Even before Tuesday’s season-ending 105–99 loss to the Houston Rockets, it was clear that the Oklahoma City Thunder are a team without a plan, or at least one that might pay big-picture dividends. Russell Westbrook was electric, and his play gave OKC an identity that sixth seeds usually lack. But the Thunder’s quick postseason exit showed that individual artistry can have only so much value in a team sport. Regardless of what you think of Westbrook, Oklahoma City was ill-equipped to contend for an NBA title. And unfortunately for Thunder management, there seems to be little in the way of easy fixes to propel the squad back to its former position near the top of the West.
1. What Can OKC Do in the Offseason to Become a Viable Contender?
The answer looks like “not much.” Whether the Thunder are supported by Westbrook’s heroics or sabotaged by his pursuits is, logistically, irrelevant, assuming that parting with a (likely) MVP is out of the question. This postseason, watching the Thunder stumble around the court without their leader, one would imagine that this is a franchise with something — cap space, draft picks — up its sleeve, but that’s not the case.
The supporting cast in Oklahoma City is a leaky raft of rookie deals that will turn into a yacht full of holes next season. Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo just finished their rookie contracts, and combined will be due over $43 million next season. Enes “can’t play” Kanter is on the books for about $18 million in each of the next two seasons (the second is a player option). The Thunder should have a little bit of cap room to play with in 2017–18, but will be far over the cap in 2018–19 and 2019–20. At times, it looks as if Oklahoma City’s roster is a Jaeger meant to be driven by two pilots, but Sam Presti would need a Ph.D. in dark magic to find a way to attract another superstar-level player to play alongside Westbrook, given the franchise’s disastrous payroll.
Blake Griffin likely will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and he’s an Oklahoma City native who may be in search of a fresh start with another generational guard. But the Thunder simply don’t have the flexibility to bring him on without executing a sign-and-trade, and the Clippers have little reason to take on Adams’s or Kanter’s contracts. Barring some Presti sorcery, next year’s Thunder will look a lot like this year’s Thunder. If the team is going to find a renewed sense of meaning, it will likely need to come through strategic changes or surprising player development.
2. Who Can Be the Reliable Second Scoring Option?
Given Oladipo’s contract, which will pay him $21 million annually through the 2020–21 season, Thunder fans would hope that the fourth-year guard can emerge as either Westbrook’s release valve, or as his replacement in the team’s second lineup. Oladipo averaged almost 16 points a game this season. He is, objectively, the team’s second-best scorer, but his contributions did not alleviate his team’s concerns. During the playoffs, he shot a disappointing 38.6 percent from the field and a woeful 21.1 percent from deep — but this is a five-game sample and Oladipo’s first taste of the postseason. It should be of greater concern that the former Hoosier hasn’t progressed much during his time in the league. His .534 true shooting percentage is identical to his number from last year, and only marginally up from his rookie mark of .514. On paper, Oladipo shows no signs of becoming the 21 Million Dollar Man that the Thunder clearly expected him to become.
In Game 5 on Tuesday night, Billy Donovan experimented with Point Oladipo while Westbrook was out of the game, and relied heavily on him throughout the tight contest. He was 4-of-17 from the field. The future is not bright.
The reality may be that the Thunder don’t have a player on the roster who can propel the offense through shot creation. It might be a better idea to surround Westbrook with shooters and have him drive and kick, instead of watching him attempt to do everything on his own. The Thunder acquired Doug McDermott for a reason. He’ll never be a secondary option on a contender, but he could be a knockdown shooter (or at least one more effective than Alex Abrines) if he’s given more open looks and time on court. McDermott played under 20 minutes a game for OKC during the regular season and averaged fewer than 14 during the playoffs. If Oklahoma City is looking to retool its offense, Donovan would be well-served to give players like McDermott more floor time when it looks like Kanter and OKC’s clunkier forwards are struggling to produce.
3. Can Westbrook Be the Alpha Without Having the Entire Team Built to His Exact Specifications?
If Westbrook is looking to win, it should be clear that this season’s heaving, hyperdrive strategy will be insufficient when competing against the top tier of the Western Conference. There is no next gear and there are no reinforcements coming to the rescue. Creativity may be the only way for the Thunder to improve. On Tuesday night, when Westbrook drove and looked to get his teammates the ball, Houston looked lost.
“Westbrook could have kept the Thunder in the game at the end by driving and dishing, especially to Jerami Grant, who had an open baseline runway to the hoop. Instead, Russ had to die on his sword, and he had an audience of four teammates bearing witness,” my colleague Chris Ryan wrote on Tuesday. Surround Westbrook with decent shooters, and that strategy could lead to better offense from the perimeter. But Westbrook may not be interested in deferring with greater regularity, and trying with unsuitable teammates may be a futile endeavor. Change is needed in Oklahoma City. A move to a sub-optimal pace-and-space offense won’t be a magic elixir for the team — with the current personnel, it might be a disaster — but the team alternated between hero ball and bully ball this season, and those are both strategies that have proved to fail. The Thunder have backed themselves into a corner, just as many teams have, but this time there might be no way out.