Think back to last season. The Russell Westbrook show. What an amazing ride! The 42 triple-doubles. The insane finishes. The record usage rate. Another MVP season for Oklahoma City. But with all the beauty, you also had to take the ugliness. The packed paint. The box-and-1 defenses. The clanging of long-range jump shots. A first round exit. The dependency on just one player.
Last season was great on an individual level. Westbrook had a season for the ages. But it was a season that was necessitated by the departure of Kevin Durant. If Westbrook doesn’t got supernova, the Thunder likely struggle to make the playoffs. And thankfully for the Thunder, Westbrook is not one to go quietly into the night. But last year’s team was not for just Westbrook. It was designed for both Westbrook and Durant. With one of those components gone, the Thunder were a walking identity crisis for 87 games.
Fast forward to this offseason. The Thunder had a clear plan of what they needed to do to improve. The first domino, of course, was the Paul George trade right before the start of free agency. Then the signings of Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton. With those three swift moves, the Thunder addressed three of their biggest weaknesses. But make no mistake, the biggest get of the summer was George. Why? Because George gives the team what it truly missed when Durant left: a second superstar and another go-to scorer.
The whole dynamic of the Thunder’s offense completely changes overnight. No longer can defenses just key in on Westbrook. Now there are two chess pieces on the board to balance the floor. The inclusion of Patterson adds another wrinkle to the team that was missing last season. And with that, the team improves immensely.
2. Paul George
Here’s the list of great players George has played with in his career: _____________________. Paul George has never played with a player of Westbrook’s caliber in the league. Keep that in mind when you think about how good he has been in his career in Indiana. And keep that in mind when George goes into this season with the bold proclamation that he is “going after that hardware (MVP award).” We should see the best version of George that we have ever seen in his career. The amount of space that he will have to work with will likely be something he has never seen throughout his career.
He’s coming off a year where he averaged a career-high in points, FG%, and FT%, while nearly shooting 40% from 3-point territory. Everyone talks about players like Westbrook, Durant, Harden, and Curry all heading into the prime of their career. But do you know who else needs to be included on that list? Paul George. He’s primed and he’s ready.
1. Russell Westbrook
Oh my word! Look at that stat line. A couple months of not obsessing over stats makes you forget the craziness of what we witnessed last year. Take a guess at how many seasons the 6’9 Magic Johnson averaged double figures in rebounds. If you guessed one, you overshot the correct answer by one. Last season was an anomaly. It was a perfect storm of events and necessity that enabled Westbrook to have a season kids 50 years from now will be talking about.
But if the Thunder are to succeed this season, Westbrook will need to refrain from duplicating the results from last year. He now has more help and he has to use those weapons to their utmost. Aside from a little more shooting, this team is almost perfectly suited for Westbrook. He got the individual award last season. Now it’s time to jump the biggest hurdle of all: team success. There is no question whose team this is anymore. This is Russell’s team. And they will only go as far as he allows them to go.