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Sounds of Thunder: How Good Can this Oklahoma City Thunder Team be?

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A position by position comparison with the 2015/16 WCF team.

The New Thunder Alliance

The 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder were a salty bunch. In fact, they were salty enough for Andre Iguodala to declare them the best team in that season’s playoffs during a Breakfast Club interview in July of 2016.

Why that Thunder contingent didn’t win a championship is fodder for heated argument, but their success makes them a natural template to rate the current roster against.

Assuming everything goes as planned, let’s place these two Thunder iterations head-to-head and decide which team is better?

Comparing the Starting 5’s

2015-16

Russell Westbrook
Kevin Durant
Serge Ibaka
Andre Roberson
Steven Adams

2017-18

Russell Westbrook
Paul George
Patrick Patterson
Andre Roberson*
Steven Adams

(*this spot may go to Alex Abrines, but Robes is likely to be named starter to place him on the opponents’ best shooter from the opening tip)

2016 Westbrook vs 2018 Westbrook -
First the obvious, Russ is two years older. They say that wisdom cometh with age and that should hold true in Westbrook’s case. Without question, last season, minus long-time running mate Kevin Durant, Westbrook turned in one of the outstanding individual seasons in NBA history —but it ended with an early exit from the playoffs.

Westbrook averaged a triple-double for an entire season, the first time the feat had been accomplished in 50 years. He broke Oscar Robertson’s record for triple-doubles, a record many felt couldn’t be broken. He then went on to win the scoring title and topped it all off with the MVP award.

What more could one man do? And that is exactly the point and source of the aforementioned wisdom. One man can’t do it alone and the recent trade with the Indiana Pacers that brought Paul George to OKC will give Westbrook one of those rarest of opportunities in this life. A second chance. Most never get one, but George’s acquisition will allow Russ to take all that he learned last year and apply it with another star by his side.

Edge - 2018 Westbrook

Durant vs George -
Let’s start with the numbers, per basketballreference.com, Kevin Durant is a career 27.2 pt/gm phenom while George has averaged 18.1. However, in the past two seasons, George has averaged 23.4 pts/gm. In the same time Durant averaged 26.6. George did so on teams that finished seventh both seasons in the East; Durant’s teams finished 3rd and 1st in the West. In that period Durant has averaged 52.2% on all his shots, 38.2% from distance, and converted 88.8% of his free throws. George? 43.9%, 38.1%, and 87.6%. Their USG% is comparable: Durant 29.2, George 29.7.

On the surface the edge would seem to clearly go to 2015-16, but there are two ends to a basketball court and George, named to the NBA’s All-Defensive team four times, holds a decided advantage there. The question is, does George’s defensive prowess make up for Durant’s offensive numbers?

That is difficult to answer because defense is much harder to quantify than offense. George has posted a career 101 defensive rating per 100 possessions to Durant’s 105, but varying styles of play, pace, and competition factors could explain away George’s edge here.

That leaves the eye test. One of the things I have always respected about George is his non-stop defensive tenacity. He doesn’t take possessions off. That tenacity, and skill obviously, is precisely what landed him on four All-Defensive teams.

Durant has defensive skills and no one is more aware of those skills than Thunder fans, but they weren’t showcased on a regular basis. During his time in OKC, Durant was more of a situational defender. At any time he could strike and embarrass his opponent ,but then, at others leave you wondering if he was conscious. Too many of the latter occured.

How the additional possessions the Thunder average (102.0 last season) compared to the Pacers (99.8) will effect George’s defensive numbers is yet to be determined. However, according to recent interviews, George seems uplifted to join a team which plays a more wide-open style. Certainly, accompanied by George, this pace change will help the Thunder improve their #8 league position in Defensive Efficiency this season.

Durant would appear to have the offensive edge, George the defensive, but there is another factor to consider. Durant has spent all but one NBA season alongside either Westbrook or Stephen Curry and crew. George has never played with a teammate that draws as much attention as Russell demands. Danny Granger was the top scoring teammate thus far in PG’s career and George caught Granger on the downside of his career. David West’s 17.1 pts/gm in the 2012-13 season is tops among George’s post- Granger teammates.

