5-on-5: Looking back on the 2016-17 Regular Season
From losing a generational player last summer, to witnessing a historic effort from a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, the Oklahoma City Thunder just gave us one of the most unique stretches in NBA history. With the playoffs just days away, Daily Thunder looks back at the regular season that was with a new installment of 5-on-5.
1. Did the Thunder meet, exceed, or fall short of your preseason expectations? What factored into how you viewed this season?
Jon Hamm, Bleacher Report: My preseason guess was that OKC would finish 47-35. I also guessed the team’s floor would be sixth in the conference, so they’ve met expectations for me. I figured Westbrook would have a breakout season, though nothing remotely close to what we just witnessed. I factored in that the cupboard was not bare (don’t let others try to tell you otherwise). The franchise was constructed with a built-in flotation safety device in the event of a water landing, and it had basketball’s Sully at the helm.
Andrew Schlecht, Daily Thunder: The Thunder have met preseason expectations. The win total makes sense, but how they got there was not expected at all. 42 triple-doubles? Second best net rating in the clutch? Russ, the seeming front-runner for MVP? If you predicted that, you are crazy. In the wake of Durant leaving, no one thought it would happen this way. It would take a full team effort to get to 47-48 wins. Oladipo would take on a huge role, Adams will develop into a top 5 center, and role players will step up. That has kind of happened, but not really. The truth is most role players have been inconsistent, Adams hasn’t made the leap, and Russell Westbrook has been an absolute monster. He has had one of the most spectacular seasons in NBA history. By that measure this season has exceeded expectations.
Royce Young, ESPN: I’d say they they met them, and exceeded them at the same time. It was weird, because preseason I had them at 46-49 wins, and originally as high as the 4-seed, but dropped down to the 6, where they finished. That was largely based on a faith in Westbrook as a solo artist, which he lived up to. But in so many ways, they exceeded the expectations I had, after seeing how they got it done, and the way Westbrook played. So I don’t really know.
Alex Roig, Daily Thunder: I would say they slightly exceeded. I had them at about 45 wins and they got to 47, but the manner in which they got there completely exceeded all of my expectations. I thought Westbrook would have a little more help, with Steven Adams looking like he was ready to make the leap to a top-10 center. Instead, he battled bouts of inconsistency as he adapted to his role as a featured player on the offensive end of the floor. The floor spacers for the Thunder started the season extremely slow, with Anthony Morrow and Alex Abrines shooting below 30% for much of the first 2 months. As the season progressed, it became more and more apparent that a Thunder team with inconsistent role players and a “regular” Westbrook would struggle to win consistently. But with Westbrook going Super-Saiyan in nearly every game, the Thunder were able to buck that trend and exceed expectations.
Weston Shepherd, Daily Thunder: I predicted a 50-win season, so technically the team fell short of my original expectation. That being said, I don’t feel the least bit disappointed with how things played out. Russell Westbrook broke the single-season triple-double mark, became the second player to ever average a triple-double, introduced himself as a deadly crunch time performer and may very well win his first MVP. We also had KD’s return, “cupcake”, a big draft day trade and, finally, a trip to the playoffs. Title aspirations were always far-fetched, so the least the team could do was entertain us. I say OKC far exceeded my expectations based on that entertainment value alone. Oscar Robertson started an “MVP!” chant for Russ before the regular season finale, for God’s sake.
2. Which player was most disappointing this season, and why? Which player exceeded expectations and why?
Hamm: The most disappointing players to me are two players that are no longer in the 405: Anthony Morrow and Cam Payne. Morrow hit less than 30% of his 3-point attempts with the Thunder. Payne had an unfortunate run of injuries that prevented him from showing the Thunder much of anything. It was, however, good enough for the Bulls apparently… The player that exceeded my expectations? Number zero, and it should be fairly self-explanatory.
Schlecht: Steven Adams is the most disappointing player this season. He hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t made the leap some expected. If you will look at the charts below you will see that he basically had a decent season except for the month of February… and February was REALLY bad.
Adams and Kanter are an easy comp. They have only played 395 minutes together this season, 26th in minutes played by a Thunder duo. For comparison’s sake Joffrey Lauvergne and Jerami Grant logged more minutes together this season. With the exception of February, Adams is the better player. He contributes more to winning basketball, as shown in his net rating. The most disappointing thing about Adams’ game is he hasn’t made the leap we expected him to, and has a very limited offensive role. It could be the team doesn’t want him to have a heavier role on offense, or that Steve isn’t ready for it. On the season Steve is averaging only 8.2 shot attempts per game, up from 5.3. If Adams is going to be the impact player we want him to be, he needs to be more involved in the offense. He has the ability to score around the basket and make smart passes, but he hasn’t been given that opportunity. His defense has been inconsistent as well, but at 23 he deserves a pass. He will get better. He will improve. But today, he’s not where we expected him to be. Many still believe he has the second highest ceiling of any player on the team. He has to prove that now. Maybe the Steven Adams of the playoffs last year will emerge this weekend, but the truth is we haven’t seen much of that player in the regular season. (Thanks for the stats Basketball Reference).
