During the offseason, just about everyone had Paul George jumping ship and joining LeBron James in Los Angeles. It totally made sense. Oklahoma City had just gotten torched by the Utah Jazz in six games, the Thunder didn’t have much of a promising future if PG-13 stayed, they still had Carmelo Anthony’s atrocious contract to deal with and Billy Donovan was more-or-less on the hot seat.
To everyone’s surprise, George decided to stay, inking a four-year deal to buddy up with Russell Westbrook. Many questioned this move, pointing to the fact that it would be much easier to win a championship in LA with LeBron. Regardless of all the noise, George felt something special brewing with the Thunder and felt he had an opportunity to win now.
Fast forward through the first quarter of the season and Oklahoma City is sitting atop a stacked Western Conference with a record of 17-8. They’ve had dominating wins over the Houston Rockets, the Utah Jazz and even the Golden State Warriors.
Things didn’t appear to be peachy off-the-bat. Andre Roberson – their best defender – re-injured the same knee that received surgery last season and still hasn’t returned. They started off the season with four straight losses. But after rattling off seven straight wins, and 17 of their last 21, the Thunder seem to be back on the right track.
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why OKC is winning games – things that happened both before the season started and are continuing to happen throughout the course of the season thus far.
Offloading The Carmelo Anthony Contract
This move was great for many reasons – some of which will be explained later in this article – but the one we will focus on is actually getting Carmelo off the team. Not only did it save ownership a lot of money from the luxury tax, it actually made their roster better. Carmelo can still play basketball at a high level, but his role as a starter for OKC clearly didn’t work out, and they didn’t really have a need for him coming off the bench, especially considering the fact that they would have had to pay him roughly 28 million dollars.
The Rockets tried to employ Carmelo in a similar fashion, and we already saw how quickly that played out. Getting him off the roster was very important, and by doing so it opened the doors to a much-improved roster.
Trading For Dennis Schroder
By drafting Trae Young, the Atlanta Hawks made a statement that Schroder was no longer part of their future plans. Whether or not you think his contract is bad, it doesn’t come close to as negative as Carmelo’s, even considering the fact that Carmelo’s was expiring after this season.
What most would consider as a blessing, the Thunder essentially flipped Carmelo’s deal to take on Schroder and his deal. The only difference, however, is that Schroder still has a lot to offer a team, especially when it comes to scoring off the bench.
His fit in the Thunder lineup has almost been seamless. Playing roughly 29.4 minutes a night, he’s averaging 16.8 points on 42.7 percent shooting. He’s behind only George and Westbrook in field goal attempts per game, and while he’s not as efficient as them, he’s not necessarily being asked to be.
On top of scoring off the bench, he’s notching 5 assists to only 2.8 turnovers and adding 1.2 steals a game, as well.
With Westbrook already having missed multiple games, plugging Schroder into a starting role that he is already comfortable with adds a much needed insurance policy-type benefit to this OKC roster. He clearly isn’t as talented as Westbrook, but he’s not necessarily a major drop off either. Oh yeah, he’s also shooting 34.3 percent from three compared to Westbrook’s depressing 21.8 percent.
Plugging Jerami Grant Into The Starting Five
After inking Grant to his new contract in the offseason, the writing was on the wall for Melo. There was no way the Thunder were going to keep him on and pay the unthinkable amount of luxury tax they would have owed.
The Thunder experimented with Patrick Patterson in the starting lineup the first few games, but plugging Grant in there essentially made them take off. He has an athletic, long frame that allows him to guard multiple positions. He’s playing highly efficient basketball on the offensive end of the floor, shooting 51 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. He’s third on the team in net rating at plus-11.5, second in true shooting percentage at 60.4 percent, and second in blocks at 1.2 per game.
His addition to the lineup clearly offers a plethora of more dimensions than what Carmelo brought with him. He might never be as good as “peak” Carmelo, but he’s certainly a lot more effective in today’s game.
Paul George Staying Put
This one is obvious. If George leaves, the Thunder are in a bad spot. Westbrook and Steven Adams aren’t enough to win a championship. Luckily for the franchise, George decided to stay long-term (or at least three more seasons).
His play this year has been otherworldly. He’s leading the NBA in steals at 2.2 per game. Per NBA stats, he’s first in defensive win shares. He’s currently 12th in scoring at 24.3 points a night. He dropped 47 points in Brooklyn against the Nets, including a game-winning three-pointer to seal the victory.
OKC currently has the number one defense in the NBA with a defensive rating of 101.6. Yes, Steven Adams is quite the force under the basket, but Paul George has been arguably the best defensive player on the team this season.
There are still plenty of games left to play, but if the beginning of this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Oklahoma City Thunder are surely going back to the playoffs. The odds of them finishing this season atop the Western Conference aren’t incredibly likely – they have had one of the easier schedules to start the season – but their style of play and the consistency at which they compete on the court night in and night-out surely point to them being a dangerous team come the postseason.
A handful of important pieces weren’t discussed in depth, but it will be the continued play of guys of Steven Adams and Terrance Ferguson, coupled with the return of defensive talent Andre Roberson, that will help the Thunder win games throughout the rest of the season.
As they continue on into December, the Thunder fanbase can find solace in one thing: this core is here to stay. Whatever success they have this season can only be built on next year.
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