The following is a part of SB Nation’s annual NBA season preview, where WTLC answers specific questions about what to look forward to this year for OKC. To see our full season preview, you can find that here.
Team Name: Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Year’s Record: 48-34
Key Losses: Carmelo Anthony, Corey Brewer, Nick Collison
Key Additions: Nerlens Noel, Dennis Schroder, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Abdel Nader
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
It wasn’t a ‘move’ per se, but it was the biggest. OKC re-signing Paul George, even as the Lakers and Clippers among others were expecting a shot at the all-star free agent, shifted the entire Thunder paradigm. Maybe they aren’t good enough to take down the Warriors, but George’s presence at least assures they won’t fall out of playoff contention and could arguably compete for a #2 or #3 spot in the playoffs, as long as key players (read: Roberson) are healthy.
Aside from that the biggest offseason moves were the addition of Dennis Schroder in the Carmelo Anthony trade and the signing of young backup big Nerlens Noel. Schroder brings a young playmaker off the bench, with the ability to play alongside Russ as a point guard or as a scorer if needed. He is also nearing make-or-break moment in his career where he can either surge forward for future big contracts, or Schroder’s past problems never leave him and he finds himself saddled with a scarlet letter, a la DeMarcus Cousins.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
The team’s biggest strengths are the firepower of Russell Westbrook and Paul George on offense, and now the young core that has been built around those two. The youth will allow for more transition opportunities offensively, their length will translate to defensive stops, and Noel and Schroder add depth to their bench.
In addition, the defense that looked so promising in December of last year may return in December of this year if Robes returns. The combination of Roberson, George, and Westbrook make for a scary kind of defense with shut-down perimeter guys and the athletic Westbrook playing free safety, cleaning up the errant messes the defense causes for the opposing offense.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
The Thunder’s biggest weaknesses for the season are injuries. Westbrook and Roberson’s injuries prevent the Thunder from being at full strength to start the season. It will take time for the team to reach their stride. It will not happen right away.
Furthermore, OKC’s inarguably 3rd most important player in Steven Adams clearly wore down as last season went along, leading to his getting outplayed by Rudy Gobert in the playoffs. The addition of Noel should help, but Coach Billy Donovan must keep the big Kiwi healthy.
4. What are the goals for this team?
The goals for this team this season is to continue to take steps toward the top of the conference and at the very least be competitive against the Warriors. Of course the teams wants to aim as high as possible, but the expectations need to be realistic. Last season, expectations were through the roof and the team failed to reach them. The goal should be to get a top 4 or 5 playoff seed and to win at least one playoff series.
5. Will this team reach or surpass the win total from last season?
The Thunder notched a 48-34 record last season. The team played particularly well against playoff teams but were greatly hurt against lottery teams, which even though it didn’t damage their playoff seeding too greatly, had a major impact on their game-to-game consistency. Their struggles against non-playoff teams such as the Suns, Magic, Mavs, Kings, Hornets and Lakers were puzzling.
They will need to continue to compete at a high level against the elite teams, and avoid playing down to their competition against the sub-500 teams. Simply through a higher level of consistency for all 82 games, then the Thunder can win 50+ games this season.
6. What are the expectations for Paul George this season?
George is now committed to the Thunder for years to come. He will not have the pressure of everything working right away, he can just play basketball. I predict George having a much improved season this year, taking his scoring to the next level, and defending as well. He will have more offensive touches with Melo leaving. Also, once Dre returns from injury, the perimeter defense those two can play is scary. So I see a much more consistent and tenacious Paul George this season.
What questions do you have regarding this Thunder team? Ask in the comments below!