The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a constant force in the Western Conference as they currently rank third with a 17-10 record. The post-Kevin Durant era has had one constant driver behind it in Russell Westbrook. In the summer of 2016, Durant decided to join the Golden State Warriors, leaving a disgruntled franchise and fan base behind. Afterwards, OKC signed Westbrook to a max contract and has been building around him ever since.
Looking At The Rejuvenated Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season, they acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in order to go deep in the Western Conference playoffs. Surprisingly, to some fans, they ended up losing to the Utah Jazz in six games. George, who was a free agent in 2018, decided to double-down and sign a four-year contract to play alongside Westbrook. This led to another roster cleanup in the off-season, where Anthony was dealt to the Atlanta Hawks for Dennis Schroder. They also added some three-point shooting with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot from the Philadelphia 76ers, who joined the three-team deal. In addition, they signed Nerlens Noel and gave him a chance to prove his potential as a shot-stopping backup center. All in all, the Thunder ’s star power core trio of Westbrook, George, and Steven Adams remained intact.
The team was consistent offensively in the 2017/18 season, however, defense was their trademark. Their defensive anchor at the time, the Three-and-D small forward Andre Roberson, could guard multiple positions. In January 2018 Roberson suffered a season-ending patellar tendon rupture, which took a big toll on the Thunder’s depth and defense.
Since the team was solidified over the summer after the Paul George signing, they could build consistency with clear role definition throughout training camp. Anthony was not there anymore, which provided easier minute distribution. Finally, Roberson’s injury is being taken slowly, hence the team knows not to wait for his return to play up to their potential. In late November 2018, Roberson suffered a setback in his recovery, which will be reevaluated in mid-January 2019.
Are the Thunder for real?
Based on basketball reference, the Thunder started the season with the easiest schedule coming into the 2018/19 season. Despite that, they started the season 0-4 which led to critics expressing their early season worries. Westbrook missed the first two games and it took him some time to adjust once he was back. After suffering a sprained ankle and coming back once again, the Thunder quietly built a winning season throughout the first 26 games.
Compared to OKC having the seventh best offense in the 2017/18 season, now they have the 18th ranked offense in the NBA. They focused on stamping games with their true defensive identity, regardless of offensive consistency. This led to them having the best defense in the NBA allowing only 102.5 points per game. This is especially impressive, as they execute it without the help of their defensive anchor Andre Roberson.
Even though Westbrook is averaging a triple-double once again with 22.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, and 10.2 APG, he is visibly deferring more to Paul George this season. This is allowing him to attack freely, averaging 24.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 4.3 APG. This led to George having several big games including a 47 point game on December 6th.
This must be a great sight for Thunder fans since this is most likely their best team ever since the sour ending of the Durant era. Throughout their next 10 games the Thunder play the Pelicans, Nuggets, Clippers, Jazz, Wolves and Rockets, which proves to be a tough stretch of games for the first seed. The race to the top of the West will not be earned without a fight. The Golden State Warriors are almost in full health and on their winning ways. It will be worth observing how the Thunder hold up after a tough stretch of games and whether they are one of the top three teams in the West.
BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 05: Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City Thunder looks on during the warm up prior to the NBA Global Games Spain 2016 match between FC Barcelona Lassa and Oklahoma City Thunder at Palau Sant Jordi on October 5, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)