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The 7 questions that will decide the Thunder’s NBA regular season

The regular season is upon us. How will each of these questions be answered?

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, we’re back. After a grueling 4 months without basketball, the NBA is back tonight. As much as any other team, the Thunder have a ton of unanswered questions surrounding their roster, and one of the widest range of possible outcomes.

The Thunder could win 55 games this year and find themselves in the conference finals come May; or, they could finish with 45 wins, miss the playoffs entirely, and have nothing but a monster luxury tax bill to show for this year. Here are the seven most important unanswered questions in determining how this season turns out for OKC.

1. Jerami Grant or Patrick Patterson?

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

With the Carmelo Anthony experience mercifully at an end, the Thunder need a new starter at the power forward position. They have two options: Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson

Grant re-signed by the team this summer, is coming off perhaps his strongest season as a pro. He played only 20 minutes a game and shot the 3 ball poorly. But he was excellent at finishing near the rim - he hit more than 60% of his 2 point attempts, and was also one of the best in the league at drawing fouls when driving to the rim. He also is an extremely versatile defender who can credibly defend all wings and power forwards and in a pinch, body up a center or stay in front of a point guard. Grant fits the style the Thunder want - he’s aggressive at jumping passing lanes on defense, fast getting down the court in transition, and great at finishing at the rim when he gets there.

Patterson is also a strong defender- not quite as versatile as Grant, but still a plus. Where he separates himself is as a 3 point shooter- he’s 37% 3 point shooter and has shown in the past he can sustain that rate on a decent volume of attempts. Start Patterson at the 4 and Abrines at the 2 and you’ve surrounded the Russell Westbrook-Steven Adams pick and roll with 3 great long range shooters - something that should be impossible to guard. When Andre Roberson returns to the starting lineup, Patterson’s shooting could be even more important- if Grant starts and hasn’t meaningfully improved his shooting, Paul George is left as the only above average 3 point shooter. Russell Westbrook has shown plenty of time that he can still drag an offense to the level of “good” even without adequate floor spacing, but more shooting could get OKC to an even higher level.

I’m for Grant, and if it weren’t for the 3 point discrepancy I don’t think it would be close. But OKC is starved for floor spacing and Grant was downright putrid from long range last year, after shooting nearly 40% two seasons ago. If he can get back to at least shooting at a league average level from the corners he’s the perfect 5th starter for a team so built around length and athleticism. But that’s a big if.

The player who starts Game 1 may not necessarily be the same one starting come April and May. Both have distinct skill sets, and both have weakness that could hurt in certain lineups. Most of all, both have spent their careers up to this point as reserves. Is either ready to become a 30 minute per night guy?

2. Can the Thunder survive without Andre Roberson?

Mostly covered here. With Roberson out, the Thunder can still expect to have a top notch defense with George, Adams, and whichever power forward gets the nod.

Rather than try and replicate Roberson’s defensive stopping ability, it makes sense to go the other direction and insert Alex Abrines in the starting lineup, with the hope being his shooting ability leads to offense improvements that balance out the loss on defense. Roberson is hugely important, but OKC has had months to prepare for the reality that they would start the season without him.

Replacing Carmelo Anthony with good defenders also makes its easier to survive without Andre. The real trouble may come down the line. If OKC is able to play well without Andre, how hard will it be to re-integrate him two months into the season?

3. Can the Thunder play small?

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The answer to the Thunder’s power forward conundrum might be to try Paul George at the position to close games. Back in Indiana PG was resistant to playing the position, but the league has changed a lot in the last few years- more and more teams play power forwards who are perimeter-oriented rather than low post bangers.

Playing PG at power forward would be smallball to an extent, but it wouldn’t mean benching Steven Adams. Adams has proven himself able to stay on the court against even the very best teams, no small feat for a 7 footer in today’s NBA. He is able to defend in the pick and roll against even the best guards in the league, and his screen setting is an underrated part of the Thunder’s ability to generate good looks on offense at the end of games. And of course, an Adams offensive rebound at the end of a game can be backbreaking for opponents. On most nights, Adams at the 5 will still be the Thunder’s best matchup.

