NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Coach: Billy Donovan (third season)
Last season: 47-35 (sixth place in the Western Conference)
Notable additions: Paul George (trade), Carmelo Anthony (trade), Patrick Patterson (free agency), Terrance Ferguson (draft)
Notable subtractions: Victor Oladipo (trade), Enes Kanter (trade), Domantas Sabonis (trade), Doug McDermott (trade)
Vegas Over/Under: 53.5 wins
Best-Case Scenario: The Thunder take the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals on the back of one of the best starting lineups in the league—and unlike in 2016, they seal the deal.
After a season of watching Russell Westbrook carry an entire franchise and its fan base on his shoulders, this newly minted triumvirate of Russ, George, and Melo must feel like a fever dream for everyone in OKC. Between the two poles of Westbrook and Steven Adams at the 1 and 5 spots, respectively, the Thunder’s starting lineup will boast a fluid 2-3-4 combination with three players whose positions are scattered along the skills spectrum: Andre Roberson is the defensive specialist who will most likely handle the most grueling defensive assignment; Carmelo is the offensive star perhaps finally ready to settle into a supporting role; George, one of the very best two-way players in the league, is somewhere in the middle and will finally get a chance to play in his optimal role: as a no. 2 option.
The Thunder’s new additions establish a more balanced and logical hierarchy than what existed last season. Adams gets to continue on as the excellent role player he is; Roberson’s offensive liabilities are mitigated by those surrounding him. It’s still Russ’s world, but the landscape is much greener. The Thunder are hoping for Hoodie Melo or Team USA Melo—i.e., a Melo at ease with himself and his position in the world—not the Melo who was often tethered to his burdens in New York. If Anthony shows a willingness to play within the offense (getting opportunities off handoffs and pick-and-rolls as the screener), the Thunder offense could be a beautiful thing to watch. In his age-33 season, with his last taste of the playoffs four years in the rearview, it seems like a safe bet that Melo will.
What apprehension exists in Melo’s fit doesn’t exist for George, who has exhibited all of those qualities and abilities in his time with Indiana—he can create his own shot, spot-up, position himself off the ball, and defend just about every position. He is not only the perfect running mate for Westbrook—he’s just about the perfect running mate for any franchise player. The Thunder will go as far as their new Big Three takes them, and their talent alone suggests they could go deep.
Worst-Case Scenario: Anthony struggles to adapt to the first complementary role in his NBA career, George develops a wandering eye as the Thunder disappointingly fill a low-seeded playoff spot, and it becomes, once again, Russ all alone.
Westbrook’s extension relieves at least some of the franchise’s dread heading into the season, and the thought of him playing alongside two great offensive players like Melo and George is tantalizing. But more so than Houston is after its offseason, the Thunder are relying on their starting five. Unlike the Rockets, they don’t have many reinforcements coming off the bench. Patrick Patterson signed with OKC on a curiously below-market contract, which made more sense when it was announced he was having arthroscopic surgery over the summer. Patterson will be a pick-and-pop threat in the vein of Serge Ibaka, but outside of 2Pat and perimeter players Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson, there isn’t much promising depth on the roster.
OKC’s Big Three makes a lot of sense on paper, and taking advantage of Westbrook’s transcendent talent to unlock the off-ball games of both George and Melo sounds preordained. But small-market teams always have to look over their shoulders, and the Thunder’s two new stars are rumored to have future goals that don’t include Oklahoma City—George being the Lakers’ next great player; Anthony finally playing alongside his longtime friend and rival LeBron James. Interests change, especially when the wins are piling up. But should things begin to unravel during the season, those peripheral concerns might take center stage. Locking in Russ was just the first step. Both Melo and George have outs after this season. The Thunder are still perilously on the clock.
TL;DR: This Thunder season takes after the team’s best player: It’s going to be all or nothing. Anything less and it could all fall apart.