The Oklahoma City Thunder just might be the most interesting team in basketball.
As recently as 10 days ago, sources familiar with the thinking of the New York Knicks front office floated the potential of the Knicks waiting out a potential Carmelo deal until December. Now, of course, we know that Anthony wanted no part of beginning the season in New York, so much so that he let it be known that he would be willing to accept a trade to either the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Anthony era is officially over in New York City, and in its wake is what many consider to have been the most entertaining offseason in NBA history. Considering the star players that changed teams, it’s difficult to argue.
But what makes the Anthony trade even more interesting is the fact that he now finds himself teamed with Russell Westbrook—one of the most polarizing players in the NBA today.
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It now seems like a lifetime ago, but Russell Westbrook’s potential to be great has always been in question. We quietly wondered whether he was superior to Derrick Rose and once wondered whether the Thunder should have tried to package him and move him in exchange for Chris Paul back when the point guard was being moved on from New Orleans.
Over the years, many have opined that Westbrook was the NBA version of a bucking bronco and that the failure of both Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan to tame him cost the Thunder Kevin Durant.
While there may be some truth there, Westbrook at least temporarily silenced his critics with his performance last season. He admirably led the Thunder to 47 wins and became the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for an entire season. Neither of those facts, nor the fact that Westbrook was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2016-17 season, was met with any sort of universal acceptance of Westbrook being a truly “valuable” player. Some believe that Westbrook is a truly special player who galvanizes his teammates with a willingness to win only seen by the likes of the Allen Iversons and Kobe Bryants of the world while others think that he’s a selfish gunslinger who longs for the spotlight.
Any number of advanced metrics could reasonably lead one to the conclusion that Westbrook’s accomplishing of the single-season triple-double average was a result of an incredibly high usage rate and a conscious pursuit that was in the forefront of both his and his teammates’ mind.
Truth be told, deep down inside, Westbrook probably wanted to win the MVP award as soon as Durant let it be known that he was taking his talents to Oakland. Even leading up to the announcement, many had opined that Westbrook’s reckless abandon and undisciplined play helped the Thunder yield the 3-1 series lead they held over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, and if the Thunder simply managed to win that series, everything would have been different.
Instead, Durant’s decision to leave was seen as a rebuke to Westbrook, who he is as a player and his style of basketball. At the time, the implication was that Durant didn’t think he could win with Westbrook. For someone as fiery and fierce as he, Durant’s decision to bolt and the subsequent questioning as to the reasons why was the quintessential poking of a bear with a stick.
In the end, Westbrook roared.
No matter what happens from here, a part of Westbrook’s legacy will be that he averaged a triple-double for an entire season and he was named the Most Valuable Player the year after the one who was deemed to be his Batman abandoned him.
But now, as Westbrook enters his 10th NBA season, the question that will be answered this coming season is whether or not his demons have been exorcised.
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Indeed, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder will be the most interesting team in basketball.
From afar, it appears that the Thunder are best equipped to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining Russell Westbrook, scoring should be relatively easy. The Thunder ranked 11th in the league in scoring last season and 16th in offensive efficiency—both should improve.
Defensively, with Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson and Steven Adams joining Westbrook and George, the Thunder have a few players that will battle defensively. The thought of slowing down two of the three of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson is something that can at least be deemed as possible. With its newfound scoring prowess, the team should expect to have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.
Aside from the obvious pleasure of imagining a battle between the two teams, what remains to be seen whether and to what extent Westbrook will be willing to yield touches and shot opportunities to Anthony and George. Last season, the MVP averaged 24 shot attempts per game.
In “clutch” situations, which is defined as the final five minutes of a game that’s within five or fewer points, Westbrook attempted 184 shots. Tied for second were DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom had 134 such attempts. In other words, Westbrook took 37 percent more clutch shots than the players who tied for second-most.
Simply put, Westbrook was the alpha and omega of everything the Thunder did and, more importantly, what they believed they could be. Whether or not he still believes it necessary for him to dominate the ball the way he did last season will go a long way toward determining the success of the team’s new triumvirate.
And believe it or not, the way that Westbrook conducts himself and plays with the ball (or chooses to play without it) will probably answer the question as to whether or not Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City has affected his mental approach to the game.
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In all likelihood, the Warriors are on their way to being the NBA’s next dynasty. But if the Roman Empire and Ming Dynasty ended, so too will that of Golden State.
Not many pay attention to the nuances of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, but with the repeater tax penalties that were implemented, the reign of the Warriors, at least as we currently know them, may be short-lived.
By virtue of Stephen Curry’s monstrous $201 million extension and the club’s re-signing of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors are looking at a luxury tax bill of about $43 million for the 2017-18 season. With Durant potentially opting out of his current contract next summer, the Warriors will likely be faced with the prospect of having to dole out new contracts for Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.
With $30 million annual salaries the norm in today’s NBA, unless each of the aforementioned three are willing to take substantial pay cuts, re-signing each of them at their fair market value, with the repeater tax penalties, could cost the Warriors over $500 million in luxury tax payments for just the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-2021 seasons alone.
Even if the Warriors do manage to win the next two championships, the sheer economics of keeping the team intact make it seem that the team’s re-signing of Klay Thompson is improbable unless both Durant (next summer, if he opts out) and Thompson (in 2019) agree to take far below their fair market value in subsequent contracts.
At this point, though, it’s fair to guess that the NBA’s repeater tax and the economics of keeping the team intact could mean that this current iteration of Warriors may only be together for two more seasons.
If Westbrook (28 years old), George (27 years old) and Anthony (33 years old) were to stay together and have some pieces added around them, whether it be this season or either of the following two, they appear to have an adequate foundation capable of assuming the throne.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed—not even the partnership of the trio in Oklahoma City.
In the end, above all else, that’s probably what makes the Thunder more interesting than everyone else.
Collectively, their team seems to have so much potential, but with Westbrook not having signed the $207 million extension tendered to him, George’s known desire to relocate to Los Angeles and Anthony’s friendship with both Chris Paul and LeBron James, the three may represent the best trio of mercenaries ever assembled.
With each of the three having something to play for, and each of the three holding contract options over their 2018-19 season, the partnership between Westbrook, George and Anthony may never mature to the point where they are actually able to accomplish something great.
In some ways, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder is a shotgun wedding, but the participants could conceivably end up living happily ever after.
Whether they do or not may ultimately depend on the reigning league MVP.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly think that storyline is much more interesting than watching LeBron James win the Eastern Conference for the eighth straight year.
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