With the actual NBA season finally upon us, and after having endured one of the more stressful yet ultimately optimistic off-seasons in Thunder history, the WTLC crew chimes in on what we expect to come.
1. On a spectrum between “Westbrook may leave” anxiety (1) and “#whynot? I’m pumped!” (10), where are you mentally, heading into the beginning of this season?
David-Scott: I’m absolutely stoked for the coming season. Russell Westbrook proved his haters wrong with his 5 year extension, completely annihilating any fabricated idea that he would leave OKC, so I’ll give my excitement level a solid 10—#whynot?
Dom Flaim: Agreed, I’m incredibly excited. A few weeks ago my nerves were still there because the specter of Russ’s contract was still present, but now that it has been signed, this is an all-in year to enjoy. They have two new stars, and, at worst, have their centerpiece signed for five years. This team gained most of what it needed this offseason and is primed to be a home court team in the West playoffs. Oh, and having one of Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, or Russ on court at all times is such a relief from the inevitable collapses of last year when Russ sat. 10/10!
R.K. Anthony: Can I be both? Carmelo Anthony has always been that “honored enemy” you both love and hate from afar throughout both his college and pro career. I’ve followed Paul George ever since his injury playing for team USA and watched him grow into an All-Star caliber offensive player while waiting on his leg to fully recover. Now they are here, how could I not be excited beyond words?
I know it is popular to look at the differences between the OKC 3 and have doubts it will work, but I see their various specialties as an asset. Every team has a weakness, and the Thunder are well suited to exploit them all. And that is just on offense.
On the other hand, I understand what a tremendous financial risk the organization is taking this season and beyond. I’m counting on Thunder Nation to step up once again and be the “sixth man” and show these new guys why OKC is a special place to play. I will always believe that Westbrook committed to the Thunder this summer because Thunder Nation had his back at his darkest hour when he was slipping into quicksand a few years ago.
December 29th, 2011. The night before, Russell went 0 for 13 against the Grizzlies on the road, and he was still pressing in a close game against Dallas, the defending NBA champion and the team that had knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs the season before. Let’s relive what I consider Thunder Nation’s finest hour:
During the 1998/99 season, Dallas fans ceaselessly booed a young PG as he struggled throughout that season, and 5 years later he left. That PG was Steve Nash. When Russell needed help, Thunder Nation was there for him, and six years later he signed on for life.
Just like in the movie The Replacements, the OKC 3 are getting a second chance, and there is a ton of pressure on these guys to succeed. I’m counting on Thunder Nation to act as the catalyst that makes this experiment work. To cheer when things get tough, which they will, and show PG and Melo why Russell calls OKC fans the best in the NBA.
Mark Bruty: I'm sitting on a very comfortable 8 at the moment. We all know there is a real chance that we only get Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for one year, but what a year it will be! Additionally, there has already been some really positive commentary coming from the Thunder’s new stars about the team, the franchise, the community etc. So I'm hopeful without being expectant. Either way, I'm a happy 8 anticipating the opportunity to watch a special team that should do some great things this season. And boy are they going to be fun to watch!!!
2. Who is primed for the biggest breakout season?
David-Scott: I’ve always been a HUGE proponent for Dakari Johnson, and have followed him ever since his entrance into the G-League. BUT, at the same time I have to admit my admiration for Terrance Ferguson. Both Dakari and ‘T-Ferg’ will prove to the world of their overwhelming value to the Thunder this season, overcoming any doubt that they’d struggle among one of the most powerful rosters in the league.
Dom Flaim: Does it count if they already sorta broke out? Because I think Steven Adams is going to benefit most from the offseason additions and, after a questionable year in 2017, will be in the MIP running this year. He was too cramped due to spacing and had a lot of new responsibilities on the defensive end. With more depth, spacing, and time, I think he thrives.
R.K. Anthony: Would it be disingenuous to say that breakout seasons could breakout out up and down the Thunder line-up? Carmelo could prove he is much more than the “me, myself, and Melo” label Phil Naessens likes to place on him. Paul George could prove his clutch numbers from last season were not just a flash in the pan and that his defensive skills are back to the level they were before he got hurt.
Westbrook can shut his naysayers up once and for all if he can lead this group of superstars effectively. Not only could he settle the dispute whether he is in fact a true PG, but could make his mark as one of the best of all time.
I’m certain that Steven Adams’ stock will rise, and Terrance Ferguson will make every supporter of the NBL proud. By the end of the season, everyone will know Alex Abrines’ name and no one will call Josh Huestis, Josh “Heist-us” ever again.
Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson will finally get the monkey off the Thunder bench’s back and Jerami Grant will surprise many folks when he plays the 5 when the Thunder bench goes small-ball.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, a rising tide raises all boats, so everyone should get a lift, even Billy Donovan.
