Is the OKC Thunder the West's sleeper team?

Marco Benitez
From left, Paul George, Andre Roberson, Carmelo Anthony and Josh Heustis link arms during the playing of the national anthem before an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

After a season where Russell Westbrook went on a historic tear, averaging a triple-double for an entire season – a feat previously only done by the great Oscar Robertson – and carrying his team to sixth place in the Western Conference (47-35), OKC fans must be wondering when they will wake up from this dream of now having a triumvirate of All Stars on their roster.

Not only does Russ no longer have to rely on just Steven Adams to be the so-called second All-Star on this squad, but he has the luxury of having Paul George, an in-his-prime elite NBA star who can score, pass, create, be the ultimate complementary star, and even defend 4 out of the 5 positions.

Not only that, they have Carmelo Anthony, who, after unsuccessful years trying to carry a New York team and a broken relationship with the Zen Master, can still light it up on a nightly basis, whether as a catch-and-shoot, spot-up shooter, or mid-post threat. Now if Olympic or Hoodie Melo can find his consistent form, that’s three legitimate All-Stars and All-NBA team members that the Thunder have got going for them.

Of course, this will entail a lot of adjustment from these superstars, previously the top dogs on their respective squads. Westbrook primarily will have to defer more now, probably in the early part of the game. Expect his assists number to bump up a notch, now that he has elite scorers running with him. In fact, seven games into the season, Russ’ assists have jumped to 11.7 per game from last year’s 10.4. That should lessen his load considerably, and keep him fresher for the end game, and more importantly, the playoffs. Not to mention, he’ll have to be more efficient and lessen those ill-advised shots he was prone to taking last year, as Melo and PG will certainly need shots of their own.

At 33-years-old and having never played second fiddle to anyone on his team, it may be easy to assume that Melo would have the hardest time adjusting. But Melo is at the point in his career where he no longer has that quick burst to beat defenders consistently off the dribble, but rather has to rely on his myriad of offensive moves, jab steps, and spot up jumpers. With two premier defense-sucking playmakers and willing passers in Westbrook and George, Melo will be the primary beneficiary of those wide open kick out passes to the wings and corners. Expect his career 45% FG and 35% 3P to climb a few points higher with more open looks. So far, Melo hasn’t lost a step, averaging just a shade under his career 23 ppg, on 18.1 field goal attempts but at close to 47% from the field.

George meanwhile, will be the Swiss Army knife of this team. Unlike Westbrook and Anthony who aren’t know for their defense, George is among the NBA’s elite when it comes to locking down opponents. He will surely be tasked with defending an opponent’s best player, and he will be more than up to the job. Years back when Indiana was Miami’s toughest hurdle in the East, George would go toe-to-toe with LeBron and prove almost equal. Now in OKC, he will no longer have to be the team’s primary scorer and best defender on his lonesome. This will allow him to focus a little more defensively, something OKC drastically needs against GSW’s Big 4, or the three-point shooting guards of Houston.

Apart from the Thunder’s new Big 3, the supporting cast of Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson, Jerami Grant and even Kyle Singler, will have to do their share on both ends of the floor, as the 82-game regular season will be a grind, and Billy Donovan can’t expect his three stars to play 35-40 minutes a night, nor should he.

Expect some period of adjustment as these three stars and the rest of the team find their comfort zones in their new roles. They’re currently at 4-3, tied with four other teams in the middle of the West. Expect some friction as well when it comes to who takes over in the clutch and who takes the last shot during close games, as each of them is used to taking and making a ton of those, and now have to know when to defer to the other. But expect Thunder management, and it’s franchise player Westbrook in particular, to try and make the transition as smooth as possible, as both George and Melo have opt-outs at season’s end, and Hollywood (for George) and Melo’s buddy LeBron will be calling.

Best case scenario assuming these three superstars thrive together: a 50+ win season, 4th or 5th seed in the West, and possibly a monster of a matchup with Golden State or Houston in the West Finals, which the Thunder have a fighting chance of winning.

Worst case scenario: a sub-50 win season, 6th or 7th in the West, a second round exit, and PG heads to Lakerland while Melo reunites with his buddy King James in the offseason.

As you can tell, this could be a franchise-changing season for OKC.

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