We are 59 games into the regular season and the Thunder sit in 5th place. A surge in the final 23 games of the season could elevate them to the 3rd seed, while a stumble could put them out of the playoffs entirely. In other words, this ride is far from over.
The WTLC team takes stock of what we’ve learned so far and where we think this ride will end up; it’s a flume ride for sure, but the only question is whether the ride ends in joyful splashes of cool, refreshing water, or black tar, lit on fire, that endlessly burns our basketball souls. Either, or.
1. On a scale of 1-10, how do you rate the first part of this Thunder season?
RK Anthony - 5. Big wins against top teams followed by big losses to weak teams leads to big question marks. The Thunder are currently 33 and 26 and sitting in the 5th spot in the West when they could easily be 40 and 19 and sit comfortably in 3rd. That alone eliminates any rating higher than a 5.
Ben Mertens - 7. The slow start hurts, but we all should have expected it going in; Incorporating a superstar in Paul George and a former superstar in Carmelo was always going to take time.The team looked damn good from about Christmas onwards, and looked like a top 5 team by the end of January...and then Roberson went down. Their play since then hasn’t been subpar, which should also be expected. There’s enough talent on the rest of the roster to get back to playing elite ball, but you don’t ever recover totally from losing such a key player.
Mark Bruty - I’d have to settle on a 7. The Thunder unit has delivered us moments of brilliance but there have been some crushing lows as well, so a 7 seems fitting here. It has taken time to mesh, but the upside here is huge. I expect nothing but 8+ from the final installment of the regular season as they build towards a big post-season push.
Chris Grenham - At this point I’d probably give the Thunder a 6. They’ve been able to play up to the likes of OKC, Cleveland, and Houston, but have also played down to teams well below .500. Up until this point, my answer has changed night by night. On Christmas, I would have said 9. On November 25th, it would’ve been a hard 3. Bottom line, it’s been an absolute roller coaster thus far. The difference here is Andre Roberson. His injury knocks this bunch down to a 6.
Dom Flaim - I’m around a 4 I think. On one hand they’ve been where I expected standings wise at 4th in the West. On the other hand they just lost one of the most irreplaceable players in the NBA right when I finally started to think they were more than what I’d expected. In reality this may well be higher but so much of the wind was taken out of my sails the night Roberson went down.
J.A. Sherman - I go between a 2 and a 7, depending on which way the wind is blowing. There have been far too many games where this team has looked to me like the Sacramento Kings of yesteryear - a team bubbling with talent capable of beating any team, but a mess on a night to night basis. So many times I would exclaim, “I hate this team!” to no-one in particular. Winning is a habit, as well as all the smaller elements that go into it. But then we see OKC take out the Warriors with ease, and suddenly all the pieces make sense, and the possibilities of the universe open up. Suffice to say, I’m having a rough go of it this season, and I never thought I’d say that after last year’s roller-coaster.
2. Biggest surprise (good or bad)?
RK - The biggest surprise was Sam Presti’s inactivity at the trade deadline. This team had holes to fill even before the Roberson injury but still, nothing from one of the most active GM’s in the business. I realize that the $5M Armini model (Singler), and the rest of the reserves didn’t give Presti much to work with before the deadline, and many of the players available were overvalued by their respective teams, but with Robes out for the season and a couple of trade exceptions to work with, one would think Presti would at least take a shot on an aging and recently waived Tony Allen to help fill that defensive void.
No one needs tell me that Allen is no Roberson at this stage of his career, but I guarantee that Tony Allen at age 50 will be a better defender than Alex Abrines in his prime. No moves by the trade deadline coupled with no signing of Allen gives me a bad feeling about the direction this team will take once the season is over.
Ben - Steven Adams has been even better than expected. He’s posted career highs in points and rebounds, he leads the league in offensive rebounding, and he’s been stellar on defense. He’s pretty clearly the team’s 3rd best player (he’s ahead of Melo, and it’s not really close), and he’s still only 24 and adding something new to his game every year. And since it’s all-star weekend, here’s a prediction- Steven Adams makes an all-star team in 3 years.
Mark - Not sure I can really say I’m “surprised” either way, but I am very happy with the second unit’s floor general Raymond Felton. I thought he’d be a great upgrade on Semaj, but he has been fantastic and needs to be recognized. 2Pat has taken a while to find his groove after the knee surgery so he has been a little short of my expectations, but he’s settling in now and giving us some quality minutes and that will only get better. I KNEW Adams was going to blow up and be a stud, said it since day one and have written about it on multiple occasions – so I’m not surprised, but I am slyly gloating!
