30 Teams in 30 Days: Return of Paul George keeps OKC in West mix
NBA.com Global on Sep 24, 2018 05:49 AM
FILE - OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - FEBRUARY 11: Paul George #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts against the Memphis Grizzlies on February 11, 2018 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
That's a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8 (June 9, PHL time), NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com's Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today -- from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record -- as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
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Today's Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Record: 48-34, lost in first round to Utah Jazz
Who's new: Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (trade), Abdel Nader (trade), Nerlens Noel (free agency), Dennis Schröder (trade), Hamidou Diallo (Draft)
Who's gone: Carmelo Anthony, Nick Collison
The lowdown: Desperate to take advantage of the prime years of reigning Kia MVP Russell Westbrook, OKC traded for Anthony and Paul George before 2017-18 got started. The experiment was fraught with flaws and by midseason, the Thunder were 22-20 and visions of being a championship contender were snuffed.
Westbrook responded with his second straight triple-double season, but skeptical media critics didn’t even vote him first-team All-NBA. Anthony struggled with his role all season and while George was reasonably solid stats-wise, he crashed in the playoffs. Overall, it was a disappointing season.
The biggest upset of the offseason happened on the first day of ’17-18, when OKC sold itself as a better option for George than the Los Angeles Lakers. Pundits had George, an unrestricted free agent over the summer, headed to Los Angeles even before he played a game for OKC. What could be better than spending your career back home in the sunshine, playing next to LeBron James and -- snickered the critics -- escaping the suffocating shadow of Westbrook?
Yet George didn’t even take visits during free agency and the bond he and Westbrook forged was tighter than outsiders imagined. He cited it in choosing to re-sign with OKC. That, and a reported $137 million over four years did the trick.
This was clearly a victory for a franchise that lost Kevin Durant in 2015 and rolled the dice on George without any assurances that he’d stay put. It was also a victory for Westbrook, who was so thrilled at the news that he threw a “signing party” for George in OKC.
Westbrook has endured whispers of being a bad and/or selfish teammate, part of the fallout over Durant bolting for Golden State. The perception isn’t justified as Westbrook is well-liked in the locker room and worked to develop a solid relationship with George and Anthony.
(However, Westbrook must recover from the arthroscopic knee surgery he had in mid-September.)
While the re-signing of George was celebrated, OKC wasn’t exactly heartbroken to trade Anthony. The 34-year-old struggled to transition into being a supplemental player for the first time in his basketball life. The final straw, from a public view anyway, was his benching in the playoffs and his response: lashing out at assistant coach Maurice Cheeks and essentially checking out mentally in the Utah series.
OKC traded Anthony to the Hawks in a three-team deal that forced OKC to toss in a 2022 lottery-protected first rounder to escape the buyout. Anthony then signed with the Rockets where he’s the third option once again.
With Westbrook, George and Steven Adams soaking up much of the payroll, OKC was limited this offseason. They took Diallo, a springy guard from Kentucky, in the second round. At least there will be a welcome return from defensive ace Andre Roberson, who is expected back from knee surgery. And Schroder, Noel and Luwawu-Cabarrot should figure into the rotation as well.
Schroder, the Hawks’ former starting point guard, is the most interesting of the bunch. He gets to the rim about as well as Westbrook and boasts a quick first step and crafty dribble. His shooting, however, is streaky, his defense is suspect and he doesn’t always spot the open man.
A bit less intriguing is the energetic Noel. Two years ago, he had a lucrative contract extension on the table from the Mavericks … which Noel refused, electing to take his $4 million qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. But the free-agent market, combined with Noel’s thumb surgery last season, added injury to insult.
After getting a chilly reception around the league this summer, he finally took a two-year deal (with a player option) from OKC. The slender-framed Noel, who is neither an inside force nor a natural shooter, has struggled to find a comfort zone in today’s NBA. Still, he’s just 24 years old and can still develop some aspects of his game.
Luwawu-Cabarrot is a good prospect for OKC’s player-development program, bringing size (6-foot-6) and energy. He might force his way into the back end of the rotation at some point this season.
Still, the best move of the summer for OKC was getting George’s signature on a contract. Hard to imagine a bigger upset this season than that.
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