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NBA PM: Rockets Face An Uncertain Future

The Houston Rockets, just a season removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance, may face a rebuild.

Lang Greene

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The Houston Rockets (38-41) are not mathematically eliminated from playoff competition at this time, but even if the team does reach the postseason, the 2015-16 campaign should still be classified as a huge disappointment.

Heading down the stretch, when winning matters most, the Rockets have lost seven out of their last 10 contests and now faced a realistic possibility of watching the playoffs at home just a year removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance. With three games remaining, Houston is one and a half games behind the upstart Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff seed in the West.

As surprising as the Rockets’ free-fall down the stretch has been, the struggles shouldn’t come as much of a shock since it mirrors their tumultuous season. There were plenty of warning signs hovering over the team – early and often.

From the start, this season has never been smooth sailing for the ailing Rockets. All-Star guard James Harden started the campaign mired in a horrendous shooting slump. The team fired head coach Kevin McHale within its first 15 games. The squad also spent the majority of the campaign attempting to integrate point guard Ty Lawson into their rotation in a disastrous failed experiment (that led to an eventual buyout). This doesn’t include the inconsistencies experienced by forwards Terrence Jones and Josh Smith, nor does it factor in the fact that interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff failed to rectify the damaged aircraft after taking control from the departed McHale.

Heading into the summer, Houston faces the realistic possibility of an unplanned rebuilding project.

Now, this will not be the same type of rebuilding project that a team like the Philadelphia 76ers are currently going through because the Rockets have Harden already in the fold. But there are numerous issues for general manager Daryl Morey to address this summer.

First things first, the Rockets have to address whether Bickerstaff is truly the man for the job. Bickerstaff is a guy who has put in the energy, time, effort and work needed to ultimately land a full-time head coaching job in this league. But the jury is still out on whether Houston is the true fit for his talent.

Next, the team has to address the elephant in the room regarding the Dwight Howard saga and his future with the franchise. Howard could become an unrestricted free agent this summer and it’s no secret the former All-Star is seeking a max deal as he heads into the second half of his career. While it is taboo in NBA circles to let strong talent walk out of the door for nothing in return, the Rockets have a real dilemma on their hands when it comes to potentially opening up the wallet for a significantly declining Howard.

Howard is no longer a dominant force in today’s league, but the veteran center is still a productive player in the pivot who averages a double-double. On the flip side, Howard will be coming off a campaign where he averaged the second fewest shot attempts of his career (8.4). In fact, you have to go back to Howard’s rookie campaign in 2005 to find a year when he averaged fewer field goal attempts. The signs of notable decline are clear in Howard’s case but without him, the already defensively challenged Rockets would have a huge hole in the middle.

While emerging big man Clint Capela looks promising, he also appears to be far from ready to assume a 35 minute per night workload next season.

From a positive standpoint, Harden is entering his prime and barring injury will be in the MVP race for the next few years. The team also seems to have struck gold in signing a resurgent Michael Beasley midway through the season after a MVP campaign in China. For all of his unexpected production, Beasley is under contract next season with a $1.4 million non-guaranteed bargain deal.

The team also has just $45 million in guaranteed salaries on the books for next season, assuming Howard opts out of his deal, giving the franchise plenty of flexibility to become a player in the free agency and trade markets. The Rockets also aren’t being handcuffed by any bad contracts, with no eight-figure deals on the payroll for non-producing assets.

Ultimately, the Rockets may have needed to come crashing back to earth in order to experience this hard reality. The team reached the Conference Finals last season, but the roster was never comparable to Golden State, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles or San Antonio when viewed realistically.

If the team does miss the playoffs this season, with the right moves over the next few months they could be back in prime position to get back to the realm of relevancy. But Howard’s future, addressing the head coach situation and acquiring more consistent role players will be occupying Morey’s time in the near future.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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Cleveland Cavaliers 2017-18 Season Preview

Despite three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers open the season with a lot of new faces. What will it mean for their quest for another title?

