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The great big OKC Thunder 2018-19 season preview

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It’s big. Grab a coffee.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder-Media Day Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It was quite the eventful (and expensive) offseason for the Thunder. Carmelo Anthony, after one bricktastic season in town, is out. In are Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel, two talented yet embattled young pieces who could flourish or crumble under the Thunder’s high expectations for this season. But additions and subtractions were not the theme of the Thunder’s successful summer; rather it was all about retention.

After flaming out of the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the Donovan Mitchell-led Utah Jazz, the possibility of Paul George bolting to Los Angeles was seemingly at an all-time high. George went out with a whimper, going 2-16 from the field along with coughing the ball up six times. According to Vegas Sportsbook Bovada at the time, the Los Angeles Lakers were the favorite to sign George. Magic Johnson was literally winking on Jimmy Kimmel at the prospect of recruiting George. Then there was Jerami Grant, who had emerged as a multi-positional fiend but was likely to be out of the Thunder’s price range due to a looming monstrous luxury tax bill. Even Ray Felton, known mostly for his chubbiness spherical musculature, was a free agent coming off a respectable campaign. Massive turnover was increasingly likely.

However, the NBA is anything if not predictable (outside of who will win the championship). A week before free agency, reports started surfacing that the Thunder had an increasingly likely chance of retaining George. First, the New York Times’ Marc Stein reported the Thunder were very convinced they could re-sign George. Then, as July 1st rolled up, a local barber tweeted, “OKC get ready for some GREAT news tonight!” Then we found out Russell Westbrook was hosting a massive party in OKC. Then it was revealed George would be attending Westbrook’s party. Then a video surfaced of George, onstage with Westbrook and rapper NAS, proclaiming to the audience, “I’m here to stay OKC!” And stay George did, signing a massive four-year $137 million deal. Keeping George alone would have made it a successful offseason for the Thunder, but a day later it was announced Grant was returning on a modest three-year $27 million deal. A few days later Felton was returning at the veteran’s minimum salary. In a matter of 24 hours, the Thunder had won the offseason. However, winning in July is not even half the battle.

Player Profiles

Russell Westbrook

2017-18 stats: 25.4 PPG, 10.1 REB, 10.3 AST, 1.8 STL, 44.9 FG%, 29.8 3P%

The fact that Westbrook averaged a triple-double over the course of the whole season and nobody batted an eye speaks volumes about who he is as a player. True greatness is when one makes the extraordinary seem ordinary, and that’s exactly what Westbrook did with his second straight season averaging a triple-double.

Building a team around Westbrook is equivalent to investing in Bitcoin. It’s a volatile situation, and the lows are pretty disheartening, but the highs are incredible. When Westbrook really turns on the jets, dunking all over everyone, dishing acrobatic assists and snatching the ball in midair like a center, it’s an electrifying experience.

But when Westbrook stops trusting his teammates, an on-and-off disease for the embattled superstar, things get ugly fast. The opposing defense knows nobody else is shooting (or even touching) the ball, and can overload on Westbrook. Westbrook is so great that sometimes he’s able to overcome these obstacles and still score, but not enough to justify doing so too often. As a result, Westbrook usually has some of the worst efficiency statistics in the league, as evidenced by his subpar 47% effective field goal percentage. But that urge to score and do everything you can to win manifests itself in more positive ways, such as the fact that Westbrook leads the league in loose balls recovered, and is 7th is deflections, according to NBA.com.

But stats rarely ever tell the whole story, especially with Westbrook, who is the only member of the Thunder’s original core four of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka still standing. The same summer they lost Durant, Westbrook committed to the Thunder by signing a contract extension, injecting the city with much-needed life after a crushing blow. The city adores and respects Westbrook, and that’s not to be taken for granted. One just has to look at Durant in Golden State to realize stars aren’t always beloved by their fans. Sure, Westbrook is imperfect. He should definitely be moving off the ball more, being active as a cutter and screener. He should jack up less contested shots and not gamble for steals so much on defense. But those attributes all make Westbrook who he is, which is an unquestioned superstar and the leader of a team with legit championship aspirations.

