By Trainor Crossno
The Oklahoma City Thunder have had an offseason for the record books. After Russell Westbrook’s historic one man show last season where he became the second player to average a triple double for an entire season, the lack of talent on the roster was a glaring issue that the front office sought to mitigate coming into Russell’s contract year. Last season, he averaged just under 20 potential assists a game at 19.6 – good for second in the league behind James Harden. Despite this, he only averaged 10.4 assists, with most of the looks being either open threes or layups that his teammates just couldn’t capitalize on.
Sam Presti, OKC’s GM and part-time wizard, worked his magic once again by turning the oversized contract of Victor Oladipo and the now-sophomore Domantas Sabonis into the expiring contract of Paul George. He rounded off the roster by signing vets Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton, instant upgrades to a roster that lost its starting power forward and struggled all season with its second unit offense.
One major fear looms over the Thunder as of now: Russell Westbrook has not signed his supermax extension that many saw as a foregone conclusion after last season. It may amount to nothing as he’s had other things to think about this summer: the birth of his son, a multitude of fashion shows, workouts, and hanging out with his new teammates. Even though all evidence points to his excitement about the future of the organization and his place in it, the wound from his former running mate leaving last summer is still fresh on the city’s mind.
This summer, Presti has done something he had refused to before losing Kevin Durant: he has trusted in his own ability to work with cap space and aging veterans to put together a contending roster and convince his superstars to stay. It’s a risky bet; the Thunder have entered the luxury tax and signed aging veterans to multi-year deals with no guarantee that Westbrook or Paul George will stay next year. That being said, early returns on what he accomplished are good. The roster he pieced together looks to be the league’s best bet at slowing Golden State come April. Many believe Oklahoma City is a dark horse, a fringe contender that can make waves early and often next season.
Going off of match ups, the starting fives of OKC and Golden State essentially battle to stalemate. Russ vs. Curry will pit unending ferocity against smooth dominance. Roberson vs. Klay leans toward Thompson overall with his two-way play but Roberson’s ability to shut down the ball and limit Thompson’s scoring will help prevent Klay from getting red-hot. KD vs. PG13 will be the marquee matchup as it features two top-tier small forwards who both excel offensively and defensively. Patterson (assuming he starts) vs. Draymond will be an interesting matchup as both are versatile defenders, with Patterson being a more reliable floor-spacer while Draymond offers extraordinary skill as a distributor. Finally, Steven Adams vs. either Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee leans towards Adams with his strength, size, and ability to anchor the defense. I think Adams’ potential matchup negates the fact that Roberson will be slightly outmatched.
The final deciding factor will come down to bench play. Essentially, will Raymond Felton be able to create enough points when Russ is sitting to keep pace (or close to pace) with the Warriors? If you’re Sam Presti, you’d better hope so. He’s gone all in on the belief that the roster he has created will be good enough to contend and show other players (as well as his own) how close OKC is to a championship. If he’s right, it’ll be another victory in a string of bets coming up Presti. If they fail, he leaves the table with empty pockets and bettor’s remorse.
Stats are accurate per stats.nba.com