Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview: Lightning Strikes Twice

— 10th of October 2017 — Featured Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony

A newly reloaded Oklahoma City Thunder begins their season tonight.

By David Brandon

 

Take a bow, Sam Presti.

Faced with maybe the toughest situation of his career, the Thunder GM pulled multiple rabbits out of hats to form a squad that in any other year might be a title favorite. All of a sudden, there’s a big three in Oklahoma City, with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony all calling the 405 their home.

The Thunder have been catapulted back into a tier that most people thought they had left behind for years, if not forever. It’s been a big summer for OKC. As we head into opening night, though, there are still plenty of questions surrounding the squad. How will this new-look team be structured?

Starters:

The Big 3

Oklahoma City’s projected opening-day starters are Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams. There’s been plenty of ink spilled elsewhere covering how the Westbrook/George/Anthony trio could and should work together, with the best synopsis probably being this excellent video from BBallBreakdown.

How CARMELO Makes The THUNDER A Contender

Find out how Carmelo Anthony fits into the offense with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, plus will they have enough defense to contend with the top teams in the West. Coach Billy Donovan will have his hands full getting this Big 3 to mesh, but if they do, look out West!

The most interesting part of the lineup change is the commitment Oklahoma City is showing to small ball right from the jump. Traditionally, the Thunder have been among the more conservative teams, frequently playing two-big lineups. These tend to do better on rebounding and defense overall, but don’t always match up well with the offensive firepower that small lineups provide. Even the rumored possibility of Horford coming to Oklahoma City in 2015 held the implicit assumption that Horford would start at power forward. Carmelo Anthony starting at power forward is a radical departure from the Thunder’s usual philosophy.

Normally teams that start smaller tend to punt rebounding, but Oklahoma City doesn’t have to due to the incredible strength of their backcourt rebounding. Westbrook is among the best glass-eating guards in the league, and Roberson was no slouch himself in his rookie year. His numbers declined with his change in role: with Westbrook attacking the glass, Roberson’s job was to make a beeline for the other end of the court and either play free safety in transition or run out for the dunk. We could see an uptick in his rebounding numbers again.

It will be interesting to see how the Thunder’s new full-time commitment to playing small goes. As Zach Lowe pointed out in his season preview column, the Thunder has gone completely away from their advantage on the glass, which they used to good effect against the Mavericks, Spurs, and Warriors in 2015. We’ll see how it plays out as the season goes on, and if they can manufacture an edge elsewhere.

Steven Adams

I’ve seen a few predictions floating around that Adams is going to have much more impact on the box score this season than he did last season, and I’m just not buying it.

Sure, he definitely will be leaned upon more heavily for rebounding with the loss of Gibson and Kanter (and probably getting a couple back from Westbrook). He’ll have acres more spacing with the Thunder’s new influx of shooting, and he’s the only seasoned center on the roster, meaning he might have to play more minutes.

There’s only one problem, and it’s a tired cliché. There’s only one ball.

Here’s the lowest career usage percentage for each of the Thunder’s big 3 (based on Basketball Reference. NBA Stats is more accurate, but only goes back to 2014.):

Westbrook: 31.6%, in the 2015–16 season
George: 17.8%, in the 2010–11 season (his rookie year)
Anthony: 28.5%, in the 2003–04 season (his rookie year)

In a regular year, all 3 hover somewhere in the 30% usage range. That leaves 10% of the time they’re on the floor together when the ball would be in someone else’s hands. Now, that’s obviously not going to happen. They’ll all have to take a step back. But all 3 are used to being high-usage star players.

Simply put, Adams is not going to get the scoring opportunities to bump his point total up that much. Where can the Thunder use him, then?

Here’s a look that the Thunder should use more of (at 5:47):

New Orleans Pelicans vs Oklahoma City Thunder – Full Highlights | Oct 6, 2017 | NBA Preseason

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Felton gives the ball up at the top of the key to Roberson and curls down to set a screen for George on the wing. At the same time, Roberson tosses a pass to Adams at the elbow, who hits the cutting George with a perfectly-timed pass for an easy bucket.

Adams has shown flashes of passing vision, and this season is a good time for him to use it. He’s not one to care that much about recognition or touches, but keeping him involved on the offensive end will both help keep him engaged and add an extra layer of misdirection to an offense that’s usually tended to the simplistic.

Don’t expect a huge bump in his numbers. Do expect him to be there just like he always is, doing the dirty work and generating endless hilarious quotes.

Andre Roberson

Roberson’s role on offense so far in the preseason has looked more similar to what it was last year than I’ve been hoping for. The Thunder only seem to use him as a screener in the playoffs or very occasionally in the regular season, and it’s hard to see why.

Of note, though, is the fact that Roberson’s handle looks tighter and more comfortable than it used to. He’s improved it every season, and had a couple of decent hit-ahead passes in transition in preseason that bode well for his ability to do something there. Lost in Roberson’s overall shooting ineptitude is the fact that he’s actually a pretty solid passer. He’s not showy, and he won’t “pass guys open” the way the true savants will, but he usually makes the correct read.