But George at the 4 unlocks other things the Thunder can do. If Grant or Patterson are closing at power forward, the Thunder have to choose between playing Dennis Schroder (for his playmaking), Andre Roberson (for his defense) or Alex Abrines (for his shooting). Sliding George to the 4 give the Thunder the ability to play Roberson for defense, while also having either a second elite shooter or skilled ballhandler to help juice the offense. Ideally, of course, one of the Thunder’s young wings would develop into a real two way player. But until that happens, and even if he does, sliding PG down to the 4 could unlock some potentially potent lineups. Despite Billy Donovan’s reputation for experimenting with lineups, the Thunder did not try PG at Power Forward at all last season. Will that change this year?

4. Will any of the young wings pop?

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk about those young wings.

With Andre Roberson set to miss at least two months of the season, I’m on the record as saying Alex Abrines should get the nod to start the season. Of all the Thunder’s young wings, Abrines is the most consistent, which is why he’s the best early choice, but also the least exciting. Abrines is pretty much what he is at this point - he can hit threes and he’s improved from awful to merely below average on defense, and that’s about it. The Thunder’s other young wings all have higher ceilings than Abrines, but haven’t shown much of anything at the NBA level.

Terrance Ferguson, last year’s first round pick, was a whole lot of nothing in his rookie season in the rare moments he got on the court. But in short bursts, you see why the Thunder drafted the kid - he pulverizes the rim when he has the chance to dunk, just one sign of his insane athleticism. He’s long (always a plus with Sam Presti), and he showed confidence shooting the 3 ball last year - if the results of that shooting start to match his confidence and he fills out his lanky frame, he’ll be a fine player.

Hamidou Diallo, taken in the second round this year, looks like an improved version of Ferguson in the preseason so far. Even longer and more muscular, with the same confidence (but better results) launching the 3 ball, Diallo already looks NBA ready through the preseason. Preseason results should be taken with ten thousand grains of salt, but Diallo’s early performance is very encouraging, and should earn him real rotation minutes right from the jump. Hoping for him to become a starter this year is too much for a second round pick, but his development will still be something to watch

Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, acquired in the Carmelo Anthony trade, is the oldest and most experienced of this trio of wings. In two seasons with the 76ers, TLC flashed the things you want from a wing - shooting, defense, an ability to drive to the rim - but never with enough consistency to earn solid minutes in Philadelphia’s crowded wing rotation.

Dating back to the Durant era, the Thunder have always seemed one wing player short of a full rotation. For OKC to make it back to the Finals before Westbrook and George age out of their primes, one or more of these wings needs to become a real contributor. In the near term, at least one of them needs to step forward and prop the team up until Andre Roberson returns. Who’s it going to be?

5. How good can the bench unit be?

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Dennis Schröder is going to help the Thunder. If you’ve repressed the memory (I wish I could), the Thunder were awful last season whenever Russell Westbrook sat, posting a net rating of -5.0 (meaning they were outscored by 5 points per 100 possessions when Russ wasn’t on the court). As bad as that number is, it was actually a huge improvement on two season ago, when the team was a ghastly -9.5 when Russ sat. That is ““Trust the Process-era 76ers” bad. The thunder were helped last season by the presence of Ray Felton, who for all his faults is a real NBA point guard (more than can be said for any of Russ’s backups in 16-17). What the Thunder really needed was a go-to scorer off the bench- perhaps a veteran, a little past his prime, who would have used the elite scoring ability he had at his peak to go to work against weaker second unit defenders. Oh well.

Where Felton helped get the Thunder’s bench units from “a crime against the basketball Gods” to just generally bad, Schröder should help them get from bad to competent. Schröder is a starting caliber point guard- admittedly, he was one of the worst starting point guards in the league last year, but he had very little talent to work with last year in Atalanta, and miscast in the role of 20 point a night scorer. Schröder is a good downhill attacker and scorer, and a gifted passer, but he is not a Westbrook level superstar, and lifting last year’s Atlanta roster to playoff contention would have been beyond even Westbrook’s ability. On OKC, he’ll be given the smaller responsibility of leading the second unit, where he should flourish.

