June 5, 2018, 12:35 pm
For the Oklahoma City Thunder the agenda for 2017-18 was to rebuild around Russell Westbrook. He was coming off a historic MVP-season in 2016-17 while the team was able to outperform expectations, making the playoffs in the post-Kevin-Durant era, and it was time to take the next step.
GM Sam Presti and company decided to go all-in, blow up the Thunder roster, and opt for what they hoped would be a quick rebuild. They landed Paul George in the offseason for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a move widely considered as one of the best hauls by any team. They took on George, who has the option to leave this summer, with the hopes of selling him on the fanbase, the chances at winning an NBA title, and playing alongside a unique talent in Russell Westbrook.
They also added veteran scorer Carmelo Anthony, who came over from the Knicks in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and 2018 second-round pick via the Bulls.
After retaining a solid defender in Andre Roberson and seeing the steady improvement from Kiwi big man Steven Adams, the Thunder were suddenly able to surround Westbrook with what looked like the blueprint of an eventual title contender. Well, at least on paper that is.
Did the gamble pay off? In this Post-Mortem for the Oklahoma City Thunder will look at their ups and downs, their strong points and, well, Carmelo Anthony.
2016-17 Record: 47-35 (2nd in Northwest Division), 2017-18 Record: 48-34 (2nd in Northwest Division)
Aside from adding George and Anthony, the Thunder also signed Patrick Patterson to help stretch out opposing defenses and Raymond Felton to help address their lack of depth at point guard.
The Thunder had a couple of development projects in Terrance Ferguson (No. 21, 2017) and Dakari Johnson (No. 48, 2015). As far as outlooks went, Ferguson was someone who could be molded into an offensive spark off the bench, while Johnson was there to add a warm body in the paint and some rim protection.
There was no instant chemistry for the Thunder’s “Big 3,” something that could not be pinned on the ball-dominant Westbrook nor coach Billy Donovan completely. In the early goings of the season, while the team was able to still get wins, Westbrook’s stats suffered as he tried to accommodate and integrate his new teammates. The same could not be said of George, whose natural versatility resulted in him producing one of his better seasons. His value to the team cannot be overstated. Then there was Carmelo Anthony whose, iso-style was clearly incongruous with the Thunder’s ecosystem, its star, and almost everything else. He was quite literally looking like a worn out third wheel on the floor on many occasions, making it abundantly clear why the Knicks were so eager to deal him away at a discount.
At the end of the day, the Thunder got through the regular season with a one-game improvement from their 2016-17 campaign. Considering the talent they added, this wash was more of a loss relative to expectations and potential, but at least it was not a setback.
Losing Andre Roberson to season-ending surgery late in January to repair a ruptured left patellar tendon was a difficult challenge to overcome. In March, they addressed the void left by Roberson with the signing of Corey Brewer (formerly with the Lakers). He was a serviceable perimeter defender, but clearly did not bring the same impact to the table that Roberson does.
A first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Utah Jazz was a jolting eye-opener. It brought to light the flaws in the Thunder blueprint. To the Jazz’s credit, they did outplay the Thunder both on offense and on defense. It was a sour ending for the OKC’s 2017-18 season but is something that can be parlayed into a learning experience.
The Thunder somehow found themselves ending 2017-18 with more questions than answers. Should they move on and part with their superstar point guard, who turns 30 in November? Unlikely. In the end, when you have a once-in-a-generation player like Westbrook who has committed his loyalty to your franchise, you simply have to keep on building, rebuilding, and re-tooling around your centerpiece. That would have been the conventional wisdom a decade or two ago. We’re now in an era where true loyalties are not as common and issues like sky-high luxury taxes pain the wallet more than sentimentality. Who knows? More importantly, was this run enough to win Paul George over? The jury is still out on that one right now. What kind of assets, if any, can they get in exchange for Carmelo Anthony? The team still has a chance to start fresh. If George leaves for greener pastures and Anthony is either addressed or moved, then the Thunder will get a mulligan (of sorts) at charting a course for the franchise in the Westbrook era.
Billy Donovan had his hands full in 2017-18. He needed to come up with a system that would integrate the team’s veteran acquisitions with the reigning MVP. A task that should not be too monumental, especially for someone with his coaching pedigree. They key would how well he could work with Westbrook to make it happen, especially since we all know that the offense will flow through him.
