Things done changed Saturday night. At least in terms of the consensus expectation set on this Thunder team. But while many have downgraded their Thunder’s current title chances, it still should be pretty obvious that this team is very good.
Well, let’s guess. Er, predict.
1. How many games will the Thunder win?
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: I had the Thunder at 62 prior to the Harden trade. Part of that was because the Thunder were going to pick right up from last season without much of anything changing and go on a warpath to wash that nasty taste of the Finals out of their mouths. But now, they’re working in a brand new, major piece and they’re doing it on the fly. I think that alone will cost OKC a few wins as the Thunder acclimate and understand a new rotation. So put me down for 58.
Patrick James, Daily Thunder: 57. Just seems about right. I think it would have been about 60 before the James Harden trade. I’m already on record saying I think it’s only undetermined if the Thunder will actually be worse, not a certainty. But just getting used to the new reality will probably cost OKC a couple of games, even if that won’t have a bearing on their postseason success. The team will have plenty of time to find the right chemistry to maximize their success in the postseason, but a few bumps in the road are to be expected.
J.G. Marking, Daily Thunder: I’m going with 56 wins. I think, like every NBA team, the Thunder will lose about 5-7 games they have no business losing and will also come away with 5-7 that they had no business winning (horrible shooting nights, epic comebacks, last second miracles, etc). So it really comes down to how good the Thunder actually are when you toss those out. And unlike some people, I really do still think the Thunder is the best team in the West from top-to-bottom.
Young: No. 1. I’m not convinced that the Lakers are going to a) be able to work through their issues early enough and b) that they care enough about it. The Thunder haven’t owned the West yet in the regular season and it seems like that would be a natural goal for them. The Spurs and Lakers are more interested in keeping their old guys rested and healthy.
James: No. 1. Watching the Lakers on Tuesday night helps (though the doom and gloom is surely an overreaction), but again, I’m still not convinced the Thunder are much less of a threat this week than last, so why change what would have been my initial prediction? It’s going to take the Lakers much longer to get in sync than it will take the Thunder, so they won’t have a chance to open up a huge lead. And their bench is downright horrible. The Spurs are a threat, but even though they’ve been a regular season monster for two years straight, I still like the Thunder’s chances better, especially because they likely will value home court more than Gregg Popovich, who doesn’t really care.
Marking: While I do think the Thunder are the best team in the West, I do think there will be a few weeks of a feeling out process with the lineups and integration of Kevin Martin into the flow and rhythm of the game, so I think a good but not fantastic start to the season will have the Thunder finishing second in the West at regular season’s end to, surprise, the San Antonio Spurs.
3. What does it look like when the final buzzer sounds on OKC’s season?
Young: Full disclosure: Pre-Harden trade, I had the Thunder winning an NBA title. I thought all the pieces were perfectly in place and with the bitterness of last season, they were ready to right all those wrongs. But without Harden it feels like a reach now. Kevin Martin is excellent, but what happens when OKC’s offense stalls late in the fourth while Westbrook and Durant can’t get anything to fall? There’s no James Harden to give the ball to. Again, Martin’s good and the return of Eric Maynor helps a lot. But in the playoffs, you need players to step up. You need a performance like Harden gave in Game 4 in Dallas last season. And I don’t know where it’s going to come from, which scares me. So when the final buzzer sounds, I think it’s a devastating Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers.
James: The same as it did last year, unfortunately, with the Heat celebrating a title win at home. The Heat will win more regular season games than the Thunder and be at home for the first and last two games of the Finals, the reverse of last year. The Thunder will still win the West because the Lakers will be dysfunctional and awkward and no one else is good enough. But LeBron is just too much, and Wade will still be able to hold on to the tail end of his prime for at least this season and probably next. Kevin Durant and OKC will have their title someday. But it won’t be in June.
Marking: Northwest Division Champs. Kevin Durant MVP. Western Conference Champs. Game 7…loser in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat, in Miami. Again. I know, I know…and I’m sorry.