There was incredible hope and optimism heading into the 2017-18 campaign, and through a season full of adversity and inconsistency the Thunder didn’t accomplish what it set out to back in September. All season long, however, the team stayed together as a unit, never fractured and didn’t buckle in the face of injuries, disappointing performances and tough breaks.
Ultimately the season ended in Salt Lake City, with the Thunder falling to the Utah Jazz 4-2 in the first round. Despite the result, there’s a positive outlook for the organization moving forward and that’s what
First up on Saturday morning at End of Season Interviews was Head Coach Billy Donovan, who even in the immediate aftermath of the Thunder’s 96-91 loss to the Jazz on Friday was discussing the optimism that he has for what this iteration of the team can be moving forward. Each year Donovan has coached this team the personnel has been drastically different, but because of the way the players in the locker room stuck together all year, Donovan is confident they will be able to make progress on the most important problem to tackle this summer: consistency.
“From start to finish they were constantly trying to work on things to help us be a better team,” Donovan said.
“The consistency stuff is what we have to put all of our heads together on,” Donovan added. “We can be more consistent on what I call the ‘controllables’.”
While building and maintaining habits to maintain that consistency is in part on the shoulders of the players, Donovan takes much of the responsibility for instilling those virtues in the team. Heading into the offseason, that is his chief concern as he attacks work this summer. The Thunder’s sideline general tries to learn from every season and apply it to the next one.
“Every year as a coach you’re always trying to evaluate areas where your team can get better and improve,” said Donovan. “I feel a strong sense of always wanting to improve and get better individually.”
Starting since last offseason, Russell Westbrook took it upon himself to help band a group of new players, including a pair of All-Stars and another pair of longtime NBA veterans, all come together as one. Though Westbrook said the one thing he wishes he could change from the season is “losing last night” and clearly isn’t thrilled about having a long summer off, he’s optimistic about the relationships he helped cultivate and the possibility of growing together with this group next year.
“We have a great group of guys that want to be successful that want to win and want to do the right things,” Westbrook said. “The biggest thing for us is being more and more consistent throughout the season. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”
“We obviously had previous relationships before the season but to get through a season and figure out what real brotherhood is like,” Westbrook said. “Us bonding as brothers was the biggest thing for me.”
Westbrook concluded the season by laying it all on the line in an incredible 46-point effort that featured 7 made three-pointers in Game 6 against the Jazz. That follows up a season where he became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double more than once by completing that feat for the 2nd straight season. Despite that, Westbrook recognizes that there are areas of his game where he must improve, and he’s heading into the summer with that in mind.
“I always like to put my game in perspective and try to figure out what I can do to be better,” Westbrook said. “I say everything all the time because that’s truly what I mean. I put pressure on myself every summer to come back better at something.”
Nick Collison is known as Mr. Thunder to many fans throughout Oklahoma City or “Dirty” to assistant coach Mark Bryant and his longtime teammates. During this past season with the Thunder, Collison enjoyed his “cameos” on the court, the spot minutes that he got at the end of some games but also in a few crucial moments, like the Thunder’s win at home against the San Antonio Spurs. As a leader and mentor to many of the players who saw heavy minutes, Collison noted a similar theme to Donovan and Westbrook this season, but still greatly enjoyed his year.
“We kept waiting for us to kind of hit our stride and it wouldn’t happen for long enough stretches that we needed to,” Collison said. “Everybody would have liked for us to have things go a little bit better. A lot of new players, it does take time. It just seemed like we could never get that consistency on either end of the court.”
This may be Collison’s final season as an NBA player, though he would not commit either way on Saturday afternoon. If he decides to play again next season, the Thunder or any team he joins will be fortunate to have a person of his character on their roster. If he decides to hang up the jersey and move on to spend time with family or pursue another career in basketball, he’ll undoubtedly be excellent in whatever role he chooses.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. I think I’ve decided that today is not the time to make any of those decisions final,” Collison said. “I’ll probably take some time, talk to my family, talk to my agent, talk to the team a little bit and go from there.”
