30 Teams in 30 Days: Thunder hope George-Westbrook audition can lead to long-term production
Former Pacers star and reigning Kia MVP's chemistry is key to franchise's future
Since the Warriors downed the Cavs to take the 2017 NBA title back on June 12, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason.
NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2016-17 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
Today’s team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Record: 47-35
Major additions: Paul George (trade), Raymond Felton (free agency), Patrick Patterson (free agency), Terrance Ferguson (draft).
Major subtractions: Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Taj Gibson.
The lowdown: Without Kevin Durant, but fueled by Russell Westbrook’s Kia MVP fire, the Thunder nearly won 50 games before falling in the first round of the playoffs.
This season Westbrook will have a bit more help.
Whoever had Oklahoma City in the George trade pool should go immediately to Las Vegas and bet heavy. Almost out of nowhere, the Thunder emerged as winners in the George sweepstakes and one year after losing Durant have added a star to side next to Westbrook.
Not only did OKC pull it off, nudging aside other suitors such as the Cavs and Celtics and Lakers, but the price was surprisingly low. The Thunder surrendered Oladipo, a good but not spectacular guard that they foolishly paid like a superstar two summers ago, and Sabonis, their 2016 No. 1 pick who was inconsistent. The trade surprised many observers given what it cost OKC, and even if George turns out to be a one-year rental, it’s no big deal.
That’s because OKC could get from under Oladipo’s contract, which pays him $21 million per over the next four years, and will have salary cap room to find George’s replacement.
Yes, it’s possible that Westbrook must find another A-list teammate for the second straight year, and that’s assuming Westbrook re-signs in OKC himself. Since he’ll qualify for a major extension, it’s a fair bet he will.
Anyway, that’s a story for another summer. Right now, it’s all about George and Westbrook and if they’ll have the right chemistry to give OKC a chance to challenge the Warriors at the top of the heap.
George is a very low-maintenance teammate. He doesn’t dominate the ball, or demand that he needs 20-plus shots a game, and he’s a very good passer, all of which will help him get on Westbrook’s good side. After all, as a scorer, Westbrook is the opposite; he does need plenty of shots and does dominate the ball, which is partly why he won MVP. Very little happened for OKC last season unless Westbrook either scored or set up teammates for baskets or started the fast break with a defensive rebound.
Westbrook won’t have such a burden next year, and chances are good that he’ll accommodate George as much as possible. He has every incentive to make life good for George, considering George can walk next summer. The last thing Westbrook needs is a reputation for chasing away stars; he endured enough of that when Durant left for Golden State in 2016.
So, expect plenty of Westbrook-to-George baskets, and if that cuts into the 31 points Westbrook averaged last season, so be it.
George should also fortify OKC’s defense because he’s solid, either on his man or off the ball. OKC couldn’t do much better this summer than landing George, and again, even if he’s a rental, OKC didn’t surrender much in the process in order to take that chance.
Oladipo averaged 16 points and four rebounds in his lone season in OKC and was arguably the most talented backcourt mate Westbrook has had since James Harden left. Still, Oladipo yielded far too much to Westbrook and seemed too timid to be demanding. Westbrook will show George much more respect.
OKC lost a veteran power forward when Gibson bolted for Minnesota and Tom Thibodeau, his old coach in Chicago. But GM Sam Presti made a good-value signing with Patterson, who’s more of an offensive threat than Gibson and should be a good balance on the front line with center Steven Adams. However, Patterson had arthroscopic knee surgery in August and could miss a portion of training camp.
Another economical signing came in the form of a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum to fetch Felton, a smart point guard who showed last season with the Clippers that he still has the goods to be a solid backup.
Presti’s wild card is Ferguson, the No. 21 pick. Two years ago, he was a McDonald’s All-American along with Lonzo Ball and other one-and-done’s who were taken in the lottery. Ferguson took a different path, playing in Australia because he wanted to get paid. He wasn’t spectacular (shot just 38 percent, averaged 4.6 points) but international stats can be misleading. He’s just 19, is 6-foot-7 and has length. His biggest challenge is finding playing time on a team that’s playing for high stakes; as a teenager, he has much to learn about the pro game.
OKC also extended the contract of Andre Roberson, an important defensive specialist, rather than look for his replacement elsewhere on the market.
With George around, Westbrook doesn’t need to do as much heavy lifting. Still, it’ll be a haul for OKC to re-establish itself to the level it had with Durant.
Coming Next: Washington Wizards
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