The Oklahoma City Thunder entered last season with championship aspirations. They surprisingly pulled off a trade to bring Paul George to the team, and then followed that up by trading for Carmelo Anthony. On paper, they appeared to have all the makings of a team that could make a deep postseason run.
Their season didn’t end that way, however, as they were bounced in the first round by the Utah Jazz despite having home-court advantage. Anthony never seemed to fit, and the team traded to him to the Atlanta Hawks, who eventually bought out his contract. They did manage to secure a huge win in free agency, though by convincing George, who supposedly was all-in on finding a way to Los Angeles, to re-sign. They also made a couple of nice pickups in Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel to strengthen their roster and stay afloat in the ever tough Western Conference.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Give Sam Presti credit for the work he did this offseason. He managed to re-sign Paul George to a four-year, $136,911,936 contract, moved Carmelo Anthony’s contract while acquiring Dennis Schroder, traded for the rights to Hamidou Diallo, signed Nerlens Noel to a two-year, $3,745,548 contract (player option on final season) and rounded our the roster with some other cost-effective deals. This offseason could have been a disaster, but re-signing George sets the stage for the Thunder to remain competitive in the Western Conference. The team has the potential to make some real noise in the postseason if Russell Westbrook and George develop some meaningful chemistry — something that didn’t happen last season. Westbrook underwent an operation recently, so that will be a factor as well. If Westbrook, Andre Roberson and the Thunder’s other key players avoid the injury bug this season, they could be a surprisingly competitive team. However, even in the best case scenario, the Thunder will likely be a tier below the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Thunder did about as well as anyone could have hoped over the summer, winning Sam Presti’s 2017 gamble outright when they re-signed Paul George to a long-term deal. That they also managed to shed Carmelo Anthony’s albatross deal in the process was just icing on the cake. The big question now becomes this: Will keeping George and Russell Westbrook together motivate the pairing to address some of their on-court shortcomings last year and come back even stronger, or will they rest on their laurels? A recent Westbrook surgery is only supposed to keep him out through training camp, but it’s worth monitoring – if he has to miss any time, new acquisition Dennis Schroder will be put to the test early. But the Thunder were a very strong regular season team last year before Andre Roberson went down with an injury, and it’ll be interesting if they can parlay his renewed health into a charge at a top-three seed in the West.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
If there was ever a time to use the phrase “addition by subtraction,” now would be the appropriate time with the Thunder. After a year together, Russell Westbrook and Paul George know each other’s tendencies. One’s more aggressive than the other, but they’ll both have a better feel for things. Oklahoma City adding Dennis Schroder to the equation gives its bench bunch a potential sixth man candidate that could potentially play alongside the starters in certain rotations. Steven Adams broke out as best offensive rebounder in the NBA, and that won’t change. There’s real potential for Jerami Grant to take on a more significant role, as well as a chance for Nerlens Noel to re-establish himself in the league. Billy Donovan has plenty of options to go with for different types of styles.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Thunder were one of the league’s biggest letdowns last season. Although, it was not entirely their fault. They were playing their best basketball before Andre Roberson’s season-ending knee injury. Since their elimination, OKC not only kept the best of their team together, but they also renovated the roster. Replacing the incompatible Carmelo Anthony with Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel gives the team well-needed depth. Lack of shooting might be a cause for concern if they plan to make an extended playoff run, but the Thunder have a better supporting cast around Russell Westbrook and Paul George. That should mean a better final result than last season.
1st Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
The injury/surgery of Russell Westbrook is going to impact the team more than most think; it not just that he’ll miss some time, it’s he’s going to miss time and need to reintegrate. In any other division that might be okay, but in the Northwest virtually every team should make the postseason, so every game is going to matter in the final standings. Think about last season: one game decided third place from fourth place and one game determined whether you got in the playoffs or not. The balance of the Thunder is scientifically better. The addition of Dennis Schroeder is solid. Andre Roberson is supposed to be healthy, so the Thunder should be better, but missing Westbrook for any games is going to be tough to overcome, even with Paul George back in the fold.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Russell Westbrook
The 2016-17 Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook is one of the most explosive offensive players in the league. He’s near impossible to stop when attacking the rim and his strength allows him to finish the play while absorbing contact. He’s also worked on his jumper tremendously since coming into the NBA, to the point where he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the court.
