It wasn’t very long ago that Thunder fans were looking at a future in peril. They had just seen their team improbably blow a 3-1 series lead to their archrivals in the West, the Golden State Warriors. The Dubs looked like the fulfilled promise of their own team from a few years prior, when the Thunder had rostered a young Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Now they were the ones ascending to heights previously unseen in the NBA and then to make matters worse, it happened. You know what I’m talking about. Durant jumped ship to the Warriors, taking all semblance of league parity with him, and the Thunder suddenly fell from title contention to fringe playoff status. Westbrook seemed like he might follow suit and leave OKC the following offseason, and then the paper-thin Thunder would be relegated to the lottery. It was a dark time. Not so anymore.
With all the moving and shaking that took place in the 2017 offseason, perhaps the most active in league history, you’d think it would be difficult to crown a winner. But by my estimation, the crown would almost certainly have to go to the Thunder, who added two megastars of their own in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to compete with Golden State’s juggernaut.
George was the first of the chips to fall, traded from the Indiana Pacers in June for starting shooting guard Victor Oladipo and sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis. If that seems like a remarkably small return for Indiana, that’s because it is. George is a consensus top-12 player in the NBA, an all-purpose dynamo capable of creating his own shot, shooting off screens, running the offense, cutting off passing lanes and playing lockdown D on all but the biggest and most physical of centers. The Thunder could get all that for an underachiever like Oladipo and an unheralded prospect who averaged 6 ppg as a rookie?
It wasn’t quite a magic act by GM Sam Presti but rather the business savvy of a man who knew that the Pacers would take just about anything after their franchise player announced his plans to opt out of his contract next summer and become an unrestricted free agent. Knowing that they could have a chance to sign the 27-year-old George in his prime without having to give up any assets, teams were reportedly offering the Pacers bupkis. Presti’s offer was the least foul of a pile of crap.
The contentious Anthony was also acquired in a heist for the Thunder, requiring only Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and the Chicago Bulls’ 2018 second-round pick. Carmelo is no longer the player he once was at age 33 but he remains one of the league’s deadliest one-on-one scorers, and you know he will extra motivated to get out of the dumpster fire that is the New York Knicks and compete for a ring as his illustrious career winds down. He should be a more awkward fit for the Thunder but a trade for a player of his pedigree is one you make every time, especially when all you have to give up is the league’s worst defensive big man in Kanter and a back-end rotation player.
George and Anthony will join a talented starting lineup that also features defensive specialists Andre Roberson and Steven “Khal Drogo” Adams (seriously, why isn’t that his nickname? Look at the guy!) Am I forgetting someone? Oh yeah, the Thunder will also trot out Westbrook, the reigning MVP who is coming off one of the most memorable seasons in history in which he became an actual supernova and averaged a triple-double. This team is going to be scary.
But do they actually have what it takes to bring down the Warriors? Being fun to watch and good enough to win 55 games is one thing, having a chance to stop arguably the most well-rounded force in basketball history is something else entirely. Let’s break it down.
No team can ever hope to outgun Golden State, equipped as they are with four high-level playmakers in their starting lineup and three of the greatest shooters of all time. Any path to victory has to start with a concerted effort on defense, switching across all five positions, being physical enough to throw the small-ball Warriors off their game and crashing the boards like your life depends on it. And while the offensive ability of Anthony and George is getting the most press, it’s their effect on the other side of the ball that could make the biggest difference for the Thunder.
OKC was already a solid defensive team, finishing 10th last season in points allowed per possession, and they shipped off three of their weakest defensive rotation players (Sabonis, Kanter and McDermott) for two huge pluses. That’s right, I called Carmelo Anthony a defensive plus. Melo has been known for his defensive malaise throughout his career but most of that boils down to lack of effort (you trying caring when you’re on the Knicks) and playing out of position. Quicker players will still be able to blow by Anthony, but he will start at the four for the Thunder and is more than strong and athletic enough to hang with opposing power forwards. He’ll be the perfect big man to run out against the Warriors’ vaunted “death lineup” when Draymond Green takes the place of a traditional center.
George and Roberson are long-armed octopi on D and can match up with anybody. Jeremi Grant has only been in the league one year and has already earned a reputation as one of the game’s most high-energy, in-your-face defenders. The only question mark is Russell Westbrook.
Even as he was smashing statistical records and stealing the hearts of MVP voters, the wider basketball public finally became aware of Westbrook’s defensive limitations last season. In Russ’s case, it entirely comes down to lack of effort, there’s no other explanation that could justify his contesting fewer three point shots on a per-minute basis than any other player in the NBA.
And for all of his clueless, chicken-with-its-head-cut off play from the past few years, it’s not as if he doesn’t have a strong defensive pedigree; it was his most lauded ability coming out of college. Hopefully shouldering a smaller load on offense and cutting down on his all-time record usage rate will allow for more activity on defense.
But will he be able to make that sacrifice? Westbrook is the alpha dog’s alpha dog and those guys don’t like to share once they’ve tasted meat. If he had his way he would probably be content to relegate Anthony and George to the corners and charge to the basket with a rim-running Adams by his side until kingdom come. That kind of stagnant and predictable offense won’t be enough against the best of the best, nor will it entice George to stick around after his contract runs out, so coach Billy Donovan will have to experiment with the most creative sets this team has seen since it moved from Seattle. Don’t let Melo settle for post-ups on the block. Run high pick-and-rolls with him and let him attack the ensuing 4-on-3s as he did at his best in New York and Denver. Try hiding Westbrook off the ball as he wears out his defenders by running through a forest of screens and cutting to rim. Don’t be afraid to bench Adams and go for a four shooter lineup with Patrick Patterson at center.
I will caution Thunder fans to temper their expectations for the 2017-18 season. As strong as they look now, this isn’t a perfect team and they will have to contend with three other powerhouses in the West alone. In the end, my prediction isn’t that bold: they will finish as a top seed, look unbeatable at times and will ultimately fall to traitor Durant and Warriors in the Western finals.