Oklahoma City is betting on itself.
When you're a small-market team in the NBA, in Oklahoma of all places, you can take two approaches. You can be savvy, careful, work around the edges and hope that everything will come together one year. You can do that if you don't have Russell Westbrook. The Thunder have Russell Westbrook.
So general manager Sam Presti, faced with having to find a path forward a year after losing the best player in franchise history, did not simply tweak the Thunder after a 47-win campaign. He snuck into the offseason under cover of darkness, and pulled off a heist for Paul George. Then while the NBA world was still breaking down that heist, he swiped Carmelo Anthony for good measure. And just when the summer seemed over, he locked up his MVP on a five-year extension.
So we come to the preface of this pivotal, tantalizing, fascinating Thunder season, like we're watching a high wire act. There's a net, at least, after Westbrook signed his extension. But with George and Carmelo Anthony both possible free agents at the end of this season, there's still much we don't know about OKC's future. Here's what the Thunder absolutely need this year for it to be a success.
STEP 1. ESTABLISH AN IDENTITY
The Thunder have to know who they are. Sharing the ball is awesome but not necessarily essential. For years, OKC has been built on elite defense, under the radar. That gets harder with its current roster, which has a young bench and two questionable defenders (Anthony and Westbrook) in the starting unit. But the offensive talent will take care of itself, at least to a degree. Maximizing it will be a trick, but maintaining the defensive toughness and consistency is more important.
The challenge is finding chemistry around those two weak defenders on a roster that has been heavily restructured over the past year. In Billy Donovan's first season, he had to try out a number of different defensive schemes, particularly in the pick and roll, before he found the combination that worked. The Thunder now don't have the structure or time available to experiment. They have to have a clear plan going in, and it needs to work. For all their firepower with their three stars, those three have never played together, and it will take time to figure out how and when to deploy each of their preferences of ball control.
They have good defenders everywhere throughout the roster, thankfully. Steven Adams is physical, disruptive and aggravating. Patrick Patterson is sound and smart. Andre Roberson is a top-five perimeter defender. Their bench has enough guys to handle that end of the floor.
If the Thunder aren't whipping the ball around and creating havoc, they'll be viewed as a disappointment, but that doesn't play to the strengths of this particular combination. If the Thunder have a great defense and are bludgeoning teams with offensive skill, even if it's not complex enough to be considered elite, they're going to win games, and their key players will be comfortable. That's way more important than playing some form of a beautiful game.
STEP 2. BUILD CHEMISTRY
There's already talk in preseason of the three stars forming a "brotherhood," but it's easy to be close in October. It's when it's January, you've lost four of your last seven and you're playing in Milwaukee, that your chemistry will be challenged. The Thunder need these three to find a balance of personality.
It's not enough just to get along. To get George and Anthony to recommit (and for Westbrook to be on board with it), it has to work. Stars know one another and hang out. Westbrook's been working out with Carmelo through the summer, Paul George and Anthony have been talking since draft night. These guys have to find a connection. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does need to balance. They can't all be the public face of the team, nor can they all reject the media and scowl constantly. There has to be a dynamic that works within the structure.
Now, the Thunder were close-knit for years, and that did nothing to prevent Durant leaving for the Warriors. The Jazz were close with Gordon Hayward. It won't change things if the free agents feel they have better situations. But OKC has to make it hard on their heart strings to leave.
Fire up the team dinners and bowling excursions on the off days.
STEP 3. AVOID THE WARRIORS
They will not go for this. They will say that they can make a run at anyone, they're not going to back down, etc., but here's the risk. You have this great season, you compete with the Rockets and Spurs for the No. 2 seed, but you wind up in fourth. You've had all this great momentum all season, the vibe is good, things are going great.
And in the second round, the Warriors wipe you from the face of the planet like a sci-fi weapon.
It's a tough way to end the year. Lose an either-way series to the Spurs or Rockets, and you come back with confidence you can get better. Now if you make the Western Conference finals and the Warriors are there? Can't avoid them forever, but the way the Thunder's season ends this year is more important than when it ends.
STEP 4. RE-SIGN THE CORE, PROFIT
There are always options, of course. Anthony, who also could opt in for the last year of his contract, will be 34 next summer. Losing him wouldn't be bad, per say, and they need the right deal if he wants to come back. The key for this season, however, is convincing he and George to want to return. That's what this season is about. They're not burdened with young guys in crucial roles. They're not trying to get Westbrook a second MVP. They're not really trying to make a real run at Golden State, because you have to know if you really have that capacity.
The benefit for OKC is how Westbrook's extension changes the tone. There's not a desperation or stress. Westbrook won't be constantly discussed in rumors. (George will be.) There won't be this ticking clock on the franchise, just on George's decision. It may not be ideal, but it's much easier to manage for the team and organization than the alternative.
This season is about proving the core is real and worth investing in for both sides. If it goes completely pear-shaped, the trade deadline could be positively bonkers, but if it works ... OKC will have come such a long way in two years towards getting over the pain of the summer of 2016.