Dom - I’m going positive here and agreeing with Mark. Ray’s been the best backup point they’ve had since....Reggie Jackson I guess? It feels like the last few years have been shuffling through guys who just weren’t even NBA caliber backups so having a guy who can come off the bench and actually run a somewhat capable offense is refreshing.
Chris - My obsession with Steven Adams comes with valid performance to back it up. Before this season started, I don’t think anyone would have said that Adams would have a bigger role than Carmelo Anthony. But here we are. Adams is this team’s third most important player and the best offensive rebounder in the league. He’s completely invaluable to this team, and I think that in itself is the biggest surprise so far. That’s not to say this is Adams’ first productive season in the NBA, but his value has skyrocketed over the first 59 games.
Sherman - The Thunder defense whiplash between amazing and terrible is going to put me in traction. Granted, not having Roberson in the lineup the rest of the year tempers this, but what is almost equally frustrating to me is Donovan’s failure to embrace the one thing that can truly make this team special - their perimeter defense. When it is clicking, even with Josh Huestis, they become the predators. When they roll out lineups that simply cannot play this way, or just sit back, they become a mediocre jump-shooting team susceptible to any lottery team. In fact they even look like a lottery team when they shift into that horrible mode.
3. How do you rate the Carmelo and Paul George acquisitions? Where do these two lead us down the stretch?
RK - George has found his niche and is taking off, coming down the stretch I would like he and Steven Adams to continue to build on their PnR options and see them become a primary focal point of the offense moving forward. Combine George’s ability to draw the defense with Adams’ power and you’ve got something this league has become ill-prepared to stop.
Melo? I have mixed feeling about Carmelo. I know he put in a ton of work this summer, but that doesn’t change the calendar. It’s not 2012 anymore, it’s 2018. Keeping the ball moving and limiting Melo’s number of isolations outside the block unless the defense presents an obvious mismatch is critical. Catch and shoot is Melo’s game now and when he embraces that role the Thunder tend to go on winning streaks. When he doesn’t, things get ugly.
Ben - Paul George is a 10/10 acquisition. Oladipo’s emergence in Indiana makes the trade a lot less lopsided than it appeared originally, but PG13 is still a better player than Oladipo and a better fit alongside Russ. If PG re-signs, the core of him, Westbrook & Adams has as much potential over the next 2-3 seasons as any team outside the bay area.
Melo has been disappointing. He’s stepped into a reduced role but that hasn’t made him any more efficient; he has a career-low field goal percentage and True Shooting Percentage this year. I’d hoped him being a willing 3rd option would make him more efficient, but no such luck. And defensively, he’s...Melo. Teams will attack him in the playoffs.
On the other hand, you know who else teams attack in the playoffs?. Enes Kanter. On a balance, getting Melo for him and McDermott is still a win- Melo is better than either, and he and Kanter’s contracts both expire next season, so the Thunder haven’t yet committed to taking on more long-term money.
It’ll be interesting to see what OKC wants to do with Melo in the offseason. He has a player option for $28 million next year. Sam Presti should try to get him to opt out and take a deal with more money over multiple years (something in the 3 years, 40 mil range)- if Melo takes the player option and PG re-signs, the Thunder will be way over the luxury tax line.
Mark - Fantastic. Again, it has taken a while to get into a rhythm but PG is a perfect fit alongside Russ and Adams. Melo has been the one who has taken a little longer to embrace his role, but when he does, he looks like a great addition also – making the extra pass, shooting the open shot and giving effort on defense. I have no doubt that if the Thunder could have stayed healthy, it was a Western Conference Finals berth. Without Roberson that becomes a little more difficult, but with a core four of Russ, George, Melo and Adams, and quality minutes from 2Pat, Felton, Huestis, Grant etc we can beat anyone in a best of seven series.
Dom - PG has been as advertised. I will say I’m thrilled both Oladipo and Sabonis have found their niche as they either didn’t fit with the roster (Dipo) or were just misused (Sabonis) on the Thunder. But George has been great alongside Russ and is a great second fiddle on any team. His defense is as advertised and he’s having a career year shooting the three, his lineups with Russ are running at a +9.0 net rating and a +13.9 with Russ and without Melo. Which brings me to the second...
Melo I’m torn on. On one hand he’s great with the bench and I’ve been over a million times why I think he should be running the bench instead of PG. On the other hand he’s greatly overpaid and doesn’t fit as well with Russ and PG (as seen in the net ratings) and when he’s shoehorned into the starters as he has been it’s not ideal. I wish the coaching with this was more flexible but that’s always been my worry with this team and why I’m not nearly as high on this acquisition.
