2016/17 Record: 47 – 35 (1st Round Exit)
2017/18 Salaries: $128,827,539 (Luxury Tax Team) – full OKC salary cap situation – here.
Incoming Draft Picks: BOS ’18 2nd (56-60) , CHI ’18 2nd.
Outgoing Draft Picks: ’18 1st to MIN (15-30) , ’20 1st to ORL (21-30).
Sam Presti has certainly had his detractors over the years and many would argue it has been deserved. Seemingly down and out after the departure of Kevin Durant last Summer, it took a historical season from eventual MVP, Russell Westbrook, in order to breathe some life back into the Thunder faithful.
As great as last season was for OKC, again there was a feeling of inevitability going into the most recent offseason. Things certainly looked brighter than 12 months earlier, that wasn’t hard after all, but Presti appeared backed into a corner. The franchise looked helpless when it came to improving the roster around Westbrook, with limited future assets and already well over the salary cap.
Presti to the rescue.
After drafting Terrance Ferguson and operating with zero cap room, he was able to sign Patrick Patterson using the MLE and Raymond Felton for the minimum, plus re-sign Andre Roberson. All signings on announcement appeared to be for well below what they could have received elsewhere.
However, it was the earlier trade for Paul George just before the opening bell of Free Agency that was Presti’s biggest surprise of all. No picks outgoing, no bad contracts incoming, just a home-run trade for the Thunder GM. Credit where it’s due, Sam Presti has gone from zero to hero in back to back offseason’s. But there still has to be a significant level of caution here. It was a ‘no brainer’ move to make but the Thunder did still move two young pieces for a potential rental of George.
With Westbrook and George in the last year of their current deals, what does the Thunder roster look like if they both take their talents elsewhere?
The cupboard could be very bare for OKC 12 months from now if that occurs, possibly leaving Steven Adams as the last central piece standing and a bunch of misfit contracts around him. Some would argue that’s what it’s suppose to look like when a NBA superstar leaves your team. The Thunder had already avoided that more likely outcome once and it can’t tempt fate again. It’s a fight or flight decision for Presti and no surprises this time, he’s not backing down.
This is Sam Presti ‘Shooting His Shot’ and now it’s over to his team to do their bit.
When it comes to OKC’s upcoming season, Presti won’t be the only one shooting. While the ins and outs for this squad stand to have a lot of positive (and some negative) effects, by far the most intriguing is shooting. Particularly from deep.
Despite sitting roughly middle of the road in three-point attempts and three-point rate last season (18th in both), the Thunder ranked a lowly 26th in makes and dead last in overall percentage. What that says is the franchise undoubtedly understands the importance of the shot from deep, but just didn’t have the right personnel to execute it with any confidence last season. That might be about to change.
Let’s take a look at a career three point percentage comparison/attempts of how OKC ended last season versus how they will likely begin this season, based on their 10-man rotations.
2016/17: Westbrook (31% on 3.4), Oladipo (34%/3.8), Roberson (26%/1.5), Gibson (11%/0.1), Adams (0%), Christon (19%/1.0), Abrines (38%/3.6), McDermott (39%/2.8), Grant (30%/1.9), Sabonis (32%/2.0), Kanter (30%/0.2).
2017/18: Westbrook (31%/3.4), George (37%/4.2), Roberson (26%/1.5), Patterson (37%/2.3), Adams (0%), Felton (33%/2.9), Abrines (38%/3.6), McDermott (39%/2.8), Grant (30%/1.9), Kanter (30%/0.2).
Patterson and George take, and make, a lot of threes. While both are not in the upper echelon of overall percentage from deep, a combined career average of 37% on 7.7 attempts a game is much better than what the Thunder were previously getting from those positions. Their insertion creates two immediate upgrades on last season, with some smaller additions and internal growth hopefully creating a much improved shooting roster overall.
How will this improved shooting help the team?
We know that the Thunder’s two most used lineups last year were Westbrook-Oladipo-Roberson-Adams and either Sabonis or Gibson at the four. Using Nicholas Sciria’s Spacing Rating measure, those two lineups were some of the worst in the entire NBA for spacing among every team’s two most used. In fact, when Gibson was inserted OKC’s spacing moved to dead last from an already bad 49th out of 60.
By inserting George and Patterson into the lineup to replace Oladipo and Sabonis/Gibson, the calculator places that new five man lineup at 50%. It’s still not elite but it will push the Thunder up into the half you want to be in the modern NBA.
