In the past, I have publicly lamented recent trends in the NBA. I argued that the “super-team” that the Golden State Warriors built by signing Kevin Durant in 2016 made the league look less competitive and more boring than ever before. And the addition of Durant to an already record-breaking team happened in a league that has always struggled to look competitive and captivate attention during the regular season.

But new drama and interest has brought resurrected life to the NBA.

Through a couple pieces of front-office wizardry, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti has successfully brought in two superstar players this offseason: Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.

George and Anthony will start alongside point guard Russell Westbrook, whose feud with Durant, his former friend and teammate, is now the most intriguing personal rivalry in the game.  Over the past two years, Westbrook bore nearly the entire burden of facing Durant and Golden State. Now, Presti’s trades appear as if they will take some of the load off Westbrook.

But make no mistake: the Warriors will still be heavy favorites to win the Western Conference.  Westbrook, George and Anthony are great players, but on paper they do not match the production by Warriors’ stars Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Motivation will likely no longer be a problem for the Thunder in the upcoming clashes with its Western Conference foe. Oklahoma City loathes Durant following his unexpected and widely criticized move to Golden State. Recently, the player added fuel to the fire by publicly attacking Thunder head coach Billy Donovan and his former teammates on Twitter.

The issue for the Thunder will be meshing offensively and executing defensively.

On the offensive side of the ball, the three newly-united stars are all top-tier players individually.  However, Westbrook and Anthony have a reputation for being ball hogs.

By contrast, the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs — the other contenders in the West — are both known for their quick ball movement. If Westbrook, Anthony and George develop passing chemistry, they will be much more likely to compete in the playoffs.

On the defensive side, Carmelo is known for his lax play. This will be a serious issue for the Thunder, especially in matchups with the Warriors. Anthony will need to guard Durant, which looks like a serious mismatch. Anthony has the size and quickness to get the job done, but the question is whether or not his heart will be in it.

On the other hand, he has never played with a player of Westbrook’s intensity. In terms of defensive concentration , it seems to come down to whose personality will rub off on whom.

The Thunder gave up a talented defender by trading Victor Oladipo for Paul George, also an excellent defender. George’s defensive play was slightly better before his serious leg injury in 2014, but is close to returning to that form.

Depth remains a question mark for the Thunder. Although each move that Presti has made in the past couple years has ultimately benefited the team, he has had to give up a lot of periphery pieces to form that nucleus of stars.

As a result, we probably will not see a lot of scoring from the role players on the Thunder, which is not necessarily terrible for them. However, they will need solid defense and passing from these non-stars to shore up the edges of the squad and keep the team from becoming vulnerable.

The other solid teams in the Western Conference — the Spurs, the Houston Rockets and perhaps the Minnesota Timberwolves — all have a chance to challenge the supremacy of the Warriors. None of them, however, have assembled a squad that has three stars with the talent level of the Thunder’s new big three.

While it may seem likely that the Warriors will retain their hold on the Western Conference and go on to win the NBA Finals, their path will certainly be more difficult this year than in the past. And if any team is going to give them a run for their money, it will be the Thunder.

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One Comment

  1. David Perkey- says:

    Russel Westbrook is an unbelievably talented guy. BUT his game does not cultivate greatness from those around him. The talent is around him this season, as it has been in years past. The problem is not the amount or quality of talent around the OKC centerpiece. Westbrook is the problem, and with his mentality his teams will be good, but never great. If we ask head coaches this, “we can either add Kevin Durant and James Harden to your roster, OR PG and Carmelo”… you know the answer….
    KD took so much grief for leaving OKC… But he is smart enough to see that if he stayed with Russel Westbrook he never wins a title.. so he takes the greif, and gets on a team that plays the way he wanted to play all along..

    to the author:
    The threat is only in your mind. not because of the talent disparity, but the fact that the philosophy the warriors have, cultivates greatness from within, and the fact that Russel Westbrook as your center piece increases Russel Westbrook’s greatness at the cost of the rest of the team.

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