Led by the league MVP, the Oklahoma City Thunder finished the season with the second-best record in the league. However, they also came up short against the eventual-champion San Antonio Spurs.
This season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were not only one of the best teams in the Western Conference, but they were one of the best teams in the entire league, finishing with a 59-23 record – second only to the eventual-champion San Antonio Spurs.
OKC were unstoppable during the regular season, wheeling off winning streaks of at least eight games three times and only losing three games in a row once during the year.
Their offence was amongst the league’s elite, finishing the season fifth in points per game (106.2) and sixth in offensive rating (110.5), while they suffocated teams on the defensive end, ending the year 12th in points allowed (99.8), sixth in defensive efficiency (103.9) and third in point differential (+6.4).
The Thunder entered the playoffs as the second seed in the West, but faced the tough task of taking on the Memphis Grizzlies, who would have been seeded much higher if not for an early-season injury to Marc Gasol, in the first round.
With Memphis firing on all cylinder, what normally would have been a mere formality turned into a seven-game slugfest that saw OKC on the brink of elimination twice, but running out eventual 4-3 winners.
Oklahoma made easier work of the Los Angeles Clippers in round two, besting them 4-2, before being eliminated by the soon-to-be-champion Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.
It was a cruel twist of fate for a franchise so desperate to return to the Finals and avenge their 2012 loss to the Miami Heat, but such is the nature of the NBA.
The play of Kevin Durant was immense throughout the season, oftentimes carrying the team alone as Russell Westbrook struggled with injuries and others on the roster failed to provide consistent scoring support.
Besides Durant and Westbrook, backup point guard Reggie Jackson (13.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds – all career-highs – per game) and rim protector Serge Ibaka (15.1 points at 53.6% [14th in the league], 8.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks [second] – also shot a career-best 38.3% from downtown for the season) were the only other players on the team to average more than 10 points per game.
Caron Butler did provide some offensive punch after joining the Thunder late in the season, averaging 9.7 points and 44.1% from three through 22 games with the team.
However, Jeremy Lamb (8.5 points) and Thabo Sefolosha (6.3 points, 31.6% from deep) failed to pose much of a threat to opposing defences.
Nick Collison (4.2 points at 55.6% [seventh in the Association] and 3.6 rebounds), Kendrick Perkins (3.4 points and 4.9 rebounds) and Steven Adams (3.3 points at 50.3% and 4.1 rebounds) provided plenty of toughness down low, but were anonymous on most offensive possessions.
Meanwhile, Derek Fisher (5.2 points, 17.6 minutes) managed to squeeze another year out of his career somehow.
Most Valuable Player
Pretty simple decision here, Durant was voted the Most Valuable Player in the entire league after all!
Durant took his game to another level this season, playing out of his mind in order to not only keep the Thunder afloat while Westbrook was injured, but to continue to push them into the league’s elite.
By the season’s end, KD was averaging a ridiculous 32.0 points (first in the NBA and a career-best), 7.4 rebounds (third amongst small forwards) and 5.5 assists (second and a career-high) per night.
Meanwhile, for someone who relies mostly on jump shooting to score, his offensive efficiency was off the charts, finishing the year with a 63.5% true shooting percentage (third in the Association), 56.0% effective field goal percentage (14th), 122.6 offensive rating (third) and recording a 29.8 player efficiency rating (first) – all of this despite being saddled with the highest usage rating in the league (33.0%).
The weight Durant carried for OKC was enormous, leading the league in total points, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted and total points, draining the sixth-most threes in the league, grabbing the 12th-most defensive rebounds and dishing the 18th-most assists in the entire league.
All in all, the Slim Reaper was solely responsible for 19.2 of the Thunders wins – by far the best in the league – according to basketball-reference’s recorded win shares.
With Westbrook spending time on the sidelines early in the season, Durant went supernova on the league in order to keep the Thunder at the top of the standings.
His scoring average of 35.9 points per game in January was a mark only ever matched by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, George Gervin and Kobe Bryant.
Meanwhile his 12 consecutive games with at least 30 points – including a career high 54 against Golden State, two games with 48, one with 46 and one with 41 – was the best mark in over a decade.