He was a keen enough of a skipper to focus a lot of his attention on George, who would be integral in the team’s future success. On that front, we can offer Donovan some credit as George was given enough freedom to play his game and just do him, while complementing the already well-rounded package brought to the table by Westbrook. While the duo’s on-court rapport was not instant, the seed was planted and Donovan nurtured it as the season progressed. He managed to let George take the lead on nights that Westbrook struggled, a move that PG13 responded to successfully on most occasions.
Westbrook-Anthony and George-Anthony dynamics were another story. Something that you could and should put on Melo’s shoulders as much as Donovan’s. To some extent, Donovan succeeded in squeezing out a bit more value out of the clearly fading star. There are some whispers about his job security this summer, especially with OKC likely to pull out all kinds of stops to try and keep George around. It is worth wondering whether this team has hit its ceiling unless Westbrook decides to tweak his style of play – though how much of that falls on Donovan will depend on who you talk to.
By the results, Donovan made his new-look roster work. Not like a well-oiled winning machine but more like a promising set of cogs that churned enough wins to make to the playoffs. He should be back even if that’s a disappointment overall.
ADP: 2/2 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 7/14 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 12/23 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 80
Stats: 36.4 MPG, 25.3 PPG, 1.2 3PG, 10.0 RPG, 10.2 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 0.448 FG%, 0.736 FT%
2017-18 was a mixed bag for the reigning MVP. His scoring took a significant hit, as expected with the addition of the firepower brought by George and Anthony. His shooting from the field saw a bump up as he was able to get more open looks and didn’t need to force as many shots as he did in 2016-17 (even if it didn’t feel like it). Westbrook also saw a steep drop from his career-best 2.5 threes per game to 1.2 this season. In fantasy basketball, most drafters who took him in the first three picks did not get a good return on their investment. There were enough negatives on his plate to leave a bitter taste on his overall stat line.
Things that were surprising were his career-worst 73.6 percent shooting from the line and his finishing 2017-18 averaging another triple-double. No MVP award this time, however.
A step back from a historic season was a reasonable expectation and step back he did. Despite the slip, Westbrook will still come off draft boards in the first round in 2018 because averaging a triple-double does tend to do wonders for your perceived outlook. There’s the same warts as ever here but you know he’ll be an elite producer in at least four categories.
ADP: 18/17 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 11/10 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 16/16 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 79
Stats: 36.5 MPG, 21.9 PPG, 3.0 3PG, 5.6 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 0.429 FG%, 0.822 FT%
George had a good year in his first, and possibly last, season with the Thunder. His peripheral contributions of 3.1 3PG and 2.0 SPG made him hands-down fantasy’s best “3-and-D” guy. His field goal shooting swung closer to mean at 42.9 percent after his career-best 46.1 percent in his last season with the Pacers. At the end of the day, the 27-year-old showed why he was the most coveted trade target in the off-season. On the court, you could see that George thrives when he does not need to be the team’s alpha. He’s really a role-player that has a stat set on steroids, so it’s best to appreciate him as neither a Batman nor a Robin, but as a very powerful and indispensable member of a superhero team. As far as nominal “second” options go, George might be the very best in the business outside of Golden State and Houston.
In that context, you can see why there’s a long line of suitors (Thunder included) who want to woo George for his services next season. Even if George’s efficiency didn’t take the jump that people were hoping for, he still cruised to a top-20 finish. It’d take a wild supporting cast for that to change any time soon.
ADP: 35/46 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 98/93 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 132/124 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 78
Stats: 32 MPG, 16.1 PPG, 2.1 3PG, 5.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 0.403 FG% 0.762 FT%
Did you hear that? That crash? That was the sound of Carmelo Anthony falling through the awning, on his way to rock-bottom. He didn’t quite hit it in in 2017-18 and that’s why it was not a thud just yet but he sure dropped. Hard. Even if you weren’t expecting much out of him in his new role with the Thunder, you still would have been disappointed.
This was the first time in his 14-year career that Melo did not end the season averaging 20 PPG or more. His assists per game, field goal and free throw shooting percentages were also career-lows. You cannot blame fit, or lack thereof, at least not entirely, for Anthony’s decline. We could simply be seeing the beginning of the end.
The Thunder traded themselves into a pickle with Melo, probably not foreseeing this much of a decline. Anthony has a player option in his contract and can opt-in, giving him a lot of power regarding the future of his situation with the team. He’s already said he won’t be coming off the bench despite that being the painfully obvious solution, and we could be headed for an awkward summer if OKC tries to call his bluff and rid themselves of his terrible contract. Would Melo really opt out of $28 million if he had to come off the bench?