Who will be around him? That’s another question that could change as the year goes on. Nerlens Noel will get some run at backup center, but the Thunder should also experiment with smallball lineups with Jerami Grant at center on certain nights. Schröder ’s presence could also allow Donovan to stagger Westbrook and PG again. The Thunder were disastrous when George played and Russ sat last season. PG is an elite scorer, but he’s a bit miscast when given the ball and told to simply make something happen, especially in lineups that were often short on playmaking, shooting and rebounding. Felton, useful as he is, isn’t the type of lead guard who can force a defense into rotations and get George the ball in the perfect spot to capitalize. Schröder is that kind of player. A Schröder and George partnership could help the Thunder not just survive but thrive even without Westbrook. PG is the best wing Schröder has ever played with, and Schröder is enough of an approximation of Westbrook to allow George to thrive.

Then again, Westbrook and George are an elite partnership- Donovan may prefer to roll with an all bench unit to maximize the time his stars can play together. The all bench unit has a ton of questions. At the 2 and 3 there’s all the wings discussed above. At the 4 there’s either Grant or Patterson- perhaps the most stable force on the bench besides Schröder. And in the middle is Noel, perhaps the biggest question mark. While Westbrook gets more attention, the Thunder also really missed Steven Adams whenever he sat- without Adams, they got absolutely clobbered on the glass on both ends, a tough outcome for a team that has made an identity out of dominating the boards to stay competitive in games. OKC had no true backup center last season, forced to rely on Patterson and Grant, who are both undersized for the position. Noel fixes that problem, but for all his potential and high draft stock, he has shown very little throughout his short NBA career. Can OKC be the place where he finally figures it all out?

Really, that’s what the bench unit’s success come down to- can Schröder & Noel play like close enough approximations of Westbrook and Adams that OKC doesn’t need to change its identity when the starters rest? Are the young wings solid enough on both ends to complete the unit, or does PG need to play with the bench to stabilize them?

6. Who closes games?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On every night they’re healthy, Westbrook and George will be on the floor at the end of close games. Adams will join them in 90% of cases. I could see Donovan trying the occasional Jerami Grant at center lineup against certain teams that play small, but in most cases, Adams can bludgeon small units on the glass without being exposed defensively.

So who else joins the big 3? Dennis Schroder is OKC’s 4th best player going into the season, and neither he nor the team will be content with him playing only 15 minutes a game while Russ rests. The two will be expected to play together for 10-15 minutes a night. I’m optimistic about the fit, as I’ve written before. Westbrook and Reggie Jackson may not have been best friends, but the Thunder did well when the shared the court during Jackson’s OKC tenure, with a +5.5 net rating in 2014-15.

It makes sense- Westbrook can break through even a perfectly set defense more often than most. If he can catch the ball after an initial attack from Schröder has the defense scrambled, he can do even more damage- especially with the defense needing to make sure they’ve stayed attached to PG lurking behind the arc. Neither Westbrook nor Schröder are good 3 point shooters (though Westbrook is average when it’s a catch and shoot attempt instead of of the dribble), but having multiple guys who can attack the rim and pass well bends a defense in other ways.

If Schröder is out there, you would ideally want a player who can stretch the floor on offense and defend well on the other end to complement him. That brings us back to the Patterson-Grant debate- if Grant doesn’t improve his shooting, Patterson makes more sense on offense, but certain smallball lineups will give Patterson troubles defensively. As discussed above, you can slide George down to the 4, but then which wings gets inserted? Abrines and Ferguson cannot guard 3’s, unless Ferguson makes a huge leap (he hasn’t yet). Roberson can guard whoever you want, but can’t shoot a lick. Is Diallo or TLC going to be ready? George at the 4 probably makes the most sense if you play two other wings instead of Schröder and a wing. Abrines at the 2 Roberson at the 3 gives a nice offense-defense balance, but means you’re relying entirely on Russ and PG to create. And of course that lineup can’t play until Roberson returns.

I expect Donovan to experiment with a bunch of different lineups. The ones I’m most anxious to see:

  • Westbrook-Abrines-George-Grant-Adams (one of the team’s best lineup last year. Blah blah small sample size blah blah. I’m still intrigued to see more of it)
  • Westbrook-Schröder-George-Patterson-Adams (3 playmakers and decent shooting)
  • Westbrook-Schröder-George-Grant-Adams (I think these are the 5 best players on the team, at least until Roberson returns. But can they all play together?)
  • Westbrook-Abrines-Roberson-George-Adams (small ball with shooting and enough great defenders to hide Abrines. You can also have Robes defend the power forwards if PG doesn’t want to)

Which of these lineups is Billy Donovan going to trust most come the playoffs?

