When the final horn sounded on the Thunder’s season, an air of despair replaced the thrill of Russell Westbrook’s assault on record books and rims. The buzzer beaters, the primal screams, the run up to 43 triple doubles all were ample distractions from reality, but now there were no more games, only questions.
Oklahoma City’s general manager had maneuvered his franchise into an unenviable position- they had the prerequisite superstar installed, but the clock was ticking; Westbrook has the option of becoming a free agent in the summer of 2018. The roster around him was mid-level talent at best and fraught with redundancy. New addition Victor Oladipo had been acquired to be the 3rd wheel to Westbrook and the departed Kevin Durant; instead, he was thrust into the role of Westbrook’s sidekick, and the results were less than spectacular. The lack of consistent shooting meant defenses could choke off young big Steven Adams‘ darts to the rim, and he was unimpressive on both ends of the floor for most of the year.
Most concerning of all, it was obvious that Westbrook needed some high level help, but with extensions kicking in for Oladipo and Adams, the gargantuan contract of defenseless big man Enes Kanter, and max man Westbrook, OKC was capped out. There was no obvious path to bringing in the the type of talent that would elevate the Thunder back to the upper echelons of the league. Strapped with a middling roster and Westbrook’s player option in the summer of 2018 looming, the situation looked bleak at the Chesapeake.
Until it didn’t. On July 1st, Presti engineered a deal that sent ripples through the entire league, snagging all star Paul George for Oladipo and rookie Domantas Sabonis. Oklahoma City netted a four time all star for an underwhelming, overpaid guard and a promising-yet-inconsistent young big man. In one fell swoop, the Thunder became relevant once again.
When Kevin Durant absconded to the Bay area, the Thunder offense devolved from warp drives and laser cannons to the battle hammer of Westbrook overnight. Paul George restores balance to a roster desperate for another fulcrum. He’s a sniper from deep (38.1% from 3 on almost 7 attempts a night over his last 2 years), and a threat to score from all levels, changing the court geometry with his mere presence.
Where defenses would live with Oladipo chipping in a three here or there while they focused on bottling up Russ, they now must exhibit appropriate fear of George’s scoring prowess, lest they get a 30 piece dropped on their head (George scored 30 or more 19 times last season. Thunder players not named Westbrook had zilch).
Last year George averaged 23.7 points per game while draining 39.3% of his 6.6 three point attempts a night, finishing as one of five players in league history to cross these thresholds in a season (the others? Steph Curry, Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic, and Danny Granger). Along with stretch four Patrick Patterson (signed as a free agent), Oklahoma City now has a chance to turn a weakness, three point shooting (OKC was a paltry 26th in made threes and dead last in three point percentage), into a strength. Patterson and George combined to shoot about 38% and tally four makes a night from deep, a tremendous boon for a Thunder squad starved for floor spacing. Incumbent Thunder shooters should rejoice at having a threat like George on the floor; again, the attention he (and Westbrook) draw will have a cascading effect, creating even more space for the likes of Alex Abrines (38% from deep) and Doug McDermott (36%) to get off clean looks.
The improved shooting should also clear out the lane for Steven Adams’ rim runs, and the league will be reminded of how emphatically Adams can finish lobs when an extra defender isn’t sitting in his lap. The Thunder offense again has offensive 2 suns to orbit around, allowing role players like Andre Roberson and Jerami Grant to focus on defending like demons and making life miserable for opposing wings.
PG-13 is much more than just a shooter. When engaged, George is a devastating offensive weapon on or off ball. He has the full arsenal in his tool bag, from off dribble stepbacks, to turnarounds in the post, to roaring rim attacks. He’s no Kevin Durant, but Thunder opponents will have their hands full accounting for his silky smooth game alongside the raw power and speed of Westbrook.
Most importantly, George’s arrival unburdens Westbrook from the monumental workload he shouldered last season. Not many humans could handle the physical grind of Westbrook’s record setting usage (41.7%, smashing the previous record, Kobe Bryant’s 38.7% in ‘06). His 1,941 shots were almost four hundred more attempts than the number two guy, Andrew Wiggins, and a mind-boggling 709 more than Oladipo.
In many ways, Paul George is KD Lite; he’ll never match Durant’s efficiency nor machine-like scoring, but he also won’t demand quite as many possessions and shots. Russ got to experience being unleashed for a full season, and maybe now he’ll have a different perspective about how another star can make life easier on him. Westbrook has to know that OKC being so Russ-centric isn’t taking them to the next level, so watch for him to pick his spots more judiciously and cede some control (and shots) to George. If he’s averaging even close to the 31.6 points a game he slapped up last season, something has gone horribly wrong, and the Thunder are in trouble.
And now when Westbrook takes a breather, the offense won’t turn into pig flop; Paul George and veteran back up point man Raymond Felton should be more than capable of keeping the offense afloat versus other second units. Felton (8.1 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 apg last two seasons for the Mavs and the Clippers) should be a considerable upgrade from the rudimentary game of Semaj Christon.
Defensively, Thunder coach Billy Donovan has to hope that George returns to the perimeter whirlwind he was prior to his gruesome 2014 leg injury. That Paul George was 1st Team All Defense and disrupted offenses great instincts, active hands, and the almost preternatural ability to slip screens and stay engaged to his man. George hasn’t looked quite the same on the defensive end since returning from injury, but teamed with defensive ace Andre Roberson, OKC now potentially sports the most fearsome defensive wing duo this side of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala.
With Paul George set to be an unrestricted free agent and Russell Westbrook’s mammoth extension sitting unsigned, there’s still an air of unease in Oklahoma; this season could be a last stand of sorts, an all-hands-on-deck raid on the fortress that the Golden State Warriors have constructed in the NBA Finals. And the Thunder weren’t alone in the arms race. With the Rockets adding Chris Paul and defensive aces P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, and Minnesota bringing Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague into the pack, the top of the west looks to be more treacherous than ever.
But those teams don’t have the reigning MVP, and those teams’ superstar additions aren’t as snug a fit as Paul George is into the Thunder system. It wouldn’t be madness to suggest that the Oklahoma City Thunder can challenge for the number two spot out west. And while no team can match the dynamic talent of the Warriors, you’d be hard pressed to find a team with the long athletes in Roberson, Paul George, Patterson, and Jerami Grant to accept the challenge of guarding the Dubs like the Thunder can.
The future may be murky, but there’s no doubt that this coming season, the Thunder are much better equipped to do battle in the west this season than last. Paul George wasn’t the only gem that Sam Presti unearthed, but pairing him with the talents of Russell Westbrook could pay tremendous dividends for the Thunder.