He’s been among the league leaders in points per game the past few seasons, and during his MVP year, he led the league with 31.6 points per game. There have been questions about Westbrook’s shot selection and whether or not he dominates the ball too much, but the fact remains that he’s an amazing offensive talent and a walking triple-double. He is without a doubt the type of player you can build a franchise around. There are 29 other teams that would love to have a player of that caliber. He’s a top-five player in the league and a perennial MVP candidate.
Top Defensive Player: Andre Roberson
Despite being a limited threat offensively, the Thunder missed Anthony Roberson tremendously in the playoffs. He suffered a season ending injury back in January. He’s emerged as one of the premier wing defenders in the league. His presence would have gone a long way to corralling Donovan Mitchell, whom the Thunder seemed to have no answer for in the postseason.
Prior to his injury, Oklahoma City had the best defense in the league. Without him in the lineup, their defense took a huge hit and they slipped to only middle of the pack. He’s able to guard multiple wing positions and his one-on-one defense is almost second to none. When he’s back on the court, he’s a potential All-Defensive First Team member and could be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Top Playmaker: Russell Westbrook
In many ways, as Westbrook goes, so go the Thunder. Much of their success relies on the superhuman efforts of Westbrook, part of which is his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. There has been plenty of garbage floating around suggesting that Westbrook “hunts for stats,” as if it were that easy to average double figures in assists. He’s become one of the elite playmakers in the league. The Thunder are that much better with him on the floor.
The past three seasons he’s averaged double figures in assists, including his final season with Kevin Durant, in which he dished out a career-high 10.4 assists. This past season, his 10.3 per game led the league. Not only does he generate offense himself, but he does so for his teammates as well. They all become a threat to score when Westbrook is on the court. He’s a floor general and leader who quarterbacks the team.
Top Clutch Player: Russell Westbrook/Paul George
Of course Westbrook deserves to be mentioned here. He’s hit numerous big shots and come through in plenty of clutch situations for the Thunder. However, Paul George has garnered more of a reputation of his own for making big plays in crunch time. There are plenty of stats floating around that suggest George isn’t a clutch player or that he’s abysmal with the game on the line. As always, stats don’t tell the complete story.
The Thunder struggled during close games last season, mostly due to the trio of Westbrook, George and Anthony never really finding a groove together. It was pretty much each guy taking turns with the ball in his hands. With Anthony now out of the picture, things should run a little more smoothly. The casual fan forgets George going toe to toe with LeBron James and the Miami Heat a few years back. He made numerous big plays during those battles with Miami. The fact is you can rest comfortably knowing that the ball is in either Westbrook or George’s hands when the fourth quarter comes around. You can’t go wrong with either.
The Most Unheralded Player: Steven Adams
Steven Adams has rightfully begun to garner more attention for what he brings to the Thunder, but there are times when it still can go unnoticed. His rebounding and interior defense are a huge part of what the Thunder do. Last season, he averaged more offensive rebounds (5.1) than defensive rebounds (4.0), helping Oklahoma City to extra possessions.
He’s become one of the best defensive anchors in the paint as well as a good man to man defender. He’s also emerged as a valuable contributor on the offensive end as well. He’s great in the pick and roll as both a screener and a finisher. His offensive rebounding prowess enables him to get multiple put-backs. And he’s begun to develop a jump shot and a little floater. The Thunder certainly have star power, but Adams is a vital piece of the team and an absolute necessity if they want to make a deep playoff run.