Basketball Insiders

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The defending Eastern Conference Champions and NBA Finals runner-ups are looking to return to the big stage in what could theoretically be LeBron James’ final season with the organization. Changes over the summer have tinkered with the roster quite a bit to make the team deeper and more versatile. With multiple assets at their disposal and a team ready for a run at another title, the Cavaliers are arguably in a better position than they were before.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

When the final buzzer sounded to end the 2017 NBA Finals, I can’t imagine LeBron James thought his starting point guard this season would be Isaiah Thomas instead of Kyrie Irving.

In fact, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that. However, here we are.

The new look Cavs will still be their familiar selves when it comes to dominating the Eastern Conference, because they still have the best player on the planet. Throw in Thomas, Jae Crowder, and now even that tantalizing Brooklyn Nets pick, and for the first time in the James Era, Cleveland may be in a decent position should James decided to take his talents elsewhere once again.

But, for this season at least, the Cavs are still the cream of the crop in the East.

1st place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

So, what happens if Isaiah Thomas ends up hardly playing this season? We all know that LeBron James is good enough to will any garbage dump of a roster to the playoffs, and the Cavaliers are pretty far from garbage dump status. Kevin Love is still there, after all. So are J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert. They also added Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon to shore up that backcourt while Thomas heals, and nobody doubts that Jae Crowder will be an asset. I’m just not sure they’re the East’s best team without Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas. Boston and Washington are going to nag at them all season long, making the Eastern Conference more wide open than it ever has been.

1st Place – Central Division

– -Joel Brigham

Nothing like a quiet offseason, right?

There never seems to be a shortage of drama in The Land, and the summer of 2017 was no exception. Kyrie Irving is gone, replaced with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a vital Nets 2018 pick. Thomas’ hip is a huge question mark, with no clear answers emerging about when – or if – he might be 100 percent. Loud rumors are swirling about LeBron James’ future in Cleveland once again. Meanwhile, the Warriors only got better over the summer. Most of the big questions in Cleveland won’t be answered until spring, but they’ll be a fascinating group to watch all year long. One thing to watch from the start: How does youngster Cedi Osman perform on the wing in his rookie season?

1st Place – Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

Kryie Irving is now a Boston Celtic and Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose now man the point guard position for Cleveland. Thomas’ hip injury is problematic and it’s not clear when, or if, he will ever make a full recovery. Rose has been inconsistent in recent seasons and is always a risk to miss time with injuries. However, Cleveland added Jae Crowder in the deal, which should be a big boost for the Cavaliers on both ends of the court. Crowder is a solid three-point shooter and a versatile defender. Crowder can plug effectively into small ball lineups and take on tough defensive assignments, which should help preserve LeBron throughout the season. The Cavaliers will miss Irving, but if Thomas can overcome his hip injury and Crowder maintains his usual level of play, Cleveland will likely be as dangerous as last season, if not more so.

1st Place – Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

With Kyrie Irving’s talents having been sent to Boston, the Cavaliers enter the 2017-18 season as potentially assisting their own demise. The squad has won the Eastern Conference three years in a row, and although most would expect them to make it four, the Celtics will likely have something to say about that.

Until then, though, there probably won’t be much drama in the Eastern Conference.

Despite everything that has transpired over this offseason, the Cavs are probably entering the season as a team that has been weakened without Irving, but one that may be better equipped for long-term success. While that will depend upon the extent to which Isaiah Thomas is able to replicate Irving’s production, most of the new faces brought in to Cleveland—Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Jae Crowder and Jeff Green—address an area of weakness for the team.

Even if this does end up being LeBron James’ final season in Ohio, there’s no doubt he’s walking away with another division title, if not a lot more.

1st place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LeBron James

Pointing out the obvious, the four-time MVP led the Cavaliers to their third straight championship appearance by breezing right by the East. Due to constant nagging injuries to key pieces during the season, James once again had to bear the responsibility of leading the wine and gold.

He didn’t disappoint. In his 14th year as a pro, LeBron averaged a team-high 37.8 minutes per game over a 74-game span and put up some ridiculous numbers in the process. As he’s gotten older, the 32-year-old superstar has evolved into deadly shooter beyond the arc in addition to his elite scoring ability driving to the hole. With his former right-hand man off to literal greener pastures in Boston, there should be plenty of motivation for James to continue his tear and prove that there won’t be a drop-off in his game anytime soon.

