Thunder season preview: Paul George's return makes Thunder a contender

Yahoo Sports

In the days of player movement and super-teams, Russell Westbrook has remained committed to the Thunder. His stubborn playing style carries over to his belief in himself and the franchise. After seeing star teammates leave in trades and free agency, Westbrook wants to finish what he started and bring a title to the Sooner State.

Westbrook’s infamously aggressive playing style is both his greatest strength and weakness. He can single-handedly keep his team in games with his all-around dominance. On the other hand, he sometimes pushes to the extreme and doesn’t allow his teammates to get involved in the offense. He’s basically the personification of Michael Scott’s quote on his greatest shortcomings: “I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can be too invested in my job.” In short, Westbrook is far from a conventional point guard.

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That’s why Paul George’s decision to re-sign with the Thunder on a four-year, $137 million deal was such a landmark moment for the franchise. Not only was it validation, but it was also a vote of confidence in Westbrook. An All-Star passed on a Los Angeles homecoming in favor of playing with Westbrook in Oklahoma City.

He explained why he stayed to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix:

“The reason I stayed was because the relationships I gained were authentic, they were genuine,” George told Yahoo Sports. “It was a good base. There was nothing more I needed to know about anyone. Otherwise, I would have went elsewhere and tried with a new team, new organization. I felt I had a really good base and had a good relationship with the guys here. I felt like we were all on the same page from the start.”

With George and Westbrook signed to long-term deals, the Thunder have star power and stability. Add in Steven Adams and the Thunder have a foundational ball handler, wing and center.

When Kevin Durant left for Golden State, Westbrook could have taken the easy way out and asked for a trade. Instead, he embraced the responsibilities of leading the franchise, winning the 2017 MVP award and averaging a triple double in each of the last two seasons. To take the next step, the Thunder will need to find a way to alleviate his playmaking responsibilities.

X-Factor

After the Carmelo Anthony experiment failed last season, Sam Presti flipped him to Atlanta for Dennis Schröder, who could be the third playmaker Oklahoma City needs next to Westbrook and George. Chemistry issues and the arrival of Trae Young made him expendable in Atlanta, but Schröder is a starting caliber point guard, averaging 19.4 points and 6.2 assists last season.

At the very least, Schröder will be an upgrade over Raymond Felton in a backup point guard role. He has the athleticism and skill to crack the Thunder’s crunch-time rotation, especially with Andre Roberson’s absence to start the season. Considering the Thunder were going to waive Anthony, there was little risk to acquiring Schröder, and the upside is high.

 

Outlook

With Westbrook and George building off their chemistry from last season, the Thunder should be in contention for a top-four seed in the loaded Western Conference.

While Oklahoma City has a pair of All-Star scorers, defense will once again be the Thunder’s calling card. Oklahoma City’s Westbrook-George-Adams-Roberson lineup posted a phenomenal 94.1 defensive rating last season. Roberson is one of the league’s top defenders and combines with George to lock down opposing wings. Roberson tore his patellar tendon in January and his absence was a huge factor in Oklahoma City’s first-round exit.

Oklahoma City played well last season against the West’s elite, splitting the season series with Golden State and taking two of three against Houston. They would be underdogs in a playoff series, but a lot can happen between now and May to make things more interesting.

With the pending free agencies of several Golden State stars and the aging roster in Houston, the Western Conference could be wide open as early as next season. With Westbrook and George still in their primes, the Thunder are poised to take advantage of any opening in the West’s hierarchy.

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