A year ago the Oklahoma City Thunder were entering new territory. Russell Westbrook was the reigning MVP and he’d been joined in town by multiple All Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Chuck them in alongside Steven Adams and Andre Roberson and get a little more out of some of those bench dudes and maybe this was a team that would challenge the Golden State Warriors… or not. Roberson got injured, Melo never settled into his new role, the bench was very average and the Thunder lost in the first round. Again.
All that hype and nothing actually changed. But perhaps some lessons were learned for the better because their offseason has seen some very welcome alterations. First of all, Paul George re-signed. You don’t stumble on All-NBA talent like him every day so keeping PG13 around, alongside Russell Westbrook, should ensure this remains a playoff team just like that.
As to how much further they can go, that might depend on how Dennis Schröder settles in as the bench leader (and starting point guard until Westbrook recovers from offseason surgery), how Roberson plays after that injury which ended his previous campaign, how a couple of the younger bench lads step up (Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson, etc.), how Billy Donovan works his two stars amongst each other now that he doesn’t have the distraction of Carmelo Anthony’s minutes to worry about, how a few of these new fringe lads settle in (Nerlens Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Abdel Nader, Hamidou Diallo) and whatever other dramas emerge between now and the end of the regular season. There’s always something.
The expectations are going to be a little more guarded this time around but there’s reason to be optimistic. Westbrook and George have a good camaraderie already and having that year under the belt makes a huge difference. The starting line-up will be much steadier with a likely set of starters reading: Westbrook, George, Roberson, Patterson & Adams – all five returning players. The bench should be deeper with Schröder and Nerlens Noel. There’s continuity this time. More continuity than they’ve had for three or four years.
Plus, you know… this guy’s back…
Needless to say, Kiwi Steve was in outstanding form during OKC’s 2018 Media Day. His podium stint alone was a masterpiece of personality, from the immediate brows at Nerlens Noel being “super high (on working with Steve)”, to calling Patrick Patterson a “wanker” for interrupting him, some typically enlightening stuff about the sport of basketball, ridiculing the idea of shooting three-pointers, and greeting every reporter before they asked their question.
This is how you’ll be spending the next twelve and a half minutes…
Russell Westbrook is the heart of the Thunder franchise and nobody can possibly argue that. He’s the most influential man on and off the court for this team. There’s probably only one player in the current NBA more entwined with the success of his franchise than Rusty Buckets and that’s LeBron James – who, it has to be said, was the most jarring figure in all of the NBA media sessions, just seeing him in that Lakers uni for the first time was a shocker, it’s officially real now.
But if Westbrook is the heart then maybe Steven Adams is the soul. Don’t tell him that, he’s just a self-proclaimed awkward kiwi bloke, but it’s his selflessness that allows others to play to their highest levels. Dropping screens and boxing out, switching on defence, doing the one-percenters. It tends to come at the expense of a few of his stats – a reminder that he had more offensive rebounds than defensive ones last season – but he couldn’t care less, of course.
Stevie might be about to get some rewards though. Without Melo around, Adams won’t be expected to cover for the power forward on defence as often. More freedom to do his own job. The NBA is one of those leagues where a defence is often only as good as its weakest link so getting good minutes out of Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant in that PF position could be extremely useful. There’s also the option of sliding Paul George up now and then to squeeze an extra shooter in there. And with Nerlens Noel around that means there’s an extra big man on the bench so Jerami Grant honestly can get some proper PF mins, giving OKC a dynamic closer to what he once had with Enes Kanter out there.
Then there’s a point that a few players made at Media Day about the pace of play. Melo is an iso-baller. That’s his thing. Westbrook has that tendency too but is at his best when playing downhill, grabbing rebounds and running at defenders before they’re set. It’s okay to have one guy like that but two and things can get stale. There’s no doubt that the Thunder will play quicker this time and with Adams’ ability to crash the offensive boards they can afford to do so, knowing there’s basically a 50% chance that they either score the shot or get another possession with a rebound. Paul George was careful to balance that thought with the loss that Melo will be in the locker room and that’s a very pertinent point given that until Russell Westbrook turns 30 in November, Ray Felton is the only man in this team in his fourth decade on the planet. Roberson, George, Patterson, Westbrook and Felton are the only dudes older than Steven Adams and he’s only 25. This is an extremely youthful roster, in its current incarnation. Eh, there’s always a few midseason buyouts available.
And don’t forget the mantra of modern basketball: spacing. Melo as a spot shooter wasn’t the ideal fit. Paul George can knock them down with the best but he was trash from deep after the All Star Break for some reason (43.2% before and 32.4% after) while Westbrook is just a plain bad shooter from range. The Thunder are getting better in that area though. Abrines, Patterson, Ferguson and George are all capable of shooting at 38% or better, dragging defenders out of the paint and allowing Russ & Steve to go to work down old fashioned pick and roll lane. Sam Presti’s preference for athletic defenders does mean there are a lot of bad shooting Roberson clones around the team at the moment but that’s because they cannot afford their defence to fall off a cliff again if Roberson gets hurt like last time.
The recurring joke was that Adams should have been a part of the OK3 banner instead of Carmelo. This season he actually will be. Like, there’s not even any doubt about it. He’s the third-highest paid player on the roster coming into his sixth season in the league in a situation that finally seems to suit him as much as he suits it. Media Day isn’t really an opportunity to read anything drastic into what anyone says, we haven’t even had preseason yet, but it is a glimpse at the marketing direction of things and Steven Adams was a man in demand.
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