It’s the NBA off-season and it’s a tough time if you’re a die-hard hoops fan. The majority of moves have been made, the draft is over, Summer League has come and gone and we are left recapping the past season through highlights, and speculating on what lies ahead.
Between watching Russell Westbrook highlights, checking headlines to see if he has signed his extension, and doing cartwheels around the house while watching Paul George clips – I have put together a list of things I’m looking forward to as an Oklahoma City Thunder fan in season 2017-18.
An honourable mention came via an announcement made just recently where three teams from Australia (the NBL – where Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson cut his teeth this past season) are heading to the USA to take on some NBA teams in a pre-season hitout.
One of those matchups is the dreamy Melbourne United (my NBL team) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (the best team in the NBA!). I for one, will never have been as engaged with a pre-season game as I am with this one. (Feel free to donate to my “Get to OKC” airfare fund!!!)
The NBA schedule isn’t released yet, but we can assume that the season will start sometime shortly after October 15th. It’s exciting, close enough to really pique the interest, yet still too far away for any real hoops fan.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at my five points of interest for the upcoming season.
1) Russell Westbrook & Paul George
“Rated R” & “PG” are must watch television. They will be League Pass darlings league-wide but they are certainly the key focus for any Thunder fan. Never before has Paul George had a talented teammate like the league MVP, and he is going to relish the opportunity. Russ, fresh of a campaign of epic and historic proportions, has the help he needs to become even more efficient and chalk up an extra 10 or more wins to push toward the top of the Western Conference standings.
The beauty of these two is that we are going to see some real harmony. Their games - even though it may take a while to gel - may mesh a little more sweetly than Russ and that other guy did, but we can still expect some serious results. George doesn’t need the ball in his hands as much, but is a key scorer and two-way player. Russ and George are going to give opponents nightmares on both sides of the ball. It also gives Russ a quality floor spacing option and someone defenders HAVE to pay attention too, making The Life of Russell Westbrook all that much easier as he carves up defences and causes trouble in the paint.
If you were excited that Presti made this deal, you’ll be ecstatic when you watch the two of them play together. I’ve been a long time fan and admirer of Paul George and I just know how well this dynamic duo is going to work. Buckle up Loud City, it’s about to get wild.
2) The Return of Steven Adams
It’s pretty funny to use a term such as “return” for Adams who had a career season last year, but if you’ve followed the Thunder over the past handful of seasons, you’ll remember THAT post-season from Funaki.
The 2016 NBA Playoffs where Adams nearly averaged a double double and became one of the most exciting young big men in the game. He scored, rebounded and rendered veteran winners like Tim Duncan ineffective as he helped OKC register win after win.
It was that stellar level of play that would eventually see Adams sign a big time contract extension and, while last season he put up solid numbers, he didn’t quite make the leap that others had hoped for – or that the money dictated in the eyes of the public. The biggest issue then was spacing (and maybe a hand injury, but mainly spacing) which has clearly been rectified. During his stellar playoff run, Adams benefited from a clear lane because defences had to focus on the scoring from outside. Last year, the Thunder lacked that outside threat and thus, defences were able to clog the lane in hopes of deterring Westbrook from entering and it took up all Adams’ available space.
In season 2017-18, with Paul George, a sophomore version of Alex Abrines and roster additions such as Patrick Patterson, Adams is going to have a little more space and freedom to get his shot off. He will be able to use his array of low post jump hooks and finish at the basket one on one rather than one on two or three. It should see a steady increase in production and that is really exciting for Thunder fans. Steven Adams can really hoop, and this season he looks poised to break out.
3) The New Guys
2Pat and Raymond Felton (and Paul George— but I’ve covered him) are going to be fantastic additions to this Thunder squad. They have a particular set of skills, skills which they have acquired over long careers, skills that make them a nightly challenge for opponents...I digress. The fact of the matter is, these guys have been signed to have an impact – Patterson as a floor spacing, defensive-minded four and leader, Felton as the veteran savvy backup to Westbrook in the hopes of addressing the troublesome trend of losing leads (and games) in those moments where Westbrook took to the sidelines.
The Sensational Summer of Sam Presti was as much about addressing these needs as it was luring a top tier talent like Paul George – and he has delivered. He would be my frontrunner for GM of the Year right now, taking a middle-tier, overachieving roster in a state of flux, and turning it into a potential powerhouse, equipped to give the “Golden Boys” a run for their money. I’m really excited to see Patterson and Felton play, and you should be too.
4) All About Abrines
I don’t like to single guys out, as we know teamwork makes the dream work and it is going to be a complete team effort in order to achieve the lofty goals of making the Western Conference Finals and keeping Paul George long-term – but I am really high on Abrines. He put together a super rookie season, connected on 94 three point attempts at nearly 40% and showed flashes of real athleticism throughout his inaugural NBA season. And I can’t shake the feeling that he’s just getting started. I went back and looked at some of the key games he played (including the scoring outburst vs the Los Angeles Lakers) and got really excited for year two.
I’ve also heard that he has been putting in work this off-season, in the gym and in the weight room, adding 10lbs of muscle to his frame which is only going to make him more of a handful and allow him to add new dimensions to his game. If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, then check your pulse. I have a feeling he’s going to be really something, and I think Westbrook does too. The shooting guard spot has always been a bit of an issue for OKC, but AA might be the solution.
5) Different Lineups
Without making bold and outlandish statements, I think this might be one of the most versatile if not THE most versatile team the Thunder have ever put together. There may have been a more talented team when Ibaka, Harden and others were here (which I am still debating internally), but it has never been as versatile in talent and line up opportunities as this. You have a number of people who can play multiple positions on the floor and who you can bring out for certain looks against various teams. While we still don’t know the starting line up (potentially Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson & Adams) it’s the “special teams” that intrigue me even more. Line ups where Jerami Grant plays the four, where all the snipers are in the corners with Westbrook running point (Russ, Abrines, George, Patterson, Kanter) and my favourite – the one where Doug McDermott goes back to playing his natural position at the power forward spot.
Dougie McBuckets has been played out of position by necessity – first with the Chicago Bulls and this past season with OKC after the trade. While he stands just 6’8” and 210lbs, he played the majority of his minutes at the power forward spot with Creighton and scored in any number of ways (and incredibly efficiently). While it would be a mistake to think McDermott can bang all night against the bigger and heavier four men in the league, there are going to be a number of lineups where Doug can slide seamlessly into the PF spot when teams “go small” – and they are doing that now more than ever. McDermott isn’t just a long range bomber, he isn’t going to just become a “stretch four”, he can actually put the ball on the floor and in the basket from nearly anywhere, so he can become quite effective, especially as part of the second unit which will now have a quality floor leader in Felton who has made a career of getting the ball in the right hands, at the right time, in the right spot.
Well, there you have it. A handful of goodness to tide you over until Russ signs his extension or training camp (whichever comes first!). Oklahoma City Thunder fans are going to have even more reason to be Loud this time around.