The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
When I think about the Thunder, I picture a working heart monitor. The spikes and drops on the screen paint a fitting picture of the inconsistency that’s haunted them the past few seasons, following Kevin Durant’s departure. Like most teams, the Thunder take after their franchise player. And much like Russell Westbrook in general, the Thunder’s highs have been skyscrapers, and their lows underground bunkers. It’s the lows that most have chosen to define Oklahoma City’s success since 2016; it’s the lows that are most resonant. They have yet to win a playoff series since Durant joined the Warriors.
OKC’s first go at a Durant-less world in 2016-17 turned Westbrook into a deity. His inefficiencies were pardoned by his historic triple-double narrative. They’d go on to lose to the Rockets in five games in the first round. Last summer, general manager Sam Presti doubled down after Westbrook’s MVP award by trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. One worked, one didn’t. George is still around after spurning Los Angeles to sign a four-year, $137 million max deal to stay in OKC. The Melo experiment won’t be remembered fondly. But Presti’s gamble still paid off. In spite of everything, the Thunder enter the 2018-19 season with a formidable big three. George and Westbrook, as well as the ever-underrated Steven Adams (still only 25!), give the Thunder a core that will be competitive for the foreseeable future. They’re set at the top. The question is: How far can they go?
After two tumultuous years, OKC heads into this season with a roster that’s more complete than either of the past two iterations. Its 11 highest-paid players are all in between 24 and 29 years old. Since the Thunder traded Melo, there’s no longer a prideful elder statesman they have to appease. It’s addition by subtraction, and with low-risk, high-upside reserve acquisitions like Dennis Schröder and Nerlens Noel, the Thunder might be one of the deepest teams in the league. And at perhaps the perfect time too. In the West, the Lakers have LeBron but also a plethora of unknowns. The Jazz are, at the end of the day, still relying on a 21-year-old in Donovan Mitchell, and the Rockets didn’t improve much on paper this summer, trading consistent role players for wild cards that could backfire. No one is going to match the Warriors’ offensive talent, but if everything clicks, OKC’s defense should be stout enough to present a tough road block on their way to another Finals.
The Thunder were a top-10 defense last season; they were essentially a top-five defense before ace defender Andre Roberson’s season-ending knee injury in late January. With Roberson back, and another year of George, the Thunder should be able to return to those stifling heights. Roberson is that important. In the 39 games he played, his plus-10 on-court net rating was the highest on the team, and the Thunder’s defensive rating was 11.2 points better when he was on the court. Had he stayed healthy all season, he would have had a case to be on an All-Defensive team. Roberson’s absence had a snowball effect. The Thunder were forced to fill his role with Alex Abrines, 32-year-old Corey Brewer, and rookie Terrance Ferguson. They might have brought more shooting potential than Roberson (who shot better than 53 percent from the field but only 22 percent from 3) but forced the team to scramble defensively. It didn’t work.
Roberson’s presence will make their anchor’s life down low much easier. Adams, who made a career-high 62.9 percent of his shots last season, continues to provide a strong presence in the paint on defense as well. He might not have the reputation as a rim protector like Clint Capela, but he allowed a lower percentage around the rim than Capela or Dwight Howard last season. He’ll never get enough credit for embracing the unglamorous aspects of basketball (setting the perfect screen, boxing out on missed shots) that allow his more offensively inclined teammates to shine, but all those little things add up to an invaluable star on the team.
Jerami Grant also returns primed for a breakout season as a player with the exact opposite skill set as Melo. The athletic and rangy forward signed a three-year, $27 million deal to stay with the Thunder. Grant’s versatility in greater doses will add to the staunch defense, as should the addition of Noel, who was an excellent rim protector in Philadelphia when he wasn’t injured. The Thunder have the look of a defense-first team and could try to grind games out. That’ll put pressure on the team’s shooters, primarily George, to deliver on the other end.
George has his money now, and a franchise that truly wants him. He didn’t exactly end last season on a high note, scoring only five points and shooting 2-for-16 from the field in the game in which the Jazz sent the Thunder home, and expectations will only grow with the new contract. The Thunder are betting that they haven’t yet seen the best of their second star. George has the potential to be the best player on this team on any given night—he has the scoring chops to be the team’s leading scorer, and has the size and savvy to guard just about every position in the league. It’s Westbrook’s squad, sure, but George’s two-way ability is the passcode that unlocks a different level of success for OKC. Last season, George’s production dropped off a bit from his final season in Indiana—his points per game average went from 23.7 to 21.9, and his field goal percentage from 46 percent to 43 percent. But he’s allowed a season’s grace period to acclimate to the role of second option. George did take one more 3 a game last season, and he hit 40 percent from behind the arc. Another step up in efficiency this season would cement the Thunder’s place in the league’s upper echelon.
In the end, Westbrook’s recklessness at the tip of the spear may still hold the Thunder back in any seven-game series where consistency is paramount. But the Thunder have no choice but to go forward with this group and try. It wouldn’t be shocking if they’re much better than they let on last season. Their core is better than it’s ever been since Durant left, and the fact they’ve managed to maintain a cohesive team identity built around a firebrand like Westbrook is a minor miracle. The pieces to compete are present, and there’s a path opening up for a new Golden State foil. With all the uncertainty at the top of the Western Conference, it might just be the Thunder. Why not?