The bright side here is that he’s not completely washed up, at least not yet. Given that the Thunder will have issues with scoring if Paul George departs, they can still make use of Melo but probably in a different capacity compared to 2017-18. His stat set is paper-thin but extra opportunity might be able to prop his game up a little bit.
ADP: 84/88 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 49/48 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 67/62 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 76
Stats: 32.7 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 0.0 3PG, 9.0 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 0.629 FG% 0.559 FT%
The 24-year-old Adams has improved in each season after he was drafted in 2013 and 2017-18 was no exception. There are players who see significant leaps forward in production at key spots in their career while others slowly but surely get better and better. Adams is the latter. This season he found a way to get more involved in the team’s offense. His 13.8 PPG paired well with his impressive 62.9 eFG%. These bumps allowed Adams to outperform his ADP.
There isn’t much to complain about when it comes to Adams, save for his poor 55.9 percent shooting from the line at 3.8 attempts per game. It’s an area that he’s tried to improve in the past so hopefully those efforts begin to yield results going forward.
Given his trajectory, it would not be out of the question to expect him to deliver low-end double-double averages in points and boards with a block and a steal per game come 2018-19. He must be loving life as his pick-and-roll work with Westbrook has proven to be lethal.
ADP: N/A / 140 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 279/272 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 208/180 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 39
Stats: 26.5 MPG, 4.9 PPG, 0.2 3PG, 4.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 0.537 FG% 0.315 FT%
Roberson is a player whose value does not translate well on paper and consequently in fantasy basketball. His value to the team, as mentioned earlier, is enormous. He’s a talented perimeter defender and when the Thunder lost his services due to injury, the void he left was almost impossible to fill.
He also has the infamy of being the only non-center listed among the worst free-throw shooters in the league. Thank goodness he only takes one shot from the stipe per game on average.
His low turnover rate (0.8 TOV) made Roberson worthwhile in very deep 9-cat leagues for his ability to chip in a steal and a block per game on most nights. The defensive specialist is expected to be ready for next season after rupturing a patellar tendon.
ADP: N/A / 140 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 246/225 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 340/308 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 82
Stats: 15.4 MPG, 3.8 PPG, 0.8 3PG, 2.3 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 0.397 FG% 0.869 FT%
Pat-Pat was signed away from the Toronto Raptors to be a stretch-four off the bench who could add to the team’s 3-point shooting threats. His inability to be an asset as a defender in the paint limited his playing time. At 15 minutes and change per game, Patterson was not able to deliver much.
On most nights, when the team needed some extra defense on the floor, Donovan would opt to go smaller and bring in Jerami Grant over Patterson. His season got off to a slow start because of an offseason knee procedure and he never really found a groove despite a nice on-paper fit.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 181/164 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 243/222 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 81
Stats: 20.3 MPG, 8.4 PPG, 0.3 3PG, 3.9 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 0.535 FG% 0.675 FT%
Grant was able to step up for the Thunder when Roberson went down and was rewarded with more playing time. For a defensive specialist it was good to see Grant score in double-figures every once in a while. This was a testament more to the Thunder’s lack of depth than to Grant’s actual improvement. The addition of Corey Brewer slowed him down a bit due to the duplication in roles. In the end, Grant’s inconsistency left him as a deep-league option, despite his top-200 value by totals. He was a nice option for blocks in a pinch but that was about all owners could bank on.
The takeaway from Grant’s season was that he has the makings of a strong two-way player, a step forward from him being simply a defensive specialist. This is an aspect of his game that would be a welcome improvement come 2018-19. Grant is headed for restricted free agency and should get a nice payday since teams are looking for the sort of athletic defensive versatility that Grant brings to the table.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 243/235 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 300/281 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 72 (18 with Thunder)
Stats (With Thunder): 28.0 MPG, 10.1 PPG, 1.3 3PG, 3.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 2.1 SPG, 0.3 BPG, .444 FG% .796 FT%
Brewer’s shorts were growing roots as he was biding his time on the bench of a Lakers team focused on developing its younger assets. After he was waived by the Lakers, it did not take long for the Thunder to strike and swoop in and snatch him. He was the best answer available to address their need for a perimeter defender. The fact that he had a good relationship with Donovan from their Florida days didn’t hurt either.
Brewer saw a drastic turnaround the moment he was allotted sizeable minutes. He was a valuable stream target, even in standard-sized leagues, for his 2.1 steals per game. It was nice to see that the former Florida Gator had some of that classic defensive tenacity tucked away in his underutilized repertoire.