7. Can the Big 3 get even better?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, everything else we’ve discussed adds up to at most 50% of the Thunder’s success. The other 50% rests on the team’s 3 best players. That’s the burden of stardom in the worlds most star-driven league.

Steven Adams is the best glue guy in the NBA. He sets the best screens in the league. He rolls hard after every screen. He boxes out hard on defense, focusing on ensuring that the Thunder as a team, not he as an individual, come away with the board. He fights for every single offensive rebound, then gets back on defense if he fails to come up with the rebound. He has never once complained about his role or number of shots.

Is he capable of doing more? Adams isn’t the kind of player you dump the ball of to in the post- his scoring mostly comes from pick and rolls or from putbacks after offensive rebounds. Adams having a larger offensive role would have to come from a concerted effort by the team to run even more pick and roll. OKC also runs a heavy dosage of pick and roll, but they also ran the second most isolations in the league last year. Turn a healthy chunk of those isolations into pick and rolls (adding Schröder helps with this) could get Adams’ scoring levels up a tick.

But Adams will always make the most impact with his defense and rebounding. He’s already great at both things, but he’s also 25 and should just now be entering his prime. Adams rim protection numbers are good but not at the level of elite defenders like Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert, who outplayed Adams in the playoffs last year. Adams getting even better at stopping opponents in the paint could go a long way to helping OKC succeed in Andre Roberson’s absence.

Speaking of Roberson’s unfortunate injury, Paul George will have an even greater responsibility on his shoulder this season as the team’s primary wing stopper. While he and Roberson could swap assignments last season, PG will now consistently draw the opposing team’s toughest cover night in and night out until Roberson returns. Offensively, with Carmelo Anthony gone, George will be counted on to carry an even greater part of the offense.

George is up to both challenges- he’s an all-star, all-NBA, one of the 15 best players in the league, and a two-way force. With George, the key is consistency. He suffers through stretches every year where his 3 point stroke vanishes, and apart from a masterful game 1 performance, “Playoff P” was a no-show in the playoffs against the Jazz. His defense never wavered, and the combination of PG, Adams and Grant should have the Thunder feeling pretty good about his ability to survive without Roberson. But on offense, PG may have to take on an even bigger role than last year for OKC to reach it’s full potential. Schröder’s presence should help- either PG will get to play with a second unit that can actually help him succeed, or he won’t be asked to prop up the second unit and can spend all his time playing off Westbrook. Either way, PG should get even better looks this year than last year, and without Melo wasting multiple possessions a game, there’s even more of an opening for PG to carve out a bigger role.

You’ll note that in discussing both George and Adams, Westbrook’s name comes up. And really, that’s the true key to the Thunder’s season: how good can Westbrook be? We’ve seen the limits of Russ’s Superman impression- it’s a first round exit, twice in a row. But it’s overstating things to say Russ needs to change completely. He should still lead the team in shots, and he should still have the ball in his hands a lot. It’s subtle changes within that same framework.

Less pull-up jumpers early in the shot clock. Continuing to move after passing to a teammate instead of standing and admiring his work. Replacing ISOs in favor of pick and rolls. Viewing possessions where someone else holds the ball as opportunities to score instead of opportunities to rest. Schröder helps with a lot of that- when he and Russ are together and Schröder holds the ball, he can be trusted to find Russ, if Russ puts in the work to get open in a favorable position. Replacing Anthony with Grant and Patterson and Roberson eventually returning should mean more stops and turnovers, which means more chances for Russ to get out in transition and do what he does best.

This is not the best roster in OKC’s history, but it is the most Russ-friendly. It is filled with elite defenders, pick and roll partners, fast break running mates, and features a second superstar who is happy to see Russ be the unquestioned alpha, and whose game complements Russ in almost every day. There is every ingredient here for Russ to succeed, as an individual and as part of a team. But he has to change- to finally accept that less can sometimes be more when it comes to his role. If he does, a run to the conference finals and a showdown with Kevin Durant is within OKC’s grasp. Russ can do it. But does he want to?