- The Thunder landed a major win when Paul George decided to remain in Oklahoma City. But while his return improved their roster, how did it affect their standing in the Western Conference hierarchy?
Paul George drew plenty of snark on July 1 when he re-signed with the Thunder and posted an “Unfinished business” Instagram photo alongside Russell Westbrook. What unfinished business was George referring to? Was it a first-round loss to a rookie-led five seed? Or was it a 2–16 performance in an elimination game? The jokes came easy.
Last season was undoubtedly a disappointment for Oklahoma City. No team truly looked like a legitimate challenger to the Warriors entering 2017–18, but below the Bay Area behemoth there was no one directly in the Thunder’s way. There was (now undue) skepticism toward the Harden-Paul marriage in Houston, Portland’s ceiling appeared limited and the Thunder, by adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, finally possessed the necessary scoring punch to pair with OKC’s point guard. A Westbrook-KD battle in the Western Conference finals was entirely conceivable.
We know what happened from there. Olympic Melo failed to materialize as he shot a career low from the field, and Andre Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon in January, ending his season and short circuiting the Thunder's ability to contend. By the time the Thunder reached Game 5 of their first-round matchup against Utah, Westbrook had reverted back to full heat check, taking 82 shots in the final two games of the series. Paul George’s departure loomed, and a rebuild did, too.
Then, OKC received the stroke of loyalty they prayed for a summer earlier when they traded for George. Instead of departing to the West Coast, George stayed and Sam Presti’s gamble paid off.
As we enter year five of the Golden State dynasty, any discussion of Western Conference teams and their ceilings must come with one caveat: catching the healthy Warriors is virtually impossible. The Rockets may have been two halves of basketball and one Chris Paul injury from the Finals, but it's impossible to believe Golden State’s reign is really teetering until we see it.
That said, the question facing OKC is this: Can the Thunder snag that second spot in the West hierarchy?
The biggest barometer for the Thunder’s success will largely depend on which version of Westbrook shows up for the 2018–19 season. With Anthony gone and more opportunities available, don’t expect Russ’s ball dominance to shrink, not after he ranked fourth in the NBA in usage rate in 2017–18 and led the league the year before. Westbrook hoarded possessions at a rate of 40.8% in his MVP campaign, a mark unseen since the Lakers surrounded Kobe Bryant with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown.
But Westbrook’s usage rate isn’t necessarily a problem. The issue lies in how Westbrook deploys his control of the offense.
At his best, Westbrook can be the league’s preeminent offensive force. No guard attacks the rim with such authority, and his screen-and-role dance with Steven Adams is lethal. Watch the defense swarm the paint as Westbrook steams toward the rim and it’s no mystery why George shot 40% from three last season.
But too often Westbrook’s bread-and-butter fades from the Thunder attack. The worst Westbrook tendencies showed up time and again in 2017–18, with Westbrook snagging a rebound and sprinting his way to the wing, then opting to pull-up for a transition three rather than fly to the tin. The results were poor. The consistent settling ended with Westbrook shooting under 30% from three, a mark that ranked below non-shooters Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio. Paired with the bricks laid by Anthony, OKC’s offense often struggled to generate points in the half court.
The departure of Anthony should guide the Thunder to a natural antidote for their offensive struggles. Expect OKC to push the pace after ranking No. 17 in the league in that metric last season, ideally falling closer to the No. 9 mark achieved in Westbrook’s MVP year. We didn’t see enough of George and Westbrook running the break last year, and Billy Donovan would be wise to unleash the combo with the plodding Anthony out of the picture.
George fits the bill as a perfect star to play alongside Westbrook. For a perennial All-NBA candidate, George doesn’t need to control the game on a possession-by-possession basis. He’s a quality spot-up shooter and elite cutter, one who should feast on the attention given to Westbrook. And George is explosive enough to avoid becoming solely a spot-up specialist. He provides a second off-the-bounce threat to Oklahoma City’s offense.
Keeping George was enough to declare the offseason a win for OKC. But another addition should bring increased optimism. En route to jettisoning Melo’s contract, the Thunder acquired Dennis Schroder, who has a chance at reviving his image after being exiled from Atlanta.
The former first-round pick isn’t without his flaws. He’s been a prickly teammate for much of his career and doesn’t shoot well from deep. Yet for a team dying for a backup point guard, Schroder could be a perfect fit.
Take a look at the players backing up Westbrook in previous years. When Russ headed to the bench over the past two seasons, the players filling his role was almost comical. Raymond Felton is a more useful meme than NBA player, Cameron Payne was tankerrific for the Bulls last season, and Semaj Christon looked absolutely overmatched in his rookie year. Oklahoma City hemorrhaged points to an alarming degree when Westbrook sat in 2016–17—sitting at minus-8.9 points per 100 possessions—and didn’t fare much better last season. Schroder should steady the ship.
Schroder doesn’t project to spend much time on the floor with Westbrook early on. Their skill sets seem to overlap—neither are effective three-point shooters, nor have they shown a willingness to cut and screen off the ball—so a version of Houston’s Paul-Harden split may be best.
However, Schroder can provide OKC with Westbrook-lite when their superstar takes a breather. The German point guard likes to push the pace and sees the floor well in transition, whipping passes to open shooters on the wing. He worked well as a screen-and-role partner with Al Horford, and another strong screener in Adams will unleash better looks inside the arc. With more talent around him, the ugly chucking that defined Schroder’s 2017–18 will dissipate.
In replacing Anthony with Schroder, Oklahoma City should return to a healthier offensive attack next season. The personnel is in place to unleash a better Westbrook, one that may be worse in counting stats but greater in overall effectiveness. After trotting out uninspired spread pick-and-roll for an entire season, Donovan will be able to get more creative in 2018–19, and boost Oklahoma City’s offensive efficiency in the process.
Whatever question marks remain on the offensive side of the ball for OKC, those doubts don’t exist on the other end of the floor. With Roberson healthy, there could be a looming defensive juggernaut at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Through the addition of George, the Thunder became a ball-hawking menace last season. OKC led the league in turnovers forced, as George and Roberson used their length to lock down opposing wings. With Adams serving as a sturdy presence on the back-line, Westbrook was free to gamble with ease, igniting fast breaks and rim-rocking slams.
Lineups featuring the quartet of Adams, Westbrook, George and Roberson allowed just 94.9 points per 100 possessions last season, the sixth-best mark in the league. Sub out Anthony for lanky defenders in Jerami Grant or Schroder, and the Thunder can replicate the swarm of trees that gave Golden State fits in the 2016 playoffs.
Houston is the conventional favorite for the second spot in the West following a 65-win campaign last season. Losing Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza will hurt, though, as will another year on the well-worn tires of Chris Paul. And after a regular-season sprint to vault the Warriors last year, don’t be surprised if Mike D’Antoni and Co. slow the breaks in January and February this season, saving the Rockets’ legs for May.
In the most stacked conference in recent memory, the Thunder face an uphill climb. Houston will be hungry for a second chance at the Warriors and Utah is a hot pick for the West finals. Anthony Davis may be in line for an MVP season, and oh yeah, LeBron has taken his talents to Los Angeles. The easy victories will be few and far between.
But don’t count out Oklahoma City for pole position below Golden State. Another year of the Westbrook-George pairing should breed increased chemistry, and for the first time since the James Harden trade, the Thunder have the requisite depth to survive without their stars. The OKC defense will sit near the top of the league rankings, pairing with an offense that should allow Westbrook to shine.
Three months after an embarrassing first-round exit, there may be some unfinished business in Oklahoma City after all.