2018 Preview — Oklahoma City Thunder

2018-19 Oklahoma City Thunder


Projected Record: 53-29 (3rd in West)

Over/Under: 50.5

2016: 48-34 (4th in West)


Key Additions:

  • Dennis Schroeder (Trade)
  • Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (Trade)
  • Abdel Nader (Trade)
  • Nerlens Noel (Free Agency)
  • Hamidou Diallo (Pick #45)
  • Devon Hall (Pick #53)
  • Kevin Hervey (Pick #57)

Key Subtractions:

  • Carmelo Anthony
  • Nick Collison
  • Dakari Johnson
  • Rodney Purvis

Summary

Strengths:

  • Will be a top-five defense
  • More well-rounded than last year
  • No more Melo

Weaknesses:

  • Need to play balanced offense

Sam Presti’s perpetual juggling act appears to have gotten a good deal less precarious this time. Trading for Paul George despite his imminent free agency was a bold decision; successfully snatching George away from the hungry jaws of Los Angeles for four years is one of the great upsets in recent offseason memory. Now, the duo of George and Russell Westbrook are secure in Oklahoma City until their age 30 and 32 seasons, respectively, at least, and Presti might finally be able to exhale.

Less successful of a gamble was the attempt to revitalize the aging Carmelo Anthony alongside the Thunder’s two stars last year. Many — myself included — thought a change of scenery might do well for Anthony, that the opportunity to contribute to a legitimate Western Conference contender might be the right situation for the old gunner.

Well… it wasn’t. The Thunder offense was a discombobulated mess for much of the season, in no small part due to Anthony’s stubborn refusal to adapt to the times. His repeated isolation plays and endless jab-stepping ground too many possessions to a halt, and his lack of defensive effort made him a perpetual weakness against the West’s elite.

This, too, has been addressed — the Thunder shipped Anthony off to get waived by Atlanta, bringing in point guard Dennis Schröder and clearing a chunk off money off their significant luxury tax bill. It’s a particularly poignant example of addition-by-subtraction; Anthony’s departure should allow a bigger piece of the pie for George, and allow more opportunities for youngsters like Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson and Alex Abrines to distinguish themselves. All of these looks could very likely be more fruitful than the ones Anthony produced last year.

That isn’t to say that the Thunder will play a particularly egalitarian style of offense this season. That’s not their style — and with Westbrook running the show, how could it be? No, the Thunder offense will still be entropic; Westbrook and Schröder are unabashed gunners who will dominate the ball often, and the more passive George will certainly disappear for stretches at a time. Andre Roberson is still one of the most lopsided one-way players in basketball, and outside of Schröder, the bench is heavily reliant on very young players to provide scoring punch.

Still, it feels as though people aren’t aware of quite how good the Thunder actually were last season. Oklahoma City ranked 10th in the NBA in offensive rating last season, despite how discombobulated the offense was with Anthony. Though Andre Roberson will miss significant time this season due to a setback with last season’s knee surgery, the team was also 10th in defensive rating last season despite Roberson missing over half their games.

The Thunder were miserable in close games, as well — they were 24-22 in “clutch” situations per NBA stats and shot only 40% from the field, both worst among Western Conference playoff teams — and while that’s partially on coaching, it’s also something that should improve in the upcoming season. They finished only one game behind Portland for the three-seed, and a healthy Roberson or some better breaks in the fourth quarter likely would have gotten them there.

The Thunder have been the butt of a lot of jokes since last season got going, and they’ve certainly earned it to an extent. They were very, very messy at times last year and were victimized by a red-hot Jazz team to close out their season. Westbrook and George are easy targets to pick on, as far as NBA stars go. People aren’t going to like this team any time soon.

Regardless, the Thunder should be very, very good this season. And — thanks to Sam Presti — for years to come, too.


Most Valuable Player: Russell Westbrook

The most appropriate summation of Russell Westbrook you can give is that he’s perhaps the only player in NBA history who could have killed the triple-double.

I still like triple-doubles, of course. They’re a fun accomplishment, if not altogether meaningful sometimes. Westbrook was also my choice for the 2016-17 choice for MVP regardless of whether he’d averaged 10.5 assists or 9.5.

Still, something felt a little hollow about Westbrook averaging a triple-double for the second consecutive season last year. It lacked the sense of indomitable effort that his MVP season possessed — the shots were a little worse and the stat-padding a little more apparent. The Thunder’s regular season finale served as the perfect summation, with Westbrook attempting only two shots before halftime as he sold out to get the rebounds he needed to complete the triple-double season.

The analytics community will never really embrace Westbrook. He’s simply too inefficient; his shot selection can be mind-numblingly frustrating, and he freezes his teammates out at times in the process. Even his prolific assist numbers can seem selfish — just watch him pass out of an open attempt at the rim in favor of a teammate’s jumper when he’s at nine assists for the game and tell me how you feel.

While it was fun to “let Westbrook be Westbrook” during the early Thunder years, his perception has shifted since Kevin Durant’s departure. What were once the endearing quirks of his second-fiddle role — the bad shots, the stat-padding, the highlight-reel dunks — are now, in some eyes, indicative of his selfishness. I don’t hate Westbrook by any stretch — he’s one of my favorite players in the league to watch — but I understand why people would.

This feels like it’s going to be a watershed season for Russell Westbrook as an individual. The Thunder are the most complete they’ve been since Durant left, which means the usual excuses no longer apply; with George on board, there can’t be any claims of “not having enough help,” and with Anthony gone, there aren’t really any prominent scapegoats if the team underperforms. It’s time for Westbrook to show that he can focus his immensely competitive nature and lead the Thunder through a deep playoff run.