Don’t misunderstand. George has had solid teammates throughout his career, but nothing as dynamic as Westbrook —a player that draws double and triple teams virtually every time he crosses half court. Westbrook will benefit playing alongside George, but not to the extent that George will benefit playing alongside Westbrook.

Edge - Even.

Ibaka vs Patterson -
Serge Ibaka was a fan favorite and his absence was sorely felt last season. His pick-and-pop shot from the nail, along with his ability to knock down three-point shots, created space the team never enjoyed last year. Meanwhile, Serge’s replacement, rookie Domantas Sabonis, left much to be desired on the defensive end as well. Patterson will bring much of that defensive fervor back.

Both players shoot 37% from beyond the arc. Serge has a 5% edge in overall shooting as well as a 1.3% edge at the stripe, but Patterson’s assist numbers per 100 possessions more that doubles Serge’s output, 2.6 to 1.1 which points to a better understanding of ball movement. Patrick has also done a better job protecting the ball throughout his career, 1.6 TOV per 100 possessions to 2.2. Additionally, 2Pat is not a player that demands the ball. Serge, especially his last season in OKC, had a tendency to let down if he wasn’t getting the number of shots he wanted.

Those last numbers indicate Patterson is a better fit in Donovan’s offense. As explosive a player as Serge was, he struggled in more complicated offensive sets and tended to get lost sometimes. Additionally, Patterson is known as an excellent help defender with a knack for knowing when and where his teammates need him to be. However, on a team expecting to make a big run in the playoffs, Patterson’s post-season scoring numbers, which have declined each year, are a reason for concern.

Edge - 2016 Ibaka

2016 Roberson vs 2018 Roberson-
Robes’ bread-and-butter is defense: and defense is a skill that generally improves with age. Robes is no exception and was named to his first All-Defensive team after last season.

The scary part for Thunder opponents, other than the fact the Thunder retained Andre’s services for less than they offered prior to last season, is the fact that the addition of George and Patterson to the Thunder lineup frees Robes to put 100% of his focus on the opposition’s best scorer.

If James Harden thought Andre was a pest last season, wait til he faces him this season. Knowing Patterson will be there to back him up rather than having to check over his shoulder to make sure the rookie Sabonis was in position will be a boon for Robes. Further the George/Patterson additions will reduce Roberson’s 26% career three-point shooting load. And some time in the gym should correct a woeful 42.3% FT season as well.

Edge - 2018 Roberson

2016 Adams vs 2018 Adams-
Adams is another player from the 2016 team whose defensive load just became considerably lighter. Playing defense with George, Patterson, a steadily improving Roberson, and Paul George will probably be the answer to the Funaki’s dreams.

It’s impossible to juggle two jobs simultaneously and be at your best. And between doing his own job and nursing a rookie along for much of last season, that’s exactly what Adams was being asked to do. Patterson, while not as dynamic as Ibaka, is a better all-around defender and Adams, fortified with another year’s experience, should really make his mark as one of the premier defensive centers in the league next season.

As dominating as Adams may be defensively next season, what opponents may find most devastating are the opportunities the additional spacing on offense should provide. Despite defenses packing defenders in the paint as the Thunder struggled from throughout the season beyond the arc, Adams still managed 11.3 pts/gm, a career high. This season, with two players demanding double teams again, that number could reach 18, possibly even as high as 20 pts/gm.

Edge -2018 Adams

At the end we come to the conclusion that the 2017/18 starters, at least on paper should be better than their 2016 counterparts. Not by a wide margin, but experience and a strong defensive mindset should carry the day and make these 5 a viable force in the Western Conference.

Comparing Benches

Since the departure of Reggie Jackson, consistent bench production has been a major issue for the Thunder. The 2015/16 bench was bad and the 2016/17 bench was worse and the primary culprit for that stems from the revolving door of backup PG’s that have attempted to fill Jackson’s shoes.

First up was D.J. Augustin. After the trade in February, 2015, DJ showed promise and came with a pedigree of success that indicated he would fill the role and allow the Thunder’s #14 lottery pick, Cameron Payne to develop. Unfortunately, Augustine’s promise from the spring didn’t carry over to the following fall and he lost his backup spot to Payne by the time the Thunder rang in the new year and was traded to the Denver Nuggets just a year after joining the team for veteran Randy Foye.