Top Defensive Player: Jae Crowder

Is there any question who takes the cake here? For a number of years now, Cleveland has desperately lacked a true wing to offer a threat on both sides of the floor. Crowder fits that bill to a tee.

Ranking 20th in ESPN’s real plus-minus system, he was an essential part of Brad Stevens’ best defensive units. In his final season with Boston, the versatile forward led the team in net rating. While Crowder was on the floor, the Celtics were 7.8 points better per 100 possessions. When he sat, that number was -3.9, which is a whopping difference of 11.7 points per 100 possessions just by whether Crowder was on the court or not. The Cavaliers have never had anybody with that kind of impact defensively at forward or any position, for that matter. His arrival might be the most important return from the Kyrie Irving trade considering the depth and impact he will provide.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

Let’s be real—LeBron has to be in at least two categories at the top of the list. Putting it simply, the man makes everyone around him look great on the floor. His presence influences all of his teammates and it shows on the hardwood.

As the best player in the world, he has a beautiful basketball mind that allows him to make split-second decisions in an instant. James also has the physical attributes and skills to execute those thoughts going through his head. That’s a deadly combination to possess. Whether it’s scoring in isolation, feeding his guys, grabbing rebounds, playing the passing lanes, or sprinting the length of the floor for a chase-down block, LeBron is as versatile as they can possibly come.

Top Clutch Player: Isaiah Thomas

Losing Irving is a punch to the gut, but replacing him with Thomas actually gives Cleveland a slight improvement when the lights get brighter. Most NBA enthusiasts can recall a ridiculous stretch in the wintertime when the All-Star point guard was all of a sudden dubbed, “King of the Fourth.”

In crunch time, he was on a mission. The 5-foot-9 scoring assassin averaged 9.8 of his career-high 28.9 points per game in the final quarter and was relentless in getting to the free throw line, where he shot 89.3 percent. Thomas has no fear when the palms get sweaty and, once healthy, should provide some memorable moments again down the stretch.

The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye

Sample sizes matter, but statistically speaking, Frye was the only one to put forth a true shooting percentage (61.2) on par with James regarding playing the same amount of games. Always a reliable sharpshooter from deep, Frye was once again a key factor for Tyronn Lue’s second unit.

His defensive reputation must’ve played a factor in his lack of playing time deep into the playoffs and against Golden State. It certainly couldn’t have been his offensive output because he led the Cavaliers with a 51.3 three-point percentage in the postseason. Frye stepped in and started 15 games last year when the team needed him as well. The willingness of the veteran big to do his job while being a vital presence in the locker room is a testament to his professionalism.

Best New Addition: Brooklyn’s unprotected first round draft pick in 2018

There were plenty of moves over the offseason that helped Cleveland within the realm of the game itself, but if there has been a true improvement for the organization, it’s establishing a direction for the future.

Everybody is aware of the headlines and speculation regarding what LeBron will do after this season is over. The validity of these reports is unknown, but it’s clear as day that owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman are preparing for life without their franchise darling. Acquiring a surefire top-six pick to bring in young talent in next summer’s NBA Draft is a good way to ensure a potential rebuild starts off on the right foot. And should James commit to staying, there will be a lot of value attached to such an asset for a possible big move to keep the Cavaliers a contender. Either way, it was a job well done by the front office to be proactive in case the worst scenario happens.

— Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. Kevin Love

It’s amazing how little love (no pun intended) a consistent double-double player like Love gets from people. He’s coming off a great season with the organization and seems extremely comfortable with his teammates, on and off the court. Entering his fourth year with Cleveland, it’s now apparent he’ll be even more involved as a focal point of the offense with new personnel. Lue has told reporters he expects Love to have potentially his best campaign since joining the Cavaliers. The team is going to run a lot of sets through the 29-year-old big man. As far as how much time at center he’ll see with Tristan Thompson holding it down, that’s up in the air. But if Crowder has enough synergy with LeBron, we might get a glimpse of Love at the five in the starting unit eventually.