Chris - I’ll keep this one short and simple. Prior to this year, Melo was someone who never really made adjustments to his game. He’s embraced his catch and shoot role and played well with the bench unit. These are both huge plusses for me. On the other hand the efficiency isn’t there, but that wasn’t really expected.
PG has been tremendous. He’s the best two-way player in the league in my opinion and has become a reliant option behind, if not alongside, Russ. I was rather neutral on George before this season. He’s quickly turned me into a huge fan.
Sherman - Through the first few months, I admit, I was getting nervous. George seemed incredibly passive, where one game he’d have 30 and the next he’d struggle to get 10. He also had a strange penchant for disappearing in the 2nd half of games. And because he seemed so disengaged, I began to worry that this would be a one-and-done thing for PG. And although it still very well may be, what has me excited and hopeful is a) how he and Russ have taken to each other and how Russ has given PG perhaps the best season of his career; and b) how George’s running buddy Roberson is every bit the defensive hawk that PG wants to be. With Robes down for the count this season that obviously removes half the equation, but over the long term, the prospects are enticing. And then you throw in what he’s done in February to date.
For Melo, I confess, it is as emotional for me as it is reasonable. But I made an assertion early on - use Melo like Golden State use Klay Thompson, and you may have something. But asking him to go beyond that invites all the bad things we have learned about Melo over the years.
4. How do you rate the league MVP this year?
RK - Russell, like the entire season thus far, has been a mixed bag of fruit. Early on he was too accommodating, then there were times he was overly ball dominant. It’s unfortunate that Roberson went down just as Westbrook was finding a good balance and it will be critical coming down the stretch that he find it again.
Ben - He is what he is. He takes a lot of possessions off on defense, he doesn’t move when he’s off the ball, and he jacks up too many 3’s and midrange shots.
He’s also leading the league in assists, putting up 25 points a night on better efficiency than last year, and after the slow start has struck the right balance between attacking and involving Paul George and Carmelo (and Steven Adams). There are nights he shoots the Thunder out of games, and nights he’s the only reason they stay in the game. Even with the other superstar talent on the roster, the Thunder continue to stink whenever he rests.
His season overall is almost the same as last year, with a little less scoring because there are so many other offensive threats on the team. Paul George and Steven Adams are both having career years playing off of Russ. He’s not being included in the MVP conversation this year, but the Thunder are a much better team than they were last year with Russ able to do a little less. Russ hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been what the team has needed him to be most nights. That’s what you want out of your leader.
Mark - As in Russ? He’s been, Russ. He has been a leader on and off the floor and he has done everything to help this team gel and win along the way. He’s a flat-out superstar. I love how he has been really engaging with the rest of the guys off the court too and they seem to have a real chemistry. His attitude is first rate and the positive commentary about the team, his superstar teammates, the form slumps and the Roberson injury have just made him the ultimate teammate. I can see why this would be a tough decision for George and why he may very well be leaning to staying on Russ’ side.
Dom - From October through the early part of December he was to be kind not great. But there was a game (going off the top of my head) against Memphis I believe where he shot something in the range of a thousand 3s and made 1. He vowed to change and to his credit he did, and he’s been mostly great since. A “down” year leaves him top 10 in RPM and top 5 in RPM wins while leading one of the best starting lineups in the league. It was a rocky start but seems to have turned a bit.
Sherman - After the Year of Westbrook, it was probably unreasonable to expect Russ to hit the insane heights once again. However, the drop-off in the early going was considerable, though likely (though unconfirmed) due to injury and maybe too many late night feedings between him, baby Noah, a bottle, and leftover pizza. Once he got his legs back under him, the Thunder appeared to take off, but what has been missing is that late game flurry that we saw so many times a year ago. Those were fun. He’s somewhere around 80% of what he was last year, and that isn’t too bad.
5. Name one key to the Thunder finishing this season strong.
RK - Never starting Alex Abrines with Carmelo Anthony again. Robes used to catch so much grief because he didn’t shoot well and his critics argued the Thunder were playing 4 against 5. In the loss to Cleveland, Abrines took two shots, both misses. Melo is a weak defender and Abrines is a weak defender, my argument is that the Thunder are playing 3 against 5 on the defensive end when these two share the court and still playing 4 against 5 offensively. At least with Robes, the Thunder were playing 5 on 5 on defense.
Since Roberson went down, the Thunder’s biggest win was against Golden State, the defending NBA champs. That is a pretty good sign the Thunder had a starting line-up that worked and that line-up included Josh Huestis. In his last 3 starts, Abrines has a DRtg of 119 and 115 in his 8 starts combined. Additionally, Abrines has only attempted 5 shots in his last two starts, all misses.