Andre Roberson’s recovery could mean that there’s less incentive for the Thunder to keep Brewer for 2018-19. However, considering that their roster is still in flux and the situation being so fluid, it’s not out of the question for him to have earned enough brownie points for at least a spot on their bench. We wouldn’t bank on anything close to a repeat, but if he sticks around and George skips town, there would be a starting spot open on the wing.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 213/215 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 288/290 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 82
Stats: 16.6 MPG, 6.8 PPG, 0.9 3PG, 1.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 0.405 FG% 0.818 FT%
Felton was brought in to be a playmaker off the bench during those few minutes that Russell Westbrook took rests. He served his purpose and his veteran presence was felt during his brief stints on the floor. Similar to Patterson, Felton could not offer much on the fantasy basketball front due to his lack of playing time.
Felton was able to chip in with a sprinkling of guard stats at a low-end rate, with the exception of points. A few dimes, a trey and a steal every other game or so was just enough for him to get some usage in 18-team leagues or deeper. That said, he was more of a streaming asset for a boost in those aforementioned guard numbers.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 277/268 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 369/340 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 75
Stats: 15.1 MPG, 4.7 PPG, 1.1 3PG, 1.5 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 0.395 FG% 0.847 FT%
Abrines started for Paul George in games when the All-Star was sidelined by injury. Unfortunately, Abrines dealt with his own fair share of injuries this season, slowing down what should have been a next step in his development. An ankle injury that dogged him during summertime international play cost him some time in the regular season as well. The Spaniard has shown promise in some games and just needs to work on his consistency, especially in the areas of his scoring and shot selection.
Abrines’ main strength is his 3-point shooting. It’s still an area of his game where he can make some strides but the Thunder need spacing in their second unit, and AA is a fine option at this point in his career. He’s someone who can clearly benefit from minutes. The catch is that he will have to earn those minutes with solid production while he’s on the floor.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 333/329 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 426/421 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 69
Stats: 14.2 MPG, 2.3 PPG, 0.4 3PG, 2.3 RPG, 0.2 APG, 0.2 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 0.333 FG% 0.300 FT%
The addition of Paul George did not do Huestis’ development any favors. Corey Brewer’s signing bumped him further back in the rotation. Even if George does depart for greener pastures or brighter lights, there’s no real guarantee for Huestis to emerge as an impact-player any time soon.
The issue with Huestis’ stat line from a fantasy perspective is that he simply did not contribute enough in any category to worth owning. In order for him to see the light of day on fantasy teams, he will need to either get better at one particular thing or improve significantly across the board.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 343/325 (8/9-cat), Per-Game Value: 421/399 (8/9-cat), Games Played: 61
Stats: 12.5 MPG, 3.0 PPG, 0.6 3PG, 0.7 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.4 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 0.414 FG% 0.900 FT%
There weren’t that many minutes to go around for Ferguson given the team’s need for more defense off the bench. He got the starting nod in a dozen games but was unable to capitalize on those golden opportunities to stand out. Ferguson averaged 20 minutes per game in those starts but just managed to average 3.9 points.
Ferguson showed his inexperience in games where he appeared lost on offense. There is a confidence level that he has not reached yet but once he’s more comfortable with life as a pro, he should take open shots with more fearlessness. An athletic wing, look for OKC to take their time with his development. If George dons a new uniform next season then Ferguson could have a shot at a larger role but nothing that warrants attention outside of very deep formats.
The Thunder need to stay the course. Build around Westbrook, one way or another.
This first step is quite simple and straightforward. Keep Paul George at all costs and work your way from there. Obviously, that’s something that’s more easily said than done. Can their edge of being able to offer him more money be enough of a tipping point in their favor? The key here is for a meeting of the minds to take place between George, Westbrook and Donovan.
Donovan has to highlight to George that he does have a good thing going with Westbrook, and that they are just a step or two away from coming up with the right combination of system and manpower to be a force in a stacked Western Conference.
Carmelo Anthony may not be as much of a lost cause as his 2017-18 performance may suggest. If he could adjust and become a sixth-man for the Thunder, there is a glimmer of hope for his possible integration in their future. Of course, they’d also probably prefer if he left all that cash on the table and tried to hunt down a starting job or a cheaper role on a top-tier title threat.
Westbrook’s first season post-Durant resulted in 47 wins and a first-round exit. His second such season saw just one extra win, though he had a two-way monster and a former All-Star at his flanks. OKC simply needs to find the right combination to break through with Westbrook as their centerpiece. This season has the feel of a make-or-break year for the coaching staff, so expect the Thunder to try their damnedest at punching through to the next level.