2016-17 result: 47-35. 6th in the Western Conference. Lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs in five games.
Transactions: Last summer the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka and then painfully lost Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors in free agency. With those departures, Russell Westbrook was the only star left of the core who took the team to the 2012 NBA Finals.
We all knew Westbrook would likely go off – and did he ever. He broke Oscar Robertson’s 55 year old record with 42 triple doubles and also became the first player since the Big O to average a triple double for an entire NBA season with a mind boggling stat line of 32.1 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds on his way to his first MVP Award and his second scoring title in three seasons.
It was easily the best individual season that I’ve ever seen in terms of individual statistics including a record shattering 41.6% usage rate and a new mark for highest value over replacement in a single season.
Westbrook put the Thunder on his back and willed them into the playoffs with an individual performance that will likely never be replicated. But he was still one man and they fell in five games to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
In the modern NBA, one star isn’t really enough. Regardless of how transcendent that star may be and even in the wake of the one of the best individual seasons in the history of basketball, it wasn’t enough to compete with a better team in the Western Conference.
With the West even more loaded than it was last year, Westbrook’s heroics not enough for the Thunder to really compete in such a talent heavy conference and also a rather uncertain future for OKC’s superstar with free agency on the horizon, the team could not stay the course. They had to make a big move to not only be able to push for the playoffs but also to have any hope of getting Russ to stay for a longer term.
They accomplished that objective big time with the acquisition of Paul George in an absolute blockbuster that saw them get the four time all-star in return for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. When you get the best player in a trade, you generally win that trade and this transaction was no exception.
OKC was really dealing from a position of strength in this deal as with only one year remaining on his deal, George informed the Indiana Pacers that he intended to sign elsewhere which basically forced their hand and backed them into a corner where they had to take less than market value for their franchise player. Of course, the Thunder had to be aware that there’s also a risk that PG13 could leave them in the off-season, especially with the strong rumours connecting him to the Lakers, but that’s a risk well worth taking given what George brings to the team.
Sabonis never really got going in his rookie season and probably never would have in OKC getting so few touches with Westbrook in constant “go to” mode. Oladipo also never really clicked next to Westbrook in the back-court and actually stands to earn more money next season than Paul George is going to due to a somewhat inflated contract.
In Paul George, the team gets the prerequisite second superstar necessary to be a player in the current landscape of the West. He’s going to fit very well on the court with Westbrook on the wing as a catch-and-shoot option or a pick-and-roll partner. Most importantly, PG13 doesn’t need to dominate the ball or require a ton of touches a game to be effective which makes him the ideal tag team partner for Russ.
George also takes a huge burden off the reigning MVP as another scoring option or a potential secondary ball handler. PG13 is an excellent passer and can run the offense which will allow the Thunder to use Westbrook off the ball in some plays and give their offense a fresh look. The reigning MVP is actually pretty lethal with catch-and-shoot threes and will now have a skilled passer alongside him in the former Pacer.
Another option could be to stagger their minutes in a similar manner to which the Houston Rockets are planning to utilize James Harden and Chris Paul and give each man their own unit to run as well as deploying them together. Such a move would provide the Thunder offense with an all-star calibre scorer on the floor at all times and also allow each man to handle the rock and facilitate in different sets. Billy Donovan suddenly has a wealth of options where last season he only had one.
Defensively, the Thunder are getting a three-time all-defense calibre player who is capable of locking down opposing players one-on-one and is also one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. He’s got the physical attributes to guard three, in small line-ups four, positions and can use his 6’11” wingspan to fight through screens and cut off passing lanes.
George has never played with a superstar until now. At 27, he’s just hitting his peak in the NBA and is coming off a season where he averaged a career 23.7 points on 46.1% shooting to go along with 6.6 boards, 3.3 dimes and 1.6 steals. He also shot 39.3% from three point range giving the Thunder a consistent threat from deep.
The combo of Paul George and Russell Westbrook makes the Thunder a legitimate player in the loaded West, but they weren’t done there.
With the departure of Taj Gibson in free agency, OKC had a pretty big hole in their line-up at the power forward spot, but filled it by signing the perfect modern stretch 4 in Patrick Patterson. Coming off somewhat of a down year with the Raptors due to injuries, the team was able to sign the 28 year old to the mid-level exception which is a tremendous bargain considering what Patterson brings to the team.
The ability to space the floor is a key to modern NBA success and when Patterson is playing, the Thunder will be able to stretch the floor. 66% of his shot attempts last season where from three point range. He shot 37.2% and 41% on corner threes. Opposing defenses can’t double off him or he will make them pay from deep.
Patterson is also a tenacious and versatile defender who is able to switch very well and guard multiple positions. When he was on the floor for the Raptors last season, they allowed 102.5 points per 100 possessions which made them the 3rd best defense in the NBA with him. Without him, they were in the bottom half of the league at 106.5 points per 100 possessions.
The Thunder essentially have a 3 and D power forward. That’s an incredible asset in the West and to get Patterson on a 3 year. $16.4 million deal if a huge steal for a player with a set of skills made for the modern NBA.