X Factor: Dennis Schröder

Dennis Schröder feels like he’s going to be the Victor Oladipo of this year’s Thunder team — and not in a good way. When Oladipo came on board, it felt like an opportunity for a young player to right the ship after a rocky start to his career. “This is the best team he’s played for,” we said with Oladipo, “the opportunity to play with a legitimate contender will be exactly what he needs!”

The feeling around Schröder seems to be much the same, and I’m not sure it’s going to work out any better. Schröder has been largely unrealized potential during his five NBA seasons thus far. There have been flashes of brilliance — most notably an impressive six-game duel with John Wall in the first round of the 2016-17 playoffs — but as the Hawks have waned, he’s been little more than an inefficient chucker.

The word on Schröder is that he can bring instant offense to Oklahoma City’s bench, and that’s not entirely false. He certainly loves to shoot, and he’s the kind of player who can get hot in a hurry and carry an offense for a few quarters or a game. It’s the general fit that concerns me, though; he’s a miserable three-point shooter (32%) for his career, and over 400 of his shot attempts came from the midrange. Can a scoring guard with a career 27.8% usage rate accept taking a backseat to an even-higher-volume scorer like Westbrook?

The Thunder are stacked on the defensive side of the court, but they’re hungry for offense, especially in the second unit. If Schröder can look a little more like he did for the playoff-bound 2016-17 Hawks, there’s room for him to really help this team. Even that was a mostly average season itself, though, and he hasn’t looked like that often.

Don’t Forget About: Nerlens Noel

As it has been for much of his uneven career to this point, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what to expect from Nerlens Noel this season, who has hardly played over the past season-and-a-half due to injury and an ongoing feud with Rick Carlisle. From what we know of Noel as a player, though, there could be an interesting fit to be found for him on this roster. He raises the team’s defensive ceiling with his versatility, and he’s a capable rim-runner and roll man on offense who could work well off of Westbrook, Schröder and Felton. There aren’t any illusions of stardom with Noel anymore, but sticking to the things he does well could create a snug role for him on this roster.

The usual questions will have to be addressed, though. Can he stay healthy? He’s played only 81 games combined in the past two seasons, though that’s not all due to injury. Will he keep his head on straight? Billy Donovan is not as assertive a personality as Carlisle, but it has to be asked — he was also suspended for a drug issue at the end of last year. It’s not entirely out of the question that Noel is a complete non-factor for the Thunder this season. If he stays on the court and keeps his head on straight, though, he raises the team’s ceiling just that much higher,


Second Opinion

James Holas, BBallBreakdown + Real Ball Insiders (@SnottieDrippen)

New year, new Thunder. Oklahoma City fans can settle in and (hopefully) get back to enjoying basketball. For years, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were the leading men in the rollicking action flick that was Thunder basketball. Since Durant’s 2016 traitorous defection to Golden State, the Thunder have felt like a team in flux, more a suspense thriller than an action movie. Will Westbrook re-sign? How will Melo and Paul George fit? How can GM Sam Presti convince PG13 to stay? Last season, every baffling loss, every bricked mid-range shot seemed like foreshadowing, hints at Paul George’s next act coming in Tinsel Town.

Paul George’s surprisingly swift inking of a long term deal and the subsequent jettisoning of the underwhelming Carmelo Anthony means that OKC fans can expect a new theme for the coming season — stability. After two summers of uncertainty, and a season defined by unfulfilled expectations, the coming year feels almost like a franchise reboot.

OKC’s “Core Four” of Westbrook, George, big man Steven Adams, and defensive wiz Andre Roberson are all under contract through at least 2020, with Russ-PG-Adams locked in through 2021. Melo moving on to Houston should streamline the offensive flow; Westbrook no longer has to ensure that Anthony gets his 15 shots a game and coach Billy Donovan no longer have to acquiesce five gear-grinding ISOs to Melo.

Carmelo’s departure also brought in young speedster Dennis Schröder to bolster the bench, infusing scoring punch (Schröder’s been an 18.6 point per game scorer over the last two seasons in Atlanta) to a unit that ranked an anemic 29th in scoring last year.

GM Sam Presti retained uber-athlete Jerami Grant, who, along with Patrick Patterson, gives the Thunder a nice 1-2 power forward punch. If Nerlens Noel (in need of some major image rehab after four injury riddled, pouty seasons) can play his potential as a reserve rim running shot blocker, and of Alex Abrines can actually play some defense while making shots, the Thunder bench could possibly turn from one of the worst in the league, to one of the best.

Young jumping jacks Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Abdel Nader will tussle over scrap minutes, and the lack of a proven reserve wing might be an issue, but no matter. Last year, the Thunder team played under a cloud. The pressure borne of adding PG and Melo and Paul George’s looming free agency cast a call over everything; “fun” moments were few and far between. There were flashes of potential (a 24 point shellacking of the Cavs, a 20 point thrashing of the Warriors), plenty of disappointment (double digit losses to bottom feeders like Orlando, Phoenix, Dallas, and the Lakers), and a dud of an ending (the Jazz’s 4-2 throttling of OKC in the first round was a bummer).

The 2018-2019 Oklahoma City Thunder bring back the same main players, but this could be a case of addition by subtraction. With Westbrook and Patterson healthy (last year, both were slowed by off-season knee issues), Melo gone, Dennis Schröder in town, and Paul George in it for the long haul, this iteration of the Thunder should play faster (OKC was 17th in pace) and more freely, and definitely SHOULD win more games than the 48 they tallied last season. Golden State is the class of the league, and the retooled Rockets look to challenge the Dubs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Thunder finished a strong third in the West, even challenged for the 2 seed.


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