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Sounds of Thunder: Raymond Felton IS the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2017-18 X-Factor

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If Ray don’t fly, George and Russ may say bye....

Jayne Kaymin @ USA TODAY Sports

On June 30th, 2017, Sam Presti traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George.

Old news, I know, as is George’s $19.5 M paycheck for next season.

Ten days later the Oklahoma City Thunder signed Patrick Patterson to a three-year deal that will pay him $5.2M in 17-18’. Then, the team capped a busy summer by acquiring Raymond Felton on a one-year $2.3M contract.

Again, all old news. What’s new is what hit me while writing the “Comparison” post last week.

Everybody —and I do mean everybody— on this roster will find their job easier this year compared to last...... except one, Raymond Felton.

Now, don’t get me wrong, an 82-game season and playoffs are no walk in the park, especially when expectations are high, but think about it; Russell Westbrook received much needed load-bearing help.

Further, Paul George is playing alongside the best player he has teamed with in his career and like Russ, is no longer the sole star on the team, his job got easier.

Two-Pat, played with a solid Toronto team, but never alongside two All-Stars whose presence should create more wide-open opportunities for his patented catch-and- shoot 3’s, his job got easier.

Steven Adams? The big Kiwi won’t have teams packing the paint to the point he wonders if it’s his toes he is feeling or his opponents’. So, again, his job got easier.

Still not convinced? Andre Roberson will no longer be the sole defensive specialist. With a former All-Defensive caliber Paul George beside him and help-defense savvy Patterson behind him, Andre’s job got a lot easier. Honestly, James Harden could have a breakdown facing the Thunder this season....

Russ’s, Georges and Robes... OH CRAP!!

The bench, as a collective whole, though still in need of a lot of work, will find their time is more productive with a veteran who understands pace and spacing at the helm.

Four All-Stars on a single roster allowed Golden State to carry the weakest bench in the league last season according to FoxSports, but the Thunder don’t have that luxury. Their bench has to improve and Felton knows it:

Here is a quick rundown of the job facing Felton this season. In January, FoxSports rated every NBA bench’s production from 1 to 30. Felt’s former team, the LA Clippers, were ranked the 3rd best in the league with former Sixth Man of The Year Jamal Crawford and Marreese Speights kicking in plenty of scoring horsepower. On the other hand, Felton’s new team, the Thunder, came in at an also-ran #15 and that was before Enes Kanter was offended by one of the chairs on the Thunder sideline and his numbers tailed off the rest of the season.

Exclusive video revealing why Enes Kanter hated that chair....

The double-digit net fall off the Thunder suffered through when Westbrook rested last season, -12 pts/100 possessions, is well documented and it only got worse after Kanter’s “chair” incident. Not only did Kanter’s personal scoring drop, but he stopped reading when opponents came at him with a double-team and started forcing shots rather than hitting open perimeter shooters. The effect was devastating and suffice it to say, once the playoffs rolled around the Thunder’s bench was a raging dumpster fire. Now, Raymond Felton has voluntarily taken it upon himself to turn that hot mess into something productive.

the 2016/17 Semaj/Kanter PnR....

Forget the addition of Paul George and Patrick Patterson to the starting rotation, though their presence will allow staggering the wealth more evenly, if Felton can’t turn the Thunder bench around the Thunder’s playoff prospects are severely limited and the Thunder’s future becomes even more uncertain.

I have been excited since the moment I heard Raymond Felton signed on. Felt could have gone somewhere else and made more money. As it stands today, only four other players on the current roster are slated to make less than his $2.3 million. Jerami Grant, $1.5M, Josh Huestis, $1.47M, Semaj Christon, $1.3M, and Dakari Johnson, $815K, but in the twilight of his career Felton sensed something special happening in Oklahoma City and left money on the table to take part.

They’re Young

What Raymond Felton sees is a starting rotation with the potential to terrorize the league on both ends of the floor and he sees the remaining members of last season’s “Young Guns”. In his interview with NewsOK’s Berry Tramel, the words they’re young were the only two he stressed in his answer about what he can bring to help turn the Thunder bench around.

Youth is not a curse, but it can be limiting and even after 12 years in the league Felton still remembers some of the barriers inexperience brings. Though, with that experience the veteran believes the things he has learned over the years will be of great benefit to a talented group that just needs some guidance. Something they didn’t have last year.

That last statement is not some indictment against Semaj Christon. Granted, his numbers were bad, but he was never supposed to be in charge of the second unit in the first place. That job was supposed to fall to glass-footed lottery pick Cameron Payne. When the Thunder worried that Payne’s foot may not be sufficiently healed by the beginning of training camp they signed Ronnie Price, another player whose $2.4M salary is more than Felton’s even though he was waived in favor of Semaj just days before last season began.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Payne did make it back by training camp and lasted four whole days before re-injuring his foot and missing the season’s first 37 games.

