That’s right. I said it.
Be bold, my friends. The NBA surprises us every year. Last season, Philadelphia finished as the third best team in the East. Houston was a healthy Chris Paul away from possibly beating the Warriors. JR Smith did…well maybe JR didn’t surprise us too much.
My boldest prediction for the Western Conference is that the Oklahoma City Thunder will finish 2nd in their respected conference, right behind Golden State. I even have three reasons as to why this will happen.
I. Opponent Regression
Did Houston improve upon their 2017-18 roster? Of course not. Did they even maintain their talent level? The answer to that is no as well.
If you didn’t know by now, Trevor Ariza was an integral piece to the Rocket’s roster. A versatile defender who goes by the nickname “switchblade,” Ariza fit perfectly into Houston’s offensive scheme. He took 71 percent of his shots from three last season, and hit them at a 36 percent clip. The Suns got a steal in Ariza.
Luc Mbah a Moute is one of the few players on the planet who may actually be able to bother Kevin Durant. That man is now playing for the Clippers.
Houston replaced these players with a handful of journeymen and Carmelo Anthony. Maybe you’re excited about Melo. Cool. I’m not. He had the worst year of his career last season while being the third option next to two superstars. Why should we expect anything different in Houston? Oh, and his defense is laughable.
What about the other competitors for that second seed? Portland didn’t do anything special this offseason. Will the personal development of Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons be enough for them to make the leap? Probably not.
You may argue that San Antonio can jump up if their rookies can contribute and Dejounte Murray can take a step forward. Yet, you would be wrong. They lost Kawhi Leonard, who is one of a few players in the league who has MVP potential. ‘Nuff said.
Utah is a fun team, but do they have enough high-end talent to finish second in that conference? Same goes for the Pelicans. The Lakers would need something magical from their young players to finish as the second seed. A lane is open for OKC to slide right into that number two overall seed.
II. The Thunder upgraded their roster
Last season, the Thunder had an excellent defense. They finished within the top ten in points allowed per game and defensive rating. These ratings should improve as well.
Next season the Thunder will bring back a healthy Andre Roberson, who is one of the top defenders in the league. Plus, they added Nerlens Noel. The big man has had a rocky start to his NBA career, but where he has excelled is his ability to block shots. A rim protector like him is a luxury to bring off your bench.
OKC also added Dennis Schroder. Reports have it that the German point guard is willing to accept his role as a 25 minutes per game player. Locker room chemistry is something to watch, but Schroder is a feisty, competitive player who could benefit from playing on a winning team. Remember, it was only two years ago when Schroder did this in the playoffs:
To summarize, most of their Western competitors either lost players or retained their rosters from last season. The Thunder managed to add an rim protector with untapped potential and a starting point guard to their unit. Oh, and they drafted very well given their picks. Even a slight bump in talent could see this Thunder team take a major leap forward.
III. Player development
There are some interesting things going on in Oklahoma this offseason.
Primarily, we must talk about Russell Westbrook’s offseason plan. ESPN’s Royce Young went Zach Lowe’s podcast and said that Russ is dedicated to improving his three point shot. Specifically, Russ is looking to enhance his overall off-ball game. Check out the podcast here.
This is something critics have been hankering about forever. Can Westbrook learn to play a beautiful, effective brand of team basketball? The jury is out, but at least Westbrook has indicted he is willing to switch up his game, which should result in more team wins under underrated coach Billy Donovan.
Paul George is even working on his jumper. Let’s all take a collective gulp now. One of the best three point shooters in the league is trying to become even more elite. Tim Bontemps from The Washington Post had this to say:
“George is also taking steps with his shooting form, something that he complained about throughout last season in Oklahoma City…George was dealing with bursitis in his right (shooting) arm. He complained off and on during the season that he was dealing with “tightness” in his forearm, but once the season ended he got his bursa sac aspirated — and discovered just how problematic the bursitis had become.”
Wait a second. So PG13 shot 40 percent from three on 7 attempts per game while having a forearm issue? And he is working to get better? Watch out, NBA. When two stars like Westbrook and George are dedicated to working together, good things happen.
Last season, Russ saw his usage rate start to return to Earth, despite it still being outside of this world. Contrarily, George’s usage rate stayed at his career average. Perhaps Westbrook is open to the idea of sharing the ball a bit more, which will result in a better team. After all, retaining PG13 means these two get along, right?
I expect the Western Conference teams to beat each other up next year even more than they did in 2017-18. Last year, Houston won 65 games and the Thunder won 48. It isn’t impossible for the Rockets to regress 9 wins while the Thunder improve by 9 wins, although it will be hard. Regardless, I am all in on this Thunder team.