OKC further bolstered their D by re-signing Andre Roberson to a 3 year, $30 million deal. Standing at 6’7” with a 7’0” wingspan, he’s a Swiss-army knife on the back-end who can defend virtually every position on the floor. When he shares the floor with Paul George, the Thunder will have a tandem of wing defenders capable of locking down opponents on the perimeter.
Offensively, however, is another story. Opposing defenses can generally leave him open because he doesn’t really have any shooting range and can’t really offer much on that end with a career average of 4.5 points per game, however his back-end play more than makes up for as the 25 year old was named to second team all-defense last season.
A big problem for the team last season as the lack of a steady back-up for Russell Westbrook at the point. They addressed that deficiency by signing veteran Raymond Felton on the veteran’s minimum 1 year, $2.3 million. Having that consistency and a guard who can keep the offense moving on the second unit is a huge boost to the Thunder’s depth.
Nick Collison will also be returning to the organization for his 14th NBA season. He’s the only player int he organization who was drafted when they were still in Seattle and although he can’t offer much on the court anymore, is a valued veteran presence.
Oklahoma City concluded their off-season with yet another blockbuster deal as they sent Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second round pick to the New York Knicks for embattled superstar Carmelo Anthony.
Much like the situation with the Pacers, the Knicks were not dealing from a position of strength. Now-fired president of basketball operations Phil Jackson had poisoned the well for Melo so badly in NYC that the 10 time all-star had approached the team looking for a buy out. It was a situation that had damaged both parties to the extent that it was best for both if they parted ways and the Thunder were able to take advantage of that situation.
At 33, Melo’s better days are behind him but he still averaged 22.4 points on 43.3% shooting and added 5.9 boards and 2.9 assists as the primary option for a pretty terrible Knicks squad last season. Now he gets to play with two other all-star talents on the most talented roster that he’s ever been part of in his career.
He’s going to absolutely tear it up on catch-and-shoot opportunities which should see him improve upon his 35.9% three point shooting last season. Playing with George and Westbrook will give Anthony the best looks of his career as he will not be the focus of opposing defenses for the first time after being the primary option for 14 NBA seasons.
If Melo is willing to accept a decreased role and operate as a second or third option behind Westbrook and/or George depending on who is on the floor, he should thrive and play a key role on a contending team.
The deal was a huge win for the Thunder in that in adding a future Hall of Famer and one of the best offensive players that the game has ever seen, they have have shown to Paul George and Russell Westbrook that they’re willing to go all in to compete, which will go a long way toward convincing both men to stay in Oklahoma City Thunder. In the process, they also managed to get the seemingly unmovable Enes Kanter contract off the books.
This off-season was a major win to the Thunder. Sam Presti managed to turn Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second round pick into Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. That is some next level wizardry.
It was some wizardry that paid off big time for Sam Presti and the organization when just yesterday, Russell Westbrook signed the richest contract in NBA history when he signed a five year, $205 million extension with the Thunder that will guarantee him $233.5 million between now and the 2022-23 season which surpasses James Harden’s $228 million extension in Houston.
After the season that Westbrook had, he deserves it. He shattered individual records and put the team on his back.
Now he’s got two all-star teammates, which undoubtedly had a huge impact on Russ’ decision to stay in Oklahoma City and will have implications in terms of Carmelo Anthony opting into the final year of his deal and Paul George remaining with the Thunder beyond this season.
When you consider where this franchise was a year ago after Kevin Durant left and people saw Westbrook’s departure as a certainty, Sam Presti did a remarkable job of not only turning things around but bringing together a big three that will make the Thunder one of the most competitive teams in a loaded Western Conference.
For fans of NBA drama, you can’t get much better than Westbrook putting pen to paper on the richest contract in NBA history on former teammate Kevin Durant’s birthday. I can’t confirm or deny that this song was playing at the time.
What an exclamation mark on the most exciting off-season in NBA history and an incredible off-season for Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 21st pick in the draft, Oklahoma City selected Terrance Ferguson who had made the unconventional decision to spurn US college ball in favour of playing pro hoops in Australia. While there the 19 year old definitely struggled to stay on the court as he average only 15.2 minutes and 4.6 points and 1.1 rebounds while shooting just 38.1% and 31.3% from three point range.
Ferguson is a very raw prospect but has shown flashes of explosiveness and a solid jump shot. On the back end, he’s got a lot of energy and a high compete level and is able to use his length and quickness to contest shots and has shown a willingness to throw his body around in the paint.
At 6’7” with a 6’9” wingspan, Ferguson does show a lot of intrigue and has the tools to develop into a solid defender and the shot mechanics that show potential in becoming a long-distance threat. He’s considered one of the top 3-and-D prospects in the draft and a deep OKC team has a lot of time to allow him to develop and hopefully reach that potential.
