Welcome back friends to the third annual installment of my NBA League Pass Rankings. For those new to the process, forget power rankings. Forget Vegas Over-Unders and salary cap gymnastics. Here at Knicks at Night we dive into the teams one by one to answer one simple question. If you’re shelling out the money for a League Pass subscription, which of these teams are worth that top 5 night-in, night-out slot and which of these guys are absolute, unwatchable garbage people?
Let’s all slow down the Russell Westbrook MVP hype train just a little bit. Yes, this guy is going to lead the league in usage rate and triple doubles and absolutely crazy 1 on 5 dunk explosions. He’s going to be glaring at guys and dripping sweat and playing through everything from a broken face to full onset walking pneumonia. And yet, the last time a player was able to capture the league’s most prestigious award without his team winning more than 50 games was Mr. Moses Malone 25 years ago. (Not counting the two lockout shortened seasons in that period of course.)
I don’t see the Thunder winning 50 games this year. A couple Ws above .500, the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs and an inspired first round knockout maybe. Orrr, to go completely the other way, this is a group that could potentially underperform in a big way if the bottom of the Western Conference has truly improved and could also potentially miss the postseason for the 2nd time in three years. Look, this is absolutely all going to come back to Russ and what should be a true Kobe-esque 40% usage rate season, but there’s really only so much one player can do to drag a whole roster of replacement level bodies to competitive success in the tough Western Conference.
Okay, “replacement bodies” is unfair for a group that includes some genuinely interesting pieces in Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo. Both guys are young, elite-level athletes with tremendous defensive potential who project to take huge strides forward with larger roles this year. The only problem is they join Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova and just a weird, jumbled roster of players who can’t shoot or players who willfully, woefully, cannot play a lick of defense.
Oladipo, acquired from the Orlando Magic along with the 11th pick in the draft, is basically a Russell Westbrook-lite slasher who can lapse defensively and has yet to hit the league average mark for 3 point shooting in his career. Roberson is shockingly worse with a 27% mark, but is pretty much the only capable wing defender on the roster while last year’s promising rookie point guard Cameron Payne is out for at least 6-8 weeks with a metatarsal fracture in his foot. Add in two, flat-footed Euro forwards in Ilyasova and the rookie Domantas Sabonis to try to provide some semblance of spacing from the four spot and the league’s worst defensive center in Kanter (who will have to play to help this team’s nightmare second unit score) and you have what might be a bottom ten roster surrounding a top 5 player.
That doesn’t mean these guys will be unpleasant to watch though, especially if Russ and Oladipo gel a little sooner than expected. It’s possible that losing Durant forces head coach Billy Donovan to get creative and move away from the your turn-my turn offense that has dominated the Thunder over the last few years and led to a pretty sorrowful league average mark in close games. Oladipo might not be the best spot-up shooter but if he and Westbrook can take turns exploding to the basket, collapsing the defense, and kicking the ball around, this team is going to generate a ton of open looks and DUNK ALL OVER people (especially with Steven Adams in the pick and roll).
And again, this ranking isn’t about the Thunder struggling to re-establish an identity in a post-Durant world, or struggle to build an efficient offense out of mismatched parts. It’s about Russell Fucking Westbrook and the revenge tour and this guy going absolutely apeshit for 12 bananas highlight reel level plays a game. It’s about those crazy showdown moments against the Golden State Warriors (November 3rd everyone! Book it now!!) and every time someone looks sideways at Russ and he just rips their heart out on the floor. He might not be the MVP this season, but I can’t imagine there is a single player in the league people are less excited to guard.
Last year’s ranking: 1 (-6)