Where things get really interesting is the new flexibility the Thunder might have in deploying more dangerous shooting lineups, without having it as vulnerable in other aspects as the past. A Westbrook-Abrines-McDermott-George-Patterson lineup has shooters all over the court and scores an impressive 95% in the Spacing Rating. Even the second unit stands to get better from this perspective. Felton-Abrines-McDermott-Grant-Kanter scores 50% compared to 30% of the most used all reserve unit from last season in Christon-Abrines-Grant-Lauvergne-Kanter.
How will the improved spacing help the team?
Of course, it won’t be often that Billy Donovan has an all shooting or all reserve lineup out on the floor, but he now has a lot more options at his disposal. Far greater lineup flexibility will make this team far less predictable and he may even look to stagger Westbrook and George to make sure one is on the court at all times. Throwing either of them out there along with a couple of their capable shooters, the Thunder look like they will be able to ensure they always have a great spacing team on the court.
Shooting and spacing isn’t all you need to succeed in the NBA but it’s definitely where you need to start. OKC have started right. What Westbrook (and his new sidekick) might be able to do with even more space is mouth-watering to say the least.
Much was said last season about Westbrook playing with a team that wasn’t built for him. The departure of Durant meant Presti had to regroup. He needed more time than he was afforded last offseason, due to the surprise and overall timing of Durant’s decision. He has finally got that and the results are impressive, albeit risky.
By no means is his job on the line but the immediate future of the Thunder certainly is.
Sam Presti has attempted his 25 footer and now it’s up to the Oklahoma City squad he has assembled to hit theirs. The team’s performance this season will likely decide if Presti’s deep ball rims out or gets nothing but net.
Projected Starting Five:
Projected Depth Chart:
Overall Offseason Grade: A
2017/18 Prediction: 50-32
Don’t let the modest increase of three wins fool you, the Thunder are going to be a much better team this upcoming season. However, things may take a little while to gel with two new signings in the starting lineup and the new tandem of Westbrook and George leading the way. Expect some growing pains early on but ultimately, Presti has created a much better team around Russ than last season. While a few frustrating losses may effect the overall record, expect the Thunder to be in a good position by season end to improve on their first round exit from last season.
Player To Watch: Alex Abrines
Going into his second NBA season, Alex Abrines could either experience the common sophomore slump or explode into a potential sixth man candidate. With much of the focus on Westbrook and George, guys like Adams and Abrines could really thrive with less attention. If he can improve on his impressive 38% rookie season from deep by just hitting the open shots he gets, Abrines will be a handy weapon as is. However, with OKC likely looking for reliable third options, if Abrines can show a little more to his overall game he could very well become the go-to guy on the second unit. Perhaps even finishing games with the Thunder’s two big offensive weapons.
Four Key Questions:
1. Will Westbrook sign the Designated Veteran extension on offer?
Thunder fans will be getting a little nervous as every day passes without Russ signing on the dotted line. Westbrook and OKC have until opening night to agree to a five year, $207 million extension that would keep them in partnership until at least the ’22/23 NBA season. If it’s not signed before a ball is bounced in the 2017/18 season, then the Thunder run the risk of losing their franchise player in Free Agency again. Will it be deja vu or crisis averted?
2. Is Presti done dealing or will the opening night roster look a little different?
Firstly, Presti is never done dealing. Looking at the current depth chart, things still seem a little off. OKC are likely short an extra ball handler and legitimate four-man, while having far too many wings. Right now, the Thunder have two non-guaranteed contracts on the books; Jerami Grant and Semaj Christon. Christon finds himself missing out on the projected final roster at this stage but moving his guarantee date to after training camp might buy Presti some time to make some room.
3. Will this incarnation of OKC be an offensive or defensive identity team?
Last season the Thunder ended with the 16th best O-Rating in the NBA and the 10th best D-Rating. It was the first time since the 2009/10 season that the team performed better on the defensive side of the ball, compared to previous seasons where the offense was always Top Five. Having Kevin Durant on the team will do that. While PG13 is not KD 2.0, it is likely his addition (and others) will see an improved offense but the Thunder will still fare better next season overall if they keep, and improve on, their defense.
4. Can the Thunder achieve enough to tempt Paul George into staying?
If the answer to Question One becomes yes, then this is the most important ‘what if?’ of OKC’s upcoming season. It is no secret that George favors a return home to LA, however 12 months is a long time in the NBA and he has also stated he wants to win. If the Thunder can reach the Conference Finals or even have a tight Second Round battle, George will have to consider returning. After all, OKC will be able to offer him the most total money and possibly the best chance at winning of all suitors out there.