Ringer Preseason Ranking: 6
Last Season: 48-34
Notable Additions: Dennis Schröder (trade), Nerlens Noel (free agency), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (trade)
Notable Subtractions: Carmelo Anthony (trade), Corey Brewer (free agent)
Vegas Over/Under: 50.5
Team MVP: Russell Westbrook
Best Case: Westbrook returns to the Western Conference finals for the first time since Kevin Durant left.
The past two offseasons for Oklahoma City have been all about righting roster wrongs. After Westbrook won MVP in 2016-17 by averaging a triple-double without much of a supporting cast, general manager Sam Presti spent the summer looking for reinforcements and ended up with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. This summer, after an up-and-down 2017-18, the Thunder corrected course again, dumping Anthony, re-signing George, and trading for Schröder, a starting-caliber point guard, as Westbrook’s much-needed backup.
Every facet of the team could improve this season. (Raymond Felton, another year older at 34, might be the exception.) Westbrook and George just spent a season together feeling each other out, and that experience was enough for George to commit for the long haul, signing a four-year, $137 million max contract. Westbrook had a usage rate of 34.1 percent last season, which was good for second in the league, but even that is a massive drop from the 41.7 percent usage rate he posted the season prior. Of all elite point guards, it’s most difficult to imagine Westbrook changing his style of play, but Russ clearly showed a willingness to take fewer shots to accommodate his new teammates. The Thunder’s two stars could strike an even better balance this year, especially with Anthony no longer a part of the offense.
The defense, on the other hand, will likely take a hit with shooting guard Andre Roberson recovering from his patellar tendon rupture in January. He was originally expected to return in November, but needed an additional procedure last week to remove the suture from his patellar tendon. That’s team doctor-speak for at least another two months off the court. The setback matters for seeding, but when he is healthy, OKC’s defense can hang with the best in the league. If the ultimate goal is a postseason run, he’ll have enough time to re-incorporate himself on the floor and be there when it matters.
The power forward spot is up for grabs between Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson, but if Grant wins out, there won’t be a weak link defensively in the starting five. Grant is a likely candidate to see a jump in production himself. He’ll be playing the most minutes of his career following a season when his offensive game looked as promising as it’s ever been in his four-year career. His finishing around the rim improved dramatically; it was frustrating before to watch someone with Grant’s athleticism and 7-foot-3 wingspan turn the ball over on the way to the basket. And while the Melo experiment didn’t exactly work out, the offense still has to distribute the 16.2 points per game Melo took up last season. And that opportunity is Grant’s to lose: The four times he played at least 30 minutes last season, he scored in the double digits.
The bench is also positioned to be much more productive than they were last season. Schröder, who spent the last two seasons as the starting point guard for the Hawks, will be the biggest sixth-man spark OKC has had since a young James Harden, and like Harden, might see time playing alongside Russ, too. Meanwhile, Patterson and Nerlens Noel will be playing to prove they still belong in the league. Patterson, who returned from knee surgery last summer, was a shell of himself, athletically, and was far from the integral role player he was on Toronto’s reserve unit. Noel might be even more far gone: The no. 6 overall pick in 2013 has taken multiple missteps to end up with the Thunder on a minimum contract, and having sat out for most of last season, it isn’t clear what he’s still capable of doing at a high level, let alone how much potential he still has. But in signing a one-and-one deal at the minimum, it’s clear that he’s betting on himself. It’s hard to buy Noel being a total lost cause. He is a special rim-running talent and effective shot blocker, and that ability doesn’t go away just because he had some public disagreements with his coach. It does, however, start to wear away from injury: During the past two seasons, he’s missed time because of thumb and groin injuries, and sat for more than half the total 164 games. If Noel works his way into the rotation, OKC’s frontcourt becomes multi-dimensional.
For a team that had one of the worst benches in the league two seasons ago, the Thunder having the luxury of bringing players like Schröder and Noel off the bench speaks to how far they’ve come. Westbrook needed a second star by his side to be competitive in the West. Keeping George was essential in not falling off again, and OKC has managed to go deeper to cast the talent at the top a larger safety net. It’s been a year of transition and change for nearly everyone in the Western Conference, and the Thunder’s offseason gave them a leg up on every other good-not-yet-great team.
Worst Case: Another year with Westbrook as the primary option, another first-round out.
The obstacle standing in the way of a deep postseason run is health. Westbrook had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in September, and even if he does start opening night, knee ailments are never to be taken lightly. Lingering effects could follow him throughout the season. Westbrook tore the same meniscus in 2013, which resulted in three surgeries in one year.
Then there’s Roberson, a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The defense can pass without him—George is an elite wing stopper, and can slide in to defend the opposing team’s best option in Roberson’s absence—but it’s unstoppable with him. (Or … very stoppable, depending on your perspective.) The Thunder will be 36 games into the season by the time his reevaluation in January rolls around.
Billy Donovan will be forced to call on Alex Abrines, whose excellent 3-point shooting (38 percent last season) is evened out by his inability to do much else. Terrance Ferguson will be an option once he clears concussion protocol, as will Hamidou Diallo, the Kentucky super-athlete drafted in the second round in June. While there is a lot of potential on the OKC bench, there are plenty of characters that could throw off the on-court flow: Schröder is a notorious hothead, and Noel hasn’t been able to stay on a team for more than three seasons.
TL;DR: The Thunder could finally break out of their post-KD slump this season … if injuries don’t stop them.