Saturday, April 20, 2024

Thunderous Expectations


This might seem like an odd one. Most NBA fans will claim the Thunder are in a worse position than last year. And there’s some truth to that. With the Warriors somehow getting even better with the addition of Demarcus Cousins and Carmelo Anthony joining the no. 1 seeded Rockets, there rich only seem to get richer.

The West is always tough, and it seems to have only gotten tougher this year. LeBron to the Lakers. Julius Randle to the Pelicans. MPJ to the Nuggets. The West has only gotten stronger this offseason, which presents a tough task for this OKC team.

The Thunder made a few moves this offseason, but how will they fare this upcoming NBA season?


Houston, We Have A Problem

The 2017-2018 version of the Thunder was quite a spectacle to see. Superstar Russell Westbrook had a record-setting season in 2016 where he won MVP and averaged a triple-double for the season. Despite the tremendous season from Westbrook, the Thunder fell in the first round to an overwhelming Rockets team led by James Harden.

One thing was clear, Westbrook needed help if the Thunder wanted to succeed. And he got some. The Thunder made a few trades and acquired star forwards Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. A big 3 of Westbrook, George, and Anthony was set to make a big splash in the western conference.

Yeah…about that.

With lofty expectations set, the Thunder managed to win 48 games, which was good for 4th seed in the western conference. Not a bad mark considering elite teams like the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors were sitting in front of them. When the playoffs came about fans hoped the talent would come together for the Thunder, but it simply never did.

The Thunder got knocked out of the first round in 6 games to the Utah Jazz. It was a disappointing result, but an (almost) predictable one.

The Thunder knew something needed to change, which started with getting rid of the washed-up Carmelo Anthony.

Melo had a bit of a reputation when he came to OKC. Playing as the no. 1 option all his career, Melo had been one of the best pure scorers in the league for years. What came with that was the low-efficiency marks and isolation plays which caused gave Anthony a reputation as a “ball stopper.”

Still, OKC got a tremendously talented player in Melo. Playing next to uber ball dominant Russell Westbrook and superior talent Paul George, Melo was to be the 3rd option on this team.

This was set to be a perfect situation for Melo. At 33 years old, Anthony had been on the decline for a few years. He would be able to transition to more of a spot up role playing off of Westbrook and George which would lead to more efficient production.

For as great as Anthony has been in his career he has had a tough time winning. Not just a tough time, the worst time. At 16-36, Carmelo Anthony has the worst playoff record in NBA history. A move to the Thunder playing with bonafide stars was sure to see him more success in the postseason.

It simply never capitalized for Melo. He never seemed to adjust to his role properly. While fans hoped Melo would play more of an off-ball role, Anthony reluctantly needed his post ups and iso plays which doomed the Thunder from the very beginning.

Melo had the lowest usage rate of his career at 23.2. A far cry from his career average of 31.4. A dip in stats is expected, but a rise in efficiency was almost demanded. That never happened as Melo had the worst statistical season of his career.

Melo averaged 8.6 PPG less than his career average. A modest dip was expected but what happened to Melo was almost unprecedented. You see the major dip in FG%, a number you would assume would go up playing more without the ball. You would also expect a rise in 3PT% for that same reason, which didn’t happen, and a drop in his FT% is completely unexplainable.

Melo also saw dips in his APG and RPG. Melo has never been a stellar passer, but he made it more of a point to get his teammates involved the last few years of his career, clearly, that wasn’t the case in OKC. Playing the 4 for the Thunder, you expect Melo to grab many more rebounds, once again something that wasn’t accomplished.

Overall, it’s clear Carmelo Anthony was not helping the Thunder win. One of many factors for the Thunder’s lack of success. So the Thunder decided to trade away Anthony and his $27.9 million contract to the Atlanta Hawks for a budding star in Dennis Schröder, but we’ll get to that.

Is Westbrook The Issue For The Thunder?

