The Thunder will play in one of the most-changed divisions in basketball next season (please, God, let there be a next season). If the Thunder’s makeup changes at all before the first game, it will be at the end of the rotation and the end of the bench. The Thunder is betting, probably wisely, that improvement will continue to come annually from its young players.
But the rest of the Northwest Division has been anything but stable this offseason. It was one of the most changed divisions during the season as well, with the Thunder, Nuggets, Jazz and Blazers all making trades that impacted the playoff race (and, in three cases, the future of the franchises). But the pace didn’t really slow during the draft. All of the Thunder’s division rivals added, and in some cases gave away, important pieces.
So how do those changed teams match up specifically with the same old Thunder? (Note: The following lists aren’t meant to be comprehensive. They only mention the most significant changes.)
— Key additions: PG Andre Miller, F Jordan Hamilton (R), PF Kenneth Faried (R)
— Key subtractions: PG Ray Felton
— Key free agents: SG Arron Afflalo, SG Wilson Chandler (RFAs); PF Kenyon Martin, SG J.R. Smith (UFAs); Nene (ETO)
The Nuggets lost one of their speedy point guards, but gained a veteran replacement, a guy the Thunder passed on in the draft (causing Royce to lose a lot of sleep this past week) and a small-college rebounding machine with a nonstop motor. But how the Nuggets deal with their free agents, especially if Nene for some reason exercises his early termination option, will be another real factor in how Denver and Oklahoma City match up with each other next season.
But the departure of Felton, replaced by Miller, is especially notable. That makes the Nuggets slower — albeit only when Miller is on the court and Ty Lawson is off it. It will be interesting to see how George Karl uses Lawson and Miller, because it certainly won’t be identical to the way he used Lawson and Felton.
In any case, this probably doesn’t scare the Thunder. Russell Westbrook is capable of decent defense against both Lawson and Felton when he decides to actually play defense. That won’t change against Miller, but Miller will have even more trouble staying in front of Westbrook than younger guards do.
Faried and Hamilton will bring an interesting dynamic. The Thunder’s front line is quite a bit taller than Faried, but the guy can rebound — if he plays much this season. Hamilton will present some matchup questions for OKC, depending on how he’s deployed and how quickly he adapts to the NBA game.
What happens with the shooting guard position in free agency will definitely have an affect on how the Nuggets fare against the Thunder. One would expect James Harden will be much more dangerous consistently next season, whether or not he starts. So which two-guard will Denver keep, and will they keep a second one? Smith has said he’s gone, but who knows. They’ll have to have someone who can come close to matching Harden’s scoring as a third option when the teams meet.
— Key additions: PG Ray Felton, SG Nolan Smith (R), SG Jon Diebler (R)
— Key subtractions: PG Andre Miller, G/F Rudy Fernandez
— Key free agents: C Greg Oden, PG Patty Mills (RFAs)
Just like the Nuggets got slower with the Felton-Miller swap, the Blazers got faster. Portland was dead last in the league in pace last season at 90.5. There’s no way you replace Miller with Felton and stay in last place in pace, even with Felton playing in the slower Portland system. I’m not sure if that really scares the Thunder, who can keep up with anyone. But Portland-Oklahoma City games will have a slightly different feel.
And yes, I surely did include Diebler as a notable, potentially impact player that the Blazers acquired. Sure, he seems like an end-of-the bench guy. But he’s lights-out from 3. I still have nightmares about Thunder players lunging at open shooters all season long, only to find the ball splash through the net at an unfortunately prolific rate. If Nate McMillan decides he wants to play a shooter for five minutes, Diebler will kill the Thunder with his buckets. Nolan Smith I’m not so sure about in terms of immediate effect, but he’s a smart player with plenty of experience at Duke, so the NBA learning curve won’t be quite as steep. He could play early and play competently, even though he won’t ever likely be a night-in, night-out difference maker.
As for Oden … at this point I’m openly rooting for the guy. I hope he comes back and plays well, for Portland or someone else. But to talk about his potential impact on games with the Thunder, or anyone else, just seems silly at this point. It’s almost like Yao Ming. No one is counting on him being anywhere, and any contributions will be a pleasant surprise.
The biggest difference for the Blazers against OKC and everyone else is the health of Brandon Roy, obviously. At this point, a full healthy season from him would be like adding a splashy free agent. But does anyone expect a full, healthy season from Roy again? What a shame. I hope what it looks like we’re seeing from him isn’t what’s actually happening.
— Key additions: C Enes Kanter (R), SG Alec Burks (R)
— Key free agents: SF Andrei Kirilenko, SG C.J. Miles (team option), PG Ronnie Price (UFAs)
The Jazz sure do have a lot of big dudes. Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap, Mehmet Okur and now Kanter. At least one of those guys won’t get a lot of minutes, and for now at least, you’d have to bet on Okur. You could even throw Francisco Elson on that list if you’re being charitable.
Kendrick Perkins is fine with me as a counter to Jefferson. He he’ll play against Kanter is unknown (and anyone who says definitively that they know how Kanter will perform at all, especially early in his career, is lying). Serge Ibaka will probably struggle more against Millsap than Favors because of Favors’ unrefined game. Nick Collison plays fine defense, no matter who he’s up against. But those are a lot of competent players the Jazz can throw at the Thunder. If three of them are all playing well on the same night, OKC — along with every other NBA team — will have its hands full. One can at least hope Perkins will be fully healthy next season.
And Burks can play. He may be more of a handful for the Thunder in future seasons, but anyone who kept even minimal tabs on Big 12 basketball last season knows Burks can play. He’d probably look a lot better with Deron Williams as his point guard, but he’ll manage nonetheless. At least for now and probably for awhile though, Harden gives the Thunder the edge at the two guard.
But what I want to know is who on the Jazz is going to guard Kevin Durant? That’s usually a fair question no matter who the opponent is, of course. But Kirilenko and Miles were the most obvious candidates, and it remains to be seen if they’ll be back. Who matches up the best now, Gordon Hayward? An aging Raja Bell? Sign me up for either of those options.
— Key additions: SF Derrick Williams (R), PG Ricky Rubio (R), C Brad Miller
— Key subtractions: PG Jonny Flynn
This is probably the team most likely to look different the first time the Thunder faces then than they do today. There’s a major logjam at the three with Williams, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Martell Webster and Anthony Randolph. Something, you would think, has to give there.
But the Timberwolves, who acquitted themselves well against the Thunder a couple of times last season without the major changes, are officially now a potentially feisty team. OKC in particular shouldn’t laugh at Darko Milicic at center — although when Milicic looked like an All-Star against the Thunder early last season, there was no Perk around to put an end to things. Kevin Love is not Ibaka’s best matchup, or Collison’s. Rubio is still an unknown, but he and Luke Ridnour figure to have their moments at the very least. They do have to figure out the shooting guard situation, with Wayne Ellington as the only real two guard on the roster right now.
It will be interesting, at minimum, to see what happens with the Wolves over the offseason (whenever the free agent/trades part of the offseason can really happen, anyway). If Minnesota can pull off a smart trade with its assets at small forward, there could be a pretty good team in the Twin Cities next season. Let’s say they can trade a package with Beasley for a decent shooting guard. A lineup of Rubio, Williams, Love, Milicic and a quality two guard could make a run at .500 in the West with good injury luck, no question. And that’s a lineup that could rise into playoff contention pretty quickly under the right conditions. The players and style would be quite different from the Thunder’s, so it could make for some interesting basketball.
I’m already ready for the season. Let’s end this lockout talk.