Outlook: Proponents of the “there’s only one ball” theory when it comes to talented players joining forces are having a field day with the combination of Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
Granted there perhaps is a bit more relevance to those concerns in this case than there have been in previous situations. All three players were in the top fifteen in frequency of isolation plays last season. Westbrook, Anthony and George also ranked 1st, 15th and 16th respectively in terms of usage rates and their combined number equates to nearly 100%.
Billy Donovan definitely has his work cut out for him in terms of determining how best to play to each man’s strengths and how to combine three players who are used to being the alpha dog into a cohesive offensive unit. On his side, is the fact that it is impossible for opposing defenses to double when these three share the floor at the same time. There’s also the fact that Westbrook and George lobbied hard for Melo and Anthony presumably would not have come to the Thunder if he wasn’t willing to a take a different role on the offense.
Anthony’s willingness to adapt to his team was immediately apparent with the announcement that he will be the starting power forward to OKC this season. This position makes it clear that the team is going small and modern which is something that should help Carmelo to thrive given that he’s finally free of the archaic triangle offense in New York that forced him into a very ISO-heavy game. Moving him into the power forward spot allows him to focus more on spreading the floor and using his underappreciated post-up game.
Melo is a constant threat as a spot up shooter (he had a 62% EFG on spot up opportunities last season which was 7th in the NBA) and will be a nightmare for opposing defenses to stay on when Westbrook’s drives collapse the defense and he’s able to kick it out to Anthony for an open look. Given how talented both Russ and Paul George are as facilitators, he’s going to have a lot of opportunities off the catch-and-shoot where he was 42.6% from three point range last season. With opposing defenses having to focus on his all-star teammates, he’s going to have more room to operate than he ever has in his career.
Defensively, the power forward spot will help cover Anthony weaknesses. The power forward spot means that he won’t have to chase opposing players around the perimeter as he’ll have George or Roberson on the floor with him to do that. He’ll also have a front-court partner in Steven Adams who can protect the rim and guard the paint effectively, meaning Melo will be able to have a favourable match-up virtually every time he is on the floor.
The addition of Paul George will also be a huge relief for Russell Westbrook on the back-end. George and Roberson can draw the toughest match-ups on the perimeter and leave Westbrook with more energy to facilitate and score on the other end. The pressure is also off of him in terms of having to do it all offensively as he can now kick it out on drives to George or Melo or even let hand off the offense to PG13 and play off the ball. These were two options that he didn’t have in the past and the Thunder no longer have the problem of the offense cratering when Russ is on the bench.
George is good enough with the ball to run the offense and immediately gives the Thunder a fresh look in non-Westbrook line-ups due to his positional versatility and his two-way play. Billy Donovan can turn PG13 to run the second unit and not lose any offensive potency. In a conference where the top teams are defined by their depth and line-up versatility, the Thunder can hang with any of them.
Adding Patrick Patterson is going to pay off huge as he is going to give OKC spacing and a constant shooting threat off the bench, while also being able to play the 5 in small line-ups and really stretch the floor out. His weaknesses in rebounding are covered at multiple spots, whether in small line-ups where Westbrook and George can pick up the slack or other combinations where he’s share the floor with Steven Adams.
Speaking of which, I’d expect big things from the 24 year old New Zealander as he will look to bounce back from an off-year during the Westbrook show last season with a much more defined role as the anchor in the starting line-up who will protect the rim, be the main man in the paint and clean it up down low. He will also benefit with the newly versatile offense and he’s got the opportunity to star in the pick-and-roll with Westbrook and/or George in different sets.
Defensively, Adams is going to combine with the likes of Paul George, Andre Roberson and Patrick Patterson in what should be one of the NBA’s top defenses. The Thunder were solid on the back-end last season, they’re going to be elite defensively this year and that’s going to a long way to ensuring their success as they work out the new offense.
The fact that they were able to make such huge upgrades while giving up so little in return is a huge boost to the team and will likely ensure them a top four spot in a loaded Western Conference. I’m not sure that they have what it takes to hang with Golden State, but if things go well they will definitely be able to compete with the Rockets or Spurs should they meet either in the playoffs.
There are a lot of skeptics regarding Carmelo Anthony, Paul George or Russell Westbrook’s willingness to defer, but again most of it is from people who lack a lot of long-term memory and can’t recall Westbrook successfully sharing the spotlight with Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony willing to act as “bait” and function primarily as a spot up shooter when asked to during the Olympics or Paul George’s ability as a facilitator.
There’s also the fact that all three of them became the iso-heavy alpha dogs out of necessity on less talented teams.
The Pacers never paired Paul George with a superstar. Westbrook spent last season on a team that was built for Kevin Durant. Carmelo’s spent the last few years on some awful Knicks teams where he’s had no choice but to take charge while stuck in the triangle.
Now they’ve got each other.
You can’t tell me that three players of this magnitude won’t find a way to make it work. They came together for one objective: to win. Not to chase individual glory, not to break a triple double record, not to get the most touches, but to go on a deep playoff run and challenge for an NBA Championship. In order to pursue that goal, they’ll make it work.
The Thunder are now a legitimate contender again.
Outlook: 52-30. 4th in the Western Conference and will likely win their first round series.