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Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview

After easily one of the more discouraging seasons in recent years, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed to have all the tools but could not meet expectations. After adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony last off-season, the Thunder were projected to finish high in the West and potentially compete with the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. They found success in a 48-34 record and a 4th-seed playoff appearance. However, that appearance ended in six games to the Utah Jazz. In such a talent-packed conference, this seems to be a triumphant season, but many had set expectations higher and longed to see the Thunder compete deep in the playoffs. Although last season didn’t end positively, the Thunder can begin a soft rebuild looking toward the future. Here’s a look at the 2018-19 Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview.

Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview

What Worked Last Season

Russell Westbrook. As always, his name brings up a high volume of conversations and arguments. His shooting, his “stat-padding”, his tenacity, and various other topics are battled on Twitter. Despite many criticisms, he once again defied the odds. Westbrook averaged a triple-double for an entire season. Only one other player has ever averaged those numbers, the other being Oscar Robertson. Westbrook just did it twice, consecutively. Regardless of how he achieves those numbers, it’s extremely impressive. His style of play leads this Thunder unit to victory and has the support of his teammates in the matter.

The defensive side of the court really boosted the Thunder into mid-season form. This was until Andre Roberson went down with an injury in December. At that point though, the team had found great success in stopping key performers on the opposing team. Roberson’s loss took the air out of the sails of what could have been a real run into the playoffs. After Roberson and big man Steven Adams, the defensive ability dropped noticeably. Westbrook and George are good defensive players but nothing special. It’s better not to mention Anthony in this discussion either. Luckily, Roberson is due back this season and the defensive side of the court will be top-tier again.

What Needs Improvement

The offensive side of the court is where the largest gap currently sits. Westbrook is no question one of the best players in the league, but he plays in a certain way where not everyone fits. George seemed to fit well by not assuming any sort of authority, but that might change with his re-signing. Much of the Thunder’s woes have come from the inactivity of any off-ball movement. Most, if not all, players willfully sit idly while a two-on-one isolation call is made. Westbrook averaged a triple-double in points, rebounds, and assists so he does have a clue on how to work his teammates in the offense. Yet, many times he took it to the rim in his explosive manner or stopped early and took a jump shot. His shot percentage overall was a smooth 44.9% but in certain 4th quarters, he really could have stopped shooting for the benefit of the team. He has to include his teammates more and with the addition of Dennis Schröder, the backcourt potential is high.

Including Steven Adams more has to be a key this coming season. This isn’t to say that this is an area that was deficient. Adams put up his career-best numbers in points and rebounds, 13.9 and 9.0 respectively. This must continue for the Thunder. Adams is a major asset to this team and can be even more impactful this season with an open offense. Westbrook can still drive and dish the ball, but giving Adams the ball in the paint while other players are slashing the lane will open up the whole court. Westbrook is an insanely athletic player and George is very talented at shooting in crowds. Freeing up the paint while the opposing big man guards Adams can create mismatches.

Off-Season Changes

After a huge off-season last year, the Thunder made impactful moves again this year. Paul George re-signed at the first possible moment of free agency. Carmelo Anthony agreed to part ways in a trade to the Atlanta Hawks for Schröder. The Thunder also re-signed Jerami Grant and Raymond Felton in addition to signing Nerlens Noel from the Dallas Mavericks. These new players, along with the re-signed players will stay in-line with what the Thunder are wanting to show as their product – a high-powered offense with hard-fought defense.

Obviously not as spectacular as last years off-season, but definitely more impactful. The bench was strengthened and more importantly, some responsibility can be released from Russell Westbrook. One of the bigger issues of the past few years has been the second unit. When Westbrook has been off the court, it’s almost as if the offense can’t sustain itself. His style of play is so authoritative that without him on the court, it’s almost a new team. A similar issue has plagued the Cleveland Cavaliers in the past few seasons when LeBron James was resting or sitting out.

2018-19 Season Prediction

Once again, this team has high expectations. Last season we projected the Thunder to finish 50-32 with a 5th-seed in the West. However, a deep run in the playoffs was expected as well. This Thunder unit will likely finish in the same range of wins and playoff seeding. Although the Western conference is loaded even more than usual, the Thunder will contend with the better teams. Look for a 49-33 record with another 4th-seed finish. Yet, this season will find the Thunder back into the second round after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers as a fifth seed. They will meet the Warriors and battle for a place in the conference finals. This season may be the beginning of a soft rebuild for this Thunder team, who will contend for titles soon enough.

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