OKC Set to Duel the Warriors – Let’s Hope It Works

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

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A Whole Different Ball Game

by Trainor Crossno

On June 7th, OU head coach and local celebrity Bob Stoops announced he would be stepping down from the program after eighteen years at the helm. As the longest-acting head coach in DI football last season, Stoops became the winningest coach in OU history and captured his tenth Big 12 Championship. All indications were that the Sooners, with their Heisman candidate quarterback Baker Mayfield returning, were set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff and earn Bob his second national championship. His decision to retire cast momentary doubt on the future of the program and who would be calling the shots next year when the Sooners kicked off the season in Norman on September 2nd against UTEP. 

Enter Lincoln Riley, who many pegged as Stoops’ eventual successor once he handed over the reins several years down the road. Although Riley’s short coaching career has been largely successful with stints at Texas Tech as a position coach and then at East Carolina as the offensive coordinator before coming to OU last season, the fact of the matter is that Riley is now the youngest head coach in college football.

Riley has an impressive pedigree, learning the Air Raid offense from Mike Leach at Texas Tech and then implementing his own version of it at East Carolina where the Pirates averaged just under 36 points a game and threw for 4,835 yards his final season as OC in 2014. At OU, Riley showed he understands how to play to a roster’s strength by getting the ball into the hands of his backfield powerhouse containing Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon 383 times while Mayfield attempted 358 passes. His known deficiencies lie mostly in his defensive game plan, where he has already made moves to try and remedy that fact by hiring previous East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill as a co-defensive line coach. McNiell, who has shown success at turning around a Big 12 defense and improving the pass coverage, will likely be working closely with defensive coordinator Mike Stoops for the upcoming season.

While some believe Riley can handle the coaching side of the job but is not prepared for the harsh recruiting process, he’s already proven in his short time as head coach to be adept at recruitment. In the first few days after the announcement, Riley called numerous recruits and even flipped a few key prospects for the upcoming 2018 draft class. He’s also shown a spark of something that Stoops admittedly lost over the years: an ability to communicate with recruits in a way they’re comfortable with. Today, Coach Riley posted an article on The Player’s Tribune that was appropriately named “Ready”. In it, Riley explains to the reader (and presumably some recruits) that even though he’s young, he comes from a wealth of knowledge and has been taught how to coach by some of the greatest coaches of the modern era (see: Bob Stoops). While Coach Riley appears to have one of the most enviable first-year programs in the country, he’ll have his work cut out for him on October 14th when OU meets Texas and first-year head coach Tom Herman in the Red River Rivalry.

Herman, unlike Riley, already has experience being the head coach of a DI school. In his two years at Houston, the Cougars went 22-4 which included being undefeated at home, against teams ranked in the AP Poll, and against Power 5 opponents. Herman, who was installed after last football season, has already made major changes to the culture at Texas. He has kicked a handful of players off the team for violating team rules and even went so far as to install a urine color chart in the locker room that encouraged players to ‘pee like a champion’ (have their urine be clear). And although early signs show that Herman’s enthusiasm and attention to detail are rubbing off on his players and Texas might finally get back on the right track, it’s hard not to remember having these same conversations three years ago when Charlie Strong was hired.

However this season shakes out for both teams, it’s obvious that OU/TX is going to look a lot different from previous years. With two head coaches who pride themselves on explosive offenses and who are hungry to prove they’re ready for the national programs they’ve just been handed, expect a show. While Tom Herman has not disappointed many fans during his time in Texas, Lincoln Riley will be looking to set the tone for what will presumably be a long series of games between these two (relatively young) coaches.