Memorable play: In the Thunder’s first game without Kevin Durant, fans understandably could have used some fireworks. And boy did Westbrook deliver. Face-mask and all, Westbrook received the ball and proceeded to blitz all 94-feet of the court through the whole 76ers team en route to a thunderous (pun intended) slam that erupted the crowd. It was marvelous seeing someone so fast, decisive and slithery zoom his way to such savagery.

Paul George

2017-18 stats: 21.9 PPG, 5.7 REB, 3.3 AST, 2.0 STL, 43.0 FG%, 40.1 3P%

George is one of the most valuable players in the league due to his ability to play and defend multiple positions. If you could build the ideal superstar in the NBA, George’s 220 pound, 6’9 body would be an ideal prototype. He’s one of the best defenders in the league, splashes threes efficiently at high volume and is an underrated playmaker. 3-and-D wings who can also run the offense are a rare breed; they don’t exactly grow on trees. A quick scope of the league identifies LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and George as the marquee stars who fit this profile; again, only 20 percent of the league has access to these guys.

That versatility on defense manifests itself on offense as well, and George can do it all on that end. He scored a blistering 1.22 points per possession when spot up shooting last season, which ranked among the 92nd percentile of the league. He also displayed some new ball handling skills he clearly improved upon the previous summer. To top it off, George tied for 1st in the league in deflections.

With George, things are pretty simple. He’s a 28-years-old superstar who is never going to be a liability on either end of the floor. He can serve as a secondary ball-handler. He can hold his own against the best opposing player, or absolutely dominate an opponent’s second option. The Thunder have him signed under contract through his prime.

Memorable play: (5:42 mark) Sure, the Thunder lost the game, but George probably produced his best game in a Thunder uniform, exploding for 43 points and shutting everything down defensively. With six seconds remaining and the Thunder down three points, George got the ball on the left side of the court, took a few dribbles, then pulled up for 3 right in his defender’s face to tie the game. It was so clutch, and really accentuated George’s value to the team.

Steven Adams

2017-18 stats: 13.9 PPG, 9.0 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.0 BLK, 62.9 FG%

I took a super deep dive into how valuable Adams is to the Thunder last spring. While I was probably a bit hyperbolic proclaiming him the best center in the game (in my defense, this was before Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert had proved they could stay healthy (mostly) over a full season). But the points made remain; Adams is a beast, one of the strongest players in the league, using his brute force to outmuscle and outhustle everyone in his path. He’s also slowly developed a devastating eight-foot soft floater to avoid charges to complement a solid hook shot and an excellent spin move.

So much of what makes the 25-year-old New Zealander excel is very hard to detect for the average viewer. Adams led the league in screen assists and offensive rebounding percentage last season — valuable attributes, but seldom show up in the traditional box score. Adams has improved every season with the team, and clips surfaced of him swishing corner 3-pointers over the summer. If Adams is able expand his range, the only weakness left in his game would be (maybe) defending on the perimeter. While his contract is a little bloated, he’s certainly worth the investment, and should be a reliable centerpiece for the Thunder for years to come.

Memorable play: This was embedded in my Adams deep dive last season, and it remains my favorite play of his. It looked like he set off a bazooka, and delivered the ball perfectly into Andre Roberson’s awaiting hands.

Dennis Schroder

2017-18 stats: 19.4 PPG, 3.1 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.1 STL, 43.6 FG%, 29.0 3P%

Schroder, a supremely talented 24-year-old offensive spark plug, comes to Oklahoma City with plenty of baggage. He was arrested for battery last year, openly asked to be traded and showed a disrespectful amount of “effort” on defense. In fairness to the ultra-competitive Schroder, playing on a pitiful Hawks team that was getting torched game in and game out cannot have been easy. Fortunately, Schroder should not have to deal with much losing at all this season, with the Thunder set to be right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

Many pundits have compared Schroder to Reggie Jackson, now the starter for the Detroit Pistons who wore out his welcome in OKC. Even if that is the case, the Thunder badly need another dynamic playmaker to relieve Westbrook and George of all the creative burden. Even though Felton did a respectable job last season keeping the second unit from completely collapsing, the Thunder always seemed like they were treading water until one of their stars came back in instead of attacking and aggressively extending leads. Schroder should change this dynamic. Not only will he instantly become one of the league’s best backup point guards, his athleticism, dribble-drive ability and intensity will provide the Thunder bench with a sorely-needed jolt.