This is one of the most intriguing discussions in the NBA. Russell Westbrook is one of the best players in the NBA, but many people have claimed Westbrook is a stat padder and a player who is not “a winner.” What do I think? Well, that’s complicated.

Here’s the reality of the NBA. Fans and analysts will always question a player unless they win. Regardless of situation, talent, productivity injury luck, anything, players will always be scrutinized unless they win.

For years fans claimed Chris Paul was not a “winning player” because he never found the playoff success his talent deemed. Nobody took into account the injury luck he or his teammates dealt with. How can anyone say Paul, debatably the best passer in the NBA, is not a winning player. Ridiculous.

In Paul’s first season with the Houston Rockets, he was just 1 game away from beating one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history and making the Finals. Nobody is questioning Paul anymore.

So does that alone justify Westbrook as a “winning player?” Of course not.

The arguments for Westbrook being the problem are numerous. Harden became a superstar once he left. Durant won 2 titles when he left. Oladipo won most improved player after being traded. Domantas Sabonis was a candidate for the most improved player after being traded.

There’s a reason for every one of those. Better teams, player development, different roles. I know, it sounds like excuses.

There are a few things that are quite obvious about Westbrook. Yes, he is extremely ball dominant and yes doesn’t have much of an off-ball game. And at times you can question is shot selection. The one thing you can never take away from him is his fire and spirit.

Westbrook has to be the most passionate player in the NBA. He puts his all out on every single play. It’s quite admirable, but that in itself does not give him a pass.

Russell Westbrook is a ball dominant player, definitely. But despite what people think, Westbrook is not a selfish player. This is a guy who has averaged 10.0+ APG in 3 straight years. He loves to make the play, he penetrates through the paint and draws two, three, four defenders on him before dishing out timely passes for his teammates to capitalize on.

Fans have criticized Westbrook for stat padding his numbers in the rebound column. The reality is, Westbrook is the best rebounding guard in the NBA. He runs in with energy and athleticism and rips the ball away from opposing defenders. This should be viewed as a positive, being able to play a smaller lineup because you are not worried about rebounding.

There’s some truth to Westbrook’s bad shot selection. He does take some questionable shots at times, but the amount of ridiculous layups and pull up jumpers he makes most definitely outweighs that. There’s far and few players that are able to do what Westbrook does.

This is a guy who has legitimately carried the Thunder at times when he has to. Westbrook has put up serious totals in the scoring department while still managing to get his teammates involved.

Russell Westbrook is a ball dominant player, but I do not believe he is a problem. He is a superstar who helps his teammates excel. But of course, not every player meshes properly with Westbrook. Paul George is a perfect example of a player that did.


Resigning of PG-13

Star small forward Paul George was the focal point of the Indiana Pacers for many years. They had some success here and there, but his last few years in Indiana, the team was quite underwhelming. Out of fear that PG-13 would leave in free agency, the Pacers traded away the highly touted SF for a budding star in Victor Oladipo.

Once the Thunder lost in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, fans scoffed at the thought of George resigning with the Thunder. They said, “George hated playing with Westbrook, why would he resign?” Simply put, that isn’t true.

George had to make a big adjustment not having the ball in his hands as much, but he did it perfectly. Paul George is a picture-perfect fit next to Westbrook. He comes off pin downs and off-ball screens to get open.

PG-13 is fantastic at moving without the ball and equally great at hitting catch and shoot shots. Westbrook would hit George when he was open and George used his fantastic ability on the dribble drives off pin-downs to score points at an efficient rate.

This worked perfectly for George because it got him more efficient looks because he was the primary ball handler less while playing next to Westbrook. George got his opportunity as the primary ball handler when Westbrook would hit the bench. So George would play to all his strengths.

You can see George’s PPG took a slight hit, but that is expected when playing next to other stars. The thing to note is his spike in 3PT%. Despite shooting 1.1 more 3PA George shot and outstanding 40.1 3PT%.

Westbrook and George co-existed very well. Melo was the 3rd piece that seemingly never clicked with the dynamic duo. George surprised most of the NBA by resigning with the Thunder, but I believe it is the right move. The duo will be able to flourish together once again. Obviously, they could use some help.


