Oklahoma City Thunder: Title Contender, But Far From Favorites

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A couple years ago the Oklahoma City Thunder looked like an unstoppable force for years to come. The young star-studded talent which centered around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka was scary for teams around the league. But since the infamous Harden trade, a lot of doubt has encompassed the Thunder. What was once a dynasty in the making has now switched to a team surrounded with questions and uncertainty.

This season the Thunder will have a tough road to a title run without Kevin Martin. His outside shooting ability and off-ball movement will be missed, along with his 14 points per game. But as the Thunder have shown in the past, they can step up a level despite losing players. Last year they faced the task of improving upon their previous season — which resulted in an NBA Finals appearance — right after losing their reigning sixth man of the year in Harden a week before season’s start.

How did they end up doing? Well, they had a 60-win season and finished with the best point differential in the league with better than plus nine. As for the playoffs, they did not go as planned. Still, much of the blame can be put on the knee of Russell Westbrook.

Many NBA analysts have the Thunder as the top team in the West going into this season despite losing Martin this offseason. Is this the right pick? I’m not sure. The Thunder will always be contenders as long as they have a healthy Westbrook-Durant duo. Throw in a Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb then sure, they have a shot.

But Royce Young shared a surprising statistic of last season on dailythunder.com that may open the eyes of Thunder fans.

To recap: Martin last season, replacing James Harden as OKC’s sixth man, averaged 14.0 points and shot 42.6 percent from 3 with a PER of 16.1. Not overwhelming, irreplaceable numbers by any means. But consider this: The best three man lineup in the league last season per 48 minutes? Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin. The second best? Kevin Durant, Nick Collison and Kevin Martin. The fourth best? Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin. The sixth best? Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and… Kevin Martin. See a trend here?

So Thunder fans might miss Martin a little more than they think. He never filled the void Harden left after the trade, but we will soon see how big he was for the team… maybe.

Much of the Thunder’s success this season lies in the performance of Martin’s assumed replacement, Jeremy Lamb. His time of “growing up” is over, and now he needs to contribute.

The Western Conference is only getting stronger. There will be more title contenders in the West this season than last. The Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs are all teams that can become NBA champions. The only question is if the Thunder can rise to the occasion, keep improving and surprise doubters around the league.

You better be good, Jeremy Lamb.

Jared Porter is an Oklahoma City Thunder writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jaredryanporter, or add him on Facebook

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