Last year was a tough one for Thunder fans, but get ready for a better and more fun experience this time around. Here are five reasons why.
1. Batman and Robin will not just be partners in crime, they will become brothers
Scratch that, they already are. The narrative all last year was that Russell Westbrook and Paul George could not co-exist on the same team. From day one, we heard that Westbrook’s style of play would inhibit the abilities of Paul George, and that he could not wait to leave town so he could take his talents to Los Angeles. Westbrook’s demeanor was supposedly that of an aloof teammate who drew disdain from the guys around him.
On July 1st, every critic was forced to eat a steaming plate of crow when the apparent LA-bound Paul George signed a four-year extension to remain in Oklahoma City. The narrative proved to be a false one. Westbrook and George built that strong bond over the course of the season. George officially said, “We’re on this mission together” to Westbrook as both of them were living it up at Westbrook’s house party with hip-hop artist Nas performing. George was so alienated by Westbrook’s personality that he wasted no time to re-sign in a small market instead of going home to Los Angeles or waiting for LeBron James to make his decision.
The brotherhood will pay dividends on the basketball court. As Westbrook aims for his third consecutive season averaging a triple-double, George will continue his superb defense on the wing while contributing his own 22-25 points per game. The chemistry that had a year to develop now goes into its second season without the “Will Paul stay?” question lingering over their heads.
Westbrook and George will give James Harden and Chris Paul a run for their money as the best duo in the entire league (Kevin Durant and Steph Curry do not count because they are part of a barbershop quartet). Expect them to earn All-Star bids in a conference where both positions are incredibly deep and expect a couple of All-NBA selections from the two Los Angeles natives.
2. The return of Andre Roberson
The unsung hero whose value goes unrecognized by most NBA fans outside of Oklahoma City, the shooting guard will make his way back onto the court around midseason.
Recent reports broke that Roberson had a set back and will need another operation on his left knee after he initially suffered a season ending injury back in January. He was supposed to return in November but now we are looking at January. It is difficult for an athlete in any sport to return and perform at the same level after being removed from action for an entire year. However, Roberson might be a special case.
Robes’ game does not rely only on athleticism or speed. He has little to no offensive workload to worry about. He is a starting NBA player because of his tenacious defense that earned him an All-Defensive Second Team selection in 2017. He has never averaged more than six shots per game in any of his five seasons, nor has he averaged seven or more points per game. He shoots a career 47% from the free throw line and teams dare him to put up shots from outside the paint. His lack of an offensive game can get frustrating and it can make it difficult for him to be on the court late in big games, but his elite ability to lock down on defense makes him an asset to this squad. He is like a gold glove catcher that posts a .194 batting average. He cannot hit a lick but for what he is good at, he is elite.
The Thunder ranked ninth in team defensive rating for 2017-18 and that takes into account the two and a half regular season months they played without him. He will have just enough time get back into game shape and re-integrate himself into the Oklahoma City lineup. He will not play enough games for an All-Defensive team selection but expect him to be playing that type of defense by the time the postseason rolls around.
3. Steven Adams will outplay Clint Capela
Everybody knows how special Houston’s backcourt was last year when they were both on the floor. The Rockets were even more deadly when that backcourt and Clint Capela were all healthy and on the floor. The Rockets trio went 53-7 throughout the regular season and the playoffs when Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela played together. Capela put himself on the map last season while proving to be an integral part of a team that was within ten points of a trip to the NBA Finals, and got rewarded with five years and $90 million.
Despite the emergence of Capela, there is a long-haired mammoth from New Zealand who deserves shine of his own as an underrated big man. That mammoth, Steven Adams, averaged 13.9 points with nine boards. In comparison, Capela averaged a near-identical 13.9 points with 10.8 boards. The two players are quite similar. They are traditional type big men with point guards who are some of the best in the business when it comes to dishing the rock down low.
Barring injury, the Rockets and the Thunder are two teams who will be battling with each other for a chance to take on the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals this season. It is important to note the Lakers might have something to say about that, a LeBron James team can never be counted out.
