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OKC bet on itself and won; can they win a championship?

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The NBA landscape is shifting, starting at the top. Will OKC’s moves so far be enough?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

One year ago, Oklahoma City and their general manager Sam Presti shocked the NBA by dealing Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George. The move was viewed as heist at the time- Oladipo and Sabonis were solid but unspectacular young players, while George was an in his prime all-star- but a risky one. PG had only one year left on his contract, and a known desire to play for his hometown Los Angeles Lakers.

Presti made the deal anyways. He knew, better than most, the risk he was taking- Victor Oladipo’s subsequent rise was beyond anything even his former team could have predicted, but Presti was always higher on him than the league at large. Presti went ahead anyways, betting that the Thunder’s organization, the culture he talks so often about, would convince PG to stay. That culture, of course, wasn’t enough to convince Kevin Durant to stay two years ago. Presti did what a great, confident GM would do, but also what a madman would do- he doubled down after a failure, betting that his organization and the team he built would succeed with PG where they failed with Durant

At least for the moment, Presti is vindicated. Paul George opted not only to return, but to commit- his three year contract (it’s four years, but with a player option on the fourth) means he and Russell Westbrook will now spend their primes together, and means OKC can shift their timeline ever so slightly- targeting that 2nd or 3rd year as their best chance to win a title, instead of going all in on 2018-19 as they would’ve had PG returned on a one year deal as some had expected. That’s a huge victory for Presti and the organization, and a huge victory for Westbrook as well. Everything about Westbrook- his personality, his play style, his shot selection- came under question following Durant’s departure. George, evidently, felt highly enough of Russ and the organization to hitch his wagon to them for the prime years of his career.

Now comes the hard part.

Getting George to stay is a victory, but it’s not the kind of victory that statues are built for and rings awarded for. There’s only one victory that merits that- an NBA championship, and ultimately that’s the only victory Westbrook, George and Presti care about. But is that a reasonable goal for a team that won 48 games and bowed out in 6 games to the Utah Jazz (not exactly a title contender, at least not yet) in the first round of the playoffs last year?

It can be. The Thunder were better than their 48-34 record showed last year. They opened the season 8-12 despite having the point differential of a much better team. They rounded into form after that, looking like one of the hottest teams in the league for December and January, demolishing the eventual champion Golden State Warriors twice. Then Andre Roberson was lost for the season at the end of January, and the team fell back to earth, ultimately limping into the playoffs and looking unprepared for the Jazz.

People around the Thunder have recited the relevant Roberson stats- that the team had a defensive rating of 98.4, which would have led the league if sustained all season, when Roberson was on the court, that the team’s starting 5 with Roberson posted a net rating of 14.5- for so long now that the rest of the league is probably sick of it. Great teams can overcome the loss of all but their most important players. Is Roberson really that important?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The short answer to that is yes- Roberson when healthy is a an all-defense level talent. His offensive limitations are obvious, and offense is more important than defense in the NBA, but Roberson was still key to OKC’s identity- when they were great last year, it stemmed from being great on defense.

The long answer to the question is “yes, and especially on OKC” because the Thunder had one of the thinnest benches in the league last year- when Roberson went down, the team turned first to untested rookie Terrance Ferguson to start in his place, and then salvaged a well past-his-prime Corey Brewer from the scrap heap of the buyout market and inserted him into the starting line-up. Recall that the starting lineup with Roberson had a net rating of +14.5 with Roberson, meaning they outscored opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions. With Brewer in his place, they were +0.5. That’s the difference between an elite team and an average one- the difference between the team the Thunder believe they can be and the team that lost to the Jazz last year.

If healthy, the Thunder should be a 50 win team at minimum. There’s other ways beyond health they can improve as well. The first and easiest way is a better chemistry between Westbrook, George and Steven Adams, the team’s third best player (we’ll get to the guy who think he’s their third best player). George enjoyed his time in OKC enough to commit long term, but there were still clear growing pains between him and Russ. Even without a strategic overhaul, the two should play off each other more naturally with a full year under their belts. Recall again that wretched start OKC had last year.Hitting the ground running this season with a roster mostly unchanged from last year should be a huge difference maker.

