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The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the 2018 NBA season as a divisive squad. Many anointed the Thunder the NBA’s newest super team, projecting their star power would see them challenge the Warriors for the Western Conference spot in the NBA finals.
Others questioned the fit: Russell Westbrook does not have a history of playing well with others, Paul George showed us his more mercurial side in his final season with the Pacers, and Carmelo Anthony is not the dynamic offensive player he once was, nor does he have a record of team success in the NBA.
Their regular season was characterised by a unique form of inconsistency, whereby the on-court output would not only vary wildly from game to game but also within games. There was no specific issue that plagued them season-long, rather every aspect of their game was susceptible to dramatic fluctuations.
The Thunder frequently showed the capacity to be an elite team on both sides of the ball, but just as frequently were exposed as a flawed squad.
Despite 82 games that highlighted this team’s shortcomings (in which their ‘big three’ all played 78 games or more), the perception persisted that this team had star power and that was enough to see them make a deep playoff run. The Thunder entered the playoffs as favourites to win their first round match-up with the Jazz. Two weeks later, following a six-game series loss, it is time to challenge this premise and look to the future.
The future looks a lot like Russell Westbrook after he signed the Designated Veterans Extension worth $205 million, committing to the franchise through to the end of the 2023 season.
Westbrook is a supremely talented basketball player – he was, after all, the 2017 MVP – however he has well-documented limitations.
In 2015, Kevin Durant played only 27 games and the Thunder were led to a 45-37 record (missing the playoffs) by Westbrook. In 2016, Durant departed the Thunder for greener pastures and OKC finished the 2017 season with a 47-35 record and were easily dispatched by the Rockets in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Granted, it isn’t easy to recover from the departure of an MVP, especially when you lose him for nothing. The Thunder did their best to build around Russ, but the supporting cast was sup-optimal. This past offseason, the front office made big moves and paired their enigmatic superstar with not one but two All Stars, while retaining their most important rotation players.
The results, a 48-34 record and a 2-4 first round loss to the Jazz. That is a grand total of two additional wins.
A pattern is emerging. Left unchecked, it is not unlikely the past two seasons are an accurate representation of what a Westbrook-led Thunder will look like for the next five years: a middling playoff team destined for a first-round exit. It is not likely the West will become less competitive either.
The NBA is becoming more competitive as teams get smarter both on and off the court. We have already seen a ‘less talented’ team beat the Thunder in six games because they play smart, while Russ continues his brand of high-volume, less-intelligent basketball.
Fewer instances highlight this more than the feud between Ricky Rubio and Westbrook. After a magnificent Game 3 by Rubio, Russ promised us all that he would “shut that s**t down” in Game 4. And he did, however along the way he also picked up four first-half fouls. Westbrook’s intensity and competitiveness is a huge part of what makes him the player he is, however too often it consumes him, he becomes narrow minded and loses sight of the big picture.
However, the Thunder’s current state is a team effort.
It is the responsibility of Sam Presti to put a team around Russ that can succeed. They signed him to the super max, which was a good move. When you have a transcendent talent such as Westbrook, locking him up for his prime makes sense, especially when you operate in a small market. They knew going into this extension how effervescent Westbrook can be and how challenging it was going to be to put the right supporting cast around him to maximise the team’s potential.
Now they have to build that team. And, to his credit, Presti has done well. Sure, the super team may not have worked out as hoped, but he would make those two trades again in a heartbeat. If anyone at the Pacers tells you they knew Victor Oladipo would be the player he has become this season, they are lying.
Coach Billy Donovan also has a big role to play in this puzzle. Building a culture and system in which the Russell can be his best self while simultaneously enabling his teammates to embrace his style of play is surely not an easy task. The question must be asked, did Billy Donovan maximise the talent at his disposal this season? And if he did not, can anybody else? I am not convinced many would be lining up to coach Westbrook.
A day of judgement is coming for this franchise and its three biggest actors, Russ, Presti and Donovan.
Both Anthony and George own player options on their contracts for the 2018-19 season.
While the year-long courting of George may not have ended with a trip to the Western Conference finals, he has stated throughout the year that he was open to staying with the Thunder, which he reaffirmed (kinda) in a post-game press conference. George does however have many suitors – most notably his hometown Lakers.
There should be hope. At times George and Westbrook looked eerily similar to the old one-two punch of KD and Russ. While George is not Kevin Durant, he may be better suited to playing alongside Westbrook than Kevin ever was.
George, as a genuinely elite second option, rather than an MVP trying to wrestle control of the team, presents the potential for a bright future, however the duo showed the most promise with Melo on the bench, creating a complex challenge.
Anthony’s decision this summer will have a profound impact. First and foremost, his player option is worth $28 million, and he is more likely than not to pick it up – there is no way he receives comparable offers in free agency.
Anthony has not shown a penchant to make personal and financial sacrifices in the pursuit of winning. If Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have nearly $117 million in guaranteed salaries for next season, well over the cap and pushing up against the luxury tax. Should George also opt in, the team will be well over the tax threshold of $123 million and have to swallow a $27 million tax bill on top of their $137 million in salaries.
This is uncharted territory for a franchise that once traded away a future (2018) MVP to avoid going into the luxury tax. And this is all before the Thunder re-sign their other free agents, most notably Jerami Grant, who has been a revelation this year when replacing Carmelo in the starting unit.
Which is the second issue the Thunder face with Melo: his role. For $28 million, the Thunder best find a way to optimise his performance.
Anthony has not been good and the Thunder are better without him. This was not more plainly obvious than in their Game 5, 25-point comeback win. Melo left the game with just under eight minutes to go in the third quarter and did not return until the eight-minute mark of the fourth. During that time, the Thunder went on a 33-16 run. Melo was also taken out of the game with 2:30 remaining and would not return as the Thunder closed out a tight win.
Building a team around a big three is not, in and of itself, a flawed philosophy. Unfortunately Carmelo Anthony’s days as a productive starter, let alone superstar, are over.
Less than a day after the Thunder’s season ended, Anthony made it clear that coming off the bench was “out of the question”, but it may be the only way to get positive production from him. 15 minutes each night where the second unit offence revolves around Anthony and an additional five or ten minutes where he operates as a spot-up shooter could be a way to revitalise a career in a tailspin, while also bolstering a potentially lethal two-way starting unit.
If the Thunder and Melo cannot get on the same page regarding his role, it might be the only thing that convinces him to opt out.
No matter what George and Anthony decide to do this summer, when the Thunder offered Westbrook a $205 million dollar contract, they more or less handed over control of their franchise. Any work the front office or coach does is secondary to the whims and will of Russell Westbrook.
He hasn’t shown any significant growth in his game or his maturity, nor has he ever been particularly self aware. It does not appear to be a matter of choice for Westbrook to put the individual before the greater good, but rather the root, and a consequence, of his greatness.
Should he find that autonomy within himself it will make life for everyone at the Thunder a whole lot easier.
The saving grace for this franchise is that the fans are not yet done with the Russell Westbrook experience. Nor should they be.