The trade for Foye became necessary because Payne, who has never lived up to his draft night hype, had become ineffective just weeks after taking over for Augustin. Foye was slightly better, but Donovan was still forced to stagger his lineup more and more to make up for the lack of bench production stemming from weak PG play.

The hope was that Payne, who missed the 2015 Summer League after breaking his right hand, would improve during the following summer and solidify the position. That didn’t happen as the fragile Mr. “There is no ceiling on Cameron Payne” broke his right foot in a scrimmage before the season began and played no better than fill-in Semaj Christon upon his return. Payne was eventually a part of the trade that brought Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder.

Semaj, a second round pick in 2014, while steady, was unable to ignite a spark last season and the Thunder entered the 2017 summer still in dire need of a solid back up floor General. Enter Raymond Felton.

2015/16 Bench

DJ Augustin, Cameron Payne, Randy Foye
Dion Waiter, Anthony Morrow
Kyle Singler
Nick Collison
Enes Kanter

2017/18 Bench

Raymond Felton, Semaj Christon
Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson
Doug McDermott, Kyle Singler, Josh Huestis
Jerami Grant, Nick Collison
Enes Kanter, Dakari Johnson*

(*not currently on roster, just this writer’s wish list)

2016 Augustin, Payne, Foye vs 2018 Felton, Christon -
It’s ironic that the Thunder’s newest attempt to correct their 2018 backup PG woes falls on the shoulders of a veteran that was a major pain in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. The 2016 Dallas Mavericks entered the those playoffs a heavily over-matched, tired, and wounded team and still pulled off a stunning upset on the road in game 2 behind Felton’s 21 point, 11 rebound effort:

Felton, the #5 pick in the 2005 NBA Draft out of North Carolina is joining his sixth team since entering the league. Coming into his 13th season, some have expressed concerns about how much he has left in the tank, but this 26 point effort just 6 12 months ago should squelch those fears:

At age 33, with a 6’1” frame weighing in at a ....mmmm... robust 205 lbs, Felton may not fit the A-typical mold of a modern day NBA point guard but is known as a fierce competitor. While not a particularly prolific 3-point shooter (32.7% lifetime), Felt still possesses big game potential and a wealth of knowledge that should prove invaluable for a young Thunder bench. Additionally, the clock is chiming the wee hours on Felton’s career. He wants to win a championship and he knows time is running out, so he’s hungry, very very hungry.

Compared to the carousel of PG’s that have followed Reggie Jackson, Felton, who accepted an offer many considered below his market value to join a promising 2017/18 Thunder contingent, should be a substantial upgrade.

Edge - 2018 Felton

2016 Waiters, Morrow vs 2018 Abrines, Ferguson -
While Anthony Morrow found it hard to carve a niche in Billy Donovan’s system during the 2015/16 season, Dion Waiters had no problem earning minutes with a tenacious defensive effort and improved shot making abilities as the year progressed. Much maligned and the brunt of a long standing joke....

...Waiters transformed a dying career into his best season to date in 2015/16 and played a big part in the Thunder’s post season success. Eventually, after spending last season in Miami, Waiters parlayed the second chance Presti and the Thunder gave him into a $52 M contract with the Heat.

With a shooting stroke so sweet J.A. Sherman’s wife wouldn’t mind him dating it, Alex Abrines’ 3-pointers will outweigh Waiter’s 2016 numbers this season, but entering just his second season in the NBA his defense is still a work in progress. However, Abrines’ additional length, if he continues to take advantage of it like he was at the end of last season, should help bridge the gap fairly quickly. Even though Abrines clearly has the desire to be a good defender after logging more charges taken in his rookie season than Enes Kanter has in his entire career, the question remains, as it does with all young players; when will the desire start producing results? For Billy Donovan and the Thunder’s sake, hopefully the answer is sooner rather than later.

Terrance Ferguson role this season is far from determined. A promising prospect projected as a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft coming out of High School, Ferguson opted to play overseas amid the cloud of academic misconduct accusations leveled against Prime Prep Academy after it as closed. Emmanuel Mudiay, the #7 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and another graduate of Prime Prep, took the same overseas route prior to Ferguson.