While envisioning Schroder saving the Thunder bench is appealing, his true value could manifest itself when he plays alongside Westbrook and George. Sure, Schroder was an objectively terrible shooter last season, but the season before that he shot a more palatable 34% from deep and is exceptional at getting to the rim. If Schroder can keep defenses honest while Westbrook and George slice into the paint and kick out to him, Schroder will be able to blow by closing out defenders and either convert acrobatic layups or dish to open shooters along the arc. He sports a lethal, buttery soft floater and does a beautiful job of contorting his body to avoid getting blocked at the rim.

Schroder at his best is better than Jackson, and the Thunder have not had such an explosive third wheel since (shudders internally) James Harden. As a team that has been capped out over the last few years, the Thunder haven’t had access to players of Schroeder’s talent level. The dude scored 1.09 points per possession in isolation situations last season, good for the 90th percentile league-wide even with defenders keying in on him. But due to extenuating circumstances, GM Sam Presti was able to pounce on a mercurial yet extremely talented player who could tip the Thunder’s scale from playoff contender to title contender.

Memorable play: This one comes from two seasons ago. Schroder got the ball at the top of the key, proceeded to zip by Elfrid Payton, then met Serge Ibaka at the rim for a mean-mugged dunk. The play encapsulated everything Schroder can bring to the Thunder. No one else on the team was capable of doing what Schroder did on that play except Westbrook and George last year. Can you imagine Felton trying that? Here’s a tip – don’t.

Andre Roberson

2017-18 stats: 5.0 PPG, 4.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.9 BLK, 53.7 FG%, 22.2 3P%

Talk about stats not telling the whole story. 5 points a game is admittedly meager, but Roberson’s value is never going to be on offense other than as a swift cutter. Roberson is unfortunately underappreciated due to offense being valued disproportionately more than defense. But on defense, Roberson is the best in the league.

Before he tragically tore up his knee last season, Roberson was on pace to win Defensive Player of the Year. With Roberson in the game, the Thunder were absolutely strangling opponents defensively, boasting a ridiculous 96.4 defensive rating, which would have ranked 1st in the league by a mile, and outscoring opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions. But when Roberson took a breather, that number jumped to a 107 defensive rating, around the league average.

Playing perimeter defensive in 2018 is akin to being a cornerback in the NFL these days. Both the NBA and NFL want higher scoring games which boost ratings, and an easy way to do so is to handicap defenders from hand-checking their offensive counterparts. Roberson is so fundamentally sound though that these rules simply don’t affect him. He has excellent footwork and hip mobility and gives his defenders little room to breath while still being able to stay in front of them on drives by using his sprawling 6’11 wingspan. Opponents shot 4 percent worse than their averages on shots 15 + feet from the basket whenever Roberson was guarding them, according to NBA.com/Stats. He’s the human version of glue: sticky, annoying to deal with and you wish could just avoid it entirely.

Roberson’s supreme defensive chops also help the Thunder in other ways. It allows Paul George, a phenomenal defender in his own right, to focus on every team’s second most threatening option while Roberson exerts all of his attention and energy on the other team’s go-to scorer. Hopefully Roberson comes back better than ever from his injury. He’s still only 26-years old and on a reasonable two-year, $20 million contract. If Roberson is his old self, the Thunder are a lock to field a top five defense.

Memorable play: This is a seven minute video, and you’re free to watch the whole thing, but my favorite play is the very first one. Tony Parker throws a lazy pass to Kawhi Leonard, who Roberson was of course hounding and spatted the ball toward mid-court. Roberson proceeded to track down the loose ball, rip it out of Leonard’s glove mitt-sized hands (no easy task), then softly put the ball in. It was pure hustle, a gorgeous sight to behold.