Just as the Thunder did all season, Paul George exhibited the heights that this team can rise to when it is clicking on all cylinders. George averaged 21.9 points on 40.1 percent three-point shooting on 7.7 attempts from behind the arc this season, all while continuing to defend at a high level as one of the premiere wing stoppers in the league. It was an adjustment for everyone as this team got put together on the fly, but George enjoyed his time in Oklahoma City and believes the Thunder can be better next year if the whole group stays together.
“As a whole, I had an amazing year here. The fans, the love, the energy, and a lot to take with me and be happy about coming into the summer,” George said. “We have had the high moments where we’ve seen what we can be. I think that’s the consistency part of just getting an identity as a group. I think we’re close to accomplishing something bigger.”
George himself will have a free agency decision to make in July, but he’s not focused on that right now. In the meantime, the dynamic forward will rest up and then diligently approach his craft to hone his game to an even higher level.
“Just getting healthy, getting my body back healthy. That’s first and foremost,” George said, referencing the bumps and bruises that accumulate during the year. “After all that is done, it’s going back to the gym, getting back into the lab, working what I need to work on, watching film. Digesting all the areas that I felt were weak for me, that were poor.”
When Carmelo Anthony decided to join the Thunder and move to Oklahoma City just days before training camp last fall, everyone knew, himself included, that the transition wouldn’t be easy. Anthony sacrificed his personal numbers and accolades for the team, playing off the ball more and shooting from spot up positions. He embraced the role and he and his teammates worked every day to help one another through the transition of putting a brand new team together.
“I'm very appreciative of the way that you guys (the fans and media) were able to like kind of implement me into this community and this city and the organization,” Anthony said. “I know that the season didn't end the way we wanted to, wanted the season to end, but I think any time you're going through a transformation, these are the steps, and these are the things that is going to happen.”
“This locker room and group of guys were always trying to figure it out. We never had an issue of guys going left, guys going their own way. We always stuck together, even when things weren't going our way,” Anthony added. “We all rallied together, and we believed in one another.”
Billy Donovan credited Steven Adams’ best season as a professional to the work he did last off-season, both in Oklahoma City and back in his home country in New Zealand. When Adams himself was asked about averaging career highs in shooting percentage (62.9 percent), points (13.9) and rebounds (9.0, including 5.1 offensive rebounds per game), Adams shrugged it off and said he’ll continue to work the same way he always has.
“He constantly comes back better and better. For him it’s just constantly figuring out what works,” said Russell Westbrook. “He’s one of the most feared big men in the league because of his size and presence and the way he looks.”
One aspect of the game the Thunder will continue to improve upon through the summer and into next training camp will be the communication and coordination on the defensive end of the floor. Part of that simply takes time playing next to another player. Regardless of the communication, sometimes just having an innate feel for what a teammate will do and where they will be makes all the difference.
“Sometimes you just know,” Adams said. “That connection as a team is ideal.”
The Thunder had to fight through difficult games and a tough series, but no one had a more challenging 2017-18 campaign than Andre Roberson, who is still recovering from the ruptured patellar tendon that sidelined him for more than half of the season. Roberson says his timetable currently has him slated to be ready for the start of the 2018-19 season, but he still has many steps to climb – physically and literally – before that’s possible.
“It’s coming along. It’s getting better day by day,” Roberson said. “What this organization is about is being resilient.”
When Roberson was on the floor for the Thunder this past season, the team played its best basketball. As a group it was a top-5 defensive unit. Individually, Roberson was on pace to be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Alongside Paul George on the wing, with Steven Adams on the back line, Roberson recognized the potential this unit has. Next season, the challenge will be fulfilling that promise.
“There’s crazy potential there. I think we finally kind of started to figure it out,” Roberson said. “We all kind of see what kind of things we need to put forward and get better in that aspect.”
“We gotta be committed. Every game, every quarter, things might change. Schemes might change, how we guard a certain player. We just gotta be committed to it.”