The Impact of Dennis Schröder

Dennis Shröder is one of the most underappreciated players in the NBA. After being the 17th pick in 2013, Shröder rode the bench behind PG Jeff Teague for the majority of his first 3 years. He consistently showed flashes of brilliance while playing behind Teague.

In 2016, Teague was traded to the Indiana Pacers and Shröder finally got his shot to start.

You can see how Shröder excelled as the starter. Although he averaged 19.4 PPG this past year, people still don’t talk about the young point guard. At 6’1” 172 lbs Shröder most definitely lacks ideal size for the point guard position, but his massive 6’7” wingspan has most definitely helped him there.

Shröder has his issues. He struggles on the defensive side. He is turnover prone. But his talent is more than apparent. Shröder has blazing speed. He has the ability to get to the paint at will despite his slender frame. Shröder is a very solid playmaker, noted by his 6.0+ APG his past 2 years.

Many have questioned Shröder’s shooting touch. His 29.0 3PT% last year inspires confidence in no one. Shröder is a fantastic mid-range shooter, however, and the hope is that he can improve on his 3PT%, as he did shoot 34.0 3PT% in 2016. Keep in mind, this is a player who is only 24.

It is going to be quite an interesting fit for Shröder in OKC. Playing Shröder and Westbrook together makes close to 0 sense. Two point guards that struggle at the 3 point line. Shröder is set to come off the bench and I believe this will suit him perfectly.

One of the biggest problems for the Thunder was the lack of bench production. When Westbrook and George were on the bench the 2nd units struggled to produce. Adding Shröder off the bench will not only elevate this team with his playmaking ability, but he will also be able to dominate opposing 2nd units with his scoring ability.

Of course, Shröder will need to play minutes next to Westbrook. You most likely forgot, but Westbrook actually played shooting guard in college next to UCLA star Darren Collison. Just a few years ago there was a similar situation in OKC where Westbrook and 6 man PG Reggie Jackson were forced to play minutes together. Both players flourished in that situation.

Another area where Shröder will excel is the transition game. Thunder fell a bit flat in pace last year, mostly due to the plodding Carmelo Anthony. Adding the electric Dennis Shröder along with godly athlete Russell Westbrook and transition monster Paul George will make for an exciting show in the fastbreak.

The addition of Dennis Shröder may seem like an odd one, but it will help the Thunder ten folds. If Shröder were to improve his jump shot, it would help further his game and the Thunder alike. Regardless of what happens, one thing is for sure, Shröder will help the Thunder win more games.


The Big Australian

Steven Adams is a big, big man. At 7’0” 255 lbs, Adams was drafted as a bruiser and has been exactly that. Adams has shown promise since his rookie year in 2013. After getting the starting job, he has only gotten better year after year.

Steven Adams is a prodigious talent, no one is debating that. What people are questioning is if Adams is held back by the presence of Russell Westbrook.

Adams is a tear on the defensive side. He is one of the best post defenders in the league and defends the rim very efficiently. Adams is one of the strongest players in the league and a tenacious rebounder, especially on the offensive side.

Adams had one of the oddest seasons in the NBA last year. He averaged more offensive rebounds (5.1) than defensive rebounds (4.0). To make things even weirder, no player in NBA history has averaged 5.0+ ORPG, but less than 10 RPG in a season. What does that mean? Nothing really.

You can attain those lack of defensive rebounds to playing with Russell Westbrook. This is not a bad thing, however. Relying on Westbrook to get the rebounds and push the ball in transition means Adams can get down in transition faster. Which creates more easy buckets for the Thunder. It’s the little things that matter.

Adams is elite at seeking out offensive rebounds and creating extra possessions for the Thunder. This is immeasurable towards the success of the Thunder.

Despite the criticism levied on Westbrook, I believe Adams thrives next to Westbrook. In all the games I have watched Adams, he has shown almost no post presence. Adams is elite in the pick and roll game. He sets strong, hard picks and understands when to roll to the basket.

