NBA Preview: Will Thunder’s ‘Big Three’ challenge Warriors?

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, left, is defended by Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul during a pre-season game in Tulsa, Okla., Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

GM: Sam Presti
Head coach: Billy Donovan
2016-17 record: 47-35 (6th in the Western Conference)
2016-17 result: Lost 4-1 in the West’s first round
Key departures: Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott
Key acquisitions: Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Patrick Patterson

After losing a consensus top three player in the league, Sam Presti didn’t lick his wounds.

The Thunder general manager gave Russell Westbrook the chance to prove himself as an MVP as the only star on Oklahoma City. That decision would pay off, as Westbrook would go on secure that honour while joining Oscar Robertson (1961-62) as the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double.

The Thunder were carried to the first round of the playoffs by the superstar, hitting their ceiling as everyone was reminded that Westbrook couldn’t do it all by himself. Presti went to work after being ousted by the Houston Rockets, making sure that his franchise cornerstone wouldn’t run into that same problem in 2017-18.

Through two trades, Presti somehow transformed Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and Chicago’s 2018 second-round draft pick into Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, two high-level wing players with 14 all-star appearances between them.

While neither of them are a former MVP like Kevin Durant, many can argue that two is better than one, as Westbrook now has a sniper on both his right and his left. It should only help the high-profile millennial continue to terrorize the rest of the league, while having a newly-minted $205-million extension to his name that’ll keep him in OKC until at least 2022.

With the Thunder back among the West’s elite, we might as well hand over the 2017-18 NBA Executive of the Year Award to Presti. But before we do, we’ll need to see if the Thunder can have three scorers share one basketball as they look to make their own mark on the league.

Potential Breakout Player
As the Thunder’s newest trio gains chemistry ahead of the playoffs, Alex Abrines could have a breakout year as a complementary marksman in any of their lineups. The six-foot-six shooting guard had an underrated rookie campaign in 2016-17, converting on 38.1 per cent of his attempts from three-point distance.

While the rest of his game still needs work, that’ll be made up for by the three all-stars he’ll share a court with. As long as Abrines can stretch the floor and make his open shots, he should have no problem finding his rhythm in the Thunder offence. It’s something that’ll pay off come the playoffs when the Thunder, like every contender, will eventually need a spark from one of their role players such as Abrines, who had five games last year with at least four three-pointers.

What a successful 2017-18 season would look like
With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony both having the option to become free agents next summer, the Thunder are in win-now mode. They should be knocking on the Warriors’ door in the form of a Conference Finals appearance, which would classify as a successful season, and should be enough to convince both of their upcoming free agents that OKC is the place to be.

It’s a tough task knowing George already has one foot in Los Angeles, while Anthony has a lifelong dream of playing with buddy LeBron James. The majority of that pressure rests on Russell Westbrook, who’lll need to sacrifice some of his own touches to keep his new superstar teammates happy after setting an NBA record with a usage percentage of 41.6.

But by his side will be an aging Anthony, who for the first time in his career might fall under the 20 points per game mark while having a chance to produce under similar circumstances as with Team USA. On the other end will be George, who’s never been fond of taking on a leadership role. Both will be able to feed off all the open looks Westbrook is sure to create, if they’re willing to take a bit of a step back from their identities as primary scorers.

Biggest X-Factor
What held back the Oklahoma City Thunder from taking the next step in 2016-17 was their god-awful three-point shooting, which ranked dead last in percentage (32.7) and fifth last in makes per contest (8.4). But with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony now surrounding the wing, it should help solve that problem.

George’s 39.3 per cent shooting from deep would have been the highest mark on the Thunder last season. OKC should also expect Anthony to up his three-point shooting now that he’ll be playing power forward. The last time he played the four, in 2013-14, Anthony hit a career-high 40.2 per cent of his attempts from distance, while averaging a best 8.1 rebounds.

The Thunder also added Patrick Patterson this off-season for a bargain of a deal, after he had to undergo off-season knee surgery. He could become a true X-Factor for the Thunder by filling the same role he had on the Raptors as a sixth man, helping them transition into small ball lineups with his career 36.8 per cent shooting from deep.

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