The summer couldn’t have gone much better for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They retained free agent swingman Paul George, managed to trade Carmelo Anthony for a standout guard and made some other roster-bolstering moves as well. Former Kia MVP winner Russell Westbrook is still around and OKC has a squad, on paper, that can contend in the Western Conference. But will this crew mesh together better than it did last season and keep OKC from another playoff flameout?
Thunder fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when George decided to stay put … GM Sam Presti snagged a key asset in guard Dennis Schroder, whom the Thunder acquired from the Hawks in the Anthony trade … Improving forward Jerami Grant and veteran guard Raymond Felton were also re-signed this summer … Big man Nerlens Noel came aboard via free agency and should spell Steven Adams … OKC added some young depth in trading for the Sixers’ Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and the Celtics’ Abdel Nader.
1. Who wants to be No. 3? The Anthony-George-Westbrook trio was plagued by fits and starts last season. Now that Anthony is gone, there’s no clear frontrunner for that third star gig. The pressure will be on OKC’s other starters – Andre Roberson, Adams and Grant -- to chip in and offset Anthony’s scoring (16.2 ppg).
2. Better ball movement likely for OKC. Westbrook led the league in assists (10.3 apg) and Schroder was solid there, too (6.2 apg, 14th). However, dimes weren’t exactly a forte for OKC at large, as it was 28th in assists per game (21.3 apg) and 29th in assist percentage (53.5 percent). Having a willing passer for both the starters (Westbrook) and reserves (Schroder) could help this issue disappear in 2018-19.
3. Separation needed among young wings. Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Hamidou Diallo all have some overlapping skills. Many reserve roles in the backcourt are up for grabs, so who among this group will snag the opportunity before them?
MAN ON THE SPOT
Many of OKC’s late-season defensive woes could be traced back to Jan. 27. That night, Roberson suffered a season-ending ruptured left patellar tendon, leaving OKC without one of its best perimeter defenders. Roberson, George and Westbrook boasted a 94.8 defensive rating, which ranked fourth best in the NBA among three-man lineups. If Roberson is healthy again, he and George should could wreak havoc in the passing lanes like they did early on last season.
Russell Westbrook | 25.4 ppg | 10.1 rpg | 10.3 apg
After a second consecutive season averaging a triple-double, what does he do for an encore?
Jerami Grant | 8.4 ppg | 3.9 rpg | 1 bpg
His 3-point accuracy dipped to 29.1 percent last season after a career-best 37.1 percent in 2016-17.
Nerlens Noel | 4.4 ppg | 5.6 rpg | 1.1 spg
Although he fell out of favor in Dallas last season, Noel still has shot-blocking and defensive skills.
Patrick Patterson | 3.9 ppg | 2.4 rpg | 38.6 3-point pct
Knee surgery before start of season led to a career-worst performance for the floor-stretching big man.
The hype surrounding OKC isn’t quite as intense as it was this time last year. In addition, 12 of the Thunder’s first 21 games are at home, which may help ignite a fast start for them as well. Given the talent on the roster and the improved depth, OKC seems set for a 54-win season as it will be in the thick of the Northwest title chase with Denver and Utah.
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