The Golden State Warriors are a force as dominant as Thanos, the power-hungry antagonist in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. Except these Warriors collect All-Stars, not Infinity Stones.
As the NBA starts ramping up toward the 2018-19 season, it feels almost inevitable they will snap their fingers and turn opponents into dust.
Yet a few NBA teams are desperately trying to pry the power away from the two-time defending champs. If something causes the Warriors to trip up—injuries, light years of mileage from deep playoff runs, sheer boredom—others are ready to pounce.
Could the Oklahoma City Thunder be the one to do it?
Thunder general manager Sam Presti shook up a team that disappointed last season. Oklahoma City notched 48 regular-season wins and secured home-court advantage in the playoffs yet fell to the Utah Jazz in six games. Then the team faced the prospect of a $300 million payroll that includes luxury taxes, as explained by ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Bobby Marks @BobbyMarks42
Oklahoma City crosses an historic threshold as the first $300M team in salary and projected luxury tax with the Raymond Felton signing. The Thunder now have a tax bill of $150M.
The offseason began with key pieces staying intact. OKC re-signed star forward Paul George and super-sub Jerami Grant. A handful of other moves revamped the Thunder squad, creating, on paper, a team that appears with better fitting pieces. In the end, Marks noted that Oklahoma City had saved $89.5 million in salary and luxury tax since July 15.
With the offseason renovations complete—for now, at least—the Thunder will come to camp with some critical questions that will determine their ceiling for next season.
Can OKC shake its bad habit of taking nights off?
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Presti was blunt in his assessment of the Thunder in May’s postseason press conference.
“The inconsistency of our performance is something our team has to figure out,” he said.
One huge knock against Oklahoma City last season was its penchant to focus against the league’s elite and yawn against the dregs.
“When we were performing against the upper-echelon teams in the league, I felt like we would always perform at a high level,” Presti said. “But I thought our problems were inconsistency against some of the sub-.500 teams.”
Head coach Billy Donovan echoed those sentiments in his season-ending presser.
“Our biggest challenge to figure out this offseason is our consistency,” he said. “That is going to be my major focus. It needs to be our team’s major focus.”
OKC’s 22-12 record against teams below .500 is a bit misleading. It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde team that could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Golden State, Houston, Boston and Toronto, yet it played teams like Brooklyn, Orlando and Phoenix with a look of indifference.
Games against the Kings and Hawks were won thanks to game-winning shots by Russell Westbrook. Games against the Mavericks and Grizzlies came down to the final plays. OKC had to rally from down 15 against Sacramento at home in January.
The Thunder posted a margin of victory of 4.9 points per game against sub-.500 teams. But the Warriors (11.0), Rockets (10.3), and Jazz (9.1) all fared much better against the same competition.
“That inability to build habits during that period of time really caught up with us,” said Presti.
The team could argue that it was pacing itself, given the increased emphasis on player rest and recovery across the league in recent years. But a team can only get away with that when it knows its identity or has won titles. OKC has never made it there.
If Oklahoma City wants to get the league’s attention, and if it’s capable, it needs to buy into the logic of Rockets GM Daryl Morey that “good teams don’t win close games, they avoid them.” That starts with not playing down to the competition.
Can Russ and Dennis Schroder mesh?
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The 2017 MVP has carried an enormous load for the Thunder over the past two seasons. Westbrook has led the team in scoring, usage rate, rebounding and assists per game. He paced the entire NBA in assist percentage last season.
All of that work produced offense and wins, but it has also couldn’t help avoid consecutive first-round playoff exits.
It may be time to try something slightly different.
The addition of Dennis Schroder—acquired in a trade for Carmelo Anthony—could be a catalyst for change. He’s the best backup point guard the Thunder have had since Reggie Jackson. He averaged almost as many passes per game as Westbrook did last season, but in 5.5 fewer minutes per night.
Yet the two guards will have to log minutes together, perhaps 10 to 15 per night. Schroder is best suited to having the ball in his hands. George is also capable of creating plays. And according to ESPN.com’s Royce Young (h/t Cody Taylor of Thunder Wire), a “big-time focus” this summer for Westbrook has been on improved shooting. The idea is that the Thunder star can become an improved catch-and-shoot threat.
But in order for that to happen, Westbrook is going to have to surrender a degree of control, since he can’t pass the ball to himself. Having continuity with center Steven Adams and George, plus the addition of Schroder may make him more comfortable with relaxing his grip on the offense.
Can OKC conjure up enough shooting?
