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The Thunder’s Role Player Conundrum

OKC played the Warriors tough to open the season, but they still need to find another reliable contributor on offense to have the balance to compete with the best teams in the West

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last time the energy around Oklahoma City was this positive in October, a 7-footer was starting at small forward. The franchise didn’t recruit a third superstar this past summer, but Paul George’s decision to re-sign for four years and $137 million gave the front office’s vision a vote of confidence. He passed on joining his hometown Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James for Russell Westbrook and the Sooner State — what insider secrets did George know that outsiders didn’t?

Since George’s re-signing, the hype train has gained speed. The Thunder remodeled their bench, most notably by adding Dennis Schröder at backup point guard. Schröder was a starter the season before, so this is like a makeup gift for Westbrook after the front office left him stranded without a useful backup for years. Now, he arguably has the best reserve at his position. The roster infrastructure seems sturdier — Jerami Grant is coming off the best season of his career, and Patrick Patterson is healthy again. The Thunder are in the best position to compete since Kevin Durant left three seasons ago. Except none of the above addresses their most alarming shortcoming: Improving the offense so that it can hang with the 3-point-heavy top of the Western Conference.

The season opener on Tuesday against Golden State showed both how the Thunder have improved and the work they still need to do. OKC lost, but barely — the final score was 108–100, and it was a two-point game with two minutes left — and they were competing without Westbrook, who has no explicit timeline for his return from knee surgery. Sam Presti spent the past two seasons trying to assemble a team that could compete with Golden State again, and OKC kept it close while short two starters against the defending champions. They also attempted 11 more 3s than the Warriors did, and technically shot better, too, despite hitting only 27 percent. The box score gets at what the final score doesn’t: Both were playing ugly basketball, and shooting, Oklahoma City’s most fatal flaw, was not fixed over the offseason.

Against the Warriors, the Thunder shot better on contested field goal attempts (35 percent) than uncontested (34 percent), making their offensive attack a crapshoot. That’s likely more than just opening-night jitters; the roster is composed of streaky shooters: Schröder, Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines, even Westbrook. For the Thunder to hang past the first round of the playoffs this season, they’ll need to find a nightly threat from their pile of unreliable options. The answer could be Grant, who became much more consistent last season in attacking the rim. Shooting was the abnormality in his otherwise-comprehensive development; Grant dipped from 37.1 percent from 3 in 2016–17 to 29.1 percent in 2017–18. Still, both were on fewer than two attempts per game, not nearly the volume the Thunder need to make up for losing Carmelo Anthony’s scoring, and that Grant might suddenly bring his offense up to speed is less believable than Victor Oladipo’s emergence last season.

When Westbrook does return, he’ll take some of the defensive pressure off of his teammates, creating open shots. But OKC doesn’t have a standout third scoring option. That won’t change when 2-guard Andre Roberson is healthy again (he’ll be reevaluated in December). He’s a must-start because of defense; Roberson is a career 25.7 percent 3-point shooter. If you were forced to choose between Markelle Fultz and Roberson hitting a 3 with a million dollars on the line, you’d choose Fultz. (You’re probably best off taking it yourself.) Outside of Steven Adams, Westbrook and George are joined by a group of players who could just as believably hit two 3s, not hit any, or go off for four night-to-night. Until they find a reliable third playmaker, their new-season-new-me stability will be an illusion.