Jerami Grant

2017-18 stats: 8.4 PPG, 3.9 REB, 0.7 AST, 1.0 BLK, 53.5 FG%, 29.1 3P%

Grant was quietly one of the NBA’s most improved players over the last season. Over the course of his first few years in the league, he was way too wild and out of control, loking like a lost tourist in the middle of Times Square. There were plays where he would receive the ball then proceed to rapidly attack the rim and clank the ball off the backboard. It was ugly.

At 24-years-old, Grant is still green, but he’s settled down and as a result has morphed into a quality role player. There are still moments where Grant looks lost, but he’s started to convert more shots at the rim, where he can use his freakish athleticism to bring the boom. He’s fully committed himself on defense, able to guard along the arc and at the rack, where he can use his pterodactyl 7’3 wingspan to swat away shots. He’s also noticeably cleaned up the release on his jumper, and while he’s no sharpshooter (a common theme among Presti players), he’s not a liability anymore.

While Grant has improved in the half-court, his style of play is best suited in the open floor where there are fewer bodies clogging up space. It’s no surprise then that Grant excels in transition, where he scores 1.39 points per possession, which is in the 93rd percentile. Grant usually never plays the center position because of Adams, but the Thunder should give him some minutes there because he has the potential to be a stretch-5 that gives opposing teams fits. The rough outlines of a dominant rim protector, slasher and roll man are there, Grant just needs to calm down and let them coalesce.

Memorable play: (1.51 mark) Against the Jazz in the playoffs, Grant takes the ball from the top of the key and attacks into the teeth of the defense where he is met by Rudy Gobert, the league’s most imposing rim protector. Grant didn’t flinch. He dribbled left then at the last second switched to his right hand midair to convert a right-handed layup on the other side of the rim, so Gobert couldn’t get to him.

Nerlens Noel

2017-18 stats: 4.4 PPG, 5.6 REB, 0.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 52.4 FG%

There’s no way around it: Noel had a miserable, disheartening, ineffective and simply pathetic season last year. In this case, the stats really do speak for themselves. Noel should be selling himself as a rim-running alley oop machine who stonewalls suckers at the rim on defense. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case. Noel was in the 46th percentile as the roll-man in pick-and-roll situations. The Mavericks were outscored by more than 11 points per 100 possessions when Noel was ON the court.

The dude turned down a four-year $72 million deal two summers ago and now can’t get more than the minimum. But the frustrating aspect of this is that Noel still has the potential to be a quality basketball player. In the 2014 season with the 76ers, Noel was a fantastic rim deterrent. When Noel was in the game, the 76ers sported one of the best defenses in the league, a 100 defensive rating. At only 24-years old, Noel definitely still has that in him.

The potentially beautiful part of Noel being on the Thunder is there’s not much pressure on him. Adams is not going anywhere anytime soon, so all Noel has to worry about is being effective against second units. This is one of the best situations a player like Noel could be in. He has a chance to rebuild his value in a low stakes role as a backup big on a respectable playoff team. Hopefully he turns it around.

Memorable play: JJ Barea drives right with Noel lurking along the left baseline. Barea lofts up a pass that appears to be a tad too high, but Noel soars into the air and slams it down one-handed. It’s a great microcosm of Noel’s athletic ability and his potential on a Thunder team looking for another roll threat.

Raymond Felton

2017-18 stats: 6.9 PPG, 1.9 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 40.7 FG%, 35.4 3P%

Felton is 34-years-old and has played for roughly half the teams in the league. He’s the epitome of a veteran journeyman. But his value to the Thunder last season was bigger than many would have expected. Through the years, the Thunder’s backup point guard position had been a radioactive wasteland. Norris Cole, Semaj Christon, Derek Fisher...it was disheartening. Every time Westbrook would take a breather, the whole foundation collapsed.

