “There is nowhere else I’d rather be than Oklahoma City.”
  • In regards to why Oklahoma is important to him: “You guys have basically raised me. Ive been here since I was eighteen or nineteen years old… I want to have the opportunity to be loyal to you guys and loyalty is something I stand by.”
  • On the idea of being the face of the Thunder: “Honestly, I approach it the same way… My job is to find ways to win.”
  • When asked if Kevin Durant leaving for Golden State stung: “Sting for who? I understand free agency. I understand having an opportunity to go wherever you need to go, but once that happened I told Sam ‘what’s next?’ That’s my mentality, what’s the next thing to do to help our team win.”
  • When asked about the next time he will play Kevin Durant and the Warriors: “No game is no bigger, no less, no player, I go out to compete regardless of who is on the floor.”

Russell Westbrook wants to win, and he wants to do it in Oklahoma City, that was his decision. So, with that said, can the Thunder win this season?

Simply put, the answer is yes, the Thunder are going to win and make the playoffs. In fact, when viewing the roster critically in the context of the entire Western Conference, it is difficult to conceive of a situation – outside of injuries – whereby Oklahoma City misses the playoffs.

With that said, the Thunder definitely have two weaknesses, one is a given and the other is a problem that needs to be addressed. First, with the departure of Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City has a roster with no real number two option. More than likely, Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo will rotate – on a game-by-game basis – who fills that role. If either of them take the next progressive step offensively, which is not unlikely, this problem will be solved. If not, however, the grand majority of Oklahoma City’s offense will be run through Westbrook, making them easier to defend.

The second problem, the one that is highly problematic, is the Thunder simply do not have many shooters. Outside of Anthony Morrow and Ersan Ilyasova, proven three-point shooters, there is no consistent threat from deep. Rookie standout Cameron Payne as well as rookies Domantas Sabonis and Alejandro Abrines all have potential to develop into outside shot-makers; nevertheless, this is far from a guarantee. And while players like Enes Kanter, Victor Oladipo, and Andre Roberson can stretch the floor slightly, the fact of the matter is that Russell Westbrook will be driving into a lot of double and triple-teams this season. Jonathan Tjarks, brilliant NBA analyst at The Ringer, attempts to explain why this problem is not as significant as it initially seems:

The only problem with that approach is that even two or three defenders aren’t enough to keep Westbrook from where he wants to go. He’s one of the fastest players in the league, and no one plays with more energy more consistently. He will probe and probe and probe until he finds a crack in the defense and gets to the rim. Up front, Westbrook will either be playing alongside a frontcourt player like Ilyasova, who can make the most of his opportunities out on the perimeter, or his supporting front line will include two mashers like Adams and Kanter on the offensive glass. No team in the league is going to pound the glass harder than the Thunder, who will try to control tempo, take advantage of their size, and count on Westbrook to win games late.

Jonathan Tjarks

Staff Writer, The Ringer

Tjarks’s analysis is on-point. Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan, and the Thunder will find ways to mitigate this weakness. More than likely, Oklahoma City will utilize a complex series of cuts, pointed passes, screens and bully-ball to prevent teams from ignoring their players. One of the easiest solutions could be to adopt part of Tyronn Lue’s offensive strategy in the 2016 NBA Finals, where screens and cuts were used to ensure the weak defensive guard (Steph Curry) ended up on LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, and apply it to Westbrook and Oladipo. Nonetheless, the lack of shooting does mean that the Thunder will have challenges running a halfcourt offense against long and versatile defenses.

With all of that said, Oklahoma City’s mix of defense, transition offense, and Russell Westbrook will make them contenders this season. Last season, the Thunder ranked eleventh in transition offense and sixteenth in transition defense, hardly elite numbers. Yet, much of this was due to Kevin Durant, whose average speed was second worst on the team and eighth worst in the entire NBA. Now, Oklahoma City replaced that coma-inducing pace with Victor Oladipo, whose average speed of 4.45 miles per hour ranked him in the top tenth of all NBA players, and as a result we should expect to see a more willing and lethal transition offense.

Moreover, this transition offense will be greatly improved when one considers the defensive boost the already defensively-competent Thunder will receive from Victor Oladipo. The long, athletic guard ranks in the top-fifty percent of all wings who played at least twenty minutes per game in defensive box plus-minus (DBPM). This stat, combined with Russell Westbrook’s third-best and Andre Roberson’s eighth-best DBPM amongst guards respectively, means Oklahoma City will undoubtedly have one of, if not the best perimeter defense in the NBA.

Finally, let’s look at the genius of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, yeah, this guy:

As I’ve noted previously, there have only been eight players in NBA history to average over twenty minutes per game, a usage percentage – or the amount of plays that are run through/via a specific player – over thirty-five percent, and a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) over twenty-five (or the amount of efficiency required to be “elite”). Out of those eight players, Russ has the highest Box Plus-Minus (BPM), or a box score-based metric for evaluating basketball players’ quality and contribution to the team via regression analysis. Consequently, by BPM, Russell Westbrook produced the greatest season of all-time in 2014-15, which was the one season he played mainly without Durant.

Furthermore, per Synergy Sports Tech, Russell Westbrook created, assisted or scored an NBA leading 46.4 points per game last season. That number jumped to 55.6 in eight games without Durant. Regardless if it is his defense, scoring, passing, or rebounding, Westbrook is a piece that will win the Thunder a significant amount of games by himself.

So where should we expect Oklahoma City to finish in the Western Conference? The only teams that, barring injury, should be guaranteed to finish above them are Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers. After that, Oklahoma City will be competing with the young squads of Portland, Utah, New Orleans, and Minnesota as well as the more veteran teams like San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.

Given the Thunder’s defensive versatility, it’s impossible to imagine them missing the playoffs, but a lower seed is not out of the question if their shooting is not resolved. Assuming everything goes correctly, though, it should be equally believable to imagine Oklahoma City having home-court advantage in the first round. Nevertheless, the Thunder will be exciting to watch, and we have Russell Westbrook’s loyalty to thank.

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