With all that being said, Steven Adams is going to have a better season than Capela and will win the head-to-head matchup should these teams meet in the playoffs. The Thunder lacked all sorts of chemistry and flow last season while the Rockets thrived from the first game. That chemistry and flow will not be an issue whatsoever for this season. Adams will thrive with Westbrook looking to get him more involved in the offense. The acquisition of Dennis Schroder will prove to be one of the more underrated offseason transactions of the entire league. The former Hawk will be the ideal backup for Westbrook and as a result, Adams will always have a point guard aiming to give it to him in the paint.
Adams will have a chip on his shoulder in living up to that $100 million dollar extension over four years he signed in 2016. Adams will finish with double-digit rebounds and we will see a few more swatted shots coming from the big guy. As far as the head-to-head matchup goes, Adams had about two inches and fifteen points on Capela. The Thunder went 2-1 during the season last year against the Rockets, and Adams had a better stat line in two of them. Expect Adams’ numbers to increase as his involvement and engagement into the game increases.
4. Carmelo Anthony is addition by subtraction
It is one of the most cliche phrases used in all of sports, but sending Carmelo Anthony out of town is as “addition by subtraction” as it gets. Melo is one of the most elite scorers to ever dribble a basketball and he was a top five player for about a decade. He was the lone star on Nuggets teams that were unable to get anywhere due to being in the West during the primes of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Steve Nash. His biggest mistake was entering the same draft class as LeBron James. He is a lock for the hall of fame and nobody can take that away from him.
That being said, he has been on a steady decline and was abysmal last season. His style of play has not evolved. He is an isolation ball stopper in a league that currently emphasizes ball movement and floor spacing. He plays no defense. He does not pass. He takes low percentage jump shots. Worst of all, he cannot seem to accept that he is a tiny shell of himself. It seemed like he kept getting worse and worse to the point where he was almost unplayable in last season’s first round series against the Jazz.
Fortunately for OKC fans, Carmelo Anthony is long gone. Westbrook will no longer be forced into dishing the ball to Carmelo to feed his ego and let the “star” get his touches. There will no longer be that liability on the floor. Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant will see more minutes.The Thunder will experience much more offensive flow and momentum. Players will have more opportunities to get in a rhythm. Lastly, for a team that finished top ten in defense, adding Andre Roberson back into the mix and ridding themselves of Melo are major upgrades.
5. The Western Conference has lost some ferocity
For so many years it was like a royal rumble. It was a gauntlet of championship-caliber teams throwing punches at each other with only one standing in the end to face off against whoever made it through the cupcake East.
Those days are done. Who in the Western Conference is capable of winning a championship outside of Golden State? The Rockets lost Trevor Ariza in free agency and have an injury-prone point guard, Chris Paul. The Spurs have DeMar DeRozan but Kawhi Leonard is in Toronto, Tony Parker is in Charlotte, Manu Ginobili is retired, and Dejounte Murray tore his ACL in the preseason. The Lakers signed LeBron James but the team is him and a bunch of kids. The Pelicans lost Rajon Rondo, the Blazers have plateaued, and the Jazz are led by a second-year player, Donovan Mitchell. The Timberwolves seem more designed for a mid-day soap opera than a winning basketball organization. The young teams like the Nuggets, Suns, Grizzlies, and Mavericks look promising on paper but they are a bunch of question marks. The Western Conference is not what it used to be.
A lot of teams have regressed or fallen back into NBA purgatory; not good enough to contend but not bad enough for a high draft pick. The Thunder have the ability to beat up on some of these teams. They have the talent and depth to contend with any team not named the Warriors. They have an MVP-caliber superstar and another top fifteen player as their second option. They play the defense that you need in today’s league to compete with the video game-like offensive outputs. A strong case can be made that Oklahoma City is the biggest threat to Golden State, given the weaknesses and losses of the other competition.
It was just opening night, but the Thunder played a close, competitive game at Oracle Arena with Dennis Schroder and Terrance Ferguson as their starting backcourt. Just wait until their MVP returns. Just wait until their lockdown wing defender gets healthy. The Oklahoma City Thunder should have no reason to finish any lower than the third seed in the West. There does not exist a team they would play in the first round who would be favored. Expect them to win a playoff series. And with a few fortunate events, maybe two.
Hello, my name is Matt Burnham, and I am a student at the University of Memphis and a new contributing writer for Welcome To Loud City.
Are the Thunder a top 3 seed this season?
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