Russell Westbrook has exceeded my expectations because MVP, PER, VORP, BSPM, AND CLUTCH STAT DESTROYER MODE.
Young: I was most disappointed in Cameron Payne, even though he’s not on the team anymore. That obviously started with him breaking his foot, and while he wasn’t likely going to factor into the Thunder’s long term future, there was a feeling he’d do more, and if anything, build bigger trade value. I think I could say Westbrook exceeded expectations, but that seems like a cop out, so I’ll say Abrines. He became a very solid rotation guy, an obvious marksman, and I think a pretty important part of the future going forward.
Roig: Most disappointing to me has been Steven Adams, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. My expectations for Adams heading into the season may have been way too high, as he was built to flourish in a dual-superstar system with a ton of floor spacing. With both Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka gone, that spacing he had last season became null and void in 2016-17, and he struggled to adjust. Defensively, it was a bit of the same story. There was no more versatile a defensive front line than that of Durant, Ibaka, and Adams. With those two no longer book-ending Adams, he has to go at it alone, and it has been an adjustment. Good news, though: There is room for improvement. And he’s only 23 years old.
Who has exceeded expectations? Russell frickin’ Westbrook. I knew he was great. I never knew he could be historically great. I never knew he could be “tell your grandkids about this guy named Russell Westbrook who played 40 years ago” great.
Shepherd: As far as disappointments go, I keep coming back to Steven Adams. While I don’t think it would be fair to say he had a bad season, I’m just not of the opinion he had a great season, either — which is what I was expecting. After sustained excellence in last season’s playoffs, his 11.3 PPG & 7.7 RPG this season fell flat for me. This is compounded by the 9.3 PPG & 7.1 RPG he posted after the All-Star break, coupled with an Eye Test that said he was burning out. Adams is going to be fine, I just didn’t feel as though he took the next step so many of us were anticipating.
The player who exceeded my expectations is Russell Westbrook. Obvious answer, but I will say I’m less impressed with what he did than I am with how he did it.
3. Do the Thunder have to win their opening round series for this season to be considered a success?
Hamm: The Thunder made the playoffs by a good margin the season after losing a top-5 (perhaps top-3) NBA player for absolutely nothing. It’s a success already.
Schlecht: No. Remember this is year one, and as Presi said, this is a “discovery period”. It would be more of a surprise to win a first round series. This Thunder team coming away with one round of the playoffs and the league MVP is a smashing success, everything else is gravy.
Young: Nope. It’s already successful. Overwhelmingly so, I think. Westbrook has established himself as a foundational player that you can build a winner around, and the team is discovering almost nightly what they need to complement him with. Players are developing, all while the team won games. It’s been an excellent season for the Thunder. You can’t forget the fact this is year one after losing a transcendent Hall of Famer. Teams don’t have seasons like this right away. It just doesn’t happen. It normally takes five years for a solid rebuild, if at all. Ask the Timberwolves.
Roig: No, they don’t have to win the series, but they have to at least be competitive. If the series goes 6 or 7 games, and the Thunder lose, I would still consider that a successful post-season campaign. Other than Westbrook, Adams, Andre Roberson, and Enes Kanter, this season is about introducing the other core players to the playoffs, and showing them what needs to be done to be successful in the postseason.
Shepherd: Not a chance. Dropping the first round series to Houston would be disappointing, but it would be short-sighted to declare the season a failure based on what happens in the playoffs. The organization regained its footing after KD’s departure, immediately re-energized the fan base and made a postseason run behind the most exciting player in the league. If this is the foundation for what comes next, there’s certainly a lot to like about it.
4. In terms of roster building on the fly, what grade do you give Sam Presti for the job he has done in putting together the team around Westbrook? Why did you give him that grade?
Hamm: Solid B. It began with signing Abrines and trading for Lauvergne. It continued with trades for Grant, McDermott, and Gibson. All quality moves given the limitations it faced. But the biggest letdown is the inability to get a quality backup for Westbrook. Presti gave Ronnie Price $5 million to NOT play for the Thunder. He’s still showing all kinds of weird faith in Semaj Christon when there were likely better options out there. Norris Cole didn’t fix anything. Nobody’s perfect, but this team shouldn’t be headed to the playoffs with the backup PG’s that it has.
Schlecht: This is like a paper being ripped out of your hands by a teacher after you write the first sentence, and then the teacher attempting to grade it. It doesn’t make much sense for anyone. Sam Presti hasn’t really had time to “build a roster”. This roster has just happened to him and the organization. This current roster is still built to have 2 superstars (3 when you consider Dion Waiters should still be here, thanks Kevin) plus Al Horford. Sam has made some good trades, but this is clearly not the team they want around Russ for the long term. There is a lot of internal growth to happen along with trades and draft picks that will determine the ultimate fate of this team. If I have to give a grade I guess I’d give a B, but it is way too early to grade.