2. Koby Altman

When the franchise announced it was parting ways with then-general manager David Griffin, there were a lot of question marks about what in the world the Cavaliers were going to do. After a drawn-out process, they found somebody in-house to help clean things up. Altman has done yeoman’s work in making this Cavaliers team better in free agency under difficult constraints. Through one-year veteran minimum deals, he was able to bring in three respectable players that are proven at this level. The rookie executive also completed a blockbuster deal that changed the direction of the organization and kept it a contender in the same breath. If this summer is an indication of what’s to come with Altman in charge, things are looking up for Cleveland if they need to make more moves.

3. J.R. Smith

Earlier this summer, Basketball Insiders ran a series of sleepers throughout each division. Smith was number one on the docket for the Central. Due to injuries and missing training camp over contract discussions, last season was a bit of an anomaly for the fan favorite. Until the playoffs, he never really got into the groove everyone had been used to seeing. Going into this year, Smith has a clean bill of health and is ready to get back to his usual self. Expect him to let it fly more often when he touches the ball.

4. Cedi Osman

The 22-year-old Turkish sensation is the crown jewel of the Cavaliers’ draft in 2015. Based on potential alone, he’s already one of the more exciting pieces of the future. Recently in the EuroBasket tournament, he made waves as one of the more athletic and aggressive wings in the field of FIBA talent. Osman is a highly touted, raw talent who is expected to be a versatile, two-way wing with size and thrives in the open floor. Nobody’s really sure about how much playing time he’ll see in his rookie year, but he’s definitely somebody to keep an eye on.

5. Jeff Green

Before Crowder came into the picture, it was assumed Green would be the one backing up James at the small forward position. Now that there’s a little more depth at forward, it should allow all three men to flourish in their roles. Green may not have had the best time in Orlando, but he never was really a good fit there. As a part of a championship-caliber squad, Green can provide a boost off the bench as a solid defender and a veteran that can space the floor. He’ll help in transition, too.

— Spencer Davies

SALARY CAP 101

The Cavaliers are deep into the luxury tax with at least $135.6 million invested in 17 players. Edy Tavares is non-guaranteed but $456,529 of Kay Felder’s $1.3 million is locked in. As a repeat-tax offender, Cleveland is looking at in the neighborhood of $50 million in penalties. While the Cavs have $2.6 million of their Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception left, along with multiple trade exceptions ($5.8 million the largest), the additional tax burden may inhibit further spending. The franchise is clearly in win-now mode but for how long, given LeBron James can opt out his contract after the season?

Without James, even if Iman Shumpert opts out of his $11 million deal next summer, the Cavs won’t have any significant spending power under the projected salary cap of $102 million. Additionally, Isaiah Thomas will be looking for a sizable raise as an unrestricted free agent next July.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Cavaliers are one big collection of players that thrive from the three-point line and in fast break situations. Lue is a huge proponent of playing with pace and puts more of an emphasis on the offensive side of the floor. They take and make efficient shots at a high clip. The acquisitions made over the summer have really bolstered the depth of the team as well, and it should allow starters to get a breather without worrying about falling into a hole. There’s a ton of rotational combinations possible now, which should serve well in dealing with different matchups.

— Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

Point guard is a huge question mark at this point and we’ll get to that next. Other than that, Cleveland needs to improve defensively as a unit. The new additions should help, but ranking in the bottom 10 of the NBA in defensive rating won’t cut it trying to dethrone the Warriors. A below league-average free throw percentage of 74.8 won’t get the job done, either.

— Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Derrick Rose fill the void of Isaiah Thomas until he’s healthy?

The concerns surrounding the short and long-term health of Thomas are very real. During the introductory press conference, reporters were hammering away at Altman and the player himself about a timetable for a return to the court. The truth is, the Cavaliers are going to take their time to ensure he’s 100 percent before joining the team, whenever that may be.

Until then, it’s on Rose to be the starting point guard. There has been a lot of chatter about how he won’t be able get the job done and numbers don’t tell the real story about his true value. Critics can have their opinions about him, and adjusting to a new system will likely take getting used to. But consider this—has he ever experienced being teammates with a player the caliber of LeBron James? The answer is no. We’ve known for almost his entire career that “The King” makes players around him better, so who says can’t he do the same for Rose? Playing with championship-caliber teammates on a team that has won a title can do wonders for a career.