Best New Addition: Dennis Schroder
As part of the three-team trade that sent Anthony out of Oklahoma City, the Thunder received Dennis Schroder from the Hawks. Schroder gives the Thunder a much-needed scorer off the bench. Last season, the Thunder had a few capable bench guys, but none that could really stabilize the second unit. Schroder can do just that. He can generate his own offense as well as create opportunities for his teammates.
Last season in Atlanta, he averaged a career-high 19.4 points per game and 6.2 assists. He will need to improve his outside shooting, but there’s no doubt that he’ll be a welcome addition to the Thunder offense. He should also get an opportunity to share the backcourt with Westbrook at times while Westbrook slides to shooting guard. It will give the Thunder a scoring punch in the backcourt that they haven’t had since they traded Reggie Jackson.
– David Yapkowitz
WHO WE LIKE
1. Patrick Patterson
Still recovering from offseason surgery, Patterson had quite an underwhelming year for the Thunder. Also, with Anthony playing power forward and the emergence of Jerami Grant, Patterson was the odd man out, although he did manage to play in all 82 games. It wasn’t too long ago that he was one of the most valuable contributors off the Toronto Raptors’ bench. He’s a stretch four with good defense and rebounding and with Anthony gone, look for him to play more of an important role in the rotation.
2. Jerami Grant
Jerami Grant was perhaps the best player off the Thunder bench last season. He’s mobile big man who can guard multiple positions. He also has an improving offensive game. He’s great in the pick and roll, and has ability to finish around the rim. He drew plenty of interest as a free agent this summer, but the Thunder were able to retain him. He should continue to improve as a player and be a reliable contributor in the second unit.
3. Nerlens Noel
Nerlens Noel was once thought of as one of the top up and coming defensive big men in the league. A former lottery pick, he found himself out of the rotation with the Dallas Mavericks. This is essentially a fresh start for him, a chance to remind everyone why he was once a coveted draft pick. He’s a Steven Adams-lite, essentially. He’ll be counted on to provide the Thunder with defense and rebounding off the bench. He could end up being an X-factor in Oklahoma City.
4. Terrance Ferguson
As a rookie, Terrance Ferguson saw himself thrust into the rotation with the injury to Andre Roberson. He had a pretty good showing despite being a player who wasn’t expected to do much. He still has a long way to go in his development, but he showed flashes of the player he could become. He can create his own shot and he’s a good shooter. He’s got the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. Overall, he’s a nice young player for the Thunder to continue to develop.
– David Yapkowitz
Defense, defense and defense. When Roberson was in the lineup, the Thunder were on top of the league defensively. His return to the lineup is much needed. Prior to the addition of Anthony last summer, the lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams looked like the team best equipped to match up with the Golden State Warriors juggernaut defensively. With Anthony now out of the picture, Oklahoma City should regain their spot as one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. Whether it’s Patterson or Grant that ultimately wins the starting power forward spot, all five of the Thunder’s starters are above average to elite defenders. They should wreak havoc on the league defensively.
– David Yapkowitz
The Achilles Heel for Oklahoma City last season was their performance in the clutch. They struggled mightily in close games. Most of that, however, was the result of Westbrook, George and Anthony never meshing well as a trio. Each of them would take turns doing their own thing with the ball. Now with only Westbrook and George there, they should be more efficient down the stretch.
– David Yapkowitz
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Oklahoma City Thunder good enough to beat the Warriors and get to the Finals?
There’s no question that after the Thunder brought in George and Anthony, getting through the Western Conference and to the Finals to compete for a title was the goal. They fell woefully short of that. The Warriors have run roughshod on the West the past several years. Their stars are all in the prime and they show no signs of slowing down. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Thunder. Will their offense run smoother with Anthony gone? Can Roberson make a full recovery and bolster Oklahoma City’s defense? Will they get the necessary production out of their bench? They’ve got the talent, and they should be able to make a stronger postseason run, but ultimately it’s tough to envision them knocking off Golden State. Stranger things have happened, but it doesn’t appear likely.
– David Yapkowitz
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