Additions: Dennis Schroder, Nerlens Noel, Abdel Nader, KJ McDaniels, Hamidou Diallo
Subtractions: Carmelo Anthony, Corey Brewer
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Terrance Ferguson/Alex Abrines
SF: Paul George
PF: Patrick Patterson
C: Steven Adams
Key Bench Players: Dennis Schroder, Nerlens Noel, Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines/Terrance Ferguson
With a Big Three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams, the Thunder are in good shape to be a top-four seed in the Western Conference. Westbrook is a top-three point guard in the NBA who has averaged a triple double over the past two seasons, winning the MVP in 2017. PG13 is not the number one option he was in Indiana but outside of KD/Steph Curry and maybe Embiid/Ben Simmons, he is probably the best sidekick in the NBA. Steven Adams might be the physically strongest player in the NBA who racks up rebounds, sets hard screens, and cleans up under the basket. The loss of Carmelo Anthony is a blessing for this team, as he clearly took too many shots away from Russ and George in exchange for his inefficient isolation tendencies.
Outside of the Big Three, it looks like the Thunder got deeper as a whole, at least on paper. Dennis Schroder was a star with the Atlanta Hawks and is probably the best backup point guard in the NBA right now. The German point guard along with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot were acquired in the Melo deal over the offseason after averaging 19.4 points and 6.2 assists last season with Atlanta. With starting shooting guard Andre Roberson still sidelined with a fractured patella for the foreseeable future, I would not be surprised to see Schroder start alongside Westbrook in a two-point guard lineup. However, his best role will be as the sixth man capable of creating his own shots as well as for his teammates, something the Thunder were lacking last season with Raymond Felton being the primary backup.
The Thunder return the athletic combo forward Jerami Grant off the bench. As an extremely versatile defender, he is a great backup for Patrick Patterson, who will occupy more of a spot-up stretch-four in the starting lineup. Alongside Grant in the second unit frontcourt is his former Philadelphia 76ers teammate, Nerlens Noel. Another defensive-minded player off the bench, Noel can protect the rim and has the mobility to step out and guard wings and guards in the pick-and-roll. Together with Grant, this could be a difficult backup duo to score on. One of Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson will start in place of the injured Roberson until his return later in the season. Both are capable shotmakers (with Abrines being a career 38% shooter from deep), while Ferguson is an explosive athlete. Ferguson did start more games than Abrines last season, and I expect him to return to that role until Roberson is ready for action.
OKC has some players with intriguing potential moving forward. Outside of Nerlens Noel, a former 6th overall pick who was a possible number one overall selection prior to a torn ACL at Kentucky, there is another former Kentucky Wildcat overflowing with potential: Hamidou Diallo. The 20 year old was a possible lottery pick heading into his sophomore year at UK, but his raw skillset dropped him down out of the first round where the Thunder selected him with the 45th overall pick. At 20 years old, Diallo is 6’5 with a 6’11.5 wingspan from the shooting guard position. On top of that, he posted a 44.5-inch vertical in the 2017 NBA Draft Combine. He is capable of making jumpers but his real calling card is transition offense where he can show off his speed and athleticism in the open court. If he can hone that jump shot, he will quickly find minutes with OKC. Even without a consistent shot, Diallo could find minutes for his defense where his length, lateral quickness, and strength for a guard could pose problems for opposing wings. In a couple years, we could be looking at Diallo as a draft night steal for general manager Sam Presti and the front office.
Armed with their Big Three, the loss of Melo, and an improved bench, I expect the Thunder to be better than last season and will end up as the three seed in the West. They could give the Warriors and Rockets a run for their money, but may not have the offensive firepower to stay with them. Westbrook and PG13 can be dynamite scorers but the rest of the team is a little iffy. A Finals appearance could be out of reach, but the Thunder will go down trying.
Picture Courtesy of Clutch Points
*For yesterday’s article on the New York Knicks, click here
Up next tomorrow: Orlando Magic
University of South Carolina ’21