2018-19 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook remains the engine of the Oklahoma City roadster but Paul George’s decision to stay kept that engine from sitting empty, revving alone on the garage floor.

Slighting the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James to stay and build onward with Westbrook was one of the most intriguing moments of the offseason. George, who had been on a rumored roundabout but direct path to the Lakers for three years really bought into the culture Oklahoma City was offering. Launching a typhoon of narratives while thwarting others. Maybe stars do want to play with Westbrook?

Carmelo Anthony was a failed experiment as a member of the Thunder and assuming the majority of his minutes go to some combination of Nerlens Noel and Jerami Grant, the Thunder could be a fortress defensively. The once uninspiring bench has been revamped. With Nerlens Noel and with Dennis Schroder aboard, if they, too, fall in love with the Oklahoma City culture, this is the most talented team Westbrook has had post-Durant.

 2018-19 Thunder  Guards  Wings  Bigs
 Returners Russell Westbrook, Raymond Felton Paul George, Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines, Patrick Patterson, Andre Roberson, Terrance Ferguson Steven Adams
 Newcomers Dennis Schroder Abdel Nader, Hamidou Diallo, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Donte Grantham Nerlens Noel
 Gone PJ Dozier Carmelo Anthony, Corey Brewer, Josh Huestis, Kyle Singler Nick Collison
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Offense: Propelled by sheer will, the Oklahoma City Thunder had the No. 7 offense last season. It needs to be stated: Individually, Westbrook is incredible, absolutely incredible, a phenomenon of force and will, a photon, energy and speed that can’t be matched. And yet, something about the way he plays basketball casts a ceiling on the overall result.

The Thunder offense needs Westbrook, but it also stalls because of him. His ability to dominate offensively is a blessing and a curse. He assisted on 60.4 percent of the Thunder’s makes last season which was the highest mark in the NBA (Westbrook’s second year as the leader in the category). It’s a dominating feat but also an over-reliance on one player.

When you compare Westbrook’s play style to that of rival Steph Curry, it’s clear why the outside observer would prefer to play with the Chef. Westbrook touches the ball 20 more times a game, holds it two seconds longer on average per possession, and scores one less point a game despite taking four more shots. All of this to say, the Thunder are capable of more and to cross that bridge, Russell Westbrook needs to be a different kind of MVP.

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George is one of the 15 best players in the NBA. He’s not just a spot-up shooter and the Thunder offense would benefit greatly by reincorporating him to a greater degree. Steven Adams is the best offensive rebounder in the NBA who also has a soft touch and would thrive with more touches in the pick-and-roll. Of players in the top 20 for possessions as a roll-man, only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert scored more per possession than Adams last season.

Westbrook needs to do all of the things that make him must-watch television and an all-time talent while better incorporating the pieces placed around him. There’s no doubt he holds the keys to the Thunder engine, he just needs to steer it better.

Defense: Missing their best defender for half of the season in Andre Roberson, the Thunder still finished the year as the League’s No. 9 defense. The Westbrook-Roberson-George-Grant-Adams lineup could be crippling defensively. It’s truly unfortunate Roberson is going to miss the first two months. The Thunder defensive rating was 11.9 points per 100 possessions better when Roberson was on the court vs. off of it.

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Westbrook needs to set a different tone than he has in years past. Leaving his man to better prepare for a defensive rebound or taking off a possession entirely to sprint full-steam up court isn’t the look for a team that needs to be a force defensively to contend. Adams flanked by Noel should provide above average rim protection at all-times for the Thunder.

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Upside: Can a tiger change its stripes? The Thunder’s ability to improve walks hand-in-hand with Westbrook’s desire or lack thereof to change his play.

Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan have both failed in their quest to shape Westbrook’s game from raw cannon fire to a coordinated strike. Westbrook owns a disturbing true shooting percentage of 44 percent and 41 percent in the fourth quarter of the playoffs the last two years respectively. The 54 percent he averages in the regular season is already subpar for a player shooting the amount that he does, but Westbrook loses it in close games. Steel doors are better conquered by a key than a crowbar.

Durability: Westbrook is questionable to start the year and Roberson is out a couple months. Both are a concern but on a whole, Adams hasn’t missed more than six games in three seasons. George has played 75 or more games every year since truly returning from his gruesome injury in 2014.

The Thunder aren’t a major worry in the durability department, but if the defense struggles mightily like it did last year without Roberson, it could cost them in playoff seeding. The Western Conference doesn’t allow 20 games to find yourself. If the Thunder slip early they might abandon any chance they had of a homecourt advantage come April.

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Synergy: Westbrook questions aside, Adams, George, and the returning core know what the plan is. Look to newcomers Noel and Schroder, both of whom have had their locker room character questioned in the past. Schroder isn’t naïve, and the Thunder didn’t bring him in to reenact the Reggie Jackson saga, but his contentment is worth keeping an eye on. Noel is the more worrisome force. Two teams prior saw his ability to impact games on the defensive end and put their faith in him only to be burnt by his lack of engagement. Noel is on chance number three and would do himself a mighty disservice by not buying in hand over fist.

Experience: This team is battle tested. Young Westbrook saw the Finals, though, briefly. Both he and George have battled to seven at the last base camp prior to the summit. Experience isn’t going to be a weakness for the Thunder.

Win Frame: 47-51 wins