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The team envisioned Anthony as a catch-and-shoot floor-spacer who would open up the paint for Adams and driving lanes for everyone else. To an extent, it worked. But with Anthony gone, the concerns about lack of spacing are back again.
OKC ranked 24th in the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage last season on over 30 attempts per game. While not ideal, the team did approach league average after the All-Star break. That was in spite of George’s long-distance shooting slumping to 32.4 percent over those 23 games.
The marksmanship expected from Anthony never materialized. Some of that burden now falls on Patrick Patterson, who was slow to recover from offseason knee surgery. Still, he shot just under 39 percent from deep last year and is a career 39.9 percent shooter on corner threes. He should see more opportunities this season.
Third-year wing Alex Abrines—a career 38.0 percent shooter from three—will get another chance to earn Donovan’s trust. If Abrines can continue to improve on the defensive end, he may get that chance.
Second-year man Terrance Ferguson is a candidate to help as well, but the results from the 20-year-old have understandably been mixed. He connected on 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts after the break last season but struggled mightily in summer league. The team gave him ball-handling and creation responsibilities as part of his development, but he averaged only 7.0 points per game on 30.0 percent shooting in five games.
The Thunder need reliable shooters to emerge and help move the team forward. Otherwise, they may need Westbrook and Schroder to have breakout shooting seasons.
Is there any quality in this newfound wing depth?
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OKC reworked the roster over the summer to become a bit more modern. After a season of trying to wedge Anthony into its schemes, the Thunder opted to return to their roots as a fast, athletic squad.
Oklahoma City’s two oldest players—Anthony and Nick Collison—moved on over the summer. Thirty-two-year-old Corey Brewer, a productive midseason pickup, was not re-signed. OKC also emptied the end of the bench by shedding projects Josh Huestis and Dakari Johnson and waiving the sunk cost of Kyle Singler.
In the process, the Thunder added a few wing prospects. OKC scooped up Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Abdel Nader, who were squeezed out respectively in Philadelphia and Boston, in a pair of trades. A draft-night deal snagged Hamidou Diallo, a 20-year-old human pogo stick. Korean Basketball League MVP Deonte Burton, fresh off an impressive summer league stint, is on a two-way contract.
All will compete with Ferguson and Abrines for minutes. Ideally, at least one of the added wings will emerge as a contributor. With fewer true big men on the roster, Donovan can create lineups with George at power forward.
But that’s all a theory at the moment. OKC is gambling on some emergence from this unproven group.
Can OKC develop an elite defense while Andre Roberson works his way back?
Fans and analysts who didn’t appreciate Andre Roberson’s impact should understand it much more now.
Through the first 49 games of the season, OKC posted a defensive rating of 103.1, good for fifth in the league, according to NBA.com. The Thunder’s defense was nearly 12 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. After Roberson ruptured a patellar tendon on Jan. 27, the Thunder’s defense slipped to a rating of 107.0 and became merely average.
Roberson is on track to be ready for training camp, though he admitted recently that it may take some time until he can return to his previous level.
“I’m not really putting a particular timeline on it, but I want to come back to myself somewhere in, like, December,” Roberson told KABB (h/t Brett Dawson of The Oklahoman) in late August. “It would be great if it happened before Christmas. That’d be great, but like I said, [I’m] not putting a timeline on it…just taking it a day at a time.”
That makes the Thunder’s unproven wing depth an area of concern. It makes Westbrook’s general inattentiveness on defense more glaring. It places more pressure on George and Adams—two defensive cornerstones who weren’t as effective without Roberson.
The Thunder’s Tier
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OddsShark pegs the Thunder as a 49.5-win team next season. That puts them behind the Warriors and Rockets, the same as the Lakers and a mere half-game ahead of the Jazz.
Houston, perhaps one Chris Paul hamstring pull away from an NBA title, made significant changes over the summer. The Rockets lost veteran three-and-D wings Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, banking instead on former Suns guard Brandon Knight and, ironically, the formerly unhappy Melo. Given the Rockets’ track record, Morey deserves the benefit of the doubt. But it’s hard to see this summer as a step forward for Houston.
Utah had a relatively quiet offseason, and that was probably for the best. The Jazz went 18-6 to end the season, winning by 10.3 points per game. Donovan Mitchell has made himself known and should continue his rise as a star player. Throw in a stifling defense and a master tactician in head coach Quin Snyder, and the Jazz can make a strong case for second-best in the West.
But if Oklahoma City can address some of the above concerns, it may surprise some people instead.