Raymond Felton led one of the better bench units in the league this season, despite the group not playing an exorbitant amount of minutes. The journeyman point guard, brought a toughness and ferocity to a youthful bunch of reserves and that attitude and tenacity resonated with the fans in Oklahoma City while managing to score 6.9 points per game on 35 percent three-point shooting.
The locals here made an impression on Felton as well. The feisty point guard greatly appreciated the atmosphere in the arena each night, and he particularly loved the reception the team got in the early hours of Saturday morning after returning home from Salt Lake City.
“The fans have been amazing. I've been on teams where you lose two games, you get booed, and people say all kinds of things to you,” Felton said. “But here, win, lose, draw, whatever, these fans got your back 100 percent. We come in last night at 4:00 a.m. in the morning, they're all out there waiting for us. That's something that's unheard of in the NBA.”
After Andre Roberson went down with injury, the Thunder were in need of another veteran presence along the perimeter to bolster the defense on the wing, and ability to score out in transition. General Manager and Executive Vice President looked around the league and found someone incredibly comfortable for Head Coach Billy Donovan to integrate into the group – former University of Florida Gator Corey Brewer.
“That’s my man,” Brewer said of Donovan. “It didn't end the way I would have liked it to end, but I had a good time here. It's a good organization. I have some great teammates.”
Brewer burst onto the scene with a barrage of three-pointers to begin his Thunder stint, and battled throughout the final months and into the postseason with the squad. Though the Thunder came up short, Brewer was proud of his partial season with the organization and in the state of Oklahoma.
“The fans here are amazing,” Brewer added. “Every night we play at Chesapeake, it's crazy, just all the people around town are great.”
NBA players all have lives outside of the game, and for good reason. NBA careers aren’t often long and the seasons can be grueling. So in between workouts in Oklahoma City, Toronto and Los Angeles this summer, forward Patrick Patterson is zeroing in on an internship in movie production out in Hollywood, hoping to making connections with Marvel. While working his other skills, Patterson will be sharpening his skills and staying fit, so that he can come into training camp completely healthy and get off to a great start.
“What happens now is just planning the proper schedule in the offseason,” Patterson said. “Taking care of my body, making sure nothing negative or bad happens.”
Patterson has an incredible ability to discuss the game of basketball, and convey cleanly what the Thunder needs to do at a high level heading into each game. On Saturday he took that approach on a specific aspect of the game that he feels will be a focal point for the group in the offseason and heading into September.
“One thing is our talk on the defensive side of the ball. As easy as it may seem, it sometimes becomes difficult in games,” said Patterson. “The game is tending to go more towards small ball, three-point line, attacking the paint. Working a lot better with switches, guarding our yard as our coaching staff I would say.”
More than perhaps anyone on the team, forward Jerami Grant showed a variety of newly integrated skills into his game that translated onto the court. From his transition to a roll man at the center position finishing above the rim, an enhanced ability to put the ball on the ground as a driver and finish through contact and increased versatility as a defender, Grant shined in 2017-18. Grant shot a career-best 53.5 percent from the field while scoring 8.4 points per game by scoring in a variety of ways.
This offseason Grant will be a free agent, but he says he loves the Thunder organization and owes much of his development to the work he put in but also the coaching and training staff around him. Grant will continue honing a variety of aspects in his game, including his three-point shot.
“I think it’s a testament to the staff here,” Grant said. “I’ve been working with (strength trainer) Mike Davis a lot and (assistant coach) Adrian Griffin. They did a great job of getting me better.”
“My confidence comes from my work, so the more work I put in the more confident I am on the court,” said Grant.
Kyle Singler didn’t see many minutes for the Thunder this season, but he was an ultimate professional when it came to putting the work in every single day. Nowhere was that more evident than the passionate, intense games of 3-on-3 that Singler played with Nick Collison, Terrance Ferguson, Dakari Johnson and two way players Daniel Hamilton and PJ Dozier.
