OTG Team Awards: Oklahoma City Thunder
In many ways, this season was a win for Oklahoma City when Paul George signed a new four-year contract with them last July 1st -- everything after was gravy. Overall this season was a very typical post-Durant season for the Thunder: they’ll win almost 50 games and face a very tough first round match-up -- they haven’t seen the second round since Durant departed. Like a few other teams that have struggled to advance in the rugged Western playoffs, their success will not be a reflection of what has happened, but what is still to come. That won’t stand in the way of our regular season awards, though!
6th Man of the Year: Dennis Schroder
What a steal Schroder was for Oklahoma City. Saddled with tons of money owed to an aging and obsolete Carmelo Anthony, Sam Presti sprinkled some pixie dust and got an in-his-prime point guard who’d worn out his welcome in Atlanta. Schroder’s per game stats all came down from his 2017-8 season spent starting at the controls of the Hawks, but he was still invaluable off the bench for the Thunder, averaging 15.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, all while playing the better part of 30 minutes a contest. If not for the Lou Williamses of the world, he might have an argument for the league-wide 6th Man award; he’ll have to settle for this.
Most Improved Player: Jerami Grant
When Grant signed his big three-year, $27 million deal this summer, there was a bit of head-scratching around the league. Sure, Grant looked like a good bench piece, but that was a big chunk of change who had gotten his fair share of minutes over four years in the league, but hadn’t even made it to double digit scoring yet. It turns out the Thunder may have underpaid. Grant made the leap, averaging 13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.0 assist, and just over two combined blocks and steals per game. Perhaps just as crucially, while shooting the most threes of his career, he hit them with his greatest frequency: 38.9%. With Grant’s emergence, the Thunder have unequivocally nailed down the power forward position into the next decade.
Rookie of the Year: Terrance Ferguson
Yes, I know, Hamidou Diallo won the Slam Dunk contest. Now let’s talk about a 20 year old, second year player who’s starting for a playoff team: Terrance Ferguson. When you’re out on the floor with Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, and the rising Jerami Grant, someone is going to get their shots squeezed, and that was Ferguson. To get any significant production out of a player drafted in the twenties is a win, though, and the Thunder have to feel good about having good, younger players in Grant, Ferguson, and Steven Adams (who’s only 25) to supplement their in-their-prime superstars.
Defensive Player of the Year: Russell Westbrook
Really? DPOY? A few notes: it would have been awfully tough to get through a seasonal awards column on the Thunder and have totally excluded Russ - especially when he just put up his third triple-double season in a row - but for the first time since KD left, he was decidedly not the MVP. And so while Paul George makes a compelling case (we’ll get to him), and so does Steven Adams (who will be the lone starter not honored), and so does Nerlens Noel, we’re going to give Westbrook some love.
Early in the season, Westbrook couldn’t hit the ocean if he was falling out of a boat, but his defensive intensity never waned. He was second on the team in both defensive rating and steals, and had an astounding 9.5 defensive rebounds per game. It’s in vogue to minimize rebounds as part of a defender’s worth, but the simple reality is that an opposing team’s offensive possession ends with a make or the defensive rebound, so Westbrook was ending ten possessions a game for the opposition. The Thunder had the third-best adjusted defensive rating in the league, and Westbrook set the tone for that: he’s a deserving honoree.
Most Valuable Player: Paul George
Man, PG13 was good this year. Everyone knew he was good, but then we found out that where we thought was his ceiling, there was actually an attic, and you could convert it into a bonus room and just add some equity onto that house when you go to market. Let’s check the boxes for areas of his game that had career years: Scoring? Check. 28.0 a game. Rebounds? Check. 8.2 a game. Assists? Check. 4.1 a game. Steals? Check. A league-leading 2.2 a game.
We started this whole column with the premise that the simple re-signing of George made the season a win, but it was so much more than that. The Thunder thought they were getting back the 1B to Russell Westbrook’s 1A, but it’s actually the reverse. Though Paul George may never supplant Westbrook as the face of the franchise, it appears that they have their new best player. As Westbrook’s athleticism-based game takes its inevitable downturn as he heads further into his 30s, the ability to pass the torch to George will keep basketball going strong in Oklahoma.