Huestis has only started 3 games and his DRtg in those games is 113, but the 104 he posted against the Warriors was second best among the starters. If Presti isn’t going to sign Tony Allen, Huestis must start the rest of the way if the Thunder have any hope of regaining some of the defensive edge they enjoyed before Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon.
Ben - Figuring out who the 5th starter should be/who should close games. Over the last 10 games, Abrines and Ferguson have gotten the most run alongside the starters, with about 60 minutes each, Grant has gotten 45 minutes, and Huestis just 17. The team’s net ratings in those minutes:
Ferguson: -21.0 (not a typo)
Grant is my personal pick, giving the Thunder defensive versatility and a good offensive game. But the defense has been at it’s best with Huestis out there, and he’s earned the chance to get more minutes with the starters. Abrines, despite the positive mark, is probably best as a bench gunner, not a starter at this point in his career. Billy Donovan should give Huestis and Grant ample time with the starters, so that come playoff time the team has a fifth starter they can be confident in (and I still think he should try a starters + Patterson lineup at some point).
Mark - Consistency. The games the Thunder have lost can really be broken down into lapses. Either slow starts or coming out of the halftime break a little less focused. The consistency is the issue and if they can address that, there is no reason to suggest they can’t go 18-5 on the back end, win 50 games for the season and end up in the top 4 out West. That would be a terrific result.
Chris - Replacing Roberson is impossible. This is an unfortunate but realistic statement that the Thunder now have to face down the stretch. With no activity at the deadline, it’s now time to determine who that fifth starter is. If that means a little trial and error with guys like Grant and Huestis, so be it, but come playoff time, OKC needs to have a concrete starting five or they’ll be in trouble.
Dom - Honestly, I don’t have one. There’s not a player in the league who can replace what Roberson brought and Tony Allen might mitigate a little but he’s at this point older and slower and can’t bring what Dre did. Finally deciding on one starter would help, and I’d say Huestis makes the most sense for now. But that’s not really so much getting them to finish strong as the best of a bunch of really bad options.
Sherman - The team realizes and finally embraces what can make them special. It is their defense. Defense, defense, defense. Embrace that above all else, and this team could contend for the 3rd seed. But pretend that they’re some offensive version of the Warriors or Rockets, and OKC could miss the playoffs entirely.
6. Assuming that it’s purely an on-court decision point, what will it take for Paul George to re-sign?
RK - A playoff run very similar to 2016.
Ben - I think reaching the conference finals or losing a competitive series against the Warriors in the second round shows that the Thunder are already elite, and can reach true contender status with another year under their belts. I think PG comes back in that scenario If the Thunder lose in the first round though, or get stomped by Golden State or Houston, I can’t see PG wanting to stay around- he already left one team over their inability to contend.
Mark - Honestly, I hate this question and I hate to say what I think. But, in the interest of transparency – I will. I firmly and wholeheartedly believe that OKC is the best place for him. I think the chemistry that has been built, and that will continue to grow, makes OKC the place to be if you want to win. You have Russ locked in for multiple years, Adams locked in, Roberson for a couple more seasons and a good young rookie in Ferguson who is going to be something special….. These are guys entering their prime – not past it. The balance of talent and roster is spot on, the chemistry is building and there are no off-court issues or dramas. If PG is serious about winning, serious about getting the most out of himself and his career, he does that in a Thunder uniform.
Sure the Lakers are appealing, but even IF they manage to swing for the fences and land LeBron, he WILL slow down, the rookies are not near their prime yet and the drama of the Ball family is too much. Clippers don’t have the talent, and if you aren’t going “home” to LA, then why go anywhere???? The Thunder are a known commodity, they are already building for the next 3-4 years of success. Paul George may as well start calling it Okla-HOME-a City.
Dom - If it’s purely on court, I’m not sure because there aren’t a ton of options. Last check there are only a handful of teams projected to have max cap space and of those the only ones I’d say make sense basketball and otherwise are OKC, Utah, and Philadelphia. I think a good playoff showing including at least a competitive second round helps but he’s seen what this team can do when healthy already.
If it’s purely basketball there’s a zero percent chance he’s a Laker, and I’d have said the Clippers had a shot but at a glance I believe the only way they reasonably open a max slot is by moving Jordan which makes that team much less appealing. If I’m on the spot now I’d say OKC and Philly are the two to watch (and I know I’m a Pennsylvania guy but they just make a ton of sense).
