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2017 NBA Summer Preview Series: Oklahoma City Thunder

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No real surprise how this voting turned out given the year Westbrook just had combined with the summer Sam Presti is having. A mix of good luck, aggressiveness, and other team’s idiocy has Thunder fans probably foaming at the mouth for the NBA season for start and for good reason. All of the sudden the top of the West could be looking at a newcomer, but it’s also a big year for OKC to convince their prized new acquisition to actually stay in OKC. Let’s not also forget that Russell Westbrook and Enes Kanter have a player option after this season as well, so I would say a great deal is on the line for the Thunder this season.

2016-17 season highlights

I don’t live in Oklahoma, but the sense I got was fans of the Thunder were pretty upset with the departure of Kevin Durant to the rival Warriors. Together he and Westbrook had gone from a Thunder team that won 23 games Westbrook’s rookie year to 50 in Year 2. As a franchise, the Sonics/Thunder went from two playoff appearances from 2000-2009, to a team that never had a winning percentage under .549 while these two were together. They won at least 55 games four times, made three WCF, and one Finals. But we all know the story, they blew that 3-1 lead and off Durant went, giving the keys to Westbrook for what we all thought was the forseeable future. I don’t think any of us saw them replacing Durant, at least THIS quickly, but here we are. Is Paul George Kevin Durant? Absolutely not, but he is certainly no scrub. In fact, you could argue that he’s as close as you could get to replacing Durant with what was available for the Thunder to work with. As it stands today, August 15, this is how their roster looks

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As a team, OKC has the third highest payroll in the NBA at $126,385,082. This means they are also a luxury tax payer, so the roster you’re looking at there is pretty much where they’ll be. The Thunder do have a $4.9M trade exception from Ersan Illyasova, but that expires on November 1st. They also have a small $2.5M trade exception from Domantas Sabonis, which doesn’t expire until June 30th next summer. On paper, that starting five has to intrigue you. There’s Westbrook, arguably a Top 3 player in the entire league right in the middle of his prime, Paul George, who also is a ways from 30, an All NBA talent himself, and also in his prime. Sprinkle in a solid young defensive presence in Roberson, a stretch four option in Patterson, and Steven Adams, and you could do a whole hell of a lot worse. Also, how the hell is Steven Adams ONLY 24? Why does it feel like he’s been on the Thunder for 15 years? Anyway, for the Thunder to live up to the hype, and certainly improve on their first round exit last season, a few things need to happen.

I want to start with their bench. We see this with a few other fringe contending teams, where the starting five is legit as hell, but then things start to tail off real quick once they are forced to use their bench. For OKC, their second unit/bench has gone under a bit of a transformation, and to me, is still filled with question marks. Gone are Norris Cole, Josh Huestis, Domantas Sabonis, and Taj Gibson (even though he started). None of those guys are causing OKC fans to lose any sleep I would imagine. To replace these guys, the Thunder brought in Raymond Felton, Dakari Johnson, Terrance Ferguson, and Rashawn Thomas. Again, guys that really don’t move the needle. The progression of the Thunder’s second unit is really going to depend on how guys like Singler/Grant/McDermott develop, as they probably will see a bulk of the second unit minutes. What’s interesting is that last year, Westbrook was on the floor for the 6 most frequently used OKC lineups, and while I expect that to somewhat continue, a massive reason that happened was because they NEEDED him to be on the floor basically all the time. Well, now that they have George as sort of a KD-Lite, I wanted to see how the Thunder used Westbrook in 2015. In that year, he was in the top 3 most used lineups, but their 5th most frequently used lineup was all bench players, no KD or Westbrook. Could Billy Donovan use a similar rotation this season as well? Perhaps, but quite frankly the OKC bench is going to be the difference maker for this team if they want to jump into the upper levels of the West.

As a group, OKC’s bench accounted for 36.1 points per game, which was 14th in the NBA. They were average at best on the glass where they finished 17th, didn’t move the ball, finishing 28th in assists, were among the worst in the league at turning it over, and overall were a negative in terms of +/-. With Westbrook off the floor last season, things were a bit of a disaster. Both their offensive and defensive ratings were worse, again, because they really didn’t have the talent to make up for when the starters took a rest. In looking at the 2017 second unit, the one thing you see is a shit ton of SFs, and young unproven players. At this point I think we can all officially give up on Enes Kanter being any sort of positive defensive player, so when you compare OKC’s second unit to the GS/HOU/SA of the world, they don’t quite stack up in my opinion.

