Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder


Projected Record: 57-25 (2nd in West)

Over/Under: 51.5

2016: 47-35 (6th in West)


Key Additions:

  • F Paul George
  • F Carmelo Anthony
  • F Patrick Patterson
  • G Raymond Felton
  • G Terrance Ferguson

Key Subtractions:

  • G Victor Oladipo
  • F Domantas Sabonis
  • C Enes Kanter
  • F Doug McDermott
  • F Taj Gibson
  • G Norris Cole

Summary

Strengths:

  • Star power
  • Elite starting lineup
  • Overall team upside

Weaknesses:

  • Depth still a question
  • Could use a little more shooting

Well, let’s all take a moment to tip our fedoras to Sam Presti, who is a virtual lock to lock up this season’s Executive of the Year award for orchestration the Thunder’s stunning offseason this summer. How Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, and Doug McDermott became Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, I may never completely understand, and without any other moves, locking up Russell Westbrook and signing Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton would have probably counted as a successful offseason. This was truly above and beyond.

I love this season’s Thunder, and I’m immensely excited to watch how they perform together, because apologies to the rest of the league, but Westbrook, George, and Anthony are the most interesting “Big Three” in the league. They’re the obvious focal points of the “MVP” and “X Factor” sections of this previous, so I’ll discuss them there and instead use this space to discuss my thoughts on the rest of the roster.

I never quite realized it, but Patrick Patterson became a valuable, underrated NBA player pretty much the moment he started shooting threes in 2012. He’d just flown under the radar for me for so long, because nothing he does necessarily pops on a box score; he’s not going to blow up for 30 points, he’s always hovered around 25 minutes and 5 rebounds per game, and he doesn’t block shots or generate steals at an above average rate. He just contributes in every little way necessary, providing an outlet for a stagnant offense and floor spacing, and defending well in a team context. He won’t protect the rim and he won’t terrify a defense – he’s just steady, and there’s value in that, particularly on an Oklahoma City roster that doesn’t need more stars, just more glue guys.

The Thunder have a number of useful role players, but they won’t be quite as deep as teams like Houston or Utah. Steven Adams should have a big season bullying opponents down low and crashing the glass as he always had, and Ray Felton is amazingly perhaps the best backup point guard Westbrook has had since Reggie Jackson. Coach Billy Donovan can deploy defensive stalwart Andre Roberson a little more comfortably now that his terrible offense isn’t quite such a drawback. Roberson’s utter inability to score made him nearly unplayable last year when the Thunder were already starved for scoring outside of Westbrook, and while he’s still basically a black hole (and particularly useless against the Warriors), defenses won’t be able to cheat quite as hard off of him when the Big Three are out there too. I’m a fan of Jerami Grant’s two-way potential, and I think there might be a little something in Alex Abrines, as well. I’m sure Nick Collison will find his way onto the court for his traditional 10 minutes per game too; he’s basically this team’s Tim Wakefield by now.

It might not matter so much when the Thunder can keep at least one of their top three scorers on the floor at pretty much any time, but this supporting cast is still a little light on offensive contributions, particularly behind the three-point arc. I was disappointed to hear that Isaiah Caanan was waived; he showed some promise for the Bulls in the playoffs after Rajon Rondo was lost due to injury, and he might have shot his way into some useful minutes. Kyle Singler (who shot 19% from behind the arc in limited action last year) certainly isn’t the answer, and rookie Terrance Ferguson is a raw prospect who probably won’t contribute this season.


Most Valuable Player: Russell Westbrook, Paul George

I’m not going to go all “revisionist history” on the Westbrook-Durant era Thunder, because those teams were incredible (and better than this one), but it does feel like there might not be a player in basketball more well-designed to coexist alongside Westbrook than Paul George. Offensively, George operates heavily off-ball and doesn’t need to spend a lot of time dribbling to make plays. He’s a stellar spot-up shooter and cutter. Westbrook will be free to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, as he is wont to do, knowing that George will nearly always be in the right place to capitalize based on however the defense reacts.