Sherman - To quote Emily Dickenson...yes THE Emily Dickenson:
“The Heart wants what it wants - or else it does not care”
If PG wants to be in LA, then that’s where he’ll be, and I’ll never begrudge him for it. He was always honest up front about the inner conflict - the desire to go home vs the desire to compete for a championship - and set the standard high from the beginning as to what would convince him to stay. And the sad thing is, I don’t know if they’ll get there with their defensive ace missing.
But if on-court, long-term viability matters, then George would be hard-pressed to find another player who will work as hard as Westbrook does to set him up for open shots (PG is arguably having the best offensive season of his life) combined with another player who will work as hard as he does on defense to destroy another team’s offensive attack. You could easily argue the combination of Russ and Robes is the perfect fit for George to play the next stage of his career. And I’ll bet Steven Adams throws better cookouts than DeAndre Jordan too.
7. Bonus round - ask your own question and then answer it (no hot dog questions, Dom!).
RK - Of the current top 4 teams in the West, which one would be the best and worst playoff match up?
This is going to shock many folks, but I think the Thunder match up best against the Warriors. Golden State lacks a big that can draw Adams out and aren’t prepared to stop the Thunder’s inside offensive game. Unfortunately, to get to them, the Thunder may have to go against their toughest match-up, the T-wolves. ‘
The Timberwolves’ second best 3-point shooter is Karl-Anthony Townes. Townes is taking 3.5 shots from downtown and drilling over 42% of those attempts. Any team the Thunder has played this season that could draw Adams out has had success with dribble penetrations and grabbing offensive boards.
Interesting note, according to NBA.com, one of the Thunder’s more effective defenders against the T-Wolves was Josh Huestis.
Ben - Who should the Thunder want to play in the second round?
If the season ended today, the Thunder would play the Timberwolves in round 1 and then face the Rockets if they advanced. Oddly enough, I think the Thunder should prefer the Warriors as an opponent over the Rockets. OKC leads the league in two categories- forcing turnovers and offensive rebounding. The Warriors are bad at defensive rebounding and turn the ball over a ton. The Rockets, however, allow the 3rd least offensive rebounds in the league and are a top 10 team at limiting turnovers. The Warriors are overall the better team, even though the Rockets have the slightly better net rating this season- come playoff time, the Warriors defense is going to be better than the Rockets. But OKC isn’t winning a shootout against either team, and they are better suited to exploit the Warriors weaknesses than the Rockets. And besides: Russ vs KD in a 7 game series is what we’ve all wanted for nearly two years.
Mark - Let’s play a little game. You’re Super Sam Presti, GM for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s time to make the tough calls……Sign or sayonara?
Jerami Grant vs Josh Huestis. Likely the Thunder pays one and lets one walk. Grant is likely to command bigger dollars but is arguably the better fit and better talent. What do you do? I’m backing Grant in here. Sure he will command more money and Huestis has done everything right by this team, but Grant has a little more flexibility to his game and offensive upside. I’d love to find room for both…… Damn you, Singler!!!
Alex Abrines or Terrance Ferguson. Both under contract for next season so it would be a trade… Abrines costs a little more but is a little more NBA seasoned and has shown glimpses. TFerg has also shown glimpse and is better defensively but is more of a “prospect” right now. Ferguson for me. He will wind up being the better player on both ends of the floor in time and should be coming into his own over the next couple of seasons under the tutelage of PG. Again – DAMN YOU SINGLER!!!
Speaking of Singler….. play him or stretch him? He was a quality college ball player and held his own in Detroit too. Is there hope for Kyle or is he cooked? For me he doesn’t appear to be in the future plans, so he shouldn’t be in the future payroll. Stretch him and bring back Felton for two more years.
Dom Flaim - What team has been your biggest non-OKC surprise and disappointment this year?
Right now my east and west preseason predictions are somewhat close to the playoffs in reality except in the east I expected way more from Charlotte and way less from Indiana, and I’d have to say Charlotte is my biggest bummer. I’m a huge fan of Kemba’s game and as a note their team with him on court is at the net rating of a 50 win team. Their bench is dreadful but there’s just so much going wrong there and they’ve been a downer. On the bright side both Indiana (obvious reasons) and Minnesota have pleasantly surprised me. Jimmy Butler is a top 2 MVP candidate to me and though I really don’t think Wiggins is very good (and they may regret that contract) their team success has been fantastic and KAT has gotten a good bit better. So for a surprise I almost can’t answer my own question but I’d split it between those two teams.
Sherman - Well, I already asked all of the prior questions, so my work here is done.