None of this would be particularly relevant to the discussion of whether Ferguson can or cannot play in the NBA if it were not for some unknown problem with Terrance’s FIBA release forms. Without that release Ferguson was unable to sign his rookie contract and more importantly, was prevented from participating in the Orlando Summer League so his possible value at this point is impossible to quantify. So based on what information is available....

Edge - 2016

2016 Kyle Singler vs 2018 McDermott, Singler, Huestis-
In 2016 the Thunder roster listed 2 players at small forward, Kevin Durant and Kyle Singler. Singler came via the trade with the Detroit Pistons that sent Reggie Jackson to the Motor City in exchange for Singler and DJ Augustin. The Kyle-bot, as he has become known among the WTLC faithful put up solid numbers before moving to OKC. Unfortunately, he forgot to pack those numbers when he immigrated west. At times sporting the lowest PER in NBA history, by season’s end Singler was an after thought in the 2016 playoffs and logged only 385 total minutes last season. If Presti is unable to work out some sort of trade for Singler it is rumored his remaining 2 years will be stretched over the next seven and Singler will be waived.

Doug McDermott, a career 39% 3-point marksman will likely get the nod as the Thunder’s back up SF, but indicated a wish to return to his natural position at power forward in small ball situations in his end of season interview. Perimeter defense is a glaring weakness for McDermott which may open the door for more minutes for little used Josh Huestis.

Huestis, a late first round project selected with the Thunders #29 pick in 2014 out of Stanford, has steadily improved his shooting each of his seasons playing for the Thunders G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue:

Josh Huestis G-League Stats
basketballreference.com

Where McDermott struggles defending the perimeter, Huestis, a cult favorite of many WTLC readers, excels. After posting a very respectable 38.5% 3-point percentage for the Blue last season and a 15.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 49% field goal percentage effort in the recent Orlando Summer League, and taking McDermott’s defensive issues into consideration, Josh may finally get some serious attention from the Thunder coaching staff this season. In order to succeed however, a quiet, and oft times passive Huestis must become more aggressive.

Edge - (it’s a no-brainer) 2018

2016 Collison vs 2018 Grant, Collison -
Many are concerned about the Thunder’s lack of depth this season at PF compared to last season. Fortunately, this comparison is with the season before and the list of PF’s on the Thunder roster consisted of Ibaka, Collison, Huestis, and Steve Novak. Huestis saw a grand total of 11 minutes PT that season and Novak only played 24. Collison was the lone back-up.

Collison, know as Mr. Thunder, is entering his last season as a pro. Old number 4 is hanging them up after this season and the Thunder sideline won’t be the same without him but in the meantime he is going to see more playing time than the meager 128 minutes he saw last season.

Sam Presti is putting it all on the line this season and no stone will be left unturned to win now. Collison, considered a career journeyman role player, is nonetheless a winner. Completely unselfish and willing to do whatever it takes....

Getty Images

look for Collison, whether it be with his patented bounce pass to a baseline cutter, taking charges, or holding his young charges accountable, pitching in to help fellow veteran Raymond Felton squeeze every drop of production out of the Thunder bench.

One of those young charges is Jerami Grant, son of former NBA vet Harvey Grant and nephew of former Chicago Bull Horace Grant. Jerami is a raw player possessing athletic talent that dazzles even Russell Westbrook. Amid spectacular dunks and blocks, the highlight of Grant’s first season with the Thunder was the playoffs, his first in the NBA.

As a player, the true test comes when the bright lights of the playoffs come on and under those lights Grant played his best basketball of the season. A clear indication that Grant is a gamer. Not in the modern video game sense, but in the old school athlete that relishes competition sense. Given the opportunity to learn from Collison another season, one can only expect Grant’s game to improve.

Edge - (another no-brainer) 2018

2016 Kanter vs 2018 Kanter, Johnson -
There really is no nice way to put this, but Kanter’s defensive improvement last season stagnated after a promising jump in 2016 and his net rating plummeted 9 points as a result. So poorly is Kanter’s current game suited to direction the league is going he became unplayable in 2017 playoff series against the Rockets.

