If the Thunder can sustain itself until Kevin Durant (#35) and Russell Westbrook (#0) return, they will be a very dangerous playoff team. who should lead the team in shot attempts and not Westbrook. Even so, while Westbrook can’t boast the same efficiency as Durant, his ability to score with such high volume clearly helps a team that generally doesn’t get much help from the center position. The fact that Westbrook is able to score at a reasonable rate despite taking so many shots is a boon to his team’s offense, and helps create open looks for just about every player on the floor. Unfortunately, Westbrook will be out for the first six to eight weeks of the season with a broken hand, which means… Ibaka, a player who is a good outside shooter and very good at getting to the basket and finishing on alley-oops and putbacks, will Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images have to step up. Ibaka knocked down 54 percent of his shots last year, including 38 percent of his limited three-point attempts. Ibaka’s ability to knock down jump shots helps open up the offense, and this skill will be crucial for a Thunder team missing Durant and relying on Westbrook to draw the defense to him. Burgeoning fourth-year combo guard Jackson will also be relied on to make up the scoring output. He showed he can as a third/ fourth option with Durant and Westbrook, but it’ll be different when he’s on the frontline. If Oklahoma City had a quality offensive player in the post, their scoring abilities could easily be the best in the NBA. As it is, the Thunder are a very good offensive team anyway, and they should remain very competitive even with Durant out until late December or January. When Durant returns, the Thunder will once again be a nightmare fo r o p p o n e n t s to try to stop. Outlook It’s hard to imagine that Oklahoma City’s record won’t get worse without Durant and Westbrook in the lineup until at least December. In the meantime, the Thunder will probably be a quality team that struggles against some of the top opponents in the Western Conference. While Oklahoma City did a fine job without either Westbrook or Durant for stretches, it will be a major challenge to deal with both being absent. However, when both return, the Thunder should become one of the teams to beat in the NBA again. They might not have a high seed and with it, homecourt advantage, but they’ll be a dangerous team come April. With three of the top 30 players in the NBA, Oklahoma City has a championship nucleus and the potential to go all the way. With rumors already flying about Durant potentially leaving to join another team once his contract with Oklahoma City expires, the time is now for the Thunder to fulfill their promise and bring a championship to Oklahoma. SPOTLIGHT: Reggie Jackson Jackson was a pleasant surprise for the Thunder in the wake of the luxury-cap-tax-avoiding trade of James Harden two years ago. A value pick in the first round (24th overall) in the 2011 NBA Draft from Boston College, Jackson has made the Harden void less noticeable by blossoming into Harden’s old role of sixth man. Used sparingly in his first two years, Jackson was the scoring off the bench last season, averaging 13.1 points. With Durant and Westbrook out of action to start the season, Jackson will not only be looked at to provide points, the Thunder will also depend on him to set things up on offense. It’s not a foreign role to him, as Jackson spelled Westbrook while he rehabbing last season. As a combo guard, he’s shown ability to be comfortable playing the role of facilitator and scorer. The challenge for Jackson will be the lack of Durant and Westbrook on the floor, which afforded him plenty of open looks and freedom. As the key focus of an opponent’s defensive gameplan, it’ll be an entirely different ballgame for Jackson. All eyes will be on Jackson during this brief period. Entering his fourth year, Jackson was eligible for his first contract extension, but declined, which means he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer. Jackson is looking for a starting spot and this opportunity in the early part of the season will afford him the audition to other teams for a possible big payout. The ironic thing for the Thunder is that they hope Jackson can keep the ship afloat as their two superstars heal, but it could very well end up ultimately costing the franchise Jackson.
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