The Oklahoma City Thunder embark on their 11th season next week when they open up against the Golden State Warriors in Oracle Arena. Excitement and optimism are rather high, despite being bounced in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. The positivity surrounding this team can be largely attributed to Paul George rewarding Thunder GM Sam Presti’s franchise-altering gamble by extending with OKC for 4-years/$137 million. Now that OKC finally has some sort of stability, let’s take a look at four questions I have for the upcoming season.
How will OKC manage their early season injury woes?
With Russell Westbrook’s return date still undetermined and Andre Roberson expected to miss at least the first two months of the season, the Thunder will need the bench to step up in a big way. Newcomer Dennis Schroder will take over at point guard until Westbrook returns. Schroder’s preseason left a lot to be desired, as his erratic shot selection and inefficiency (37.5% FG) could present problems. He came into the league as a highly-touted defender, but according to Basketball Reference, his Defensive Box Plus/Minus was a career worst -2.2 last season with Atlanta. Schroder will now have the luxury of playing alongside All-NBA wing Paul George and a premier big in Steven Adams. Less is more with Schroder — if he can continue to develop his pick-and-roll game with Adams while keeping George the focus offensively, all will be fine.
The bigger question mark will be at the shooting guard position. Billy Donovan has already mentioned Terrance Ferguson will likely start in Roberson’s absence. Before Corey Brewer was signed in the buy-out market last season, Ferguson started nine games after Roberson went down. Ferguson wasn’t asked to do much as a 19-year-old rookie: shoot the open three, run the floor, and work hard defensively. There was some cause for concern after Ferguson was asked to expand his game during Summer League, which provided mixed results. It’s safe to assume that sharpshooter Alex Abrines will continue to see his usual minutes, with highflying rookie Hamidou Diallo getting some run and newcomer Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot sprinkled in as well.
I understand folks are excited about Diallo’s preseason, but I would advise exercising some patience with him. If Ferguson struggles out of the gate, Billy D may be forced to give the rookie out of Kentucky a few more minutes than expected.
What Will Continuity Bring to Billy D, OKC?
For the first time since Billy Donovan was hired before the 2015-16 season, the Thunder return much of their core from the previous year. This roster endured arguably more turnover than any other franchise over the past three seasons, but that’s not the case moving forward. For the first time in Billy D’s tenure, the Thunder will return four of the five starters (when healthy) from the previous season.
After a sluggish 8-12 start last season, OKC went 21-8 from December 1 until Roberson went down on January 27 in Detroit — including an 11-3 record versus opposing playoff teams in that stretch. OKC was just starting to piece it all together right when Roberson went down, and his recent setback will put OKC’s continuity on an extended hold once more. However, the Thunder benefits from a relatively light early-season season schedule, playing only 12 playoff teams (two games vs Lebron-less Cleveland) from last year in their first 32 games before the Christmas showdown in Houston. If the Thunder can weather the storm until its starting backcourt is healthy, there’s no reason to think the team can’t pick up where they left off before Roberson went down last season.
Who Emerges at Power Forward?
One of the more popular offseason discussion points amongst Thunder supporters is the power forward position. With future Hall-of-Famer Carmelo Anthony being traded out of OKC after one inconsistent season, the door has been opened for a major role with this team. Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant, who GM Sam Presti re-signed to a 3-year/$27 million extension over the summer, will look to fill the void left by Anthony. As Josh Krause highlighted yesterday, both Patterson and Grant have their strengths and weaknesses.
Patterson started all four of OKC’s preseason games, struggling to find his stroke from the outside en route to shooting 25 percent in the tune-up games. Arguably, the Thunder’s most glaring hole is three-point shooting. Patterson is the floor spacer that can unlock pick-and-rolls for Westbrook/Schroder and Adams, as well as easier scoring opportunities for George. Other than shooting open threes, how else does Patterson contribute to winning? He can’t create for himself or others off the dribble, the extent of his passing isn’t much outside of dribble hand-offs, he’s not a strong rebounder, and according to Basketball Reference, his Defensive Box Plus/Minus has worsened every year over the past five seasons.
While Grant isn’t nearly the shooter that Patterson is, he simply brings more to the table in my opinion. His rim protection has shown flashes of similarities to Serge Ibaka, as well as his versatility in defending multiple positions — an OKC staple. In Sam Presti’s 2018-19 introductory press conference, the first item he mentioned in regards to “Basketball Identity” was reestablishing OKC’s defensive identity.
According to Basketball Reference, the Thunder were a minus-58 in the 193:40 minutes that Carmelo Anthony was on the floor in last season’s playoff loss to Utah. However, the Thunder were +29 in the 132:40 minutes that Grant was on the floor. While I think Patterson starts the year as OKC’s starting power forward, I believe Grant’s defensive prowess will allow him to be the crunch time power forward — a role he had at the end of last season.
When Does OKC Take Care of Business Against Inferior Teams?
A common theme for Thunder basketball over the past few seasons has been their inconsistent play against the bottom half of the league. Last year, the Thunder went 26-14 vs non-playoff teams and 22-20 vs playoff teams. A .650 winning percentage isn’t horrible at first glance, however, a team that views themselves as Western Conference contenders needs to improve here.
With the rise of Golden State’s dominance, the NBA is currently in the “Embrace The Tank” era, with many teams playing subpar basketball in order to get future assets while waiting out the Warriors’ run. The Thunder needs to take advantage against these teams. As last season’s regular season finish showed us, every game matters. (Might I remind you that OKC needed back-to-back wins at Houston and at Miami last year in April just to make the postseason?)
OKC needs to play .800 basketball versus these inferior teams if they want the rest of the NBA to take them seriously. Had the Thunder gone 32-8 vs the non-playoff teams last year, they would’ve had a record of 54-28, which would’ve been good enough for the third seed. Getting as many wins as possible against the non-contenders is the easiest way to land in one of those top three seeds come playoff time.