Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview

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January 25 2015: Oklahoma City Thunder Guard Russell Westbrook (0) makes a lay up during the game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Ohio. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)

A record was broken and an MVP award defined what the Oklahoma City Thunder achieved last season. However, those are not team based accolades which is unfavorable in a team sport. Russell Westbrook soared to new heights in breaking a single-season record by averaging a triple-double in points, rebounds, and assists. Yet, the Thunder finished with a 47-35 record and a first-round loss to the Houston Rockets.

The front office began their off-season by adding more offensive firepower in trading for Paul George from the Indiana Pacers. In addition to this blockbuster trade, the Thunder outdid themselves and traded for Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks as well. With a superstar lineup, it seems obvious that the team is looking to compete for a title this season. Here’s a more detailed look at the Oklahoma City Thunder season preview.

Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Oklahoma City Thunder Preview

What Worked Last Season

If this analysis could only be two words, it would be Russell Westbrook. 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. Subjectively, this is what made the Thunder season feel like a disappointment, as this season was diminished by an early exit from the playoffs. On the opposing front, it could be said that the only reason the Thunder made the playoffs was Westbrook’s historic play. Regardless of what side the truth falls on, there were a few areas that worked well last season.

Steven Adams and Enes Kanter were a great rotation in the center position. Both can get back on defense with quicker teams and also be physical with the bigger teams. However with Kanter headed East, Adams will be given the task of anchoring the defense once again.

Moving down to the power forward spot, Domantas Sabonis started much of the year and did not perform up to the high standards. His game is still developing and coming into a contending team as a rookie is difficult. Flashes of Sabonis’ potential came sparingly throughout the season but alongside Victor Oladipo, he was traded for George in the off-season to the Pacers.

Taj Gibson may have been the second reason the Thunder contended in the playoffs. Gibson came in from the Chicago Bulls and showed exactly how a big man plays great basketball. He would get the start in 16 games and averaged 9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in that stretch.

What Needs Improvement

Some semblance of a team-based environment has got to be the hot topic riding into the new season for the Thunder. Westbrook is a phenomenal athlete, but he can’t max out the engine every night. When it is crunch time and the team is down by 15 in the 4th quarter, let Westbrook be himself. However, holding a lead in the 3rd and adding on into the middle of the 4th is where a team needs more half-court offense. The team needed an extra scorer and someone who can take some of the weight from Westbrook’s shoulder. Originally the thought was Oladipo is that guy, but that did not pan out.

Although the big men were a positive last season, their roles need to be more defined. Adams and Kanter are good scorers and rebounders, so let them work. Westbrook can create space and drive the basket, but he showed a great deal of finesse in passing the ball to those guys. However, Adams will need to have post moves that do not require drawing the defense off. Using those moves will open up Westbrook for a slash or George for a shot. The biggest point Head Coach Billy Donovan should make is the Thunder need to make a half-court offense that does not rely solely on one player.

The additions of George and Anthony create a new threat in the West. The Thunder cannot run the offense through isolation for Westbrook. There must be a system in place that will satiate George and Anthony’s appetite for shots and ball handling. These two players came from teams where they were the number one options and had opportunities to score every minute of play. It’s obvious that all three players must reduce some aspect of their game to create a working half-court offense. However, Donovan must be the leading point in this creation. The coach must control the players and enforce this new system, whatever it may be. Donovan’s first moves need to be something about Westbrook giving up the ball more often to let George or Anthony create space. Also, George and Anthony must know that shots will be limited, so the buckets count

Off-Season Changes

The blockbuster trade that sent Oladipo and Sabonis to the Pacers for George is a huge move. The Pacers gave up a franchise guy for a rotation shooting guard and a rookie that had some holes in his game. Now, both players are well worth going after as any player can add an extra benefit to a team that needs their skillset. George, however, has one year remaining on his deal and the Thunder cleared cap space in removing Oladipo’s contract. Now, fans are treated to a Westbrook and George team that is anticipated to win 48-50 games this season and have a 5th place finish.

The second trade of the Thunder offseason was the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder traded Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second-round draft pick in the upcoming 2018 draft. This trade may be scrutinized on each side as the Knicks are securing McDermott, who could be built up alongside Kristaps Porzingis and a second rounder, but are losing an ability to build young talent around Anthony.

On the other hand, the Thunder are obtaining Anthony, who has two years remaining on a deal and has been playing a long time. Nobody doubts how well Anthony can play, but his longevity may come into question in a few years. This is added with questions surrounding Westbrook signing his extension and, of course, where Paul George ends up after this next off-season.

Another pickup was the signing of Patrick Patterson, who will be Gibson’s replacement. Patterson has been a strong rotation player for the Toronto Raptors the past four years. His role on the court is somewhat of a floor general. Not so much in leading the team, but communicative and with great court vision.

2017-18 Predictions

The Western Conference has a lot of hype around it this season. The Golden State Warriors quest for a repeat, the Rockets adding Chris Paul, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are making moves to better themselves. This creates tension for the playoffs as some of the best teams may be sitting at a four or five seed.

If Westbrook and George can find a balance that enables both men to play at their best, the Thunder could be a threat to the Warriors. They have two players that can almost score at will if called upon. When you include Anthony in the mix, it is hard to imagine how this team will be defended.

Look for Oklahoma City to finish 50-32 with the 5th seed in the playoffs. This is a hard spot to place since one or two wins can change a few seeds, but a matchup versus Minnesota or the Denver Nuggets is likely. A tough first-round series will see the Thunder prevail to meet the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals.

Even with the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Warriors are the roadblock to get over. Nevertheless, the Thunder will still fall to the Warriors which creates another hectic offseason where not only Paul George will be a free agent,  but Westbrook and Anthony will also be deciding on their individual futures. Meaning, this season may be the last opportunity for the Thunder to compete for a Championship for the foreseeable future.

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