Editor's note: With the new NBA season around the corner, we preview the top five teams contending for the 2017-18 title in this series The Contenders. We continue with the Oklahoma City Thunder at number four.
With bold offseason moves, the Thunder now have their own Big Three to challenge the best in the West.
In an offseason of frantic movement and big contracts, nobody has had a better summer than OKC general manager Sam Presti.
A little over a year ago, a heart-breaking loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals seemed to mark the end of OKC’s reign among Western Conference contenders. Kevin Durant left the Thunder to controversially join the Warriors and Russell Westbrook was left alone to shepherd an imperfect team in the gruelling West. Thunder fans were left worrying if their team could attract superstar players or ensure the future stay of Westbrook in the small market.
But with shrewd trades for Eastern Conference All Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, plus a five-year extension for last year’s MVP Westbrook, Presti has ensured that the Thunder are ready to bounce back immediately as one of the league’s elite. The team was always a threat in the Durant era and made the 2012 NBA Finals. Now, with Westbrook, George, and Anthony as the faces of the franchise, could they find the chemistry to upset the league’s established powers and bring a trophy to Oklahoma City?
The story last year
The loss of Durant was obviously the most pertinent storyline in OKC in 2016-17, and the team fell from a top three in the West to playoff mediocrity. Free with complete reigns of the offense however, Westbrook made the most of Durant’s absence, leading the league in scoring while becoming the first player to average a triple-double for an entire season in 45 years. Westbrook won the NBA’s MVP award and led OKC to a 47-35 record. But with no reliable options beyond the supersonic point guard, the team was ousted in the First Round of the playoffs by Houston, 4-1.
The Thunder were perhaps the NBA’s most aggressive team this offseason, taking advantage of superstars in unhappy situations to make risky deals for lower-than-market value. They traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana to acquire George, and then sent Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, plus a Second Round pick to New York for Anthony. Another notable addition was free agent Patrick Patterson from Toronto, while Taj Gibson left the team to sign with Minnesota.
Westbrook, George, Anthony, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Patterson.
They will win a title if…
Westbrook, George, and Anthony mesh together in real life as smoothly as they would in a video game. On paper, the overwhelming talents of this new Big Three make a lot of sense. Westbrook is the high-energy point guard who causes devastation on the offensive end is in the absolute prime of his career. George is an ideal two-way player who can be an elite perimeter defender, an offensive threat, and capable of effecting the game without the ball in his hands. Anthony has shown in past USA Olympic teams that he shines with other stars as the ultimate high-scoring, sharp-shooting foil on offense.
The team also has Steven Adams as a bruising center and Roberson as a top qualify perimeter defender. If this team can move the ball like the best in the business (Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs) they will be able to create ample scoring opportunities for all of their stars and become unstoppable on the offensive end.
Cause for concern
Unfortunately, life isn’t a video game. All three of the Thunder’s stars are “ball stoppers” in a sense, as all three had a top-20 usage rate in the league last season with Westbrook at an All Time high of 41.7. Unlike the ‘superteam’ out in Golden State, the Thunder’s stars aren’t known to be the best at moving the ball or moving themselves without the ball. We have seen how the past Durant/Westbrook Thunder teams operated: great talent but clunky offense. This squad has the risk for similar pitfalls. There is also a concern of depth: after the top three and Adams, there are few reliable backup options in the team.
Even if the Thunder don’t mesh perfectly, they will have a good season based on talent alone, and their ability to close games out should carry them far in the playoffs. They should be able to make the Western Conference Finals for a 2016 rematch full of bad blood against the Warriors, but I don’t expect them to survive past Golden State’s firepower.
Updated Date: Oct 14, 2017 12:27 PM