To call this past summer an "offseason" for NBA teams would be a misstatement. A slew of superstars changed teams, reshaping the league's landscape and generating endless drama and headlines for weeks on end. With Golden State claiming its second title in three years and poised to dominant once again, several teams made aggressive moves in order to have a chance at dethroning the champs.
But not every star-studded move will pan out, nor will every star-studded team meet its expectations. With that in mind, The Crossover asked its staff to predict the 2017-18 season's biggest "flop" team.
Ben Golliver: Oklahoma City Thunder
To be clear, the Thunder belong on the short list of the NBA’s biggest offseason winners after adding Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Patrick Patterson without giving up much of anything. Surrounding a reigning MVP with two All-Stars and one of the league’s top glue guys is a surefire way to raise expectations in a hurry, and George recently told USA Today that Oklahoma City “feels like a championship team.”
That level of hype seems premature. Yes, Oklahoma City clearly upgraded Westbrook’s nonexistent supporting cast, improved its lineup versatility, and upped its offensive firepower and shooting. The Thunder can now field credible big and small looks, and their new starting five matches up fairly well with the Warriors on paper.
But there are still a bunch of open questions. Is Westbrook wired to balance his own exceptional scoring and playmaking with the pure distributing skills that are needed to fully involve George and Anthony? Is Anthony willing to scale back his ball-stopping and turn up his defensive intensity in a new role? Is George, who openly demanded every important shot in the 2017 playoffs for Indiana, willing to regularly take a backseat in crunch time? Can these three talented scorers find ways to make each other, and their limited supporting cast, better? Or, do their skills prove to be redundant enough to hold back Oklahoma City’s overall offensive efficiency?
The Thunder’s depth remains thin, and this team is susceptible to major regression if Westbrook, who enjoyed perfect health last year, misses any length of time. Golden State, San Antonio and Houston all possess established frameworks that would keep them afloat during a major injury to one of their franchise guys. Oklahoma City, with new stars to acclimate and a bench full of no-namers, simply doesn’t. The Thunder should be fascinating to watch this season, but there’s also a good chance they prove to be frustrating if their many weak rotation links hold them back and if the Westbrook/George/Anthony trio never quite generates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s easy to envision the Thunder being hammered in the West’s second round by an elite team with a clearer identity and deeper bench; a first-round exit isn’t out of the question, either, given the West’s strong playoff field.
Jeremy Woo: Oklahoma City Thunder
The concept of a flop is all relative to expectations, so it’s not that I don’t think the Thunder are a pretty good team on paper. It’s just hard to buy into superteam OKC as an insta-contender. Are we sure Russell Westbrook has an off switch? Can Paul George be content as the second banana? Do we know we’re getting Olympic-style Carmelo? It’s so, so hard to pair three stars of this ilk in concept, all of whom are known for dominating usage, for better or worse. Let’s all recall the fact that Kevin Durant didn’t love playing with Russ in the fourth quarter. This is not an ideal mixture of skill sets and will require a whole lot of buying in—moreso than any other shuffled-up squad in the league.
Much of this will fall on Billy Donovan to not only manage egos, but figure out lineup combos that allow each of OKC’s big three to be their best self. I’d feel a lot better about that if I trusted anyone else on the roster besides Steven Adams (who, of course, I’d trust with my life). Andre Roberson can’t shoot and can’t be hidden offensively. I can’t tell you anything Alex Abrines has ever done in an NBA game. I’d like to see them go super-small and try Patrick Patterson at center. I guess there’s Jerami Grant. None of the sentences I just wrote give off any confidence that this is the right supporting cast for an already odd set of stars. This will be a transition season for the Thunder, with the measure of success being whether or not Paul George and Melo will stick around long enough for Sam Presti to build out the rest of the team. Sorry for the skepticism.
Matt Dollinger: New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans aren't atop of anyone's sleeper lists heading into the season, but when you have two of the best big men in the game, the playoffs are a fair expectation. Instead, they feel like a stretch.
The early returns on the Cousins trade haven't been as fruitful as the Pelicans hoped: New Orleans went 7–10 in games last season in which both Boogie and the Brow played. While it seemed like a good idea on paper to put the two talents together, the Pelicans haven't been able to surround them with the right players in order to breed success. New Orleans was short on shooters last season and did little to address that matter this summer unless Rajon Rondo becomes a threat from deep for the first time in his 12-year career.
In order for Cousins and Davis to thrive, the Pelicans are going to need the other three players on the court to make sense. Jrue Holiday is a fine (albeit expensive) third banana, but the rest of the team's roster would be scraping for minutes anywhere else in the league. Can I interest you in Ian Clark, Jordan Crawford and Darius Miller?
There's a high likelihood that things go south for the Pelicans this year, leading to increased speculation about a free-agent departure from Cousins next summer and a trade request from Davis sooner than later. That could lead to another Boogie blockbuster before the deadline—and another return to the drawing board session for the Pelicans.
DeAntae Prince: Philadelphia 76ers
Few teams in history have had the combination of hype and uncertainty the 76ers possess heading into the season. The excitement is valid, with Joel Embiid looking healthy and running through the streets of Philadelphia like Rocky, Ben Simmons returning from a foot injury and Markelle’s Fultz preparing for his rookie season. J.J. Redick is also expected to be a key cog for what many see as an Eastern Conference team on the rise.
But there are so many questions surrounding Philly that it has to be included on this list. If we’re being real, we have to address the fact that Embiid only played 31 games last season and his health is always in question. Not to mention Fultz and Simmons have never touched an NBA floor. While Embiid showed promise and Simmons and Fultz should be given the benefit of the doubt, the truth is Redick is the only main guy with a real NBA résumé. Players like Robert Covington and Jahlil Okafor have experience, but they won’t be expected to take this team to the next level.
The 76ers will be fun to track, but the odds that they struggle and fall short of their 42.5 over/under win total are extremely high, even in a weakened East.
Rohan Nadkarni: Minnesota Timberwolves
I'm just not sold on the Timberwolves. Jimmy Butler is certainly a star player, and he carried a woeful Bulls team for much of last season, but the roster around him in Minnesota has a couple issues. First of all, who's going to shoot threes? Andrew Wiggins is a little spotty from the outside, and Taj Gibson is legally barred from shooting threes because he's wearing No. 67. (Seriously, 67? That's a number for someone in a 50-and-above rec league.) Thibs is a good coach, but the Wolves' defense isn't where he wants it to be, and he still has a habit of running guys into the ground.
Meanwhile, the bench doesn't look like it will encourage Thibs to be a little more socialist with his minutes distribution. Jamal Crawford struggled last season, and he shouldn't really be counted on to carry second units anymore. Crawford will also be in a contest with Shabazz Muhammad to see who can chuck more shots in five-minute bursts, which, while fun for us, may not be conducive to success.
And of course, all of this will be happening against the backdrop of the ultra souped-up West, where all the other teams who made splashy moves this summer did so with the Warriors (and offense) in mind. I don't know if I see the Wolves having the firepower to hang with the Thunder, Rockets and Warriors. Minnesota has the pieces in place to make the playoffs, but they won't scare the conference's elite when it really counts.