Will the new villains’ of the JBL fall short of a third consecutive title due to their ‘lack’ of depth?
- By Luke Forte, Day 1, 2023
The Seattle Thunder are coming off a 62-win season and their second straight JBL title. In order to solve their escalating salary cap issues they signed superstar Dontay Sowder in free agency in a sign and trade agreement with the Houston Lightning.
JC Pennypacker, a wealthy industrialist and owner of the Boston Crusaders says the Thunder are being vilified, which he argues isn't necessarily a bad thing, and isn't convinced their road to the Finals will be any easier this year. Pennypacker spoke about those issues Wednesday, via ESPN:
“They become the villain. Just like when Kevin Durant went to the Warriors in the NBA. I loved that there was a villain. I'm fine with them becoming the villain. Everybody's going to root for them to lose and they will love it if they do!”
It's always been tough for superteams to stay super. When you congregate that much talent, one injury destroys the whole thing. They played by the rules, so it is what it is. It has always happened. It's nothing new.”
Recently after that interview I had the chance to speak to 2 time Finals MVP Andre Phifer and he had this to say “if anything its brought us closer together already. All the hate messages and snake emoji’s have just fired us up even more. We can’t wait to get out there and let the basketball do the talking.”
I don’t think the Villain card is the concern for the Thunder though. There has been much speculation this off season about the depth of the Seattle Thunder, since the recent trades of Devan Carroll and sign & trade of Dontay Sowder for Thunders Antoine Hall and DeAngelo Tarver. This new look 2023 line up is being compared to Houston Lightning’s 2021-22 team, which seemed to be a menacing attack on paper. The Lightning were in fact just that, winning 65 and 61 wins respectively but losing in the conference finals in 2021 and 2nd round in 2022.
In my opinion that team was was poorly coached and poorly managed at times thoughtout the season. The players had very little rest which resulted in injuries late in the season, and had poor preparation for each of the playoffs series they contested in. The depth hurt them deep into the finals as all their starting unit were exhausted and didn’t have any help from the bench. They didn’t have a 6th man to energise and lead the second unit and virtually no experience amongst the bench. I feel things could have been different for that team given better preparation.
There is one difference between the lighting and the Thunder however, and that is the combo wingman of Aaron Rowland. The young star will come off the bench as 6th man to replace Devan Carroll. Rowland will have the opportunity to run the second unit in 2023 and be given the freedom to play his natural game. In a stacked line up in 2021/22 Rowland’s numbers were often over shined by Phifer, Tucker and Carroll. But in times of need he did have several triple doubles and scoring frenzies in those seasons. The 6’7 wing can play both the SF and SG positions and has very promising playmaking ability to construct the offence.
It is believed that Jon Agau will be named starting center going into the season. A huge jump for the 4th year 6’10 defensive big man. It may seem as a surprise to some but Thunder have the belief that Agau is the man for this role. Thunder got lucky to some degree with renouncing their restricted free agents this offseason and scored a solid defensive center for minimum salary. The Thunders coach Mitchell Butler believes the front court of Agau and Tucker will be solid enough defensively, and with veteran Milos Kascelan coming off the bench brings some experience at the position. Agau isn’t much of an offensive threat but typically won’t be needed much on the offensive end with the shooting power of Phifer, Sowder and Tucker.
Even with the acquisition of Dontay Sowder, Kal Varnsen still isn’t riding this bandwagon. It’s easy to see that he’s not a fan of this team or their style of play but his views on the Thunder seems to be more understanding this year than before. Varnsen weighed in on his views on the new-look Seattle Thunder:
“Let me say this: I think they got some issues this year with that team,” Varnsen said Tuesday.
“Can they rebound the ball? They’re going to still be shooting jumpers. They’re not going to get any low-post scoring. Can that type of play hold up through the rigors of the JBL playoffs? I’m still going to say the same thing I’ve always said: No.”
It’s easy to take Kal Varnsen’s comments as hate when referring to the Thunder at times but I believe he has a point this time around. The Seattle Thunder lost 2 of their biggest defenders and rebounders in the paint in Antoine Hall and Devan Carroll. Plus having to renounce their restricted free agent Dashon Scott to make way for Sowder. The lack of depth and size in the paint will definitely play a factor in how good they will do this year but will it stop them from winning a championship?
I don’t believe so. They can still trade to acquire a vet center and they’ve gotten such an asset in Dontay Sowder that I feel like they’re an automatic write-in to make it to the JBL Conference Finals, even in a stacked Western Conference. Shooting jump-shots in transition has not hurt them in the past two seasons. Andre Phifer knows how to get the basket and with Dontay Sowder on the team, they have another threat to get the basket and score the ball. Offensively, their options are so unlimited that’s its tough to write them off. The ‘Emerald City Five’ (Tucker, Sowder, Rowland, Phifer, Lynch), will be a formidable force when on the court together, it will be tough for any team to defend.
However, size does scare me with this team. I’m not sure if Jon Agau and Ainsley Tucker is enough down low. Agau is a tremendous shot blocker and Tucker is an incredible lock down defender but rebounding against 7’0 big men like Kelvin Hawes and Omar Grant leaves a bit to be desired. I believe they have a sufficient amount of offense and a solid enough defense that they can get the deed done. They will outscore teams just off the strength of their offense and superstars alone. What it will come down to is getting enough stops and pushing the pace versus slower paced teams. The test for this team will be on off-shooting nights where rebounding plays a huge factor in the games result.
The Thunder have always had a great unit of mentorship which has seen them get into the position they are now. In recent times they have had two MLE players in Ray McCardle and Kenyon Hammick, and also Devante Parker, plus their usual star unit. Tucker, Sowder, and Phifer will be a pretty powerful combination to mentor the young bench of Lynch, Agau, Merritt, Manning and Springer.
I’m looking forward to how this one will play out.
Seattle Thunder depth lineup:
C: Jon Agau
PF: Ainsley Tucker
SF: Dontay Sowder
SG: Andre Phifer
PG: Zach Lynch
Bench: Aaron Rowland - 6th Man (SF/SG), Gage Merritt (SF), Jamar Nelson (PG), Milos Kascelan (C), Majec Manning (PF), Caius Springer (PG), Rich Thompson (PF), Lamar McCallum, Dyron Mays (PG), Dederick Mathias (PF).