Lue certainly understands the former MVP’s finishing abilities underneath and success in the mid-range pull-up game should help open things up in certain sets. The one-on-one defense leaves a lot to be desired because of those knee injuries, but as far as him being a stopgap starting point guard goes, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about for the Cavaliers. All you have to do is ask Thomas.

— Spencer Davies

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NBA AM: Taxation Without Title Contention

Nine teams are over the luxury tax heading into the 2017-18 season, but how many are title contenders?

Lang Greene

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It’s possible to ball on a budget. We’ve all been there—needing to stretch a few dollars out until the next flow of revenue is deposited into the coffers. There’s no shame in principled spending. But for some, budgets aren’t an issue.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, there are nine teams currently over the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. But how many of these teams are truly title contenders? How many of these squads really have 50-win potential? How many of these teams will be enjoying the playoff festivities from their couch come April 2018?

Today we’ll take a look at the top 10 highest team payrolls heading into the season and identify which teams are truly elite.

Franchise Total Salary
Golden State Warriors $138,797,751
Cleveland Cavaliers $137,889,758
Washington Wizards $128,850,208
Oklahoma City Thunder $128,827,539
Portland Trail Blazers $124,484,918
Los Angeles Clippers $123,664,492
Toronto Raptors $120,928,989
Charlotte Hornets $119,763,564
Houston Rockets $119,357,882
Milwaukee Bucks $118,898,623

 

Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Status:
Title Contender
2016-17 finish: NBA champions

The Warriors are roughly $20 million over the luxury tax with a payroll approaching $140 million, but the team is the prohibitive favorite to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season and hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy for the third time in this span.

The band is essentially back together from last year’s championship squad with the addition of sharpshooter Nick Young, veteran wing Omri Casspi and promising rookie Jordan Bell. It appears the only things that can stop this juggernaut is injury or ego.

Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Status:
Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Lost, NBA Finals to Golden State Warriors

Listen, LeBron James is still at the height of his powers, but the Cavaliers enter the campaign with more questions than answers. Will James re-sign with the franchise next summer in free agency? Can Isaiah Thomas replace Kyrie Irving without missing a beat? How long will it take for Thomas to return to full strength after a hip injury suffered at the end of last season? Will the team keep the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first round pick? Is Kevin Love off the trading block? The Cavaliers have the talent to compete at the highest of levels, but the team’s fabric could hanging on by its last thread.

Washington Wizards
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Wizards currently have five players earning over eight figure paydays this season. The center combination of Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi are making a shade less than $30 million combined. With Cleveland and Boston at the top of the Eastern Conference, Washington doesn’t have a clear shot to title contention but they do have a team poised for another playoff run.

Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Oklahoma City Thunder fans have to be on pins and needles. On one hand, the team features two of the best players in the game in Russell Westbrook and Paul George. On the other, both guys could bolt in free agency next summer – sound familiar? If George and Westbrook mesh, the Thunder have the tools to give teams fits every night, but what’s the long-term outlook for the duo?

Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Blazers have elite talent in the backcourt led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, the supporting cast hasn’t been enough to push this team into the next tier. Defensively, the Blazers struggle to contain consistently and the team often finds itself in shootouts. That’s fine during the regular season, but as the club found out during last year’s playoffs versus Golden State, another gear is needed.

Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Status:
Playoffs are not a guarantee
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Clippers enter the season with plenty of questions. Key rotational players from recent years—Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick—are all in different uniforms. The team will rely heavy on forwards Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari, who have both been injury prone over the years. If one or both of these guys miss significant time, the Clippers could be on the outside looking in of the playoff chase.

Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Some may brush off the Raptors as a legitimate threat, but one thing the team has going for it is team chemistry. While Cleveland and Boston will need time to incorporate new faces, the Raptors’ core is already familiar with one another. The Raptors have struggled tremendously in the playoffs, but sooner or later may experience the breakthrough.

Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Missed Playoffs

The Hornets finished 10 games below .500 last season but believe the acquisition of former All-Star Dwight Howard will sure up their defense and get them back into the mix. Banking on Howard, now past his prime, is a gamble, but head coach Steve Clifford has worked with the big man before to solid results. Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum are solid talents at the top of the Hornets’ lineup, making a return to the playoffs a possibility this season.

