Almost exactly a year after Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder acquired All-Star Paul George, one of the best small forwards in the league, for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
George is similar to Durant in many respects: he’s tall, long, and athletic, a lock-down defender, and an accurate shooter. He’s not as good as Durant, but will fill the same role as Durant did in the Thunder’s system. He’s a massive upgrade for a team that had no few viable options at the small forward spot in the aftermath of Durant’s departure.
George has mentioned that he is still planning on signing with the Los Angeles Lakers next offseason when he opts out of his contract. The Thunder’s other star, MVP Russell Westbrook, can also opt out of his contract next summer, and hasn’t committed to re-signing with the Thunder. He’s been linked to the Lakers before as well, but is much more likely to stay.
Despite the probability that George is a one-year rental, this was a no-brainer deal. First, they gave up barely any assets. Victor Oladipo is a decent starter, but his bloated four-year, $84 million contract makes his value uncertain. Domantis Sabonis is an intriguing but raw second-year big, a bench player for the near future. These two are not adequate compensation in a blockbuster trade for a superstar.
Second, a lot can happen in one year: if the Thunder play well this season, they’ll have a higher chance of bringing back both Westbrook and George next offseason. So, this season is absolutely crucial to the future of their franchise.
The Thunder also made smart, cost-efficient deals to round out their supporting cast. Re-signing Andre Roberson on a three-year, $30 million contract is good value for one of the league’s best wing defenders, despite his offensive struggles.
Better yet, signing Patrick Patterson for the full taxpayer midlevel exception for three years was one of the offseason’s biggest steals. Patterson is a versatile defender who can defend multiple positions and shoot threes, a jack-of-all-trades that complements the others in the starting lineup well .
The Thunder also signed Raymond Felton for the minimum to fill in as a competent backup point guard, a role that’s been a revolving door for the team for years.
The Thunder’s starting lineup, consisting of Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Paul George, Patrick Patterson, and Steven Adams, has the offensive star power and defensive length and intensity to be among the best in the league.
On the other hand, their bench is a bit worrisome. Though Enes Kanter is the entire package offensively, his defense is quite the opposite, making him almost unplayable in the playoffs. Against the Warriors in 2016 and the Rockets in 2017, he was benched because of he was targeted relentlessly on defense.
Other members of their bench, such as Kyle Singler, Doug McDermott, Alex Abrines, and Semaj Christon, are also poor defenders, with Defensive Box Plus-Minus ratings under -1.0. Jerami Grant may be their only solid bench player on that end.
For the regular season, having some all-offense, little-defense players is fine. Teams can always use the shooting players like Doug McDermott and Alex Abrines provide, and the passing and post skills Enes Kanter excels at.
But deep into the playoffs, players who cannot contribute on both sides of the court are picked on mercilessly. Against strong competition, Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson, both stars on one end of the court, can lead to the team’s collapse on the other end in embarrassing fashion.
How do the Thunder match up against the Warriors?
Of all teams in the Western Conference, the Thunder perhaps match up the best. They are reminiscent of the 2015-2016 Thunder team who took the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. Instead of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, they have Paul George and Ibaka’s old Raptors teammate, Patrick Patterson.
The 2015-2016 Thunder team was so successful against the Warriors, especially early on in that series, because of a few key reasons. They had a tough defense, with extreme length to stifle the Warriors’ ballhandlers and protect the rim. They had two superstars that could score with ease. They attacked the Warriors in transition, showcasing superior athleticism and speed.
Much of that is still true with this year’s team. They aren’t as good as the 2015-2016 team, but they’re close. The Warriors, of course, enjoyed a massive talent upgrade by replacing Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant, so there’s a bit of distance between the teams.
Although Russell Westbrook has historically underperformed against Stephen Curry and the Warriors, he’s still a superstar that the Warriors have to gameplan around. When he’s locked in, he can be an above-average defender. Roberson and George have a shot at containing Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, and Steven Adams can defend the rim as well as anybody.
The Thunders’ bench unit may be exploited defensively, but at least it has more shooting than it did last year. Coach Billy Donovan is unproven in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see how well he manages the team over the long course of a seven-game series.
I expect the Thunder to be a top-four team in the West, joining the Warriors, Rockets, and Spurs as the conference’s best squads. They could even be the second best team if George excels on his new team, and their bench outperforms expectations. If any team under its current roster construction defeats the Warriors in the Western Conference playoffs, I’d bet it would be this one.
But if this season goes poorly, it is possible that both Westbrook and George are playing in different uniforms in 2018. The Thunder better not screw it up.