The Oklahoma City Thunder are absolutely fascinating. Throughout the preseason, fringe roster players like Daniel Hamilton, Josh Huestis and Dakari Johnson accounted for a majority of the team’s second half minutes. Defenses are barely trying. Teams are figuring out their rotations. It hasn’t been clean basketball in the slightest.
And it couldn’t have made me more excited.
We knew the Thunder would be fun. Despite question marks about how the team would share the ball or function on defense, putting together three of the game’s top stars in Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is at the very best a title contender and at the very worst a train wreck you can’t look away from. They were already must-watch television with just Russ. Adding George and Melo to the mix made them that much more interesting.
Maybe that’s all that matters. With the Warriors dynasty looming, how important is winning a championship for all the other teams? An extraordinary amount of faith is already put on Golden State to win the title – a foregone conclusion to most. If the Thunder can make the playoffs and have some exciting moments while doing so, isn’t that enough? If your answer is no, that means you subscribe to the idea that the other 29 teams would be better off tanking this season.
There’s a high chance that no team can challenge this Warriors squad, but the league took huge strides in keeping it competitive.
This Thunder team is good, and has the chance to be great. I don’t care if it’s only the preseason. I don’t care if they’ll struggle on defense with Melo playing power forward. I don’t care which three of these big-shot makers end up taking the last shot on any given night. These are all uncertainties that will be unearthed as the season progresses. For now, all I know is that when Westbrook, George and Anthony are on the court, the Thunder have three of the best basketball players on the planet playing for their team.
Plenty of sacrifice will be needed to make it work. Westbrook’s gaudy assist numbers will likely dip as coach Billy Donovan draws up iso plays for Melo. There will be times when the rest of the Thunder have to clear out for these one-on-one spots, but Anthony won’t have nearly as many of these opportunities as he’s had in years past.
Luckily, George fits in perfectly next to either player. He’s a willing spot-up shooter that doesn’t need to continuously get the ball to be effective and involved. The Thunder played with the 8th fastest pace last season, and should be even faster in 2018. Russ is always playing at 100 MPH, and his two star teammates can now play the role of trailer for easy threes in transition. Russ/George quickly becomes the most fearsome one-two punch on the break; each are able to handle the ball, pass, and finish at the rim with contact. George is also a gifted rebounder for his position (6.3 career RPG). His ball handling skills allow him to ignite fast breaks on his own after grabbing a defensive board. It’s always better when a team has multiple guys that can lead transition opportunities as it keeps the defense off-balance.
Melo will benefit from Westbrook’s drive-and-kick game and the Thunder’s ability to snag offensive rebounds. The former Knick shot 26-percent on threes after he had held the ball for two to six seconds, as opposed to 42-percent on ones he fired before the two second marker. He’s a terrific one-on-one scorer, but the 2017 version of Melo is best when he makes quick decisions and doesn’t hold onto the ball. In the game against his old team, Anthony jacked up 17 shots in 16 minutes.
Steven Adams is the perfect anchor in the middle of the court, setting screens and vacuuming rebounds on both ends. He’s fiery and a joy to watch when he’s battling opposing big men down low. His rim protection will be pronounced with George’s elite perimeter defense. In fact, the entire Thunder rotation is filled with rangy, athletic defenders that can compete with the Western Conference elite. Patrick Patterson, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis, and Alex Abrines are all 6’6” or taller, can defend (save Abrines), shoot (save Roberson) and switch across multiple positions. General Manager Sam Presti even went out and made a sneaky good pickup in Raymond Felton — a backup point guard which the Thunder didn’t have last season.
All of this added up makes for an interesting match-up with the Warriors – and that’s not even mentioning the Westbrook/Durant rivalry that would make for an even more compelling series. A number of teams made big roster changes that improved their teams, but the Thunder did enough to situate themselves as close as possible to the defending NBA Champions.
Sources: NBA.com/Stats, YouTube