The Norman Transcript is running a Thunder evaluation series, publishing one article a day on a different Oklahoma City player. We will start with the guards. Wednesday’s player is Raymond Felton.
This wasn’t always easy for Raymond Felton.
The 13-year veteran comfortably slid into his backup point guard role this past season. He did the same while with the L.A. Clippers the previous year and with Dallas the year before that. But Felton, a once longtime starter, wasn’t always so happy to be part of the second unit.
“My toughest time was my first year in Dallas [in 2014-15],” he said. “I got hurt in a preseason game vs. Oklahoma [City] actually, second game of the preseason. Hurt my ankle bad, high ankle sprain. Was out for two-to-three months and came back and was out of the rotation. Came back from the year before being a starter, playing 35 minutes a game, to getting DNPs, not even playing at all. It was a hit to me as a player, hit to me, my ego, hit to me in any possible way.”
You’d never figure that after watching Felton perform this past season.
He didn’t just establish himself as one of the league’s more competent backups. He also ingrained himself as a locker room presence. When the Thunder needed a voice, it was often Felton’s. And the 33-year-old acted as a liaison between the trio conventionally referred to as the “big three” and the rest of the team.
Walk into the end of any Thunder practice and Felton was wasn't shooting with any member of Oklahoma City’s most prominent clique. Instead, he was with the two-way players and end-of-bench guys. Paul George once joked about how the team sent him down to the JV. And maybe a team having that sort of division isn’t ideal. But it was also clear Felton, who has alluded to some possible future coaching aspirations, did everything he could to blend his teammates.
“The season has been great, man. Obviously it didn't end the way we quite wanted it to, but overall, it's been a great year,” Felton said. “I've had fun, grew a lot of relationships with some guys, made some brothers, some new brotherhood I have now on this team that's going to last forever.”
The Thunder have struggled in recent seasons at backup point. Their offense went dry when Semaj Christon ran it in 2016-17. Same goes for Cameron Payne. Or Norris Cole. Christon and Cole are now out of the league. Payne is developing in Chicago. They’ve made hasty trades for Randy Foye in attempts to convert him into a lead guard. They’ve turned a disgruntled Reggie Jackson into D.J. Augustin.
Whatever they’ve had there, it’s been inconsistent — or consistent in a way they prayed wouldn’t continue. But not Felton. The 33-year-old vet provided exactly what the Thunder wanted during his first season in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder were worse with Felton on the court, but that’s to be expected, considering Felton’s presence usually meant the absence of Russell Westbrook. Still, the team maintained at respectable levels while their backup ran the offense, getting outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions but running at an extraordinarily slow pace, as to limit the number of possessions with Westbrook off.
Felton had games he went off and won it for OKC, like the one in Charlotte, when he spurred what was almost a lifeless Thunder performance with 10 consecutive points to begin the fourth quarter of what turned into a comfortable win. He accelerated other hot streaks with his "No, no, no, yes!!" isolation buckets, which worked just enough to justify his style.
He participated in surprisingly successful all-bench lineups, which coach Billy Donovan went to for much of the season in spite of many calling for him to stop. Still, those units actually outscored opponents during their time on the floor because of a switch-heavy defense made possible, in part, because of Felton’s feistiness when he had to go up against bigger guys.
“Raymond gives us experience and a veteran leadership and a guy that can play off the ball, on the ball, seen a lot of different situations,” Donovan said.
It makes Felton, who will be a free agent this summer and has said he would “love to be back” with OKC, think back to three years ago.
“It was tough. I went home and screamed, just being in the house to myself and just screamed, because I was frustrated,” he remembered from 2014-15. “I wanted to play. I wanted to be out there. I wasn't ready to accept not playing. I really wasn't. But came back the next year, worked my behind off that summer, had a great year, was starting most of the year, coming off the bench.
“Sometimes you've got to just accept it, roll with it, and just continue to work. Even when you're 10, 11 years in, you've still got to keep going out there and proving what you've got to prove.”
Oh, how things have changed. The Thunder were ecstatic about the results.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.