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The good news is, no matter how you want to slice it, the Thunder significantly won their trade for Paul George. Oladipo is a nice young player, but he probably won’t make an All Star team. Sabonis could be more than solid one day, but I’m not sure we’re there yet. Were they a little lucky that the Pacers GM has the patience of a child? Sure, but that’s not OKC’s problem. By bringing in George, Donovan can go back to running a lot of the same sets he did for Durant, you know, when the Thunder had the 5th highest offensive rating, and second highest true shooting% in the NBA back in 2015. What I found interesting is that even though they played for different teams, the way Donovan used Durant, and the way George was used last year in IND are CRAZY similar.

Isolation plays: Durant – 14.9% frequency / George – 14.0% frequency

Spot Up plays: Durant – 11.0% frequency / George – 11.2% frequency

Off Screen plays: Durant – 14.1% frequency / George 16.0% frequency

Pick & Roll plays: Durant – 19.0% frequency / George 21.2% frequency

So you can see, while George is not going to be Kevin Durant, he should have no problems whatsoever working his way into Billy Donovan’s system, because I would imagine he’s going to use him in a similar fashion to how he used Durant in 2015. That should excite you as a Thunder fan. The once concern is, OKC plays at a pace that George has never played before in his career. That’s more nitpicking than anything else, but style does matter to some degree. Sure it may mean Westbrook doesn’t have a usage rate in 40s anymore, but perhaps that’s a good thing. When he had that elite level wing partner, the Thunder won 55+ games easy, and that’s where they are going to have to get to if they want to get back to where they were pre Durant departure. Tell me this couldn’t be Paul George. You can’t

A lot of people have been talking about how smooth Gordon Hayward is going to fit into what the Celtics do, but I’m not sure we are talking enough about how well George is going to blend into OKC’s system.

What else is there to say about Westbrook. The reigning MVP had one of the more historic NBA seasons of all time, finally got his MVP, and now has another weapon to throw at the West. We now have had two seasons where it was mostly the Westbrook show, once in 2014 when KD was hurt and they won 45 games and missed the playoffs, the other last year where they won 47 games and lost in the first round. That’s today’s NBA for you, you can have one of the best players in the league, the MVP, and that alone is not going to get you where you want to go. You need multiple All NBA players. He probably won’t win the scoring title again because I think his FGA drop down from 24 to where they have been on average for his career which is around 18 a night. It would be silly to think he’ll go another year averaging a triple double, but would any of us be surprised? Something like 23/10/10 seems doable, even though that’s outrageous to expect.

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When you have a rebounding guard like Westbrook, it’s no surprise the Thunder led the NBA in rebounding%, and they are going to have to continue that strong presence on the glass in 2017. Fortunately, nothing they’ve lost from last year’s team really impacts that. You may be thinking this was mostly due to all those easy defensive rebounds guys just gave Westbrook, but the Thunder actually had the best offensive rebound% in the league. They get after it.

Also, it should not be ignored that last season was the worst OKC defense we’ve seen in quite some time. Their 107.5 defensive rating was their highest since the 2008-09 season, where they won 23 games. Gone are the days of Serge Ibaka and elite level Thunder defense. With that elite level wing who could also play defense, the Thunder had a net rating of at least 4 during their prime run, and it got to as high as 8. Last year it was under 1. Their offense has stayed consistent, but they’ve been missing something on the defensive end in the years they didn’t have Durant, so George is going to help in this area as well. Remember, this is a dude who has made three All NBA Defensive teams (2nd, 1st, 2nd). That’s going to be key heading into the year.

If I had to pick one other thing that the Thunder need to address, it’s their outside shooting. It is in fact, actually bad. They finished dead last as a team in 3P% (32.7%), and were near the bottom in 3PM a game. I would say George is going to help in this regard, as he shot 39% last year and made nearly three a game (2.6). The addition of Patrick Patterson is nothing to sleep at either in this area as well. During his time in Toronto he made over one three a game and shot 37%. Dougie McBuckets’ shooting dipped a little as a member of the Thunder, but that dude can flat out shoot as well. If the Thunder can make defenses actually respect them from the three point line, think of what that does for elite isolation players like Westbrook and George. I don’t even root for the Thunder and that has me fucking excited.

Official Greenie Prediction: 51 wins