WHAT THEY TRIED IN 2017-18
Band three rovers to link arms in the face of what Golden State was flinging over, aligning three desperate legacies in the prayer that some sort of law could be established (in absence of servility). Prepare a scenario in which Russell Westbrook can’t help but give up the ball, Carmelo Anthony cannot help but see things straight, while enabling Paul George (a California native) to have his cake and treat it too.
WHAT HAPPENED IN 2017-18
48-34, fourth in the Western Conference, fell in six opening round games to Utah.
Westbrook averaged another triple-double, as it became apparent from the source that nothing massive was going to change overnight with OKC’s dedicated star. George defined the team’s unerring mix of expediency and constraint, the group dug in on slap-happy defense and small market-sized concerns instead of supplying the NBA with more outrage to busy itself with. Anthony always felt funny and Westbrook barely gave an inch, but somehow the tent stayed up.
OFFSEASON INS AND OUTS
Here: Nerlens Noel (two years at $3.75 million with a player option for 2019-20), Dennis Schröder (trade with Atlanta), Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (deal with Philadelphia), Abdel Nader (deal with Boston), Hamidou Diallo (No. 45 pick, dealt to OKC).
Gone: Carmelo Anthony (trade with Atlanta, later signed with Houston), Kyle Singler (free agent), Dakari Johnson (deal with Orlando), Nick Collison (retirement).
PLAN FOR 2018-19
With George retained on a massive free agent contract and Westbrook resembling some form of a stationary state rep, the Thunder are locked into this constituency’s call: Oklahoma City will act a dagger as long as Russell has a staff to walk alongside him. This team can defend, deliver ferocious statement possessions, and it has heaps to explain away.
HOPE FOR 2018-19
The Thunder gut the West, denying the martyrdom that takes crushing hold in Houston and elsewhere, piling up wins while delivering coach Billy Donovan the credibility he’ll need once the frightened fourth quarter hits. Adams somehow crushes toward an All-Star spot as each of his Thunder colleagues spin friendlier by the day. Russell forswears the use of the pull-up jumper, Schröder looks like a stranger to himself.
FREAK FOR 2018-19
The entire affair repeats itself, plenty of regular season promise (and even mirth!) prior to an actual team ending OKC’s season in the opening round of the playoffs. Carmelo isn’t around to provide the occasional kvetch but the outfit finds that Anthony’s ascension to Houston isn’t enough — addition by subtraction only works if you have the subs. Andre Roberson (returning from a patella tendon tear) can’t make it fly with his zero-to-hero substance, Westbrook is more of the stultifying same, the group ducks into the deep-20s again with its three-point percentage.
COME ON MAN LOOK AT
Nick Collison retired over the summer and we’re going to miss that game, he was probably the most accurate big man defender of his generation, his footwork was beautiful.
As the game evolves there will be fewer and fewer chances for players like Collison and his ilk to do what they do best — follow big men around pick and roll slants like some sort of pissed-off point guard. Also, not hit three-pointers.MAYBE LINEUP
C: Steven Adams — over five offensive rebounds per game last season, the play isn’t over until he sez it is.
PF: Jerami Grant — blocks shots, can pass, isn’t Carmelo Anthony; these are all interests to cherish, to commend and encourage. Jerami still hit fewer than 30 percent of his three-pointers last season, and in a lineup with this many front rims, the twitch is real.
SF: Paul George — teams enjoy employing multi-tool players because when utilized properly these dudes and dudettes put you team in a position to succeed. There has always been enough to carp about with Paul, the buzzer sounds and the margin call walks in with its microphone and wonders if there was still some strain left to give. Supreme talents will do that to us, George is one of the best in this game.
SG: Andre Roberson — if you want a fella to root for, this is your rehab assignment. Roberson changed the way we looked at the Thunder early in 2017-18, jerk’s on us for never spotting OKC that way to begin with. He shot 22 percent from long range, though, and didn’t even attempt a shot from outside in 13 of his 39 games.
PG: Russell Westbrook — still demands our attention because he’s good, because we’ve seen what great can do when it aligns with security, and because he’s better at basketball than most. If Westbrook ever gets a team that hits at the right time, he’ll find that the whole of the NBA will be quick to pretend that it has always been Russell’s biggest fan.
THERE WILL BE A BENCH
F: Patrick Patterson — played in all 82 games last season but the turnovers spiked and rebounds tilted in his first year with the Thunder. Still shot 38 percent on three-pointers, Patrick can turn an entire home arena into even bigger fans than they thought they were.
C: Nerlens Noel — it shouldn’t take finding the right coach.
G: Hamidou Diallo — a righteous athlete at shooting guard, taken in the second round after an undistinguished single season at Kentucky.
G: Raymond Felton — outlasted most everyone we thought was better suited for lasting a dozen years in the NBA. Of course, that Salim Stoudamire scouting report I put together for 2005-06 was more of a want than it was a need.
G: Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot — a Bryan Colangelo pick that hasn’t panned much but pebbles since hitting the States.
G: Terrance Ferguson — slightly upset that I didn’t see shorter shorts on men at the beach this year, but I suppose that’s what I get for vacationing in the Great Lakes. I kept bringing this up to my wife (but this was before she got those headphones).
G: Dennis Schröder — doesn’t have to prove he’s a flawless point guard and nobody here has to make friends, Schröder has to get buckets and make the pass that leads to the flush. Streamlined bench service should do wonders for his defense.
G/F: Alex Abrines — everyone’s favorite plug-in, Abrines shot 38 percent from long range last year but he doesn’t do anything else. Alex has to become hot shit from outside.
F/G: Abdel Nader — the small forward contributed terrible stats last season in Boston, but you can’t count those minutes — the former NBA minor league Rookie of the Year was only afforded wacko, garbage-time stints. Hit 7-19 from deep in March. Recently had his Wikipedia page dubiously edited (by a crypto hedge fund drip).
50-32, fourth in the Western Conference.
LET’S WATCH THISThe Thunder’s first game, up in Billings. Exhibition NBA basketball in tiny arenas is marvelous, every team should only play two preseason games (and both contests should be in Mountain Time).
This is a free preview, but you should really consider a contribution — this place is a blast to have in your inbox, a true alternative.
Up next: San Antonio.
(More to come.)