Westbrook is a maestro in the P&R roll game. He is able to deliver timely passes to Adams in positions to score. Adams is adept at hitting little floaters, finishing through contact, dunking the ball. Westbrook hits Adams in good positions to score, one of the best P&R duos in the NBA.

Adams has almost no post presence, but he often gets mismatches with smaller players and takes them in the post. Westbrook realizes this and always hits Adams in these situations and the Thunder capitalize for easy baskets.

Steven Adams is a role player on offense who anchors the Thunder’s defense. But that’s all he can do. Despite what fans might think, Adams is not held back by playing for the Thunder. He is a perfect fit with the Thunder who thrives in the pick and roll with Westbrook.


The Roberson Factor

Andre Roberson is the key to the Thunder’s success. No seriously, don’t laugh.

Andre Roberson is an absolutely atrocious offensive player, there’s no denying that. He shot 22.2 3PT% on simple wide open shots when opposing teams laughably give him 10 ft of space. He shot 53.7 FG% but that consisted of primarily layups and dunks. Roberson was not just a bad offensive player who struggled as a shooter. He shrank the court, gave the Thunder terrible spacing, he couldn’t shoot a simple jump shot.

But there are 2 sides to any coin. What the Thunder have in Roberson is an absolute dynamo of a defender. Roberson is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and at 6’7” Roberson has the ability to cover positions 1-4.

The most important aspect of Roberson’s defense is his ability to pick up what Westbrook could not. Roberson and George were elite defenders. Westbrook and Anthony were not. Roberson was able to pick up the opposing team’s’ best guard/wing and lock them down.

Before Roberson went down the Thunder were 5th in defensive efficiency and 10th in FG% allowed. Once Roberson went out those marks dropped to 23rd in defensive efficiency and 24th in FG%. A drop was expected, but this much was almost unprecedented.

Roberson is not a great offensive player, he’s not even a good one, he’s terrible honestly. I sometimes want to cry watching Roberson shooting free throws. But the reality of the situation is his defense cannot be replaced.

On the offensive side, Roberson does enough. When he receives the ball he immediately hits it to someone else, does not take too many 3s. He is an excellent cutter, when the opportunity is right Roberson makes beautiful backdoor cuts behind the defense for a few points here and there which keeps the defense off balance.

The Thunder held almost the same marks on offense with or without Roberson. Russell Westbrook seems to finish through contact with 2, 3, 4, however many defenders on him. The spacing Roberson harms has not affected Westbrook much

If Andre Roberson develops a jump shot, it would improve the spacing ten folds. Teams would have no idea how to defend this Thunder squad. But even if he doesn’t, what Roberson brings to this team on the defense is crucial to their success. His return will be one of the biggest keys to the Thunder’s success this upcoming season.


Drop It To The Floor

So what does it all mean? How will the Thunder fit together? Will they succeed? These are the questions every NBA fan wants answers to.

Despite what people think, the Thunder could find legitimate success this upcoming NBA season. The first step was getting rid of the inefficient Carmelo Anthony. Bringing in Dennis Schröder will boost bench production and help this team as a whole.

The return of Andre Roberson may be the biggest factor in this puzzle. The Thunder were playing well and winning while Roberson was healthy, a trend that will continue next year. Adams is a perfect fit in the P&R with Westbrook and will continue to help this team win.

Coach Billy Donovan has often come under fire for a lack of deep success in the postseason. But the reality is he has done quite a nice job for the Thunder since entering the league. His personnel decisions have put the Thunder in the best position to win, unfortunately, the players didn’t live up to expectations.

The Thunder are a serious wildcard this season. They legitimately have the potential to be as high as 2nd place, or as low as 8th place. I’ll take the over. A team led by an elite duo of Westbrook and George, they will continue to get better as they take the necessary time to gel. You doubt Westbrook and the Thunder, but they might just surprise you.

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