Hey Thunder Nation!!!
As the seasons edges closer and closer to the midway point, I thought it would be fun to look back at the WTLC staff’s pre-season prognostications and rate their abilities to foretell the future.
October 17, 2017
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!!!
Sorry to start the process by pounding my drum, but I nailed this one. I have followed Thunder fan forums since day one and though warned by Sam Presti down about a rough start to the season, every one of the forums I have visited have been caustic this season.
Loud City, however, though not the wide-eyed bunch from ten years ago, stayed the course. Even through a dark November, I never heard a “boo”. A few moans and groans, but nothing like I have seen at other venues when a team or a player did not live up to expectations immediately. The OKC fans at “the Peake” are the best in the NBA and their support during the dark days will pay dividends come May and June.
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.
This one was a tie. Bruty and Flaim were spot on with their prediction about Steven Adams because the Funaki has been brilliant all season. His minutes are up, his scoring is up, his shooting has improved, his defensive rating has improved, and his PER is through the roof. On top of all that, he has found his voice and become a vocal leader on the floor as well. If voters aren’t giving Adams the serious MIP consideration Dom spoke of, they aren't watching the Thunder. It has been incredibly satisfying watching the clean-cut 19 year-old kid we watched four years ago evolve into the beast we see today:
When Adams is on the floor the Thunder are better and when his teammates keep him involved, the Thunder are at their best. It’s obvious for anyone paying attention that Adams has become the Thunder’s silver-back.
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.
Everyone pointed to the Kyle-Bot on this prediction, but I’m going with Mark Bruty’s overall prediction here. For one thing, his projected return for Singler had me in tears...
and considering the only tangible thing the Bot has done on the court this season got the man-bun slapped off his head, was entirely accurate, but what earns Mark the nod was his take on Josh Huestis.
Just 2 weeks after this post went up, the Thunder declined their team option on Huestis for next season. Josh has appeared in 29 of the Thunder’s 35 games and averaged almost 13 minutes per game in the process.
The Thunder could have secured Huestis’ services next season for just $2.2M, a pretty good bargain in today’s NBA market for a young defensive specialist with the ability to cover the 1 thru 4 effectively. Are the Thunder gambling that Huestis’ shooting struggles continue so they can re-sign him for less, or are they grooming him for some package deal with Singler for that back-up center so many Thunder fans yearn for at the deadline?
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.
Everyone made a good case for their pick as the Thunder’s second most important player. David predicted Adams would play a huge role and he has. As Paul George is rounding into form, Mark and Dom’s PG13 selection looks more and more solid with each passing game. And I still contend that Raymond Felton’s ability to improve the bench may well decide how far this team goes, but in my opinion, we all missed the mark.
In my mind, the player that has had the biggest impact, other than Westbrook, heading toward the midway point has been Carmelo Anthony. Remember the question, the team’s second most “important” player, not the team’s second best player.
of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.
Granted, Russell Westbrook probably played with newborn son Noah more than he should have and wasn’t in the condition we have become accustomed to seeing him in at the beginning of the year, and sure, Paul George admitted to misjudging the physical demands of the Western Conference and bulked up more than he should have during the summer, but it has been Carmelo Anthony’s transformation that has most defined this season to this point.
Anthony, like everyone from Sam Presti to the Thunder’s water-boy, has said from the beginning this season would be a process and Melo has never wavered from that. Ironically, and contrary to what many doubters outside the Thunder organization said, the primary process he was referring to concerned himself.
Melo has transformed himself before in the course of his career. There was “NBA Melo” or “Me, Myself and Melo” from his years in Denver and New York, a ball dominant, iso-heavy All Star that took a backseat to no one. Then there was “Olympic Melo” from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, then came “Hoodie Melo” last summer. None of those, in their undiluted form, would suffice joining forces with Westbrook and the Thunder this season.
After winning his 3rd Olympic Gold medal in 2016, Melo said he could live without a NBA championship, but fate was giving him, perhaps for the last time, another shot at NBA gold.
