The New Year is here and with it brings essentially the second half of the NBA season.
The Thunder have had a great start to the season so far and are currently tied for the best record in the NBA. That’s just the kind of start they needed considering the injury to Russell Westbrook that they are still dealing with.
Here’s a look at five big questions that we can ask now that 2014 is here and we will probably get answers to later:
5. How much will the young players develop?
Heading into this season we knew the Thunder were going to rely quite a bit on their youngsters. We didn’t know for sure that Steven Adams would begin the season already a member of the rotation, or even that Jeremy Lamb would become so solid, so quickly.
There’s still work to be done though. With Westbrook out, the Thunder will be relying on young players like Adams, Lamb, Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones more than ever. Jones is one guy who is now starting to see more consistent minutes in the rotation. Jackson is of course starting now and Lamb and Adams will have to make sue with a second unit that features Derek Fisher at point guard.
No Westbrook means more opportunity for these guys and the Thunder are hoping they can take advantage and grow into players that can be relied upon by the time the playoffs get here.
4. Will the Thunder win the West?
As I mentioned above, the Thunder currently sit atop the standings in the entire league. But holding that spot will be much tougher without Westbrook. Russ is expected to be out until after the All-Star break and miss somewhere around 27 games. If the Thunder can go .500 in those games (they’re already 2-1), they can remain around the 3-4 spot in the Western Conference by the time Russ returns.
The Thunder are definitely hoping to have a shot at the top seed even with Russ out. We’ve seen that the Thunder are still capable of beating elite teams without Russ like when they destroyed Houston last Sunday. But their loss vs. Portland involved them uncharacteristically losing a lead in the final quarter.
Every team will likely deal with speed bumps throughout the rest of the season. We will see if the Thunder can remain one of the top teams as they wait the return of Russ.
3. Will the Thunder make a trade?
Almost all of these questions are somewhat related to Westbrook’s absence. Losing him now may make the Thunder consider a trade more seriously.
The hole Westbrook has left is somewhat being filled in the starting lineup, while the biggest hole may now be at backup point guard. It shouldn’t be too difficult for OKC to find someone that could be an upgrade over Fisher in that spot. It’s just a matter of how big of a need the front office feels that is.
There is also of course the idea of the Thunder making a bigger trade, one in which they would possibly unload Kendrick Perkins. We always hear Perkins’ name mentioned around the trade deadline and this year will likely be no different.
A major move feels unlikely for the Thunder though. Expect them to make only a minor move, if any at all, while they wait for Westbrook to get back.
2. Can Kevin Durant beat out LeBron for the MVP?
Durant has lost out on the MVP as the runner-up three times already in his career. This year, it looks like it will once again be a two-man race for that hardware.
Durant is once again have a career year and putting up career-high numbers in many categories, but so is LeBron. LeBron is hovering around 60 percent field goal shooting which will make him extremely hard to overtake in winning this award.
In the end, it may come down to which player performs the best in the head-to-head matchups and whose team has the best record.
Playing in Durant’s favor is the fact that voters typically like to look for someone new to win the award. Also, Durant has been putting up even more monstrous numbers than usual with Westbrook out. If that continues, he could gain some ground on the King and eventually overtake him.
1. Can the Thunder survive while Russell Westbrook is injured?
We’ve seen some good and some bad with Westbrook out so far. Overall though, it looks like the Thunder are going to be able to make do without their All-Star point guard.
Jackson is doing a decent job so far filling in the starting lineup, and we should see him get more comfortable in that spot as the games go on. The same goes for others like Serge Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb.
The question is whether surviving without Westbrook will be enough to keep the Thunder in contention for a title.