Houston Rockets
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

Can the duo of All-Stars Chris Paul and James Harden work together in the backcourt? This is one of the most intriguing storylines entering the 2017-18 campaign. If the tandem works, the Rockets will compete at the top of the Western Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Status:
Playoff Bound, Non-Title Contender
2016-17 finish: Playoffs

The Bucks are an enticing unit. But a lot of the team’s upside depends on the return of forward Jabari Parker from a knee injury. The team has length, youth and plenty of potential, but the unit is likely two to three years (and a couple of pieces) away from making big time noise in the postseason.

Competing that the highest level in the NBA costs, but simply spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee results. In the case of these nine big spenders, however, their franchises hope it does. Time will tell.

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NBA PM: Oklahoma City Thunder 2017-18 Season Preview

The Thunder were very good a season ago, could they be even better this season? We explore the Thunder in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a crippling blow last year when Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area. Considering where the franchise was around this time last year, the historic season Russell Westbrook put together and the strong moves the front office made this season, Thunder fans have plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic about the team’s prospects both for this upcoming season and beyond.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

So, Oklahoma City having just one top-10 player in the league didn’t last long, as the Thunder acquired Paul George from the Indiana Pacers to pair with the league’s MVP, Russell Westbrook.

With Westbrook set to hit free agency next summer, general manager Sam Presti is pulling out all of the stops to try and ensure another homegrown superstar doesn’t fly the coop for greener pastures. However, despite the addition of George, the Thunder still lack the depth to truly compete with the big dogs of the Western Conference. One step further, OKC may not even have enough firepower to be the best team in their division. The boys in Minnesota will have plenty to say in that regard.

2nd place – Northwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Thunder’s consolation prize for losing Kevin Durant a year ago was apparently an MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and the one-year rental of Paul George, acquired over the summer for a middling former lottery pick and an overpaid wing. George makes the team immediately better, but the Thunder have the misfortune of playing in the most competitive division in the NBA. I don’t see a whole lot of distance between any of the five teams in the Northwest this year, but I do have a feeling OKC will eke out the top spot by the time everything wraps up. This really is a good team, if not quite a contender.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Much of the attention when it comes to the potential for topping the world champion Warriors out West has gone to the Rockets this offseason, and rightfully so. But don’t overlook the Thunder, a team that, at least conceptually, might match up a little more organically with the Dubs. In Paul George they now have one of the few bodies on earth who can hope to credibly match up with Kevin Durant for a full game or series, and also a guy who can relieve some of the offensive burden on Russell Westbrook. Guys like George, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines and even Jerami Grant can do a reasonable amount of switching on the perimeter, an absolute necessity against a beast like the Warriors. Whether they have enough firepower to make this matchup sneakily more entertaining than we’d assume remains to be seen, and a lot has to go right fit-wise. But if there’s any group that can give the Warriors trouble (and we aren’t sure if there actually is), don’t sleep on the Thunder.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Oklahoma City Thunder had the best overall offseason of any NBA team. The Thunder fleeced the Indiana Pacers in trading Victor Oladipo and Damontas Sabonis in exchange for Paul George. George could walk away for nothing in return after this season but the deal was such an absolute steal that it was still a no-brainer for Sam Presti. The Thunder shed long term salary in the deal, bolster their prospects for the upcoming season, give Russell Westbrook a legitimate star to play next to, and, even George walks away, the Thunder are in a solid position to move on and rebuild (depending on what Westbrook opts to do). The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and signed Patrick Patterson on a team-friendly deal – an underrated move that could have a bigger impact for Oklahoma City than most people realize. In short, the Thunder took care of their short term and long term interests this offseason and are now one of the most capable teams of matching up with the Golden State Warriors.

1st Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The thing I love about the Thunder more than anything else is the fact that Russell Westbrook is entering what will likely be the final year of his contract and that the Thunder have tendered him a $200 million extension that he hasn’t signed. As the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, it’s amazing that this hasn’t become a much bigger storyline, especially with Russell’s hometown Los Angeles Lakers armed with some major cap space next summer.