Westbrook takes a ton of shots, but I don’t necessarily think that makes him a ball hog – he’s a good passer with good court vision, and he’ll be able to set up George when and where he needs it. On the flip side, Westbrook’s ferocious drives to the rim had an extra level of difficulty last season when there was no reason for defenses to respect his teammates; George ensures that won’t be a problem anymore. It’ll be a lot harder to clutter the paint when he and Carmelo Anthony are waiting outside for an opening.

Westbrook and George are going to be Thunder and Lightning together this season, and I do believe the match will be good enough to convince Paul George to hang around beyond this season (to Lakers fans’ dismay).

X Factor: Carmelo Anthony

The Carmelo Anthony trade came as nearly as much of a surprise as George did. We knew he was probably going somewhere, but Oklahoma City had never quite surfaced as a real possibility… until it did. So now Melo is here, and while I don’t think his fit on this team is as clear-cut as George’s, I’m optimistic about how he’ll fare this year.

“Hoodie Melo” became an offseason meme this summer, and I personally enjoyed it quite a bit – the idea that a hooded Melo was out there dominating pick-up games in a way Melo hadn’t done for the Knicks in a few seasons now. Melo even leaned into the joke himself, wearing a hoodie during Thunder practices and scrimmages. There’s a little kernel of truth to the joke though, one that I don’t think should be written off: this is the best, most functional team Melo has existed on in decades, and he may well be motivated to prove his value as a player to a league that has by-and-large moved on from him.

The concept of “player motivation” as a game-altering factor is something that many analytics-minded fans are dismissive of, and understandably so; you can’t quantify the idea of “wanting it.” It also doesn’t always actually pay off – I’m sure Russell Westbrook really wanted to punk the Warriors and Rockets last season, but the Thunder lost to those teams over and over anyways. That said, I believe two things: players perform better in better situations, and great players like playing with other great players. Carmelo Anthony has existed in perhaps the worst basketball situation in the league for years now, and he hasn’t had another high-level player in his prime alongside him since, what, the few healthy games he got from Amar’e Stoudemire?

There’s no doubt Melo has declined as a basketball player over the past few seasons. He’s 33 years old now. It was bound to happen. There is still a quality player in him, though, and he has more of a chance to bring that player out right now than he’s had in a very long time. Melo has to change himself to fit the Thunder, because the Thunder won’t – and shouldn’t – change for him. He has to learn how to operate off the ball more, reacclimate to competing with opposing power forwards, and apply more effort on both sides of the ball. He also has to understand that he is the third wheel here; Westbrook and George are stars smack in the middle of their primes, and he’s the guy who has gotten a little old.

Maybe he doesn’t get over it, maybe he tries to dominate the ball and doesn’t apply himself defensively. Maybe he even poisons the Thunder’s locker room chemistry. It could certainly happen. I’m still a believer in Carmelo Anthony, though, and if he can make the adjustments he needs to, he could help make this team something really special.


Conclusion

I’m incredibly excited for this year’s Oklahoma City Thunder, and they’re going to be one of the teams I watch most closely as the year goes on. Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony form the league’s most interesting trio of players, for so many reasons. There’s a lot on the line for everybody involved here; Westbrook has his eternal drive for revenge against Kevin Durant and James Harden, the Thunder need to convince Paul George to hang around beyond this season, and Carmelo Anthony needs to show the league he can still play. The convergence of high-profile players and compelling storylines will keep the Thunder interesting all year long in a way few teams can match. They open their season on the 19th against the New York Knicks, and I cannot wait to watch Melo drop 40 on his former team.

From an on-court perspective, I have the Thunder second in the West right now, but I would accept any combination of them, Houston, and San Antonio in the two through four spots in the conference. The Thunder do have the most dramatic roster overhaul to overcome, and that will mean an awkward adjustment period, as it always does with these sorts of teams. Like literally every other team in basketball, they also still don’t match up well with Golden State, but that’s more or less an impossible thing to ask anyways. The Thunder will be fun, good, interesting, and – perhaps most importantly – relevant.

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