Mark Bruty: Steven Adams. I have said this since he was arguably the most important "non-star player" in the infamous Thunder vs Warriors Western Conference Finals two seasons ago. He can guard anyone anywhere, his fundamentals and skill set have improved on the offensive end, and he brings a work ethic and toughness second to none on defense. He will LOVE the new-found space that Melo and George provide and will appreciate the experience and the defensive prowess Patrick Patterson brings to the floor. I expect a really big season from the Funaki.
3. Who is most likely on the trading block in February?
David-Scott: No one on the starting lineup will be up for grabs in my honest opinion. Kyle Singler will make $4.6 million during the upcoming season, and at the mid-point of the year (in NBA terms), the Thunder may just try to find someone who they can make better use of during the second half of the year or even in the playoffs.
Dom Flaim: I’m not really sure anyone is, but if I had to guess, Jerami Grant would be ideally dealt for a backup big man. If not him maybe they can swap out Singler for another team’s somewhat dead weight big man. Two ideas I like: Grant for Lucas Nogueira, or Singler for Alexis Ajinca. Not sure either team bites, but I’d look at both and add a second round pick if needed.
R.K. Anthony: This is a tough one.....
...I can’t make up my mind...
Mark Bruty: This is tough with Presti at the helm. SOMETHING always manifests itself at the trade deadline, and this season probably won’t be the exception. I would love to say Singler, but we are likely to get a piece of already chewed gum for him in all honesty, so it is likely to come from a player on the "fringe" like a Josh Huestis who could become a rotation guy, increase his value and then be moved to get a decent return and allow Ferguson to develop further.
4. After Westbrook, who is the team’s most important player?
David-Scott: While this answer might come to surprise many of you, I believe its valid. Steven Adams (this season) will follow Westbrook in level of importance. Russ has all of the fire power around him in order to be successful, yet Adams must be bolder than the years prior if this team is to make it further into the playoffs. Adams will HAVE to be there to provide crucial defense in the post, stop advancing offenses from driving to the rim, and capturing key rebounds to provide the OKC Big 3 with consistent second chance opportunities.
Dom Flaim: Paul George. Steven will be important, but I think PG’s two way play will be critical for both the perimeter defense and being able to run with some of the bench units. He’s a perfect complement to Russ, and if this year works out, there’s still an outside shot he sticks around.
R.K. Anthony: Great question! I think a good argument could be made for a number of players. David makes a great point about Adams needing to bring out that “Game of Thrones” monster Melo spoke of, and Dom is perfectly on point about PG’s overall roles for both the starters and the bench. As the player I chose in the “who should take the last shot” poll, I think Carmelo staying active without the ball to get the best one-on-one match up when it comes time to take that shot will be critical, as well as showing a willingness to hit the open man if teams adjust. But... I’m going to go off the beaten path and opt for the player I called the Thunder’s X-factor, Raymond Felton.
The Thunder won 47 games last year. How many more would they have racked up had the bench not blown countless double-digit leads last season? We know how awesome the starters should be, but if Raymond Felton can pull this bench together and elevate them from liability to asset, this team has a shot to win it all.
Mark Bruty: Paul George. It's his contract year, he has never been on a team this talented, and he will strive to impress the Thunder faithful as well as the rest of the NBA communities’ movers and shakers. Plus, I think he will relish playing alongside Russ and be extremely effective as a result. George’s perfect blend of size and athleticism combined with his defensive dedication and growing offensive skills make him imperative to the Thunder and whatever success they may earn.
5. Which bench/role player will surprise people?
David-Scott: Felton, no doubt. He is going to be the man to take charge of the secondary lineup and guarantee the utmost productivity is taking place when Russ and co. is off-court.
Dom Flaim: To me this one depends on who is the person that expresses surprise. I think as far as Thunder fans go, Patterson. Having a veteran backup big who can defend at a high level and stretch the floor will be huge. Non-OKC fans? Abrines will surprise — he shot 40 percent from 3 point range last year after November and just had such an awful start I don’t think people noticed he was quite good. Other fans I’ve spoken with don’t think much of him and I think he opens some eyes.
R.K. Anthony: Wow! I’m not only excited about what the Thunder bring to the table, but what these new voices will bring to WTLC!! I was a fan of Semaj Christon’s guts last year, but it will be a huge relief seeing the ball in the hands of a competent veteran like Felton when Russell takes a break.
Further, Thunder fans are going to love Patrick Patterson. Consider this, last season, when “Pat” (that’s the nickname his Thunder teammates have given Patterson) played, the Toronto Raptors were a 42 and 23 team. 64.6%. When he didn’t play, they were a 9 and 8 team. 52.9%. And that on a left knee, scoped on Aug 10th, that bothered him all year. He will make the Thunder better.
