Thunder yet again has to look within for biggest improvement
An offseason ago, an over-the-salary cap Thunder signed just one player in free agency and added three more via trades. But they were valuable deals – Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder made the Thunder a better team. What made the Thunder even better was improvement from within and stylistic changes.
Be it teams with cap space or those without, players already on a roster improving on their games can take a team to new heights. The Thunder is going into the summer of 2019 with the impediment of a projected $146.8 million roster in which some of its core players saw positive improvement but also some regression on offense.
The Thunder has to get better internally, or else.
"Based on kind of where we are strategically, our greatest path for improvement is going to be the improvement of our core group," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said Monday."That improvement is probably going to be greater than any type of impact that we're going to be able to have with like a marginal addition here or there."
With the Thunder over the cap, internal improvement comes calling again.
The Thunder knows about that. Wanting to improve defensively in the starting five, inserting Jerami Grant at the expense of Carmelo Anthony also came with more efficient offense. Grant averaged career bests in points (13.6), rebounds (5.2) and 3-point percentage (39.2). Terrance Ferguson was an unsuspected surprise on defense and the 3-point line (36.6 percent) in Andre Roberson’s absence.
There’s always the possibility of Presti pulling in more accomplished shooters via trade. Ferguson and Grant were a combined 2-of-15 from 3 in Games 1 and 2 against the Blazers in the playoffs, particularly damning in Game 1 in which the Thunder received Russell Westbrook’s best performance of the postseason – an ideal blend of ball distribution combined with efficient finishing at the rim and free throw line.
"Just to be on the court and to be taking the amount of attempts from three that I took this year, going forward it's only going to make me better," said Grant, who attributed his improved 3-point shooting to Westbrook setting him up.
Internal improvement isn’t limited to young players.
The most tired excuse in the Thunder lexicon of excuses is the team is still recovering from the loss of Kevin Durant in 2016. The Thunder didn’t want to bottom out post-Durant and is now fighting to stay relevant in a loaded Western Conference, but that has little to do with playing intelligently on offense. Westbrook can pass up low-percentage shots to get his teammates better ones. Coach Billy Donovan can (theoretically) scheme Westbrook to play in areas where his percentages are better, or develop Steven Adams into a floor-stretching 3-point shooter to create more space for Westbrook.
What can’t be ignored, however, is the Thunder’s offense has shifted from a hyper-efficient scoring machine (Durant) to a high-volume, inefficient hub (Westbrook). While Westbrook has grown as a facilitator and conceded offensive touches to Paul George and Schroder, his shooting – from shot selection to the free throw line – and where it goes from here will have the biggest impact on the Thunder.
One major problem, a problem shared by Adams, is the free throw line.
Westbrook’s free throw percentage has dipped nearly 20 percentage points since 2017 (from 84.5 to 65.6). A steep decline in attempts since then (840 to 451) speaks to the offensive shift from Westbrook’s high usage to more minutes with George and Schroder, but Westbrook is still Top 15 in the NBA in free throw attempts.
Between Westbrook and Adams – OKC’s top two players in free throw attempts – the Thunder missed 301 free throws in the regular season.
Westbrook said he "just changed some stuff up" en route to shooting 23-of-26 from the line in the playoffs. The same as the progression of Grant and Ferguson, those changes need to stick. George can become even more of an offensive focal point.
Even as Presti will undoubtedly tweak the roster, the Thunder can help itself.