“A lot of the pickup that we do during practices and shootarounds, we got a ton of it in at the end of the year, it helps out a ton,” Singler said. “It really, for the most part, is the best simulation to game situation stuff. We definitely got better as individuals throughout it.
Singler said that Hamilton is going to be a really good guard because he’s dynamic and quick with the ball, while Dozier is a bigger wing who can drive the ball and get past the first line of defense. Just as he learned more about his new teammates, Singler learned more as a player himself through his work in the gym.
“In many ways I got better as a basketball player. I thought the group was great. I loved being a part of this team,” Singler said. “The chemistry, from where it was at the beginning of the year to the end, you could definitely see growth.”
For three years Josh Huestis laid in wait, continually attacking his work with the Oklahoma City Blue or on the periphery of the Thunder’s rotation, itching for a chance to make an impact. Finally, this season, the athletic, long, bright forward was able to find a role on the court for significant minutes, including some starts.
Huestis showed he can play positions ranging from shooting guard through power forward, and the defensive switchability he provides will be an asset in his career. The next steps for him as a player are to continue sharpening his three-point stroke and finding a better feel for putting the ball on the floor and making wise plays off the bounce.
“This is a huge step forward for me as far as working my way into the rotation, being a guy who sees minutes in big games,” Huestis said. “I’ve always wanted to be a guy who could be as well rounded as possible.”
In a similar vein to Huestis, guard Alex Abrines wants to refine his offensive game to include more dribble drives. Thunder fans have seen the highlight reel plays that Abrines can bust out every once in a while on attacks to the rim, but in order to make defenses more hesitant to close out on the 38 percent three-point shooter, the Thunder wants Abrines to continue rounding out his game. That will be his offseason focus, besides his plans to get married in Mallorca this summer.
One way the Spanish sharpshooter certainly did just that throughout the course of the year was on the defensive end of the floor. Last season, the Thunder played certain coverages to protect Abrines. This year, the team felt comfortable switching pick and rolls with Abrines in them, and in the playoff series against the Utah Jazz, he held up.
“If I look back now, I’m a much better player than I was last year,” Abrines said. “All the work through the season paid off this series.”
In case you couldn’t tell, Terrance Ferguson had a great time this year. Sure, he had to deal with rookie duties, but he couldn’t imagine having a better first NBA season, getting to play alongside three potential Hall of Famers and a host of other talented veterans. The hyper-athletic guard showed flashes of his ability during the season, but mostly got to take in the postseason as an observer. He was blown away.
“Just the atmosphere in itself was crazy. At some point my heart was beating so hard,” Ferguson said. “The game we came back from 25, I was on the bench sweating like I was playing. I just enjoyed all of it. It was amazing.”
On the court, Ferguson displayed a defensive tenacity and toughness that is rare in a player with his youth and slight frame. His willingness to stick his nose into plays and his foot speed are great attributes. Next season, however, Ferguson wants to translate those gifts into a more varied game. Instead of serving as a spot up shooter or transition dunker, Ferguson believes he can be more of a slasher and playmaker off the bounce.
“I just want to come back a totally different player, working on my skillset,” Ferguson said. ”This offseason I definitely want to be able to make my own shot.”
The youngest of the Thunder’s ever-full stable of big men, Dakari Johnson was a youngster who had the chance to learn under the tutelage of some of the Thunder’s very best mentors – Steven Adams and Nick Collison. In fact, Collison was Johnson’s “vet” a specific role for an older player to show a rookie like Johnson the ropes.
The burly center showed off his touch, talent and physicality with the Oklahoma City Blue in previous seasons, and even came in and made a big impact in a handful of games this season including a crucial home win against the LA Clippers. This offseason, however, Johnson knows he’ll need to keep working on his vertical leap, his quickness and agility.
“I’m always going to have to improve with (my body),” Johnson said. “Just taking that next step this summer. I’ll be in the weight room with the weight coaches this summer. That’s something that’s going to take time.”