Overall Roberson’s role won’t change much. Donovan is still running some sets in preseason that park him in the corner and allow his man to roam off, but there’s not much you can do there. He is who he is on offense, and outside of the playoffs he’ll probably remain what he’s been: a world-class defender, smart cutter, great finisher and decent passer who can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Bench

The bench rotation seems a little up in the air at the moment, and Alex Abrines and Patrick Patterson being unavailable for much of preseason (or all, in Patterson’s case) doesn’t help. The loss of Enes Kanter in particular leaves a big hole, as his rebounding and ability to manufacture points were key for what little bench play the Thunder had last season.

Guards

Praise be, the Thunder have a bench point guard!

Raymond Felton’s stats don’t jump off the page, but the journeyman vet is a steady-handed floor general who’s been solid in his last few stops. His weight struggles have been well publicized, but regardless of that he’s shown the acumen to keep a bench humming the way it should. Watch him as a screener, too: his bulk lets him set a surprisingly solid screen, and when George or Anthony is staggered with the bench you could see some sets incorporating some surprise point guard picks.

Alex Abrines is the likely rotation shooting guard, but don’t sleep on Terrance Ferguson. I wasn’t a fan of the pick when it was made, thinking Ferguson was likely to be far from contributing. But in preseason, he’s avoided the hitches in his shooting form that were problematic in Australia and shown surprising dynamism as a defender, especially considering his willowy frame. He could get minutes.

Forwards

Of all the positions on the team, the bench forward spots are maybe the most up in the air. The Thunder have several swingmen who can slide into both forward spots, between Grant, Singler, and Huestis. They also have the option of staggering Andre Roberson, Paul George or Carmelo Anthony in those spots. Then consider that Nick Collison and Patrick Patterson are both listed as power forwards.

First, let’s address the bench swingmen: Grant, Singler and Huestis. Singler has almost entirely disappeared, and it’s a pretty good bet that he’s gone as soon as the Thunder can get rid of him. He may play spot minutes here and there, but he’s unlikely to be part of the rotation. Grant is an unproven shooter, an inconsistent defender and doesn’t bring a lot to the table outside of thunderous dunks and volleyball blocks (which he is admittedly very good at). The fanbase in general is probably higher on him than they should be. If his shooting is for real, he may see minutes at the 3, but otherwise he’ll probably get more burn at the 4 and 5 in small and hyper-small lineups.

Huestis is the wild card. He was a solid contributor all through preseason on both ends, and though his defensive instincts fit the 4 spot more than the 3, that might be perfect for what the Thunder are doing now. He’s been weirdly inactive for the past several years. Could this be the year he finally sees the floor?

As far as staggering starters with the bench, Andre Roberson is pretty much out of the question. The bench will have trouble enough with offense as it is. That leaves George and Anthony. Prevailing wisdom suggests that born scorer Anthony is the better option, but preseason suggests that Westbrook and Anthony have a little more synergy with each other (at least right now) than George does with either. That might mean George gets the task of carrying the bench scoring load.

We’ll cover Collison and Patterson in the next section, but Patterson is likely to be a key bench rotation piece. The only question is if he’s going to be playing forward or…

Center

With the loss of Enes Kanter, the Thunder’s former strongest position now looks like its weakest. The Thunder only has two true centers on its roster right now, one of them being rookie Dakari Johnson. Johnson was a D-League All-Star last year and one of the key contributors for the Thunder’s minor league affiliate, the Blue. But will Donovan throw him in the fire straight away?

There are two other options that are intriguing: Patrick Patterson and Nick Collison, who are both listed as power forwards. Patterson’s a bad rebounder for a forward, let alone a center, and he’s not much of a rim protector. He does have the capability to stretch the floor, though, which could be valuable when the Thunder want to run a 5-out offense.

Collison’s the most intriguing option to me. He noted in his exit interview that he’d like to play a little more and still feels like he has something to contribute on the floor. With the glut of forwards on the roster, the only place where he’d likely be able to do that is at the center position. He’s probably at the end of his career, but he’s still one of the best passers and canniest screeners on the roster, and his slower foot speed wouldn’t be a liability at center. He’s even used to guarding centers.

It’s probably not going to happen, but Collison could come in handy there.

The most likely route, though, is that the Thunder’s future bench center isn’t on the roster yet. They’re leaving a spot open, probably for a free agency signing, unbalanced trade or waiver claim.

Guess Who’s Coming To the Playoffs

Regardless of the questions about its bench depth, the Thunder has a remarkable season ahead. Fully restocked and reloaded, this team’s one of the more exciting squads the city has seen in recent memory, and barring incredible bad luck they’re a lock for the postseason.

Only a year after losing Kevin Durant, the Thunder are poised to leap back into the upper echelon of Western Conference teams. They’re underdogs, as is everyone in a league where the Golden State Warriors already look like they hold the title. But when Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony take the floor together for the first time in the regular season, they’re making a statement.

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