Then there’s the issue of line-ups and play time. It is, at this moment, up in the air if Carmelo Anthony will actually play with the Thunder next season. He picked up his player option, but the Thunder still have the option to “stretch” him- release him from the team and spread his salary of $27 million over the next three years. Because the Thunder are so deep in the luxury tax, stretching Melo could save OKC $91 million dollars next year. The downside to doing so is it hurts OKC’s flexibility in future years, since they’d have to pay Melo $9 million in 2019 and 2020. Still, $91 million dollars. Is ownership really willing to swallow that?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Not long after Paul George announced his return, OKC also came to a deal with Jerami Grant. That’s relevant to Melo’s situation for two reasons- for one thing, Grant and Melo are both best suited to playing the 4, and Grant is frankly a better fit for the modern NBA and the Thunder’s specific talent at that position than Melo is. For another, it pushed OKC even deeper into the luxury tax. Maybe that means ownership is truly willing to pay whatever Sam Presti says is necessary, at least for one year, having learned from their failure to pay James harden all those years ago. But Grant’s new deal is also half of what the team could save by stretching Melo. It could be that ownership gave Presti the okay to bring back Grant on condition he save money elsewhere- and if that’s the case, Melo will be gone soon.

The trouble is, Melo can still play meaningful NBA minutes. He should be coming off the bench at this stage in his career, but he can still help nonetheless, and dudes who can actually play are in short supply on this roster. There are, besides Melo, six guys who Billy Donovan trusted to play in the playoffs on roster: Westbrook, George, Roberson, Grant, Adams and Alex Abrines. In the playoffs, the Thunder turned to a lineup of Westbrook-Abrines-George-Grant-Adams in game 5 and won a huge comeback victory- that lineup also had a massive net rating of +31.9 in limited minutes in the regular season. That group should play together more. But where does Roberson slot in? Roberson, George and Grant on the court together promises to be a nightmare defensively, but it also might be too bereft of shooting to succeed offensively unless Grant develops his shot more. If you slot Abrines in to add shooting, do you go small and slide Roberson or George to the 4, or stick with Grant and bring Roberson off the bench? Donovan will need to explore all options and give a lot of players chances around the core 3 of Westbrook-George-Adams; by the start of game 1 of the playoffs last year, Donovan clearly still didn’t know what his best lineup was, and that failure can’t be repeated if the Thunder hope to make a run.

Beyond those six players, it’s unclear who can give the Thunder real minutes. Terrance Ferguson should see more run after a rookie season where he showed occasional promise- the dude is an athlete and has a good shooting stroke- but also showed his age, both in mental mistakes and a body that wasn’t filled out. Ferguson developing into even a rotation level wing would be a huge win for OKC. Development from Abrines on the defensive end will also be a boon- he flashed improved defense as the season wore on and did well in the playoffs when given the chance. Abrines becoming a plus defender, if not an elite one, would give OKC a second 3-And-D wing besides George, a must have in the modern game, and solve a lot of their lineup conundrums. If Abrines never gets any better on D, he still has a role as a bench gunner and floor spacer. But unless Ferguson or Abrines really pop, OKC still feels one two-way wing short of a truly elite roster.

Presti may still be able to find someone else who can help. After re-signing George and Grant, he signed Nerlens Noel to the roster on Monday. This is the perfect move for a team in OKC’s situation- Noel is affordable, because he’s struggled during his tenure with the 76ers and Mavericks, but he also has a ton of upside as a former #6 overall pick who’s shown flashes of being a great rim protector, rebounder, and lob catcher. The most likely outcome is he serves as a solid backup behind Steven Adams for 15 minutes a night, but there’s a chance, however slim, that he morphs into an at least above average player. Taking swings on guys like that is how you round out a championship roster- witness Golden State turning Shaun Livingston, a potential superstar derailed by injuries, into an important part of their rotation after acquiring him for almost nothing. Perhaps Presti can acquire a similar player on the wing.

Still, the most important thing for winning championships is your superstar core. OKC now has it’s superstar core under long term deals, but that same core flamed out in the first round last year. Improvements from young players and adding exciting pieces will help, but short of improvement from Westbrook, George and Adams, as individuals and as a unit, this team isn’t going anywhere.

Adams is still only 24. He has improved every season in the league, last year posting a career high in points, 13.9 per game, on a career high 62.9% shooting, while one again controlling the glass on both ends. Adams does all the little things- he sets crushing screens (he led the league in screen assists), he boxes out hard without care to whether he or a teammate is the one who gets the rebound, he dominates the offensive boards, and he protects the rim on defense. He is the ultimate role player.

But OKC needs him to be more- they need Adams to be a true third star. Adams has gotten better and better at finishing in tight spaces at the rim, adding floaters and hook shots to his game. The Thunder should make an even more concerted effort to get him involved as a finisher in the pick and roll. Adams will always be somewhat dependent on others for his scoring, as he can’t really create his own shot. But having Russ and PG means he doesn’t really have to- set a bone crushing screen to give those guys momentum, roll hard to the rim, and there should be plenty of good stuff to be found. OKC can make this even easier by playing more 3 point shooters around its star trio- here again, the development of Abrines and Ferguson will be crucial, as will Donovan’s lineup decisions.

