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Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City Thunder face big expectations in make or break year

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Regardless of whether or not Kevin Durant leaves, the clock is ticking on the Thunder.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Durant is a former MVP. Russell Westbrook challenged for the award last season. Serge Ibaka is the ideal modern NBA big, capable of both protecting the rim, guarding the pick and roll in multiple ways, and possessing the ability to stretch the floor.

Two elite creators, one of whom is a transcendent scorer, and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Oklahoma City has it. It's hard to think of a team with a trio of players that fits together so well, that combines so much versatility. Perhaps the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love,and LeBron James, surpass the star and firepower in OKC; the defensive limitations of all three (at this point in their careers) might give the Thunder the leg up. In the playoffs, when a premium is put on creating abilities, what the Thunder have in their 'Big Three' is near ideal.

And yet, the Thunder have had these three for some time now. Unfortunate injuries have derailed them more than once, last season to the extent that they failed to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. Durant's cranky foot - plus Westbrook and Serge Ibaka's knees -  have been debilitating at times. It can seem unfair, but you realize that it's simply a part of this game. Time waits for no one, and while the Thunder are still young, they are no longer fresh.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. They've taken their licks. They probably have felt disrespected. They aren't the up-and-coming kids hoping to jump over the timeless Spurs. It's been over three years since they lost in the NBA Finals to LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. There was a sense that we'd get that series a few more times, with each side trading titles.

Alas, no. But as long as the Thunder employ Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka, they'll be contenders. Debates over whether they should have traded James Harden have been academic for awhile. The Thunder stand a year from Durant's free agency, two years from Westbrook's. They may not go anywhere. Teams usually retain their own free agents, and both seem to have embraced the community in Oklahoma. Do they have the pieces around them to hang with the Warriors, Rockets, or Spurs over seven games?

General Manager Sam Presti has seen some of the prestige of presiding over the drafting of all of these names chip away. He's been kept from spending in the luxury tax by a cheap ownership group that was gift-wrapped an NBA franchise after being stolen in daylight from a town that loved its Sonics. Executives that employ superstars are charged with putting together teams that win big. Presti has a lot on the line.

Betting on Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter

When we talked with ESPN's Dave McMenamin last month, I was more than a little surprised to hear him say people around the league continue to be high on Dion Waiters. He'll turn 24 in December and is still looking to put a complete season together. He combined to shoot 39.6 percent from the field, 29.7 percent from three point range, and 68 percent from the free throw line with the Cavs and Thunder last season. He has yet to approach a league average true shooting rate, and he requires the ball and has a career usage rate of 25.1 percent according to basketball-reference.com.

The Thunder will be asking for more than that. The only other options Oklahoma City has at the off-guard position are the sweet-shooting Anthony Morrow and Andre Roberson, who is a good defender, but can't shoot. With Durant's foot injury, the Thunder don't have much in the way of tangible evidence that it can work. It's a roll of the dice.

Perhaps the most concerning part of Waiters' shot chart is his continuing struggles at the rim. It's been a recurring problem over his career, and you'd have hoped for more development. His best skill as an NBA player has been the ability to get by his man. If he can't take advantage of that by converting when he gets to the basket, it's nullified to an extent.

The good news is that it's a contract year for Waiters. If he plays the way he did last season, it would be difficult to justify extending him a qualifying offer, even with the cap exploding. It's unlikely he's at that level. He has good handles, and can get where ever he wants on the court. His shooting numbers have not been good, but he's had a bit of success in the past spotting up. He'll have shooters around him that he can create for, and there should be space for him inside to attack off the dribble. His low turnover rate on relatively high usage is encouraging. A full training camp in a new situation and a humbling third season might be what the doctor ordered for a guy who works hard off the court.

It's a gamble, but it's not a bad gamble for the cost-conscious Thunder. It'd be easier to swallow if he were the only gamble, or if it weren't such an important season for the team. Alas, it's not, and it is.

The team brought in Kanter at the trade deadline, knowing the mercurial big man would be coming up on restricted free agency over the summer. Kanter has never shown any interest in defending, and doesn't project as a rim protector. He doesn't have particularly quick feet. He can score, and he can rebound, though he doesn't stretch the floor. He has some skills; it's yet to be determined if he can make a team better.

In 2014-15, teams scored 108.9 points per 100 possessions when Kanter was on the court. Only the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers scored at that rate last season. There are all kinds of factors that play into this, and it's not fair to judge Kanter as he played in multiple settings. Just when he was getting settled in with the Thunder, Ibaka was hurt. One would think they could make a competent pair.

Still, the Jazz broke out defensively in part because of the subtraction of Kanter (okay, it's nice to replace those minutes with Rudy Gobert) and the Thunder missed the playoffs in part because they couldn't stop anybody. He graded out as poor per Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus' rim protection ratings, and I don't know of a single Jazz fan who is disappointed that Utah doesn't now have Kanter locked in at over $70 million over the next four years. And that's what the Thunder have after matching the Portland Trail Blazers max offer sheet this summer.

Ibaka's injury not only derailed the Thunder's chances at a playoff spot, but also kept Presti from being able to see Kanter and him together for extended stretches. Theoretically, nearly every big fits with Ibaka. But you have to think the OKC front office would have liked a bit more evaluation time. Could Westbrook, Morrow, Durant, Kanter, Ibaka lineups just score and score and score and play just enough defense? It's possible.

So where are the Thunder?

The Thunder's big three have of course spent a lot of time with each other on the court. They'll be surrounded by new coach Billy Donovan, and talented players who haven't tasted the NBA playoffs or sustained individual success. This is a team that should figure in championship discussions filled with optimism. Instead, there are questions up and down the roster and coaching staff. Some of the questions figure to get positive answers; Durant, when healthy, is that good. He has the ability to make Donovan look good all by himself.

But that the questions exist for a cash strapped team employing multiple superstars is a wonder in itself.

Numbers via nba.com/stats unless otherwise noted.