Three seasons after the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise was thrust into a state of flux after the departure of the Kevin Durant, there is finally a sense of stability around the roster.
Carmelo Anthony is no longer a part of the team following an offseason deal that sent the 33-year-old forward to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Dennis Schröder and Mike Muscala. Anthony’s role on the Thunder was under intense scrutiny for most of his time in the Midwest. Anthony has now found what could be a possibly better situation for the former scoring savant to age gracefully with his ego and shot attempts intact.
The Thunder’s collection of players – save for a still-rehabbing Andre Roberson – has shaped up to be a team that should be a force on the defensive end, and with a bit of execution, could engineer an offense formidable enough to keep pace with the Western Conference.
All of this sets the Thunder up for a season that will require a showing of more from them. There has to be more from George. He had was an All-Star last season and had a career shooting year, but he will need to show a higher level of leadership on the offensive end going forward. There were times during the year where George’s ability to shapeshift to fit any offense had mostly positive results, but the 28-year-old could fail to make his presence on that end felt. His final performance of last season – five points in an elimination game against the Utah Jazz – has been buried under the weight of his decision to spurn the Lakers and remain a Thunder.
George repeatedly reminded fans and the media, in his calm and collected tone, that last season was “only year one” of this core, and everything wouldn’t all come together so quickly. With year two on the horizon, the Thunder is looking at another full training camp with the same team and some new additions.
George’s relationship with the players around him should only grow going into next year. George hasn’t registered as a productive ball-handler in the pick-and-roll in recent seasons, but a season with Steven Adams showed that the smooth forward formed a modicum of chemistry in the pick-and-roll with Adams. A second year together should prove fruitful for the pair.
It will be up to head coach Billy Donovan and his coaching staff to devise a more-fluid offensive scheme that allows for a variety of ways to attack. And if the array isn’t there, there should at least be some consistency. Last season, the Thunder ranked close to top ten in both offensive and defensive rating.
Before the injury to Roberson, the Oklahoma City Thunder were well on their way to fielding one of the league’s most disruptive (as they were tops in the league in steals and deflections) and stingiest defenses. The activity on defense was Donovan’s dreams finally realized: a well-oiled defensive machine that could stifle even the most elite of the league’s offenses.
For much of the season, the Thunder ranked in the top five regarding defense, but the offense failed to catch up. With Anthony no longer in the fold, and the team seemingly entering next season with a more concrete plan, Donovan can look to play a faster style of offense that requires less of a reliance on what the Thunder have struggled in executing – the half-court set.
Donovan, in his first three seasons as an NBA head coach, has effectively had to coach and create a game plan for three different rosters. Coming into the 2018-19 NBA season, Donovan will have the most similar roster to the previous year he has had since general manager Sam Presti hired Donovan in 2015.
This continuity will require more from the former Florida head coach. Donovan should look to feature Adams in the offense more, as the 25-year-old continues to show his elite reliance on that end of the floor.
Adams’ usage last season was largely disproportionate to his offensive impact, as his offense has grown to be much more refined yet his touches varied from game to game. This season, however, as the New Zealander is expected to take on more responsibility in his role, it would be beneficial to the team if his involvement in the offense went up.
This “season of more” for the Thunder extends past the more recognizable names on the team. Players like Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines, Schröder, Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel will each have to provide something extra next season. The Thunder’s bench ranked at the bottom of the league in points scored last season, but this season that will need to change.
The Western conference this offseason is like a dormant volcano on the edge of waking up and ejecting the molten hot lava that has lain beneath its surface. With another influx of talent and the maturation of some younger squads, the margin of error has become paper-thin. The Thunder’s supporting players will need to provide more in the way of production if they want to survive the eruption.
Donovan’s all-bench units seemed to be playing a different game than the starters at times, but this season they will need to be on one accord. The addition of Schröder and Noel should look to help stabilize that unit.
However, all of next season hinges on the maturation and development of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook will be entering his 10th season in the league, but it will only serve as his fourth as the principle guy, so to speak. Yes, George and Adams are there to supplement the UCLA product as leaders, but the brunt of the responsibility falls on his broad shoulders.
He will likely miss all of training camp and preseason following an offseason knee procedure, but his growth as a leader and point guard can benefit from him taking a seat for a while. Westbrook’s talent as one of the premier athletes in the world is undeniable, yet there is still some for the 29-year-old to learn.
For Westbrook, he will need to slow down. Yes, that is correct. For Westbrook, less may be more. The new stability of the team should allow for Westbrook to do less and find a way to let his teammates carry him. No longer does he have to play the role of the end-all, be-all of his team. The ship has righted, and as blasphemous as it may seem, Westbrook can more or less relax. His killer instinct and unmatched will to win will be needed all the same, but it’s his trust that will impact the team more than his unwavering, relentless attack.
The point guard can afford to cede some of his control to the rest of the squad and allow them, for once, to carry him. Westbrook came to the Thunder’s rescue in 2016, but now he can put his cape away and relish in a role where he can be a part of a system, rather than being THE system. The former league MVP no longer has to save the team and take on the world as this single force. He once again has the support of a roster of players who all complement each other in some way. Finally, he can ease off the gas a bit.
After a few years of uncertainty, the Oklahoma City Thunder can look to stand on solid ground and move forward with the ultimate goal of winning that elusive title. More will be required from the team to reach that goal, but they will need to learn to play more as a single unit than as factions of the same team. This season, more than in recent years, should see the Thunder with a single defined identity.