With age generally comes wisdom, and it isn’t 2011 any more. In that bygone year, Denver was Melo’s team and the Knicks were to become his team and it took a blockbuster trade to garner his services. Now, to get that last shot to fulfill his legacy, Melo voluntarily moved to another player’s team, a newly named MVP player’s team. And a MVP player’s team that had already secured the services of another All-Star caliber player to boot.
In order for this All-Star alliance between Russ, PG, and himself to work, Melo needed to find, and most importantly, worked diligently to find a new identity, a hybrid of all he had been throughout his career and that process started on the first day of training camp.
Westbrook is the reigning MVP and Paul George is one of the most respected 2-way players in the game, but let’s face it, we’re talking about Carmelo Anthony, one of the most widely respected players, at least by his peers, as there is in the game. NBA Championship or not, a 10-time All-Star, with 3 Olympic Gold Medals that has never averaged less than 21 pt/gm in 14 NBA seasons deserves respect.
Melo’s first interview with the FoxSports Oklahoma crew on media day:
It doesn't matter that he did that interview over 2 months ago, I still get a rush seeing Carmelo Anthony walking to that table in a Thunder uniform for the first time. He won his first Olympic medal when Paul George and Russell Westbrook were still in High School and before Billy Donovan coached his first National Champion at Florida. He won his first gold medal when Russ was a NBA rookie and George was just a freshman at Fresno State and even though Melo said from day one he came to play with Russell and PG, it was just and right to allow a player of his stature find his place at the table first.
To his detractor’s surprise, and maybe even to his own, Melo is finding his place and it isn’t at the head of the table. I know it was just one play, but in that one play Carmelo Anthony’s actions spoke louder than words:
For fourteen years and though the first 32 games of this season, Melo would have taken that shot. Looking back, Melo kicking the ball out to a wide open Russell Westbrook to seal that win was much more than just a basketball play, it was the passing of the mantle and since then, Westbrook has scored 61 points, with 24 assists, 5 steals, and grabbed 14 rebounds leading the Thunder in wins over the best team from the West and then the East in consecutive games. Paul George was affected as well and been nothing short of fabulous the last three games
The always demonstrative Westbrook’s reaction to that pass says it all. Instead of roaring or snarling at the hostile Utah crowd like we have come to expect in those moments, Russ realized the significance of the moment and stands quietly for a second or two in stunned silence before slowly turning and walking to the Thunder bench.
This team lacks the depth for Anthony to go full “Olympic Melo”. Situations will arise that will dictate the need for “NBA Melo”. However, this newest manifestation of Carmelo Anthony, “Thunder Melo”, will defer to whatever the team needs to win, even if that means being “Invisible Melo”.
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......
David Scott wins this one with Mark Bruty coming in a close second. Having Huestis as both your surprise and February trade fodder cost you, sorry bro.
Patrick Patterson is still trying to get his legs under him, Terrance Ferguson has only played a small role thus far, and after another slow shooting start and struggling on defense, Alex Abrines hasn’t surprised anyone.
Raymond Felton, on the other hand, has been solid if not spectacular all season. We knew going in he would have his hands full managing a bench that consistently blew double-digit leads last season, but so far, the bench has not been the glaring handicap it was a year ago.
Give him another 47 games and “The Little General”, as Michael Cage of FoxSports Oklahoma calls Felton, might even turn this Thunder bench into an asset.
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.
Up until a week ago I had this question running away, but I am happy, and relieved, to concede this one to my fellow round-ball oracles.
At this juncture, Dom’s prediction would rival anyone’s in the business. At number 14, the Thunder are an above average offense and hold the #5 spot on defense, well done Dom, but if the last week is any indication, Mark and David will leave us both choking in heel dust. A prospect, I’m certain, that neither of us find unappealing.
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!
Obviously too early to call a winner on this one, but I sure hope our voice from down under got this one right.
Well Thunder Nation, there you have it, by my calculations, Dom and Mark finished on top with 2 top predictions a piece. Mark may take it all if the Thunder’s offense continues to improve however.
Let us know who you think finished on top and feel free to make a few predictions of your own in the comment section.
Which prognosticator came out on top?
This poll is closed