July 22, 2016, 10:00 am
2015-16 may go down as the all time “What if?” season for the Thunder. After going up 3-1 on the juggernaut Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, the team appeared to be a mortal lock to square off against LeBron James for the chance at a title. Instead, the Thunder melted down at home in Game 6 amidst a barrage of Klay Thompson threes, and couldn’t muster a final stand against the defending champs at Oracle in Game 7. What if they had held on at home? What if they had finally won a title? If the organization had accomplished either goal Durant might still be a member of the team, but instead the season ended in heartbreak. Hoop Ball’s Post-Mortem series takes a look at what happened in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder spent the better part of the 2015-16 season living out the concerns of their detractors. Despite having the second most efficient offense in the league, they continued to stall in late game situations. The organization’s longtime problem of simply resorting to hero ball 30 feet from the hoop didn’t improve under new coach Billy Donovan, and it cost the Thunder games.
Even more alarming, after consistently performing as a premier defensive unit under former coach Scott Brooks, the team finished a middling 12th in defensive efficiency this season. They were sloppy in their rotations and allowed opposing guards into the paint with far too little resistance. For a team that fancied itself a title defender these early season issues did not bode well.
Still, having two of the top-5 players on the planet spackles over a lot of issues. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant carried the team to 55 wins and the third best record in the top-heavy Western Conference. The Thunder had was a perfectly respectable season, but very few NBA junkies predicted the gear they would find in the playoffs.
After getting absolutely embarrassed by San Antonio in Game 1 of the conference semifinals, the team found the defensive intensity they’d been lacking all season. Looking almost unrecognizable from their regular season selves, they won four of the next five games, neatly closing out the historically great Spurs in Game 6 at home.
That energy couldn’t quite get them past the Warriors, though, as the Thunder flamed out after building a seemingly insurmountable series lead. Their collapse, followed by the Dubs subsequent loss in the Finals, opened the door for Durant’s exit. Cliche though it may sound, the Thunder now find themselves facing the most critical season in franchise history, as they must decide how to proceed in Durant’s absence.
Defining a coach’s contributions and failures on an already established team is challenging. Donovan struggled to inspire consistent defensive effort from a team that was clearly – if the playoffs were any indication – capable of stifling opponents on that end of the court. The team still utilized an isolation heavy approach on offense, and struggled with predictability when games got tight.
That said, Donovan was finally able to persuade Westbrook and Durant to split their time on the court. For the second half of the season the Thunder ensured that one of their superstars was on the floor at all times, mitigating some of the offensive stagnation that plagued the Brooks’ era. Moreover, the development of Steven Adams and Andre Roberson throughout the regular season and playoffs was impressive, and Donovan was able to play to the strengths of one dimensional and mercurial players like Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters.
With Durant in Northern California it will be interesting to see how Donovan adapts, and we may not know the full extent of his coaching acumen until we see him at the helm of a less star-oriented squad.
ADP: 4/4 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 4/2 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 2/2 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 72
After battling foot injuries for the better part of 2014-15, Durant returned with a vengeance this season. Despite missing ten games he looked every bit the fantasy force we’d grown accustomed to before suffering a Jones stress fracture. In fact, if it weren’t for the ascendence of Steph Curry, Durant would likely remain the Platonic ideal of fantasy greatness in owners’ minds.
If you exclude his 27 games last season, when Durant was returning slowly from injury, 2015-16 marked the fewest minutes played per game since his rookie season in Seattle. Despite this slight reduction in playing time, Durant still managed to put up gaudy stats across the board, making him arguably the most versatile asset in all of fantasy.
Averaging 28.2 points, 8.2 boards, five assists, 2.6 threes, 0.9 steals and 1.2 blocks, Durant outperformed the baseline player at his position in every category. Even Curry, the MVP in fantasy and reality, couldn’t boast that particular accomplishment. Beyond his counting stats, Durant was also one of the more efficient players in the league, shooting 50.5% from the field and 89.8% from the line on a high volume of attempts.
Prior to free agency, Durant looked like a lock to go second overall in nearly every fantasy draft this fall. Going to Golden State complicates things. Many have said it before, but no matter how good this team looks on paper there is still only one basketball and only so many shots to go around. It’s hard to imagine a massive slip in KD’s numbers, but he’ll struggle to post a usage rate above 30% with the Warriors, meaning he might slip below Westbrook and James Harden in drafts next fall.
ADP: 6/7 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 3/5 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 4/8 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 80
I should just get this out of the way now: I love Russell Westbrook. If you’re looking for impartial analysis you may want to skip ahead. There is no joy quite like watching him take the court. Westbrook plays basketball like an imploding star, concerned as much with incinerating all who oppose him as he is with his own production. I wish I was as passionate about anything in my life as Russ is about every second he spends on a basketball court, and owning him in fantasy brought me within shouting distance of that feeling.
If forced to set aside my childlike glee, however, I can admit Westbrook was a polarizing fantasy option in 2015-16. No one would deny his status as a first round asset, but as much as he gives to his owners he also has some very real drawbacks. Westbrook led the league in triple doubles with 18, is the best rebounding guard in the league (averaging 7.9 per game), finished second in the league in assists (at 10.4 per game) and is a top-5 contributor in steals (with two per game). Oh, and he also scored 23.5 points each time he took the court.
