Oklahoma City Thunder

Big offseason could help Thunder challenge for 2nd in West

(AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
AP Photo/Aaron Gash

The Oklahoma City Thunder made one of the biggest moves of the NBA offseason by trading for Paul George. In a move that came out of nowhere, the Indiana Pacers sent George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Teams like Boston and Cleveland seemed to be the favorites to land George’s services, and it was to the surprise of many that Indiana’s front office bit on Oklahoma City’s offer before free agency even began.

What’s done is done, and now the Thunder will enjoy getting one of the best small forwards in the league to pair with reigning Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook. In the heat of the moment, fans will be quick to say, “Well, Westbrook had Kevin Durant for eight years and never got it done!” That’s true, but it isn’t only the addition of George and all he brings that makes the Thunder an extremely dangerous squad that could be the No. 2 team in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors.

GM Sam Presti worked his magic and helped shore up the roster by signing guys like Patrick Patterson (on one of the best contracts this summer) and Raymond Felton. Andre Roberson is returning on an affordable three-year deal. OKC’s projected starting lineup will be Westbrook, George, Roberson, Patterson and Steven Adams, which will make them better on both ends of the floor.

Defensively, both George and Roberson are lockdown guys on the perimeter. Westbrook’s defense is a bit overrated simply because he makes it look like he’s a lot more active than he actually is. He tends to gamble in the passing lanes too often. Nevertheless, he is no chump on that side of the ball and competes at an extremely high level. With the proper focus he can be really good on that end.

Patterson is solid at playing at his position. While he isn’t the quickest big in guarding stretchier forwards, he sticks to the principles and has some rim-protecting skills. The stout Adams has developed since being drafted into the league and is now a legitimate rim protector with stellar pick-and-roll coverages.

Last season, the Thunder ranked 10th in defensive rating. They could push toward the top of the league in that respective category along with teams like San Antonio, Golden State and Utah thanks to the new additions:

On the other end of the floor, what George and Patterson bring offensively makes this argument even more dynamic.

George is one of the most compelling scorers in the league. He averaged 23.7 points on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 39.3 percent from 3-point range last season, and that was despite just a so-so start to the year by his standards. Although the ball won’t be in George’s hands as much as it was in Indiana given Westbrook’s presence, the forward will be the beneficiary of more open corner 3s from Russ penetration in ball-screen sets. And, of course, George will take over some of the immense load Westbrook carried last year in the wake of Kevin Durant’s exit.

Going back to those ball-screen sets, Patterson fits perfectly in that role. He shot 37.2 percent from deep last year in Toronto. Westbrook demands so much of the defense’s attention when operating in pick-and-roll situations, so Patterson won’t only have space for himself to shoot more open 3s off the pop, he’ll help open the driving lanes for Russ to do Russ things.

Depth is still somewhat of a concern with this team, but signing a veteran like Felton to manage things while Westbrook sits is an upgrade from a mix of Semaj Christon and Cameron Payne last season. Rolling out a reserve lineup of Felton, Alex Abrines, Doug McDermott, Jerami Grant and Enes Kanter isn’t the strongest, but it could earn some minutes for Westbrook to rest that he didn’t get last season. Staggering George and Westbrook will also be a priority for head coach Billy Donovan to figure out to create longevity heading into the postseason. Donovan will surely try to keep one of Westbrook or George on the floor at all times.

Given the upgrades, is it really insane to say that the Thunder could make a run for second place in the Western Conference? No. Teams like the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves improved drastically this summer as well, but the Thunder have covered many of the bases they needed after entering the offseason with what seemed like little flexibility. Depth will still be a cause for concern, but their potential defensively can trump that argument.

The George situation (and to a lesser extent Westbrook’s extension situation) adds another layer of intrigue to Oklahoma City. Folks didn’t want to get up in arms about acquiring George because he will be a free agent after this season. There is some speculation that the Thunder could even look to move him for assets before the trade deadline since George has been so outspoken of returning home to play in Los Angeles. The chances of that happening aren’t completely out of the picture, but George’s statement Tuesday suggests to Thunder fans that if it does work out, he’ll be there to stay.

“I grew up a Lakers and a Clippers fan,” George says. “I idolized Kobe. There will always be a tie here, a connection here. People saying I want to come here, who doesn’t want to play for their hometown? That’s a dream come true, if you’re a kid growing up on the outskirts of L.A., to be the man in your city. But it’s definitely been overstated. For me, it’s all about winning. I want to be in a good system, a good team. I want a shot to win it. I’m not a stats guy. I’m playing this game to win and build a legacy of winning. I’ve yet to do that. I’m searching for it. If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy, I’d be dumb to want to leave that.”

Needless to say, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be one of the most interesting teams to watch in 2017-18. Don’t be surprised if they make

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

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