Ever since the Thunder traded for Paul George last summer, this offseason had been the cloud hanging over their heads. As rumours swirled of George's resolve to move to LA and sign with his hometown team, they watched from afar as Victor Oladipo turned into a star.
Yet somehow, against the odds, the Thunder will enter 2018-19 a deeper and more talented team than they ended last season.
Almost before free agency began, George had gone against expectations and re-signed with Oklahoma City for four more seasons. As Russell Westbrook's celebratory party in George's honour showed, the decision created palpable relief throughout the organization. George was the key to the offseason. Without him, nothing else would have mattered, but the Thunder continued to build on that success.
Their next move was to retain Jerami Grant for three years, $27.3 million. Grant was quietly very good for OKC last season, thriving as a two-way forward and occasional small-ball center while doing all the little things.
They then brought in Nerlens Noel as a low-risk/high-reward flyer to shore up the frontcourt depth. There is still a lot to be determined regarding Noel's role this season, but the fit makes a ton of sense. If Noel can translate his raw potential into actual NBA production, his length will perfectly compliment the power of Steven Adams.
The true sea change this summer came a few weeks later, however, as Oklahoma City agreed to send Carmelo Anthony and a 2022 first round pick to Atlanta for Dennis Schröder.
As OKC's bill was creeping up near $300 million, tax savings became the true impetus for the trade. The clearest path would have been to stretch Anthony's contract, but GM Sam Presti found Plan B and not only saved ownership over $70 million but added a talented young point guard who will help the Thunder win games this season.
Oklahoma City was able to accomplish two things by trading Carmelo Anthony to Atlanta, improve the roster while saving $73M this season. The Thunder will now see their projected luxury tax bill drop from $150M to $88.8M, a savings of $62M. In addition,... https://t.co/dcp1nQxadt- Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) July 19, 2018
At a minimum, OKC now has one of the best bench players in the league. For a team that finished 29th in bench points per game last season, Schröder filling the Westbrook role with the second unit is valuable. He'd be great in that role, but limiting him to the 12ish minutes per game Westbrook is on the bench would be a waste. The real key to Schröder's success in OKC is how he learns to play alongside the 2017 MVP.
Both players are extremely ball-dominant. Over 75 percent of each players field goals came unassisted last season and neither is a particularly dangerous off-ball threat. The fit isn't perfect, but - as the top two players on that list would attest - they can make it work. Finding a way to be successful in the minutes he's on the court alongside Westbrook will be the defining factor in Schröder's success - or lack thereof - in Oklahoma City.
While OKC's public connotation will always be Westbrook's unrelenting athleticism, the identity of the team is their defence. Where Anthony represented a glaring defensive weak spot last season, the Thunder can now fill those minutes with solid defenders like Grant, Noel and Patrick Patterson.
The true X-Factor for OKC's defence and season as a whole, though, is the health and availability of Andre Roberson. When Roberson was on the court last season, the Thunder were defensively dominant. He had the second-highest defensive real plus-minus in the league and the Thunder put up a stifling 96.4 DRtg in his minutes.
Approaching the All-Star break, Oklahoma City had the league's fifth-best defence and Roberson had emerged as a bonafide Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The Thunder were finding their groove and starting to look like a potential threat to Golden State and Houston, but then Roberson ruptured his left patellar tendon on January 27th.
With Roberson lost for the season, the Thunder weren't the same team. Westbrook and George had begun to find a real offensive rhythm but it didn't matter. They didn't have the defensive identity they needed to compete in the playoffs.
|Games||DRtg||Net Rtg||Opp eFG%||Blks+Stls||Deflections|
|Pre-Injury||49||103.1 (5th)||+3.8 (5th)||52.1 (15th)||14.5 (3rd)||18.0 (1st)|
|Post-Injury||33||107.0 (15th)||+1.6 (13th)||53.1 (20th)||13.4 (8th)||15.1 (5th)|
Following a recent setback in his recovery, Roberson will be out for another two months at the very least. The Thunder would love him back to 100 percent as soon as possible, but they know they need him truly healthy for the playoffs.
Roberson's defensive ability is well understood, but his greatest value comes as a part of OKC's best weapons against the Warriors and Rockets of the world. When the Thunder play their best defensive lineups, they're nearly impossible to score against. Westbrook, George, Adams, Roberson and Grant - or now potentially Noel - are so long, athletic and versatile that they can create problems for even the best offensive lineups in the league.
Those lineups have fundamental problems scoring, but last season the Grant version had an unbelievable DRtg of 79.6.
If there is one concern for Roberson this season - excluding health - it's on the offensive side of the ball. Roberson's shooting woes are well documented, but he has developed a moderately effective game by operating from the corner and sneaking to the basket for put-backs or hard-cutting for lobs. His injury came on this exact type of play.
The problem is that style of play really only works with good offensive spacing around him. Although Anthony wasn't efficient last season, his reputation carried enough gravity to create space for Roberson and the other Thunder players. Defences will continue to key in on Westbrook and George, but without Anthony or many other floor-spacing options, it will be very difficult for Roberson to find the space he needs to have an offensive impact.
In order for the Thunder to be successful this season, they are going to need Roberson on the floor. His health will make or break OKC's defence and, in turn, their playoff hopes. Westbrook and George will have to play at an All-Star level and continue the offensive rhythm they found at the end of last season, but Roberson will be the deciding factor in whether OKC can achieve their goals and compete for a title this season.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.