It’s easy to look at Kanter’s overall numbers against weak competition and declare him an asset, but players are really rated against the top teams in the league and Kanter is practically useless against 4 of the current top 5. The only team in the upper echelon that he is still a viable option against is the San Antonio Spurs and even Pops has begun to turn his team into the pace and space type that the other top teams have already evolved into.

In comments made about Patrick Patterson in an interview with NewsOK’s Erik Horne, former Rockets coach Kevin Mchale touched on the very core of Kanter’s weakness as a defensive player. On why Patterson is a good defensive player:

“It takes pressure off your perimeter guys when your bigs understand plugging and being in the right spot and presenting their body and not allowing the perimeter (offensive) guys to see a wide-open pasture and think, ‘I'm gonna drive there for sure.'”

Bingo!

Kanter is rarely in the right spot and when he is he refuses to present his body to prevent opponents from easy dunks and lay-ups. Every opposing perimeter player in the league knows this and exploits it on a oh too regular basis:

What is Kanter thinking here!?!

Harden knows Kanter will give up, all he has to do is be patient and sure enough..... WHAT WAS KANTER TRYING TO BLOCK THERE? THE LIGHT SHINING IN HARDEN’S EYES!?!?

Harden never makes a move to go into a shooting position and yet Kanter leaps up and out of Harden’s lane to the basket? Then makes no effort to block the shot from behind and, if you were to see the rest of this sequence, finishes by glaring accusingly at his teammates like it is their fault.

This was the scene behind Kanter. Semaj is battling Nene in the paint and Abrines is covering the skip pass to Gordon. If Semaj gives up his spot Harden dishes to Nene for the dunk, if Abrines commits, Gordon is wide open in the corner. The Thunder’s best perimeter defender, Andre Roberson, is ready if Harden attempts to take Kanter on his left and what does Enes do? He leaves his feet, committing to a phantom jump shot sealing off Robes and gives Harden a wide open lane to his right for the easy 2.

Unbelievable and precisely why it’s time to give former Kentucky big man Dakari Johnson a look:

Since being selected by the Thunder in the second round in 2015 Johnson has become both leaner and meaner. After a stellar second year earned Dakari 1st team All-NBDL honors, he followed the season with an 18 pt/gm performance in the Orlando Summer league.

Then and Now

Remove Norris Cole and Kyle Singler from the picture and Dakari Johnson could be the perfect fit for the final roster spot on a cap-strapped Thunder squad.

To date however, Johnson is not a part of the Thunder roster so for our purposes we are left to compare Enes with Enes.

Generally this would be a draw since Kanter is basically the same player today as he was then except for one change this season, more PT for Nick Collison. Mr. Thunder played a big role in the defensive improvement Kanter enjoyed in 2016 and hopefully more time on the floor together this season will move Kanter’s defensive needle a bit from unplayable against teams like the Rockets and Warriors to just plain old bad.

Edge - it’s a toss up. Enes will always be Enes.

Final Tally

Unfortunately, this comparison is subjective in more ways than one. While the overall roster should be deeper and Westbrook and Paul George should click in ways Russ and Durant didn’t, we are still a long way from the opening tip-off of the 2017/18 seasons.

Westbrook has yet to sign his franchise player extension and the delay has begun to stir unease among Thunder Nation. As the saying goes, once bitten twice shy, there is no doubt the wounds left from Durant’s sudden departure still linger. Though George has said all the right things since the trade fans understand he has no ties here as of yet. Most assumed Westbrook signing the extension on July 1 was a foregone conclusion and are beginning to wonder what is the cause of the delay.

Paul George to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on OKC fans:

"You get a glimpse of it when you play OKC and you are on the opposite side. You get a glimpse of it there but you don't understand that happens anywhere and everywhere you go. That passion is not just for games, it's part of who they are here."

"The second I touched down here, I got that bit of hope feeling of bringing this team a championship and that's what made me feel the best at being here. They are not looking at me as a Kevin Durant's replacement, but as a new face of OKC. And I'm more than excited and thrilled and honored to be a part of this conversation."

on Westbrook:

"He's a lot different than what you would expect and what you would find on the court. We've had great talks and great conversations, a lot of laughs and a lot of jokes. He's a playful guy. I think we really hit it off in terms of knowing one another's and appreciating one another's company.