But Felton came in and changed that. OKC’s primary all-sub lineup of Felton, Alex Abrines, Patrick Patterson, Grant and Josh Huestis actually outscored opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions through the course of the season. That is remarkable compared to last season, where the Christon-Enes Kanter-Abrines-Grant-Joffrey Lauvergne juggernaut had its pants pulled down to the tune of getting demolished by 19 points per 100 possessions.

Felton is far from flashy. He’s plodding, slow and has probably never dunked in his life (don’t fact check that). But he does his job competently, and for the Thunder’s bench, it must have been like seeing fire for the first time. Felton won’t win you many games, but he won’t lose them either, and for an ultra-talented Thunder squad, that’s extremely valuable.

Memorable play: This one takes us way back to 2012, a time when the Knicks were actually good. Weird times. Felton sized up Udonis Haslem (who, at 38-years-old, is reportedly in the best shape of any Heat player), and crossed him up hard, finishing with an elegant scoop shot.

Alex Abrines

2017-18 stats: 4.7 PPG, 1.5 REB, 0.4 AST, 0.5 STL, 39.5 FG%, 38.0 3P%

Abrines arrived to the Thunder two years ago as a youthful 22-year-old known for his 3-point marksmanship and potential for a little off-the-dribble juice to stress defenses. Alas, as Abrines enters his age 25 season, it seems like we know what kind of player he’s going to be.

Although Abrines has a beautiful shooting stroke, he really does not offer much else, as he is often slow to move on both ends of the court. His defense is subpar. Of regular contributors last season, Abrines boasted the third worse defensive rating for the Thunder, beating out only a washed Corey Brewer and the youthful Terrance Ferguson. As evidenced by his 0.4 assists per game, he’s also not much of a playmaker. But the NBA has evolved into a shooting league and excellent shooters will always have a place. Just look at Steve Novak, who stayed in the league five years after he could walk because he still could stroke it from deep. Sure, Abrines is on a cheapo contract that expires after the season, and Thunder lineups have killed it offensively with him on the floor, but coach Billy Donovan must walk that offense-defense tightrope.

Memorable play: This play is perhaps one of the most important standout plays in this article. While most are just fun highlights (this one is still definitely a highlight), this provides a tantalizing glimpse of what Abrines could bring to the table. He receives a handoff from Carmelo Anthony on the right elbow extended, driving to the hoop with his left hand. Usually Abrines would kick it out, but instead he rockets straight to the rim and flushes a filthy two-handed slam on Jordan Bell. It was unexpected, beautiful and gave Thunder fans hope that maybe Abrines is not done evolving as a player after all.

Patrick Patterson

2017-18 stats: 3.9 PPG, 2.4 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 39.9 FG%, 38.6 3P%

When the Thunder signed Patterson last offseason for three years $15 million, the deal was hailed by many as a bargain. Only a year later though, and Patterson has not lived up to expectations. It seems that knee surgery he had before last season was nagging at him all year. He lacked any previously showcased explosiveness, making reads a beat too late and generally looking indecisive, often struggling to finish at the rim.

One hopes last season was just Patterson shaking the rust off that troublesome knee. He’s still only 29 years old and has served mostly as a substitute throughout his career, so there’s not a lot of tread on his tires. In ancient times (2014 NBA), Patterson was once thought of as a quasi-revolutionary presence: a big man who could pass the ball, make threes and defend the rim at the power forward position. Flash forward to now, and every single team has someone like Patterson, except they offer more than his 3-point shooting.

Patterson can’t defend the rim as well as he used to and while his 3-point percentage is perfectly acceptable, his overall field goal leaves a lot to be desired, especially from the center position. If Nerlens Noel turns it around and develops into a second unit beast, Patterson will have a hard time coming by minutes. The only real opportunity would then be as a backup 4, which could work out, but Patterson has lost a lot of lateral mobility.

He’s still a great locker room presence from reports, and maybe last season really was just all about the knee. At this point, if Patterson can get back to what he was, he could be a quality chess piece for the Thunder’s army.