Even with Westbrook back in the lineup, Iceberg Slim’s late-season form was just as unbelievable, leapfrogging Michael Jordan and moving into third place all-time for the most games consecutive games with at least 25 points with 41, besting Jordan’s total by one game.
All in all, Durant added his first Maurice Podoloff Trophy, fifth All-NBA First Team selection, fifth All-Star nod and fourth scoring title to his trophy cabinet this season.
While he finally usurped LeBron James for MVP honours, he’ll need to wait another year to get a second chance at that elusive first title.
Regardless, it was a season for the ages for the man drafted after Greg Oden.
Injuries are never fun – just ask Chicago Bulls fans.
While Westbrook’s early-season injury woes were obviously not as depressing as those of Derrick Rose, and he returned to his usual explosive best by the end of the year, they affected his team in a different way.
With Westbrook on the sidelines, Durant was forced to log 38.7 minutes per night. And while he performed admirably, putting up 35.0 points at 52.7% from the floor, 39.9% from deep at 87.8% from the line, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists over that 26-game stretch, that scale of workload is enough to fatigue even the greatest of players.
It is easy to say that someone of Durant’s calibre should be fine without Westbrook. After all, he is one of, if not the best player in the game right now. But just because he can cope with such a monumental offensive responsibility doesn’t mean he wouldn’t benefit from some support.
Westbrook appeared in 46 games this season, averaging 21.8 points, 6.9 assists and a career-high 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals per contest.
It is becoming increasingly clear that player management is key to the longevity of a team’s success. Just look at the contrast between Tim Duncan and LeBron James in the finals.
Obviously there were a multitude of factors that influenced the Spurs demolition of the Heat, but while James looked gassed throughout the series, 38-year-old Duncan looked sprightly, and nothing like a man in his 18th season of NBA basketball, thanks to his heavily managed minutes restriction during the regular season.
Having Westbrook by his side would have eased the load on Durant and kept him fresh for the postseason.
Meanwhile, the left calf injury suffered by Ibaka had a more immediate impact on the Thunder’s season.
Whether or not a healthy Ibaka would have pushed Oklahoma City past a San Antonio team that was playing incredible basketball remains to be seen, but they certainly would have been a more competitive opponent.
Regardless, Thunder fans will be lamenting the fact they did not have a fully healthy Ibaka, who was voted to the All-Defensive First Team at the end of the year, protecting the rim and wreaking havoc in the paint against the future champs.
The Thunder entered the draft with two valuable first-round picks in the upcoming draft – 21st and 29th overall.
It was clear that OKC was drafting to fill needs rather than taking the best available talent, as they selected Michigan forward, Mitch McGary, with the 21st pick, leaving the likes of Rodney Hood, Shabazz Napier and PJ Hairston on the board.
McGary is a ready-made replacement for the ageing Collison. His two seasons with Wolverines were hindered by injuries, but he boasts fantastic per 40 numbers – 15.4 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.0 steals in his sophomore season – showing that when healthy he could be a valuable contributor. The Thunder will likely use him to do the dirty work on offence and defence once Collison’s body can’t take the punishment any longer.
Likewise, the Thunder opted for Stanford forward Josh Huestis over the versatile Kyle Anderson. While Anderson is by far the more talented prospect, Huestis, who is an elite perimeter defender and averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in his senior season, can slot into the Sefolosha role immediately.
Already over the projected salary cap of $63 million for next season, and with at least two roster spots left to fill and a history of wanting to avoid the luxury tax, adding two rookie scaled salaries is a great help for OKC.
They’ve already lost Fisher to the head coaching job with the New York Knicks and could also see Sefolosha and Butler walk away.
If they could afford them, Avery Bradley, Shawn Marion or PJ Tucker would also be excellent replacements for Sefolosha if he does indeed leave.
However, the Thunder already have a championship calibre team, and despite their “win now” attitude, they do not need to make major changes to their roster. With a few small adjustments and some better luck next year, it would not surprise to see them vying it out for a title once again.
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