That said, while shooting just 45.4% from the floor on 18.1 attempts doesn’t kill you, it is a significant drain in roto leagues. He also only made 1.3 threes per game, well below the average rate for point guards, and his 4.3 turnovers were enough to dampen his value in nine category leagues. None of these drawbacks are enough to take Westbrook out of the uppermost tier of fantasy players, but they’re worth keeping in mind when thinking about how to construct your team on draft day.
Speaking of, Westbrook probably gains more value than anyone in the wake of Durant’s departure (at least when it comes to fantasy). He’s now firmly in the conversation for the number one pick in drafts this fall, and rightfully so given his splits of 31.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.5 assists, 2.2 steals without Durant two seasons ago. His shooting did dip below 42% during that same window, but there’s reason to believe Westbrook can come close to averaging a triple double next year if he remains in OKC. Draft him and enjoy the ride.
ADP: 19/18 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 47/42 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 67/53 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 78
Ibaka disappointed in 2015-16, as fantasy owners who took him in the second round were rewarded with a middling fantasy asset. Both his scoring and rebounding declined for the third straight year, and his block rate went from exceptional to merely very good. All told, Ibaka was still a useful fantasy player this season, but he’s due for a draft day slide headed into 2016-17.
Ibaka averaged 12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.8 threes, 0.5 steals and 1.9 blocks while shooting 47.9% from the floor and 75.2% from the line. Although NBA teams are increasingly concerned with finding ways to maximize the shooting they’re able to put on the floor, Ibaka’s migration beyond the arc has hurt his fantasy value. Yes, chipping in nearly a three per game from the power forward spot is nice, but it has come at the expense of his once stellar field goal percentage. Two years ago, when Ibaka was the 10th best player in fantasy, he hit only 0.3 threes per game but more than made up for it by hitting 53.6% of shots.
In Orlando next season Ibaka will likely get more opportunities to anchor an offense, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that he has the skills to do that. He’s likely due for a bounce back when it comes to his fantasy numbers, since he won’t be dealing with Durant and Westbrook’s combined 60 plus percent usage rate, but owners shouldn’t expect a return to his days as a top-20 contributor.
ADP: 95/92 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 68/61 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 100/87 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 82
Since being shipped to Oklahoma City at the 2015 trade deadline, Kanter has remained firmly on the standard league map. He doesn’t provide much in the way of defensive numbers, and likely never will at this point, but he was a double double threat last season in just 21 minutes per game.
Kanter finished the season with averages of 12.7 points and 8.1 boards per contest. More importantly, he did so while making 57.6% of his 12.4 attempts from the floor and 79.7% from the line. Regardless of whether or not he starts next season, Kanter should see an increase in opportunities, as he’ll likely be the team’s third option on offense and see minutes in the high 20s. He’s a worthy mid-round target, as he could easily post numbers along the lines of Nikola Vucevic in 2016-17.
ADP: 140/137 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 112/107 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 150/141 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 80
Adams remained ownable in standard leagues through his contributions in boards, blocks and field goal percentage. On the whole he posted solid if unspectacular numbers, averaging eight points, 6.6 boards, 0.5 steals and 1.1 blocks. He shot 61.3% from the field and 58.2% from the line, albeit on a limited number of attempts in both categories.
Adams showed real improvement as the season went on, however, and his chemistry with Westbrook is undeniable. Between his playoff performance and increased opportunities next season, it isn’t hard to imagine Adams doubling his offensive output in 2016-17.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 209/187 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 239/198 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 70
Roberson was fundamentally sound for the Thunder but still couldn’t break on to the standard league radar this year. Averaging 22.2 minutes, 4.8 points, 3.6 boards, 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks, he didn’t offer much beyond an above average block rate for a guard. Roberson is an outstanding real life defender, and he showed off his improved three point shot in the playoffs, but it seems unlikely that he becomes a standard league asset, even with more shots to go around in OKC next season.
ADP: 140/139 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 178/202 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 205/236 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 78
To the shock of many – including this writer – Waiters was a vital bench contributor for the Thunder in the playoffs, despite making little impact on the fantasy landscape during the regular season. He tallied 9.8 points, 1.1 threes, 2.6 boards, two assists and one steal per contest, while shooting just 40% from the floor. Waiters is currently an unrestricted free agent, and he could see a bump in usage if he signs elsewhere next season, but his dreadful shooting will relegate him to the waiver wire in most leagues regardless of where he lands.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 300/296 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 316/304 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 57
Payne didn’t get much run in his first season, averaging just 12.2 minutes per game off the bench. When he was actually on the court he struggled with efficiency, shooting just 41% from the floor. All told, Payne finished the season with averages of five points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 threes and 0.6 steals. Even if the Thunder decide to trade Westbrook, he’ll need to show a lot more before he warrants a spot on fantasy rosters.
The Thunder are reeling right now, as they’re forced to mourn the loss of Durant while actively dealing with the threat Westbrook’s looming free agency. There are some indications that Westbrook is leaning towards staying with the Thunder, but nothing is guaranteed. The team will soon have to decide if they are willing to endure a full blown rebuild without their two franchise cornerstones. If they are forced to go down that road, the Thunder will be wondering “What if?” for years to come.