Anyhow, focusing on the here and now, the Thunder have gotten much stronger this offseason. They lost one of my favorite players in Taj Gibson but brought in Paul George and some much-needed backcourt help in Raymond Felton. They walked away from the draft with the highly-regarded Terrance Ferguson and re-signed the impactful Andre Roberson. All things considered, they enter this season as a much stronger team than they were last year, at least on paper. What I’ll be looking for more than anything else is whether and to what extent Westbrook and George’s status as pending free agents impacts the team. Aside from that, though, based on what Sam Presti has done with the roster this past offseason, there’s no reason to think that the Thunder won’t pick up where they left off and that they’ll be competing for the Northwest Division crown again.

Winning it, though, certainly won’t be a walk in the park. It’s the toughest division in the league this year.

1st place – Northwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

Paul George is one of the most complete offensive talents in the NBA. He can run his team’s offense as a point forward, score in isolation, knock down three-pointers and score from just about any area on the floor. Russell Westbrook could also be slotted in as the team’s top offensive player but George is more of a natural scorer and doesn’t need to dominate the ball quite as much as Westbrook to be an elite offensive contributor. How George and Westbrook share the ball and play off of one another is going to be one of the more interesting dynamics to follow and monitor this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson

There are a lot top-tier defenders on the Thunder’s roster, but we give the nod here to Roberson. He may not be at the level of Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green but he isn’t that far off either, which says a lot. There are other lock down wing defenders in the league, but few can match the consistent impact of Roberson. For an excellent breakdown of Roberson’s defensive skills, check out this article by Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett.

Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook doesn’t rack up assists the way more traditional point guards like Chris Paul does or the way Steve Nash used to. However, this isn’t a criticism of Westbrook. Westbrook is an athletic freak who attacks his opponents relentlessly off the dribble, which forces teams to switch, send help and leave his teammates open. Few players can generate gravity like Westbrook, which comes about as a result of his high octane, relentless style of play. Westbrook, arguably, doesn’t have the elite vision or passing abilities that some of the best lead guards in the NBA have or had, but he averaged 10.2 assists last season for a reason. Paul George is likely to take on some of Westbrook’s playmaking responsibilities this upcoming season, so don’t be surprised if Westbrook’s assists numbers fall off a little bit.

Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook

Some may be tempted to think George should get the nod here, but this isn’t even close. Westbrook had one of the most clutch seasons in NBA history last season and singlehandedly willed the Thunder to several wins in late-game situations. Westbrook was truly incredible as he went on several scoring outbursts late in fourth quarters with his team down by what seemed to be insurmountable deficits. Every opponent knew Westbrook was going to have the ball in his hands and was the person who was going to take the game-winning attempt and they still couldn’t stop him. Westbrook was an unstoppable force in clutch situations last season and earns the top clutch player designation here.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Patterson

How did the rest of the NBA miss out on signing Patrick Patterson to a competitive contract? The Thunder managed to sign Patterson to a three-year, $16.4 million contract this offseason, which is a great deal for Oklahoma City. Patterson’s per-game statistics won’t blow anyone away, but he is a 27-year-old power forward that shot over 37 percent from three last season, can defend multiple positions and was almost always a positive contributor for the Toronto Raptors last season. For less than $6 million a season, the Thunder addressed their starting power forward position (which was one of their biggest holes last season) and bolster their defensive personnel. No team can truly stop the Golden State Warriors, but the Thunder have a handful of versatile defenders, including Patterson, that are necessary to have a shot of even slowing the Warriors down. So we ask again – how did the rest of the league let Patterson slip to the Thunder on such a team-friendly deal?

Top New Addition: Paul George

Yes, Paul George can walk away at the end of this season. It’s a real concern for the Thunder. However, the deal to acquire George was so lopsided that there was no downside in acquiring the star forward. The Thunder shed long term salary and get a shot to pair George up with Westbrook. Ideally, the pairing will be so effective that both George and Westbrook decide to commit to playing in Oklahoma City together long term. However, even if that doesn’t happen, the Thunder still have the young talent and financial flexibility to retool or rebuild on the fly.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sam Presti

Sam Presti, to some extent, will always be haunted by the deal that sent James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Presti has also made some other deals over the years that didn’t exactly work out. Nevertheless, Presti seemingly had little to work with this summer and yet ended up with Paul George without giving up draft picks, unloaded the bloated contract of Victor Oladipo, re-signed Roberson to a reasonable contract, signed Patterson to a team-friendly deal and overall had the best offseason of any general manager. If there were any doubts as to Presti’s abilities as a front office executive, they were put to rest this offseason.

