Everything you’ve waited all summer to know about the Oklahoma City Thunder will finally begin to reveal itself.
The 2013-14 season starts Wednesday night, and with it questions will soon be answered, mysteries will soon be solved…for better or worse.
Much will evolve over the following six months. But as the Thunder embarks on another season, here are the 10 biggest unsolved mysteries currently surrounding this team.
1. When will Russell Westbrook return? There are actually two answers to this question. There’s the date he plays in his first game, and there’s the date Westbrook is once again Russell Westbrook. Both are hugely important to the Thunder’s success, and at this time no one knows exactly when those days will come.
2. How much of the load can Kevin Durant carry? We know the Thunder will look to Durant to do much more. But how much can he realistically do? He’ll be responsible for captaining a makeshift starting unit, as well as supplementing a suddenly sketchy bench. The Thunder will ask him to increase his playmaking, rebounding and defense while doing those things. Can he keep up?
3. Can Kendrick Perkins have a bounce-back season? It appears one too many injuries have taken a toll on Perkins’ body. He has too much pride to use the mounting injuries as a crutch. But those hardships are largely to blame for how he regressed for a third straight season last year. He’ll look to use 2013-14 to regain his Boston form. If he can do it, Perkins will still have a ton of value. If he can’t, it might be time to step aside.
4. Is Reggie Jackson ready? Remember, he’s never started a regular season game. Heck, he’s only played in 115 of them in two seasons. So while Jackson’s playoff performance was encouraging, there is still uncertainty over how he’ll handle the starting spot while Westbrook is out. Even when Westbrook returns, Jackson has pressure of performing as the team’s third sixth man in three years.
5. Can Jeremy Lamb stay confident? It became clear in just seven preseason games that Lamb is hard on himself. Perhaps too hard on himself. Mounting missed shots resulted in Lamb showing overt signs of frustration. And that can happen. But if he struggled to stay confident in the preseason, what’s going to happen when the pressure is really on in the postseason?
6. How much will Steven Adams’ preseason success carry over? In seven preseason games, Adams averaged 7.8 points, eight rebounds, 1.1 blocked shots and 3.8 fouls. He logged 23.4 minutes per game. Do that in the regular season and he might get the key to the city. But those games didn’t count. Now they do, and players are playing for keeps. The good thing is Adams’ game is energy based, meaning the positives we saw in exhibitions aren’t really things that opponents can take away from him.
7. Will Serge Ibaka become a better rebounder? The raw numbers say Ibaka has improved his rebounding in nearly each subsequent season, going from 5.4 to 7.6 to 7.5 to 7.7. But based on 36-minute production, those numbers actually fall each season, from 10.8 to 10.1 to 10.0 to 8.9. So has his rebounding percentage, from 17.2 to 16.4 to 15.9 to 14.2. With Westbrook leading all point guards with 5.2 rebounds per game last season, the Thunder had a safety net. Without him, and even when Westbrook returns, Ibaka has to be better on the boards.
8. How will the bench produce points? Once again, the second unit has to reinvent itself. There is no more James Harden. No more Kevin Martin. No more virtually indefensible two-man game. Now, it’s just Lamb and Derek Fisher. Durant likely will get minutes with the bench, but he can’t play with them at all times. When he sits, how will the Thunder manufacture scoring opportunities?
9. Will the ball movement be better? OKC has ranked in the bottom third of the league in assists in each of the past five seasons. Last year, the Thunder showed signs of growth, averaging 21.4 assists, the most in the OKC era. Moving the ball has again been a focal point this season, and, at times, the Thunder looked great whipping it around in the preseason. The key is keeping it up for a full season.
10. Can the Thunder rebound consistently? Another problem area historically, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. OKC allowed 12 offensive rebounds per game last season, tying for second most in the league. Part of that can be explained by the Thunder forcing so many misses, as opponents shot just 42.5 percent. But closing out more possessions with a rebound can only enhance the Thunder’s already stout defense.