Are the Oklahoma City Thunder Out of Excuses?
We’ve heard it all when it comes to the Thunder.
However, with the 2015-16 season underway, there are no more excuses.
Almost every issue that has held them back in the past few seasons -- from the inexperience and lack of team depth to the constant injuries and head coaching issues -- has been addressed. It is the Thunder’s season, and anything less than a deep playoff run would be considered a failure.
Head Coach Issues
Scott Brooks had coached the Thunder for the past seven seasons to a 338-207 (.620) record. He had received a lot of criticism because, despite the fairly strong roster that he was coaching, the championship trophy kept eluding the Thunder.
Whether you believe Brooks was the problem or not, the Thunder separated ties with him this offseason and introduced former Florida Gators head coach, Billy Donovan, as the new sheriff in town.
Donovan was very successful in Florida as he posted a 467-186 (.715) record while winning back to back National Championships in 2006 and 2007. Any time a college coach transitions into the NBA, there is speculation whether he can maintain his previous success. For Donovan, he stepped into one of the most attractive coaching positions in the league, as the Thunder have had a decent amount of success in the past.
One of the biggest differences between Donovan and Brooks is Donovan’s ability to spread the ball around the offense -- at least while he was with Florida. The college game and the NBA are very different but from 2000 to 2015, Donovan’s Florida Gators never had a player finish with a Usage Rate higher than 28.9%. To put that in context, over the past five seasons Westbrook’s lowest Usage Rate was 31.6%. The other star player for the Thunder, Durant, has posted at least a 28.1% Usage Rate every season he has been in the league.
Like I said, the NBA game and the college game are very different, so it isn’t an exact comparison, but the ball will most likely be spread out a little more during the Donovan era.
At the start of the season, the Thunder were completely healthy.
Last season, Durant played only 27 games while Westbrook and Serge Ibaka played only 67 and 64 games, respectively. The 2013-14 season wasn’t as bad injury-wise, but Westbrook still missed 36 games. Both Durant and Ibaka were healthy for the regular season, but the rim protector, Ibaka, missed games in the post-season and was banged up when he did play.
The 2012-13 season was the year that the injury bug came into play for the Thunder. The team was relatively healthy in the regular season, but Westbrook went down in just the second game of the playoffs and was out for the rest of the year. Thus, all but killing their championship hopes.
In order to keep everyone healthy, a little luck will definitely help, but controlling everyone’s minutes will go a long way to keep players healthy. Durant is the most recent player to be hurt, so there is a lot of discussion about how much he should play.
His ranking in total minutes played over his past five full seasons has been through the roof. Below is a quick breakdown of his total minutes played and where that ranked among the rest of the NBA.
|Season||Total Minutes||League Rank|
|2009 - 2010||3,239||1st|
|2010 - 2011||3,038||7th|
|2011 - 2012||2,546||1st|
|2012 - 2013||3,119||2nd|
|2013 - 2014||3,122||1st|
As you can see, Durant has been called on to play a lot of minutes over his career. Donovan has already expressed that he isn’t limiting him more than normal, and Durant has also spoken out that he wants to play as much as possible. If Durant and company can remain healthy for a full season, the Thunder will be able to truly see what this team is made of instead of continuing to live by the “what ifs.”
Lack of Team Inexperience and Depth
Lack of experience and depth are issues that almost every team goes through at some point. The Thunder went through this transition period the last few years. However, that isn’t the case anymore.
Durant is entering his ninth season while Westbrook is entering his eighth season. They are the two leaders on the team, but the experience spreads beyond them, as the top 10 players in terms of minutes per game are all entering at least their third season in the NBA. The Thunder are definitely still a young team, but a lot of their players have been to the post-season and have logged a lot of minutes wherever they’ve been.
The trade deadline additions last season of Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, and D.J. Augustin have helped the team tremendously. The depth that they bring to the roster doesn’t go unnoticed, as they are all averaging over 20 minutes a game so far this season. The trio is averaging just about 30 points per game as well. These additions should help take some of the workload off of Westbrook and Durant.
Last season, Westbrook accounted for a league high 60.1% of his team's points while he was on the floor. His Usage Rate was 37.2% last season which is the highest in the NBA over the past nine seasons.
The newly-found depth allows Donovan to play with the lineup to find the best fit for the team as the season goes on. The roster is full of players that can contribute and eat up minutes. Everyone is currently healthy. Everyone is a year more experienced and, ostensibly, getting more comfortable with each other.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are officially out of excuses.
The 2015-16 season is a season in which they have to compete at the highest level for the highest accolade: an NBA Championship.