Young: I’d give him an A. He’s had one trade deadline for crying out loud! He lost Kevin Durant for nothing. Literal nothing. Not even a trade exception. By the time Durant left, there weren’t any free agents. He made a quality move signing Abrines, and then he made the biggest transaction in franchise history, re-signing Westbrook. And the Oladipo trade in hindsight might’ve saved the franchise, at least for the next few years. (Imagine having Ibaka on an expiring, with no trade value — instead they have Oladipo, Sabonis, McDermott, Grant and Gibson directly and indirectly from it). It’s going to take time to find the right support for Westbrook. I understand fans want something now now now, but it took the Rockets four offseasons and two coaches to figure out what worked with Harden. Presti deserves some grace, and some credit.
Roig: I’d give him a solid B. The Ibaka trade that started the Thunder’s offseason, was probably made with the thought of Durant still being on this team. But the beauty of the trade was that it also worked for when Durant decided to bounce. Oladipo gave the team another scorer, Domantas Sabonis was a good prospect to develop, and Ersan Ilyasova was a great trade chip with his expiring contract. The signing of Abrines. The trade for Joffrey Lauvergne. The trade for Jerami Grant. And then the trade deadline masterstroke that netted them Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson in exchange for three reserve players that didn’t consistently see any time on the floor. The moves, by themselves, may not seem like much. But as a whole, the team is starting to transform into one that is more equipped to play around a player with Westbrook’s strengths. My only knock is giving away $6.5 million in the Ronnie Price and Mitch McGary contracts, with another $2.5 million due to Price next season.
Shepherd: Can I give him an ‘Incomplete’? Is that allowed? We’re going with Incomplete. Look — I stand with a lot of you in my belief that Sam Presti is a mad scientist/master of front office wizardry, but I don’t feel comfortable grading his body of work before he has a full off-season of maneuvering. He did a fine job this season, particularly in landing young, developing pieces in Jerami Grant and Doug McDermott, but the work is just beginning for Sammy P. Early returns say he’ll get the grade we expect from him, but this is more of a middle point in the test than a final product.
5. All things considered, where do you place this in terms of most entertaining/exciting Thunder seasons?
Hamm: It was perhaps the most entertaining/exciting since the 50-win campaign of 2008-09. Not that the title chasing seasons weren’t fun, but the constant pressure of chasing a title took a bit of wind out of the sails. Though to be fair, watching Kevin Durant put up all those 30-point nights in 2013-14 was kinda fun too.
Schlecht: This season is up there with some of the best regular seasons, but I’d go with 2009-10. Everything was still really fresh with this team. They didn’t have the weight of expectations on them, and they still won 50 games. Westbrook, Durant, Harden, Thabo, Collison, and good young Jeff Green were so fun. Rookie Ibaka showed some flashes, and we can’t forget how good Eric Maynor was as a backup. It was also the beginning of Shaun Livingston’s comeback and the season of me overrating every minute Kyle Weaver played. OKC hadn’t felt the weight of failure or success yet. It was ONLY fun. You could sit and dream about the future of this team. Also Nenad’s wispy hair…. that was a thing. That said this season is probably number two. Westbrook has embodied all the built up emotion from the team and the city and created one of the best seasons ever by a player. The man is averaging a triple double AND leading the league in scoring. He has had countless unforgettable moments. He racked up a highlight reel that takes most superstars an entire career obtain. This is the season of Westbrook. He is the storyline. It’s all his.
Young: It’s No. 2 in my mind. The best Thunder season still is the third one, with the surprise run to the Western Conference finals. That team could do no wrong, and it was all fun, and all bright future ahead. There were no expectations at that time, and little pressure to win now. This has been a remarkable year, watching history happen in real time, alongside watching Westbrook lift an entire organization and state. It’s up there. Pretty incredible to think back to the doom and gloom of July 4, to how this season went.
Roig: I rank this season number 3, behind the 2010-11 season and the 2009-10 season. That being said, depending on how this upcoming playoff run goes, this season could move up in the rankings. See, great seasons are usually great for one of two reasons: championships or surprises. The 09-10 season was great because it was our first time in the playoffs and, honestly, no one thought we’d be there after the 23-win season the year prior. The 10-11 season was great because we surprisingly made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. So if this team somehow makes a deep postseason run, I could see it moving up in the rankings.
Shepherd: Based on the entertainment value I mentioned earlier, I’m placing this season firmly in second place behind 2009-10’s upstart bunch of youngsters. The path forward is far more murky than it was, and we’ve obviously had higher April hopes between then and now, but this season was something I won’t ever forget. The must-see TV of Russell Westbrook unleashed was as compelling a story line as you’ll find in sports, and his individual history alone guarantees it won’t soon be forgotten.