When Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors last summer, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemingly were in danger of dying a slow death as a small-market team that might never attract another player of his caliber.
Look what happened to the Cavs when LeBron James left for Miami. Kevin Garnett left Minnesota for Boston in 2007, and the Wolves, after making eight straight playoff appearances with K.G., haven't finished higher than 10th in the West since.
Yet here are the Thunder, barely more than a year after Durant's departure, again ready to launch a two-superstar attack on the NBA with the addition of Paul George next to Russell Westbrook. Indeed, it has been a home run offseason for OKC, which also added Patrick Patterson on a before re-signing Andre Roberson to a .
Before we get to George, who is an almost perfect complement to Westbrook, let's talk about the two additions you might not know so much about. Very quietly, Patterson, a solid defender and capable 3-point shooter, made a major impact in Toronto. Check out this stat:
Raptors with Patterson on the floor over the last 3 seasons: +1004— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) July 5, 2017
That's not an end-all number because a lot of that production came against second units. But Patterson makes a difference, clearly, thanks to a 3-and-D skill set tailor made to fill OKC's cracks. OKC was the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA last season at 32.7 percent. Patterson shoots it closer to 40 percent, as does George. That kind of shooting support should afford the Thunder the spacing a good team needs without having to sit Roberson, who can be a shooting liability but is among the league's best perimeter defenders.
With Roberson on the floor last season, the Thunder were the fifth-best defensive team in the league, and figure to be even better with George and Patterson. Roberson regularly locks down the best players in the league. He limited James Harden to 41 percent shooting (24 percent from deep) during the playoffs. For the season as the primary defender, he limited opponents to that same 41 percent shooting, one of the top marks in the NBA while guarding the best scorers in the world most nights.
Given its influx of perimeter versatility, OKC looks like the best-equipped team in the West -- and perhaps the league -- to challenge Golden State's 3-point attack. That's not to say they are as good as Golden State, or even close, but they are now built defensively to legitimately challenge them. Imagine a possession with Roberson on Durant, George on Klay Thompson, an engaged Westbrook on Stephen Curry and Patterson on Draymond Green. Lying in wait behind them -- as those guys switch and recover and close out on shooters like their lives depend on it -- you have Steven Adams, who had the fourth-best defensive rating in the league last season.
Again, any defense will be hard pressed to slow down the Warriors, but that's a pretty darn competitive lineup. Along with what will certainly be a greatly improved offense with George and Paterson on board, you can credibly say that OKC, on any given night, has at least a puncher's chance against the league's elite -- right there with Houston and San Antonio in what should be a fascinating race for the likely right to battle Golden State for the conference crown. Our SportsLine projections, before and after the draft, have the Thunder jumping from 12th in the West to fourth.
Most of this, of course, is based on the pairing of George and Westbrook, who now become in the conversation as the best duo in the league. Even though Westbrook tallied the highest usage rate in NBA history last season out of necessity, he has proven himself a more-than-willing wing man.
For eight years, Westbrook and Durant pretty much terrorized the league. Westbrook and George figure to do much the same. George, while not the player Durant is, certainly not from an efficiency standpoint, is just as good a complement to Westbrook. Durant and George take around 17 to 19 shots per game, and George actually was a slightly better 3-point shooter than K.D last season (39.3 percent to 37.5 percent). Just a year removed from playing with Durant, this should all be very familiar to Westbrook and thus cut down on the adjustment period.
That comfort and talent at the top should also trickle down to everyone else. One of the biggest problems for OKC last season was too many guys were asked to play above their level because of a roster constructed to support a two-star attack. When you add a player like George, role players can just do what they do. Patterson can just defend and stretch the floor. Enes Kanter can just go score and rebound without having to worry so much about his defense. Doug McDermott can simply come off the bench and shoot. Roberson can forget about having to contribute as a scorer, though if he became a consistent threat on that corner 3, it would be gravy.
Of course, hanging over all this optimism is that George -- a free agent next summer -- could well be a one-year rental. He hasn't been shy about his desire to end up with the Lakers, who definitely will go all out for him and every other big-name guy on next year's market. But here's the thing: Oklahoma City wins on this deal either way.
Worst-case scenario, you get a year of George and Westbrook -- more than most teams could dream of -- and George leaves. In that case, Sam Presti still showed Westbrook (also a free agent after next season) that he is not going to waste Westbrook's prime years by standing pat. The GM will continue to be aggressive to give Westbrook the support he needs, even if it means going into the luxury tax, which the Thunder will do this year if they don't make more moves. As a bonus, OKC also off-loaded Victor Oladipo's contract, which has four years and $84 million left on it.
Best-case scenario, George finally feels the freedom of playing next to a superstar, sees there is no guarantee that happens with the Lakers and decides to stay. The Thunder have an entire season to, in effect, recruit George while everyone else must wait for a meeting next summer. OKC's pitch depends heavily on how the Thunder perform this season.
The West is even more stacked than last season, and part of that is because of George and the Thunder, who have -- for the time being -- flipped the script on the Durant departure in about as dramatic a way as anyone could've seen coming.