Abrines put on 20 lbs in the off-season. He will be stronger. He knows what to expect now and slipped seamlessly into the rotation in limited minutes in the pre-season, so he is smarter as well. Most rookies see their numbers decline as a season goes on, but as Dom pointed out, Abrines’ numbers improved. Even with a slow start, he finished last season with a 40.9% catch and shoot mark from beyond the arc. That matched Stephen Curry’s number. Thunder fans should be drooling to see what Teenwolf has in store for them in his second season with the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony drawing defenses best defenders away from the young Spaniard.
But, the question was about “surprise.”
We know Felt is a vet. The numbers are there about Pat, and we all saw Abrines grow in front of our eyes so I’m going with the “rook,” Terrance Ferguson. No offense to the NBL, but no one here follows it and let’s face it, Ferguson’s numbers last year didn’t raise any eyebrows. I think we saw why when the Thunder played Melbourne. Say what you will about the league from Down Under, but give their ability to play team defense the respect it deserves. The Thunder scored 97, 102, and 96 against NBA competition, granted, it was pre-season competition, but 86 points against the Aussies gives us a pretty good idea what T-Ferg was up against last season when he was just 18 years old. (thugs, dingoes, and Face-Eating Koalas, oh my!!)
Ferguson is soaking up this wealth of NBA experience he gets to work with each day and will be the “surprise” of the season.
Mark Bruty: Josh Huestis. I really believe he has turned a corner and taking advantage of this chance to prove how far he has come. It is a testament to the kid’s work ethic really as he forges his way into the rotation.
Additionally, I hold a different opinion than (non-OKC) people who suggest that Raymond Felton is "trash" and that he won't give the Thunder anything. Felton will be extremely serviceable and really help that second unit to maintain and build leads while Russ and co sit. Put it in your book, Felton will have help, Alex Abrines is going to be REALLY good......
6. Offense or defense?
David-Scott: Both! This year’s Thunder lineup may be one of the most well-rounded we’ve ever experienced, and with Roberson and PG both having the typical lockdown wing mentality, there’s no reason why we can’t be excited for a good show of OKC defense.
Dom Flaim: I agree — both — but lean defense slightly. I think they’ll be above average offensively but could be a top 5 defense, at worst I’d think top 10 which they were a year ago. I expect above average at both.
R.K. Anthony: I hate to tread on the traded, but before the Utah Jazz traded Enes Kanter to Oklahoma City in 2015, they were a below average defensive team. After the trade, they put up all-time defensive numbers for the rest of that season and been tagged a strong defensive team ever since.
With Enes’ departure, I see a similar cause and effect reaction amplified by the addition of defensive minded veterans like PG, Pat, and Felt to the rotation. Most fans focus on Golden State’s offense and overlook the Warrior’s top ranked defense. The Thunder, minus a defensive hole that gave away lay-ups like a bank gives away toasters for new savings accounts — and supplanting him with a player with All-Defensive credo — could push OKC to the top of the defense scrum and give them the fighting chance they need in a seven game series with the defending champs.
Mark Bruty: Why can't we have both? This Thunder team was built for excellence on both sides of the ball. An offense which has multiple weapons coupled with a defense with the ability to lock teams down. While OKC, like every team in the modern NBA, need to discover better and better ways to cover the three-point line better, they have the pieces to present a real problem defensively. Improved perimeter defense will lead to more transition opportunities, something the Thunder are even more ready to take full advantage of.
7. Final prediction
David-Scott: Whether or not the Thunder go as far into the playoffs as we desire them to do, OKC is going be a scary group of guys to the previous superiorities of the league. Our lockdown defensive capabilities will crumble the most competent and well-rounded offenses, and our scoring power will wreck havoc in the west (I’m dramatic, I get it).
Dom Flaim: Standing by my prediction — 51 or 52 wins and the fourth seed before bowing out to the Warriors in the second round. Anything extra is gravy.
R.K. Anthony: Fifty-five to sixty wins, a second or third seed in the playoffs, and the most anticipated Western Conference Finals battle since Achilles faced Hector in the Trojan War.
Mark Bruty: Understanding it will take a bit of time for the Thunder to mesh and fully uncover the nuances of each others game, there is good news, the Thunder have 82 games to make it happen.
I feel after a few early season hiccups, the Thunder improve on their 47 win 2015/16 campaign and finish somewhere in the realm of 55 wins and move up to the #3 seed. But once the playoffs start, look out. I honestly believe we see them in the Western Conference Finals and delivering that salivating match-up against the Warriors we all crave. That re-match of the 2016 WCF that has "fairytale" written all over it. AND, if I could be so bold, this storybook season might see a Thunder vs Cavs NBA Finals at year’s end, @ me all you want!
And that has it! If you made it this far then it’s quite clear you’re a real trooper and have some serious addiction habits to anything Thunder related. Tonight marks the start of the Thunder season and you have every right to be excited. Follow WTLC on Twitter to stay updated all season long with the best news, content, and coverage of the Oklahoma City Thunder!