Semaj, who should have been riding the pines, was thrust into a no-win situation and did well enough to allow Presti to trade Payne, Joffery Lavergne, and Anthony Morrow to the Chicago Bulls for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. Payne didn’t make it a month in the Windy City before spending the remainder of the season bouncing between the Bulls and their D-League affiliate.

Semaj was at least two years away from being ready to run a second-unit and the unit he was entrusted with was so young it was like watching someone herd cats. The blind leading the blind, but never a disparaging word left Christon’s lips.

As is the case with most rookies, Semaj would have improved in his second season, but now Felton has arrived to expedite turning this reserve group into something productive.

Felton gave fans a sense of how he plans on doing that in an interview with FoxSports Oklahoma’s Leslie McCaslin:

My biggest take from that interview came at the end.

Accountability.

Felton told McCaslin he will bring it on both ends of the floor as always, leading his young charges by example, and then expecting them to follow suit.

Obviously, the matter of accountability on both ends of the floor points immediately to Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott.

Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside for the Thunder’s bench offensively, but each with gaping holes defensively. Dougie McBucketts, with only three NBA seasons on his resume, at least has the excuse of inexperience and learning a new position to give one hope for future improvement. Kanter doesn’t.

Six years is more than enough time to develop a defensive skill-set and Kanter virtually has none. I have my theories why Enes is such a poor defensive player that differs from others, but I refuse to accept that the cat-like Kanter crosses some mysterious half court barrier that somehow transforms one of the NBA’s slickest offensive post players into some elephant-footed clod when it’s time to D-up —and I don’t think Felton is going to buy into the excuse either.

Kanter needs to hear what incoming players from opposing teams think about him from day one. He needs the truth, he needs it raw, and he needs it now because Felton cannot hope to turn this bench from a liability into a viable force on both ends of the floor if it’s defensive anchor is giving away lay-ups and dunks like toasters at a bank opening.....

Lord give me strength.....

Kanter’s offensive skill is unquestioned, but the myth that his defensive lapses can be covered is moot, especially against the top teams in the league. The onus is on Enes to step up his defensive game now more than ever considering the league is gaining more and more pace and space type teams every year...

or just....

....get steppin.

The Thunder doesn’t have time for Enes’ five-year defensive plan on a four-year contract. Not now. There is too much riding on this season and here’s the thing, we’ve seen Enes bring it defensively....

TREE!!!.... POW!!

..... but these isolated incidences can no longer be just a once in a season phenomenon. Enes has to bring his defensive A-Game in every minute of every game he is in this season and I don’t envy Felton’s job attempting make that happen.

Kanter should take Dakari Johnson’s signing very seriously. Felton should be able to cover for Kanter’s defense by better utilizing assets like Alex Abrines, McDermott, and Jerami Grant.

The X-Factor

Definition -

noun

informal

1. a noteworthy special talent or quality.

"there are plenty of luxury cars around, but the S-Type has that special X factor"

2. a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.

"the recently signed veteran point guard will be the 2017/18 X factor"

With each passing day that brings no “supermax” extension signing from Russell Westbrook, Felton’s success this season gains significance and the time line for achieving that success shortens.

Paul George and Russell Westbrook appear to be preparing for a long partnership but just exactly where that partnership will continue after this season is in question. Oklahoma City has the edge as both All-Stars are here and the word we get from newcomers past is that no organization in the league does more to ensure the success of their team than the Thunder. The organization does everything in its power to eliminate distractions and create an environment focused on improvement.

As I told J.A. Sherman the other day, I truly believe a player could take up residence at the Thunder practice facility and want for nothing, but that means absolutely nothing if Felton can’t turn this bench around.

In a recent interview with Norman Transcript’s, Fred Katz, Thunder staple Nick Collison revealed that Westbrook was frustrated at times last season:

“As good a year as he had last year, I think there were also times where he was frustrated with us not playing as well. I think he’ll embrace a guy like Paul George because he thinks it’s going to make us a better team. He’ll embrace that, because he wants to win. That’s very important to him.”

A lot of that frustration would have been eliminated had the bench held onto leads more effectively last season. Time and time again, Thunder Nation watched the starters build double-digit leads, only to see Westbrook go to the bench, and those leads turn to deficits. Evidently, the fans’ frustration with those scenarios was shared by their favorite son and that is exactly what Felton has taken upon himself to turn around.

Many were surprised when Presti didn’t make a stronger move to pick up a PG in the latest draft. Though, as the summer has played out his reason for staying quiet on draft night has become clear.

The need to turn this bench’s fortunes around quickly are critical. So critical in fact that Presti could not entrust the task to either a second year player or a rookie. He needed a veteran and he got Ray Felton and I think he got the right man for the job.