This is the first installment in a series previewing the seasons of NBA teams with former Texas Longhorn players. Up today: the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season: 60-22, Lost Western Conference Semifinals to Memphis Grizzlies 4-1
Longhorn player: Kevin Durant.
The Thunder had a legitimate shot to win the Western Conference all of last year. They were the top seed in the west bracket, but they lost star guard Russell Westbrook to injury on a questionable play by Houston’s Patrick Beverley. Suddenly, that series went from a sure-sweep to a taxing six-game battle, which no doubt took something out of the Thunder against Memphis in the next round.
This year, the Thunder are still feeling the effects of the Westbrook injury. Westbrook is expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the season. That’s about 25 games and a gaping offensive hole, especially after losing sharp-shooting winger Kevin Martin to free agency. Now you are looking at a roster that is offensively thin.
Backup point guard Reggie Jackson just became likely the Thunder’s second best scorer. Serge Ibaka continues to improve each year, but he still is nowhere near a dynamic scoring threat. He will have to pitch in on offense more than he is used to in order to help Durant in the first quarter of the year.
The bench should be phenomenal this year, as it usually is. Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha, rookie standouts forward Andre Roberson and center Steven Adams, Derek Fisher and Ryan Gomes make up a unit that is capable of putting in 30-35 points a night.
Bottom line: This team needs Westbrook at 100 percent to have a chance. The West will be as deep as ever this year, and the Thunder shouldn’t count on an easy sweep in a first round series. Fully healthy, this roster has enough to make it to the conference finals. I see them losing to the LA Clippers or San Antonio Spurs.
Last season: 24-58, missed playoffs
Longhorn player: Tristan Thompson
The Cavs aren’t improving at near the rate they were expected to, but this season can't be worse than 24 wins of last year. They had a stellar offseason and draft — two things that can improve a team pretty quickly.
The Cavs brought in center Andrew Bynum on bargain. Only $6 million of his salary is guaranteed, and for that money, he is well worth the risk. When healthy, he is possibly the most skilled offensive center in the league, an elite rebounder and a potent defender and shot blocker. He provides intimidating size for Cleveland’s frontcourt. Don’t forget about the additions of guard C.J. Miles, forward Earl Clark and streaky point guard Jarrett Jack, who had an inspiring playoff run last year with the Golden State Warriors.
The Cavs’ took UNLV’s Anthony Bennet with their first overall pick. That selection was questioned by many critics, who thought they should have picked Nerlins Noel from Kentucky. But their subsequent picks were brilliant, notably 19-year-old Russian guard/forward Sergey Karasev. He has the potential to blossom immediately working with star guard Kyrie Irving.
The offense should be explosive with the likes of Irving leading a group headlined by Bynum, former Longhorn Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and more. This a young team with boundless athletic ability — that always bodes well for at least an under-the-radar defense. They have a lot of guys who are excellent in transition, and so the key defensive number for them this year is turnovers forced.
Bottom line: This team may not make the playoffs, but they have a nice core and added several solid complementary players. They could be in the mix for the east’s last playoff seed, but I think they need one more year to really make noise. Hey, why not take another first round pick and continue to stockpile talent?