Standout play: Patterson is not a man of many highlights, and most of his stuff is making threes and mid-rangers. But I did find one exciting in-transition slam:

Terrance Ferguson

2017-18 stats: 3.1 PPG, 0.8 REB, 0.3 AST, 0.4 STL, 41.1 FG%, 33.3 3P%

Rookies on playoff teams rarely make much of a splash (except, of course, aliens Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum). Ferguson saw time when Billy Donovan was feeling frisky or when Roberson initially went down with his knee injury. He’s a jackrabbit, with some of the best hops in the game and...not much else so far.

Ferguson clearly has the allure to be something special. He’s a baby at 20-years-old and his slight frame caused him to get pushed around a lot. There’s a quaint fearlessness to him that’s charming, but until that develops into more tangible on-court efficiency, he’s not going to help the Thunder much this season. What concerned me was summer league, which I know has the reputation of not meaning anything. But Ferguson looked lifeless out there, scoring in single digits rather consistently and getting outplayed by 2018 draft pick Hamidou Diallo.

Again, he’s still so young and he truly did flash some tantalizing potential. He just has to work on his craft and harness it more frequently.

Memorable play: This one was a standout game, where Ferguson came to the bright lights of LA and lit up that Lakers with 24 points on an uber-efficient 9-12 shooting that included two jaw-dropping dunks. During the course of the three-minute video, we see a decisive Ferguson rapidly making the extra pass as well as splashing six 3-pointers and converting a beautiful mid-range fadeaway. If somebody just watched this game, they’d think Ferguson was the best player on the court, and at times, he was.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot

2017-18 stats: 5.8 PPG, 1.4 REB, 1.0 AST, 37.5 FG%, 33.3 3P%

Luwawu-Cabarrot is only 23-years old, and he’s the quintessential Presti player: young with potential, long, physical and can’t shoot. Perfect match! Throughout his two seasons so far, Luwawu-Cabarrot has served primarily as backup wing filler. The 76ers could not have been more average when the 6’7 French swingman was in, outscoring opponents by a mealy 0.7 points per 100 possessions.

He’s going to be pressed to find minutes on a deep Thunder team, but if he can lock up on defense and convert more that 33 percent of his 3-pointers, then he should be a perfectly acceptable backup wing. There’s just not much exciting about him.

Memorable play: Here’s the handsome Frenchman sinking some threes and rejecting suckers at the rim. If he can do this stuff consistently, he’ll find minutes.

Hamidou Diallo

2017-18 stats (college): 10.0 PPG, 3.6 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 42.8 FG%, 33.8 3P%

What do you know! Another young, lengthy, erratic wing who has a broken jump shot. On the bright side, Diallo balled out in summer league, where he was the alpha dog and go-to scorer over second-year wing Terrance Ferguson. If one tries really hard to look away from the fact that Kentucky had an average point differential with Diallo in, the outline of an athletic slashing wing who can clamp up on defense is there.

Memorable play: A beautiful put-back dunk sandwiched between two players. Just a dazzling display of vertical agility.

Five Most Interesting Lineups

  1. Russell Westbrook-Andre Roberson-Paul George-Jerami Grant-Steven Adams. Projected starting lineup, contains three multi positional defenders.
  2. Russell Westbrook-Dennis Schroder-Paul George-Jerami Grant-Steven Adams. Three ball-creators should be very difficult to handle.
  3. Russell Westbrook-Dennis Schroder-Andre Roberson-Paul George-Steven Adams. George has been reluctant to play the 4 in years past, but the team should excel.
  4. Russell Westbrook-Dennis Schroder-Andre Roberson-Paul George-Jerami Grant. Going small with Grant at the 5. Should run teams out of the gym.
  5. Dennis Schroder-Alex Abrines-Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot-Patrick Patterson-Nerlens Noel. Will be interesting to see how this team fares without Westbrook/George/Adams trio.

Best Case Scenario

A championship.

Worst Case Scenario

Flaming out in the first round.

Breakout Player

Jerami Grant. Only 24-years-old with a ridiculously long wingspan, Grant is primed for a huge year, taking over for Carmelo Anthony as the team’s starting power forward. Grant’s versatility on defense and malleability on offense should mesh well with a balanced Thunder squad.

Projected Record

52-30