Great Expectations: The Oklahoma City Thunder

This week I sat through the full Bulls Bucks preseason game so it’s officially confirmed: NBA season is here!  While this year’s off season is a tough act to follow, salve complete with its banana boats, emojis, and potential hostage situations, there are a ton of intriguing story lines to watch, even in the early part of the season.  For instance, can Kobe last through Christmas?  Can Tim Duncan and a re-loaded Spurs team defend the wall?  Who will choke who in the Clippers Locker Room?  And, really, who is on the Portland Trailblazers?

Going in to the 2015-2016 season, many talented teams like the Bulls, Rockets, Clippers and Pelicans, are under intense pressure to improve over their 2014-2015 performances, but the stakes are not as high for anyone as they are for the Oklahoma City Thunder.  After a 45 win ’14-’15 season where injuries piled up for OKC’s stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder failed to make the playoffs in the top heavy Western Conference.  GM Sam Presti subsequently replaced coach Scott Brooks with friend and University of Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan, who takes over a team with extremely rare talent and experience for a rookie ringleader.

Most rookie head coaches this season walk in to an organization looking to eradicate drama (Bulls, Kings), in a complete rebuild (Nuggets) or a tasked with taking young talent to the next level (Magic, Pelicans).  But in Oklahoma City, it’s now or right now for Billy Donovan even before the season opener tips off.

Scott Brooks is out of a job for failing to ignite a championship spark in a team with the talent and depth of NBA Champions, so Donovan inherits a team that is good, has been good, and can’t really get much better, only healthier.  In the past 5 seasons, only one team has had a better regular-season win percentage than the Thunder…the Spurs.  Only two teams have won more playoff series than the Thunder.  The Heat and…the Spurs.  And the Thunder have tied the enchanted Spurs in conference finals appearances in the past 5 seasons with 3 a piece.

So, in terms of production, there’s not too much room for improvement to expect under Donovan.  The expectation is that a more creative system will better prepare the team for the postseason on both ends of the court.  And in true preseason fashion, the players appear to be buying in with optimism.   Last week, Durant called work under Donovan a new era of basketball.

And then there’s the big question you may have heard about at any given time between 12:00am and 11:59pm any Monday through Sunday on ESPN, and that’s Kevin Durant’s impending free agency at the end of this season, where I can’t even pretend to have any predictions.

So the pressure that engulfs Billy Donovan and the Thunder headed in to late October at Chesapeake Energy Arena surrounds whether OKC’s Big 3 can stay healthy, and will they still be there a year from now?  Both of these seem pretty outside of any coach’s control, but after all, this is sports and since when has that mattered?

19 days until NBA tip off…

About the author: Jamie Litoff. NBA Correspondent. Jamie is an Evanston native and devoted Bulls, Bears, Cubs and Michigan Wolverines fan. A Big Ten girl through and through, Jamie graduated from Michigan before finishing her Masters degree in Sports Administration at Northwestern last year. Passionate about the intersection of sports and technology, Jamie works in digital media and sponsorship at Intersport in Chicago. In her free time, you can find her repping the 300 level of the UC at Bulls games, eating wings at the Birds Nest, laying on a North Side beach or listening to podcasts. Follow her @jamielitoff on Twitter and Instagram.

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