NBA 2014-15 Power Rankings Preview: #5 Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder's title window is now. Can they weather Durant's absence and make it back to the Finals this year?

This NBA offseason has been very eventful, and the preseason is now in full swing. To help hoops junkies with the transition from the lull of summer back to competitive basketball, we here at numberFire will be rolling out our projections for next season in the form of team previews, starting at 30 and going all the way to number one. We continue today with the 5th-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder!

Title windows are typically short. This Thunder team will always have an asterisk attached to them after trading away James Harden for inferior assets. The question for them is how long will that window stay open? Kevin Durant is only a couple summers away from becoming a free agent, and perhaps if the Thunder underachieve up to that point, Durant might actually walk away from Oklahoma City. They have had miserable injury luck the last two seasons with Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and now Durant to start this season.

Can they get everyone back and healthy and make a legit run this season?

numberFire Metrics

Projected Record: 48-34
Western Conference Rank: 4th
NBA Rank: 5th
nERD: 59.0
Playoff Chances: 79.4%
Championship Chances: 4.7%

The odds that you see above are updated to factor in Durant’s injury. Obviously the reigning league MVP is an important player, and the numbers reflect that. Prior to Durant’s injury, the Thunder were projected for 51 wins, with a 87.86% chance to make the playoffs and 7.70% championship odds. This shows you how tough the Western Conference is – the Thunder winning three fewer games because of Durant’s absence could be the difference between a three seed (home court advantage) and a five seed (four games on the road). Thus, the significant dip in championship odds.

Player Movement

Notable Additions
Anthony Morrow (via free agency)
Mitch McGary (via draft)

Notable Losses
Thabo Sefolosha (via trade)
Derek Fisher (retired)

There wasn’t a lot of roster change for the Thunder, but losing Fisher as a leader could potentially hurt them. Anthony Morrow is a great shooter, hitting 45.1% of his three-pointers last season with the Pelicans. Sefolosha had a down year last season, but was a very good perimeter defender for many years for the Thunder. The Thunder obtained Mitch McGary in the first round of the draft, and it will be interesting to see if any of the young guys can stay in the rotation.

Three Burning Questions

How far will the Thunder fall in the Western Conference playoff picture with Durant’s absence?
As mentioned above, the toughest part of Durant’s absence is being in the Western Conference. If the Thunder were in the East, a three-game swing likely wouldn’t mean much in the hierarchy of the conference. However, with so many elite teams in the West separated by only a few wins, the margin of error is miniscule.

Now, Durant’s injury will only keep him out until December, and the Thunder still have Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to keep them afloat. But depending on how the Western Conference shakes out, the Thunder could be in a hole that would make it very hard to get a top-four seed in the playoffs. And considering the margin of error, an extra home game each round could be the difference between making the Finals and early playoff elimination.

Will Steven Adams be the center of the Thunder’s future?
Adams showed very good signs during the Thunder’s playoff run last season, posting an eFG% of .689 and grabbing 12.7% of rebounds while on the court. He certainly has a higher ceiling at this point than Kendrick Perkins, who only played 19.5 minutes a game for the Thunder after being in the mid-20s for the last two years.

Last season, the PG, SF, and PF spots for the Thunder averaged a 20.7 PER, per The SG and C spots averaged a poor 12.0. With Reggie Jackson getting more minutes, the guards should be better this year, making that center spot potentially the one weak link in a very strong chain. The Thunder seemingly got a steal in Steven Adams, who they got with the 12th pick of the draft a year ago. However, how fast he develops could either raise or limit the Thunder’s ceiling as a team.

Can they get consistent shooting from someone other than the Big 3?
Kevin Durant is a brilliant shooter. Serge Ibaka is one of the better shooting big men, shooting .383 from the three-point line last season. Westbrook is maligned for his shot selection, but has a very good mid-range game. But especially with Derek Fisher retiring, where else can this Thunder team find outside shooting?

With so much attention on Durant and Westbrook, Thunder perimeter players should be able to consistently hit wide-open three-pointers. However, that hasn’t happened in recent years. Perhaps Perry Jones III or Jeremy Lamb can continue to improve. Or maybe Anthony Morrow can be that guy this season. Each of those guys have their flaws, be it size, defense, or both. However, when the Thunder need a guy at the end of the game to be able to knock down an open shot, who will that be this year?

Fantasy Hoops Stock Watch

PG Russell Westbrook (Yahoo O-Rank: 6)
Talk about a fantasy stud. Westbrook has said publicly that his game isn’t going to change with Durant out the lineup, but it’s hard to imagine it not. Westbrook has always been a usage eater, and that should even go up in the first couple months of the season. The caveat is efficiency. However, while he may not be an efficient player, he will rack up every other stat to the tune of a top-five fantasy asset.

SF/PF Kevin Durant (Yahoo O-Rank: 16)
I’ve spoken about the Durant dilemma at length on other forums, but the gist of my argument is this: figure out your league settings. If you're in a head-to-head league, and especially if a large number (greater than 50%) of the teams make the playoffs, Durant is still a top pick. He will be the best player again in fantasy, and if your league doesn’t punish you (like a roto league) for missed time, get Durant whenever your pick comes up.

PF/C Serge Ibaka (Yahoo O-Rank: 13)
Go ahead and read this article for a complete breakdown on Serge Ibaka.