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Russell Westbrook needs to do everything to carry the Thunder to a top-4 seed

We know Westbrook will be ready to shine, but the rest of the Thunder roster without Kevin Durant is unclear.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors - Game Seven Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller are previewing all 30 teams via conversation. Next up: the Oklahoma City Thunder. Find all of the Flanns and Zillz previews here.

FLANNERY: Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka are gone, Russell Westbrook is staying, and Victor Oladipo is on his way. This is a much different Oklahoma City team from the one that blew a 3-1 lead in the conference finals.

There's so much to unpack with the Thunder, but let's start with a simple premise: This is still a pretty good team, right?

ZILLER: It depends on what we mean by "pretty good." A contender for a playoff spot? Sure. A contender for a top-4 seed? I don't think so.

I keep going back to the 2014-15 season that Durant mostly missed. That team was pretty good, and missed the playoffs by a game. The bottom of the West bracket might be a bit softer now, but it's still reasonable to expect 45 wins being needed for the No. 8 seed.

Remember: it's not just Durant. They lost Ibaka and Dion Waiters, too. There's a massive hole at small forward, and if both Oladipo and Andre Roberson start, the bench is in rough shape. I'm pretty concerned about the Thunder as a major player in the West, and I fear what that means for Westbrook's reputation and future.

FLANNERY: I'm not losing any sleep over losing Waiters, and I think you're downplaying some decent depth that's been accumulated by Sam Presti and his crew.

Let's start with Oladipo. He's a massive upgrade over Waiters, and now that he's free to play off the ball, I'm expecting a strong season from him. Similarly, I'm expecting good things from Enes Kanter in terms of production, and Westbrook is going to ball out like he never has before. There's enough offense here to stay competitive.

I do worry about the defensive tradeoff of losing Ibaka, but again, Oladipo is primed for a big-time showcase season. They will be different, but I still think they're a 45-win team and my baseline for top-fourish seed isn't much higher than that, to be honest.

Alright, Westbrook. I'm trying to imagine another player whose public image did a 180 without changing anything about himself like Westbrook's has this summer. Talking about the general public here, of course. Curious what you think about how the perception game impacts him, if it does at all.

ZILLER: I don't think Westbrook cares all that much about adoration or notoriety, to be honest. It's impossible to know — he's such a black box — but it's always felt like he's comfortable in his own world. The snark directed at guys like Charles Barkley always feels a little surprising.

But it is clear he takes personal slights seriously, and it's rather obvious he is not happy KD left him for the Warriors. Three months on and he's doing nothing to indicate he is friendly with his co-star of almost a decade. That matters.

Welcome to Loud City season preview

What I keep coming back to is that Westbrook has been playing out of his mind for two years now — just incredible production and usage — and I don't know if there's much more space to expand. Can he even do more? Is that physiologically possible under Earth's natural laws?

FLANNERY: I don't think he cares that much, either, but it's still bizarre to consider how far he's risen in the public imagination. I'd like to see a Venn Diagram of the people who now revere him versus those who thought he was the one holding OKC back. As always, Westbrook gives the narrative industry a bad name. (Of which I am a dues-paying member, by the way.)

So, let's set the scene. This is set up to be the best statistical season of his career and it better be his best all-around season if the Thunder are going to stay competitive. What does that mean in terms of numbers? I honestly have no idea. His stats have always been so outrageous that context is impossible, but I think they will be so overwhelming that he will force his way into the MVP discussion from the opening tip of the season and stay there through the bitter end.

What's interesting is that OKC's long-term projections rests more on the development of his supporting cast and any future rabbit that Presti can pull out of his hat. On that, I am less sure about OKC's future. Not that they, or Presti, are any less capable without Durant, but rather, that it's so damn hard to lose a great player in his prime.

We both agree that 45 wins is a decent baseline. I think that's enough to keep them close to a top-four seed in this new-look West. You disagree?

ZILLER: I think 45 wins is a fair and reasonable target. I think 45 wins is a 5-6-7 seed in this West. You have to go back to 2006 for the last time a top-4 seed in the West had less than 50 wins (or its lockout equivalent). There is evidence that the West is getting shallower, but it's not the East yet. You need to put up gaudy win totals to get preferable seeds. The Clippers won 53 last year and only got the No. 4 seed.

You're right that while all eyes are on Russ right this second, this team's future is about longer-term growth. Between Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Steven Adams, there's a chance at a good two-way supporting cast down the line. But time is of the essence.


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