"We've both had the same journey to this league and that's been to prove ourselves. I'm all about how guys are made up and what makes them so special and for both of us to kind of grind and fight for where we are, you are born with that and I think we both have that fiery attitude that shows on the court and my competitiveness is as strong as his is. You put two fiery all-stars on the same team, something special has to happen."

on the Thunder’s choice to make the trade:

"From a standpoint of them willing to do whatever it takes to win. That's who you want to play for. Being in Russ' position, you want the guys behind you to give you best chance possible. It's up to us to figure it out and make it work on the court but for them to give Russ opportunity, that speaks volumes and goes a long way. Him (Presti) actually caring to get Russ over the hump, that attitude, that's special in an owner."

"I want every year to have a chance to compete for a championship. This league is about winning and you want that opportunity every year. Nobody wants it handed to them, you obviously wanna work for it. But you want to have the best possible chance to go out and win every single night and to win the biggest accomplishment of it all, and that's the championship. That's what I want out of this. I'm going to always give whatever I have to an organization and in return what I'm asking of is a chance to give you that."

continuing that theme on winning, George had this to say in a recent Sports Illustrated interview:

“For me, it’s all about winning. I want to be in a good system, a good team. I want a shot to win it. I’m not a stats guy. I’m playing this game to win and build a legacy of winning. I’ve yet to do that. I’m searching for it. If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy, I’d be dumb to want to leave that.”

Obviously, the concern for Thunder fans stem from comments George has made in the past about going home to L.A. and playing for his hometown team. Westbrook is also a product of L.A. and like George, grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant. So just how deep does that desire to play for the old home team run?

George expected LA to make a better push to get him and said so to Woj:

"I did. I did. Knowing my ties to LA and my outreach of wanting to play at home. I thought so. Everything happens for a reason and maybe this is a blessing to play here and be a part of this system going forward. Again, it'll be something we address at the end of the year. I'm happy where I'm at now. I'm looking forward to this future and we'll make the most out it."

Continuing the LA theme with SI:

“I idolized Kobe. There will always be a tie here, a connection here. People saying I want to come here, who doesn’t want to play for their hometown? That’s a dream come true, if you’re a kid growing up on the outskirts of L.A., to be the man in your city. But it’s definitely been overstated.”

“It’s too early for L.A. It would have to be a situation where the ball gets rolling and guys are hopping on. This guy commits, that guy commits. ‘Oh s---, now there’s a team forming.’ It has to be like that.”

Then George dropped a strong hint to retaining his services in OKC:

“I’m in OKC, so hopefully me and Russ do a good enough job and make it to the conference finals and love the situation, why not recruit someone to come build it with us? I’m open in this whole process.” (emphasis mine)

So here goes, George is correct, the fan base in Oklahoma City is incredible. Their support has been credited for helping the Thunder reach heights they never imagined. Westbrook is not the selfish A-hole many in the media have made him out to be. He and George share the same competitive spirit and should find their groove together very quickly and just get better and better as the season progresses.

There is more to work with this season and Presti appears hellbent on improving this team whenever and however an opportunity presents itself. George should be a good fit in Donovan’s system and appears extremely anxious to learn the system and start moving forward. Donovan, as a third year coach in the league should be much more comfortable than he was as a rookie in 2016.

Barring a catastrophe, the Thunder should make a big run in the playoffs next season. Big enough to knock off the defending champ Warriors? Maybe not, but they will get their attention and Donovan took that 2016 bunch further in the playoffs than expected. One way or another, it is going to be fun.

As to George’s hint? The George/Westbrook connection is already reaping benefits having attracted two veteran free agents already. Make a big run and it will take care of itself..... and Westbrook’s big contract?

Let’s wait and see what August 4th brings before hitting the panic button and besides, George doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s come home......

It doesn’t get much more country than fishing for carp.

Poll

Are the 2017/18 Oklahoma City Thunder going to be better than the 2015/16 Thunder?

This poll is closed

  • 74%
    Yes
    (493 votes)
  • 25%
    No
    (170 votes)
663 votes total Vote Now