2. Russell Westbrook

He’s coming off a historic MVP season and seems primed for another epic year. The only concerns with Westbrook are whether he will gel with George and whether he will ultimately commit to the Thunder long term.

3. Paul George

As previously mentioned, George is a complete offensive talent. Additionally, he is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league and one of the few players that has any shot of matching up with Kevin Durant defensively. I for one am hoping to see the Thunder face the Warriors in the postseason to see how well George can matchup with Durant over a seven game series and to see how well the Thunder’s stingy defense can slow down the Warriors’ offensive attack.

4. Steven Adams

It goes unnoticed, but Steven Adams put together a career-year last season. Adams has developed into a top-level defensive center and does all of the little things to make it possible for players like Westbrook to focus on scoring and filling up the box score. Whether it’s hauling in offensive rebounds, setting hard screens, finishing a lob or anchoring the team’s defense, Adams does everything he can to help his team win.

5. Patrick Patterson

As previously discussed, Patterson comes to the Thunder on a team-friendly deal and is likely to fill a role the Thunder desperately needed to address. From the power forward position, Patterson can play off the ball, stretch the floor and move the ball within the team’s offense when he’s not open for a shot. Defensively, Patterson has the strength to guard bigger players in the post and the mobility to switch onto wing players when necessary. That sort of skill set usually garners a hefty contract in free agency. Fortunately for the Thunder, they nabbed him on a favorable deal.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Thunder reportedly have a $207.1 million extension on the table to Russell Westbrook but the MVP has yet to sign it. If he waits until next summer, opting out of his final year at $30.7 million, he’ll be eligible to sign a new contract for the exact same figure. The benefit of inking now is locking in long-term security but then he won’t know if Paul George, who can opt out of his $20.7 million for 2018-19 is going to re-up. If only one stays, Oklahoma City won’t have the cap room to add in a replacement star.

If both do leave in free agency, along with Enes Kanter, who can opt out of his final year $18.6 million, the Thunder can get to roughly $42.8 million in cap space. The team can also give Doug McDermott to an extension before the start of the 2017-18 season. Oklahoma City also has to decide (before November) on Josh Huestis’ option for 2018-19. In the meantime, the Thunder are over the luxury tax threshold ($119.3 million) by at least $6 million for a bill of about $10.5 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Thunder’s defense should be top-notch this season. The lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams should make life miserable for opposing offenses. This lineup has the collective skill, size, mobility and experience to take on the league’s best offenses – perhaps even the Warriors. The Thunder’s offense may falter at times, but the defense should be a constant asset for Oklahoma City.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The Thunder don’t have many weaknesses, but one concern is how Westbrook will adapt to life with Paul George. Westbrook maintained an absurdly high usage rate last season and his teammates even seemed to facilitate his run for the triple-double record. George similarly needs the ball in his hands to maximize his skill set and likely won’t be interested in helping Westbrook break records. Finding a proper balance and adapting the team’s offense to be more inclusive is of tantamount importance. There will be times where Westbrook feels the need to take matters into his own hands. It might become a problem if he feels inclined to do so too often and at the expense of George and his other teammates.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can Paul George and Russell Westbrook convince one another to partner up long term in Oklahoma City?

Both Westbrook and George have the ability to take their talents elsewhere after this season. If the duo quickly develops chemistry and finds a recipe for competing with the Warriors, they may be convinced to stay put and team up for the long term. However, if it becomes clear that the two cannot coexist and that they each have better opportunities elsewhere, the Thunder will be left without their two star players and will have to quickly restructure on the fly. With Sam Presti in charge, Thunder fans should take solace in the knowledge that he and his staff are likely fully prepared for that worst case scenario. Still, Thunder fans will be on edge all season wondering what will ultimately happen with the team’s two best players.

– Jesse Blancarte

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