Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
> In the loaded Western Conference, where do the Thunder rank going into this season?
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Second-tier playoff team. I think the Clippers and the Trail Blazers bump up into the Nos. 3 and 4 spots in the West, with OKC now in the mix with the likes of Memphis, Utah, Houston and Minnesota for the remaining four spots. Not only has Westbrook been a terrific catalyst when playing without Durant, averaging about 30 points, nine assists and eight rebounds over the past two years in such games, but GM Sam Presti, coach Billy Donovan and the rest will be extra-motivated to demonstrate how good the Thunder still are and how well they can remodel a legit contender around Westbrook. They dare not slip into lottery land, at this point.
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Westbrook has already proven that he can anchor the team and lead it to a winning record (45-37) two seasons ago when Durant missed 55 games due to injury. While the Thunder are no longer a championship contender, they battle the Portland Trail Blazers for first place in the Northwest Division. If all goes very well, they’re fighting for the No. 4-5 spots in the Western Conference. If not, OKC is scrambling for the No. 7 or 8 holes. Either way, this is still a playoff team, though the young Minnesota Timberwolves under Tom Thibodeau are coming up fast.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I always dislike August predictions, knowing rosters can still change before the opening of camp, but since you asked: They could still be a playoff team. Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Andre Roberson’s defense, Enes Kanter’s offense and rebounding — there are big holes at both forward spots, but that’s also a respectable starting point. To try and pinpoint it, I’ll say OKC is in the 8-9 conversation. I think they’re going to be very motivated and focused. They are not going away quietly, that’s for sure. Getting a boost from a second-year player (Cameron Payne) or rookie (Domantas Sabonis, Alex Abrines) would be a big help, especially since Sabonis can play power forward and Abrines small forward. It’s just tough to count on dependable play from newcomers, though.
Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Top 5. Russell Westbrook will have an MVP type season and he and Victor Oladipo will mesh in the backcourt.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com: They still a good amount of talent, but their defense is going to take a big step backward with the departures of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. I would put them behind Golden State, San Antonio, LA Clippers and Memphis, in the mix for lower seed with Portland, Dallas, Utah, and Minnesota.
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The top six is a realistic starting point. Scanning the list of contenders in a top-heavy Western Conference we have to start with that new-look crew at Golden State, followed by the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies and then the Thunder. I’m not sure what to make of the Dallas Mavericks and their revamped roster. And the Houston Rockets still have James Harden to lean on. The Thunder are in that same mix with the Mavericks and Rockets, without the benefit of knowing how all of the new pieces will fit on each of those teams.
Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: The sure thing — health permitting — is that they’re going to make the playoffs. The top three contenders are going to be the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers, which leaves the No. 4 spot wide open. Who’s to say that the Thunder won’t be able to grab it — with the promise of a delicious Western Conference semifinals rematch vs. Golden State in which virtually everyone outside the Bay Area will be rooting for OKC.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Let’s do this by process of elimination. Eliminating health concerns, I’d say as presently constructed, the very best teams in the Western Conference are the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers. I would place the Thunder within the next tier of teams, which includes (in no particular order) the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, and maybe Minnesota Timberwolves. Can the Thunder make the playoffs? Even if everyone stays healthy, I think it may require Russ averaging 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. I don’t know if he can do that over an entire season, but it sure should be fun to watch.