2017-18 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

By Bryan Crawford #26

The sting from seeing Kevin Durant jump ship to the Golden State Warriors last summer was lessened somewhat as Russell Westbrook not only led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs—essentially by himself—as the sixth best team in the West, but he did it while becoming the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double during the regular season. After OKC was bounced in the first round by the Houston Rockets, there was talk that the Thunder could possibly lose Westbrook in free agency if GM Sam Presti didn’t do something fast to address the talent issue on the roster. But those fears were assuaged when Westbrook signed a five-year extension worth $205 million—the largest player contract in NBA history—two months after the team traded with the Indiana Pacers for Paul George and less than a week after acquiring Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. All of a sudden, the future looks a lot brighter in OKC, and this squad has a legit chance to possibly contend for the Western Conference crown if all goes well.

Thunder 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Russell Westbrook Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines, Kyle Singler, Semaj Christon, Josh Huestis Steven Adams, Nick Collison
Newcomers Raymond Felton Carmelo Anthony, Paul George Patrick Patterson, Dakari Johnson
Gone Cameron Payne Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott Enes Kanter, Taj Gibson, Joffrey Lauvergne, Domantas Sabonis
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Offense: In Westbrook, Anthony and George, the Thunder have three players who can carry the scoring load on any given night, and are guaranteed to get anywhere from 65-75 points a night from this trio. Only the Warriors can boast of such an incredible potential offensive output from three players. Oklahoma City should easily move back into being one of the top-five scoring squads in the League, and they should be a lot of fun to watch for basketball fans around the country. But outside of those three, points might be hard to come by, especially off the bench. Enes Kanter was sent to the Knicks as part of the trade for Carmelo, and he was the Thunder’s third leading scorer last season as a sixth man. Billy Donovan doesn’t have much to work with in a reserve unit featuring guys like Patrick Patterson, Jerian Grant, Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines and rookie Terrance Ferguson. The Thunder will have to play small and fast this season because they’ll have no other choice being such a perimeter oriented team with virtually no presence inside. The three things to pay attention to for the Thunder on offense: How Westbrook adapts to having two scoring threats on the floor after being a one-man wrecking ball for an entire season. Anthony and George have been used to playing with the ball in their hands so there will be an adjustment to Westbrook, who led the NBA in usage rate with a shade under 42 percent. He’s still a supreme scorer, but with more than 35,000 minutes and 24,000 points to his 33-year-old body, how much more does Anthony have left?

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Defense: Surprisingly, Oklahoma City was top-10 in defensive rating last season, but it’s anyone’s guess on where they could fall this year. Steven Adams is the best defender and rebounder in the post, while Andre Roberson might be the best perimeter shutdown player in the game. Of course neither brings much on the offensive side, but the Thunder could certainly thrive as long as both guys play their defensive roles. From there, OKCs best defensive strategy will be to let Westbrook and George roam, which should help cover for Carmelo’s defensive flaws. All told, Donovan will have to rely on his squad to play solid team defense, which means getting hands in the passing lanes for deflections and steals, as well as challenging every outside shot and boxing out on every rebound. Don’t expect this team to slow anyone down this season on the defensive side of the ball, but if they’re going to have a deep playoff run, this is exactly where their focus should be all year.

Upside: With Westbrook locked down for the next five years, and a roster featuring three of the most lethal offensive weapons in the NBA, the Thunder have a real shot at finishing top-three in the Western Conference and a legitimate chance at making the Conference Finals. Presti swung for the fences this summer and it’ll be interesting to see if he hit a home run, or just a deep pop fly to the warning track. Another tick in the upside category is the possibility of shedding almost $50 million in payroll after the season if George exercises his player option and explores free agency and Anthony decides to use his early termination opt-out. While the former seems more realistic than the latter, the truth is this squad was assembled to compete for one year only. Even if George and Anthony buy in on OKC beyond 2017-18, the window isn’t large, especially with Anthony’s age.

Durability: While it seems like Carmelo Anthony is hurt all the time, he’s appeared in at least 70 games or more three out of the last four seasons. George, since returning from his leg injury, played in at least 75 games for the Pacers the last two years. Westbrook has been an ironman playing in 161 of a possible 162 games between 2015 and 2017. The health of these three will be critical to any success the Thunder have this season. Generally speaking, Oklahoma City hasn’t been bitten by the injury bug as hard as other teams around the League, and unless all three of their best players go down at the same time, they should be able to withstand any injuries that may occur this season. That said, it would behoove the Thunder of their big three stay healthy to maximize the adjustment period of playing together.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Synergy: Oklahoma City was nearly upset in the preseason by Melbourne United, a team from Australia’s National Basketball League, in a game that ordinarily shouldn’t have been close. There was some positives to be gleaned from that game, such as OKCs effort on the defensive side of the ball. But offensively, it’s going to take some time for Westbrook, George and Anthony to figure out each other’s tendencies. Runs at Life Time Athletic Sky are one thing, but going up against the best players in the world on a nightly basis takes a little more meticulous planning and film watching to get these three running and performing like a well-oiled machine. The good thing is the trio have spend some time together for USA Basketball so it won’t be exactly total strangers from day one.

Experience: Anthony and George have both led their teams to the playoffs and Conference Finals in their careers, same as Russell Westbrook who has been to two Conference Finals and played in one Finals. There’s no shortage of high level experience on this squad, and what should bind this big three together is the desire to beat the best team in basketball, the Golden State Warriors, and finally break through to win a title. Westbrook and George have time on their side, but both are fueled by competition to win. Anthony, closer to the twilight of his career, is looking to validate his Hall of Fame resumé with a championship. On the sidelines, Billy Donovan has done well his first two seasons as an NBA coach, leaning heavily on his decades of experience as a player and championship winning college basketball coach. There’s a lot of basketball knowledge in the Thunder locker room this season, but can they bring it all together and do something special this season remains to be seen. But the pieces are certainly there for Oklahoma City to make a lot of noise.

Win Frame: 52-57 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

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