The Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans start training camp for the 2016-2017 season early because they take part in the NBA Global Games series. One team built around the staying Russell Westbrook, the other with Anthony Davis at the center, and the third with James Harden. The expectations from this season aren’t that different, but there’s an obvious difference in atmosphere surrounding the organizations.
For the Thunder, who lost Kevin Durant to free agency in the offseason, it’s one of excitement and hope. Westbrook signing an extension gives them time to try and built a championship club around him. The players he has around him aren’t bad, but in a Western conference with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, it’s hard seeing a flawed Thunder team going all the way. The goal here is to do well enough to attract one more big name to the team, and join him with Westbrook beyond the 2017 offseason.
Not a bad plan. A healthy Westbrook on his own is almost worth a postseason spot. The Thunder have gone through other changes, like trading away Serge Ibaka, but the tandem of Westbrook and Victor Oladipo is certainly one to watch. The team has Steven Adams at center and Enes Kanter as his backup to give them excellent depth at the position. The small forward slot is weak and power forward isn’t too much of a strength either, but the Thunder look good enough and deep enough to not let the Durant departure crush them.
Things are different for the Pelicans. They had a bad first season under Alvin Gentry. In 2014-2015, with Monty Williams as head coach, the Pelicans made the most of the Thunder struggling to cope with Durant’s injury plagued season, making it into the playoffs at their expense, although they were swept by the Warriors in the first round. Anthony Davis constantly improving and a new head coach known to be an offensive genius seemed like the right step forward.
But the Pelicans stagnated. More injuries to the same players, an offense that never really got going, and terrible defense. A healthy Pelicans team this season should do a lot better, but even 100% healthy, they might not be good enough to break through the difficult terrain in the West, with too many teams trying to finish in that top 8.
For the Pelicans it’s also playoff or bust, only with bigger consequences, and a shorter leash. A bad season here will mean that a completely different team needs to be built around Davis, who is here for the long run, but not forever, and might not be as patient as Westbrook is.
And last but not least, the Rockets, who took away Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon from the Pelicans. The feel there is something new is happening, with Mike D’Antoni being hired to change the offense, and especially change James Harden, if that’s possible at all.
The Rockets still believe in one primary ball handler and four shooters around him, but we might see a slight change to the philosophy, after last season was a complete bust. The Rockets don’t look like a championship contender, but if Harden changes and the D’Antoni shift proves to be working, then all they need is some subtle fixes in the 2017 summer and they can join the rest of the teams that everyone views as possible title material.