Donovan’s biggest task, though, will be to get some real ball movement and offensive flow out of his two superstars. Even at it’s best last year, OKC was a team that relied heavily on their defense, both to keep games from becoming shootouts and to set up easy transition opportunities. In the half-court offense, the team often bogged down and devolved into ISO ball. They had initial plays- PG curling off screens, the “Hawk” set where Russ, George and Melo all screen for each other, various pick and rolls- but if the initial action didn’t produce a clean look, whoever had the ball would isolate and force up a bad shot, even if it was still relatively early in the shot clock. This must end. The plays where Russ shoots 5 seconds into the shot clock despite not having a clear advantage must go. Westbrook and George standing and watching while the other dribbles without a plan of attack must end. The stagnancy must end.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan and Presti can do a lot to encourage such changes. Donovan doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel or create any new and highly complex plays. The pick and roll exists, it is easy to learn but fundamentally hard to defend, and OKC has the perfect personnel for it- Adams, and now Noel too, are great screeners and rim rollers. Westbrook is a vicious attacker who only need a little daylight to get to the rim, and knows just where to swing the ball after drawing help defense. George is an elite 3 point shooter who can also drive past closeouts and finish or make one finally pass against a defense scattered by the initial pick and roll. This trio was built to run the Pick and Roll together. Presti can make it even easier on the team by adding more shooting to the roster- OKC has reportedly talked to Tyreke Evans, who could be just the two-way wing OKC needs to complete their pick and roll attack. More minutes for Abrines and Ferguson could help space the floor for these attacks as well.

With a little more spacing, Donovan can institute a simple rule: if the initial action (hawk set, whatever) doesn’t produce a clean look, swing the ball back to Russ, have Adams or Grant (or even sometimes George!) screen for him, and go to work. That may not work everytime, but it will lead to more movement and variation than the isolation plays Russ has tended to resort to when nothing opens up. Just getting one or two more clean looks per game could be the difference between an average offense and great one.

Get to the level of great on offense, and pair it with the elite defense this team should have, and OKC will be closer to a title than people realize. This team is tailor-made to bother Golden State- the Warriors two weaknesses as a team are a propensity for turnovers and a lack of rebounding (though they may now have addressed the latter in signing DeMarcus Cousins). OKC, particularly Roberson and George, excel at forcing turnovers, and Adams is capable of making Golden State pay for going small on the offensive glass. But none of that matters if Golden State knows they can force Russ into isolation just by defending one initial action- that offense will never be efficient enough to beat Golden State, even if lockdown defense and dominance on the offensive glass keeps them close. The Thunder have the pieces to at least bother the defending champs, but their offense isn’t there yet.

That means that ultimately, no matter what Presti does to improve the roster, no matter what schematic adjustments Billy Donovan makes, and no matter how much the role players improve, everything rests on Russell Westbrook’s shoulders. His game has to change- not in dramatic ways, but in subtle ones. His whirling dervish, bolt of rage drives to the rim can be the vessel that delivers OKC to the promised land- he is that strong, his athleticism that undeniable. But he must pair it with an increased patience. If the defense stymies the initial attack, he must be willing to pull back and look for a new avenue of attack. Call for another screen if there’s 14 seconds left on the shot clock! Or swing the ball to George, himself a dangerous scoring threat and playmaker, and then move around as an offball threat. Donovan can help by designing more sets where Westbrook is used as a cutter to get him in the right mindset, and get other players in the habit of setting off-ball screens for Russ when PG handles the ball. But the choice is ultimately Russ’s- he has to be the one who decides he’s willing to tweak his play style.

Westbrook has changed and improved his game since coming into the league a decade ago. He has improved substantially as a passer, added a little more touch around the rim. Every year he gets better. Now, he just needs a change in his mindset- more discipline in his shot selection, more patience when the initial design of a play doesn’t work, more judicious switch-hunting before isolation possessions. This will be a challenge- Russ is as good as he is because of his fearlessness, his refusal to be intimidated by any opponent or defense. It’s what makes teammates and fans adore him. Balancing that attitude with a mature realization that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor is the kind of thing that is easy in theory and almost impossible in the moment. The instinct behind Russ rising for a mid-ranger with 15 seconds left on the shot clock is the same instinct that leads him to drive through 3 defenders in transition and cram home a monster dunk. Can you have one without the other? Westbrook is not a Chris Paul type facilitator- his assists come from the massive pressure he puts on defenses as a scoring threat. A less aggressive Russell Westbrook is not necessarily a better player. But a Russell Westbrook who balances his innate aggressive spirit with a more patient approach would be.

Becoming that player will be the biggest challenge of Westbrook’s career, and the one that will determine how we remember him. Presti’s maneuvering to acquire George and the strength of OKC’s culture in retaining hims has offered Russ the rarest of NBA opportunities: a second shot at contention. Now we see if Russ can make the most of that second chance.