The 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder season could not have seen a more fitting ending: A herculean effort from Russell Westbrook, a disappearance from sidekicks Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and six consecutive missed shots in the span of less than 40 seconds. And ultimately, a loss: For the second consecutive season, the Thunder have been eliminated from the postseason in the first round, this time by the Utah Jazz after a wild 96-91 Game 6.
No single team is more confounding, or compelling, than the Oklahoma City Thunder. This season they played up to the level of the Warriors and the Rockets, and down to the Suns and the Nets. They produced just one more regular-season win than last season.
Along with George and Melo, the Summer of Sam Presti also produced a new five-year, $205 million extension for Russell Westbrook. But while the Thunder ensured the services of their centerpiece for the foreseeable future, the rest of the roster is dotted with question marks heading into the offseason, starting with their two big gets of last summer:
Have They Done Enough to Keep Paul George?
If Friday’s Game 6 loss against the Jazz is George’s final game as a member of the Thunder, it was as sour and lifeless an ending as there could have been. “Playoff P” was invisible in the second half of an elimination game. He attempted 16 shots and made two; all six of his deep-ball attempts clanked. George looked like an unwilling participant, afraid to pull up or attack on offense. It was striking. He finished with an embarrassing five points and only two total field goals while coughing up six turnovers. It wasn’t exactly the best way to head into the biggest offseason of his career.
Is George a patient man? The answer might shape the futures of more than one NBA franchise. George, who has been rumored to be destined for Los Angeles next season since before he even got to Oklahoma, said earlier this season that he could see himself staying with the Thunder. And while OKC didn’t get very far with him, you could make the case that he and Westbrook will be better now that they’ve had a year to jell. There was no talk of a tug-of-war over the ball between Russ and George, like there was during the Kevin Durant era. Maybe a core of those two plus Steven Adams and a healthy Andre Roberson would be enough to make an impact in the West.
But that theory requires a lot of faith that Westbrook’s preferred style can lead to a title, and that the organization has enough flexibility to augment the supporting cast. While George had nice things to say about OKC, he also couldn’t keep himself from praising his hometown. Without much success this season to point to, this already feels like OKC is fighting a losing battle.
What Can They Do About Melo?
The Thunder offense this season was often a record scratch, as possessions would end with either Westbrook forcing up a shot or Melo clunking a 3. The latter became more cringe-worthy as the season progressed. Anthony, 33, shot a career-low 40.4 percent from the floor this season, and never really embraced an ancillary role next to the Thunder’s other two stars. And now he holds a $28 million option for next season.
There’s little the Thunder can do here. Their best option may be to tell Melo that he’ll be coming off the bench, like Dwyane Wade did this season, and that he’ll either have to acquiesce or opt out. Worst case, they can come to a buyout agreement, like Wade did with the Bulls. But doing so won’t help OKC’s cap sheets. Which leads us to …
Where Do They Go From Here?
This is still Westbrook’s team, for better or for worse, and the Thunder have little choice but to lean in to his aggressive style. But building a team around Russ may be more difficult than ever. If Melo opts in, the Thunder will have $117 million committed in salary before George makes his decision, and that figure is already over the projected cap. Roberson will be back next season, but Jerami Grant is an unrestricted free agent. The athletic forward was a revelation for OKC this season; the Thunder’s net rating was significantly better when he was on the floor than when he was off during these playoffs. He’s a better option than Melo at his position, and the Thunder should do everything they can to keep him.
There also may be a way to get better internally. This might be a personal bias, but Adams seems ready for an even bigger role in the offense. He’s only 24, and is coming off a career season shooting from the field (62.9 percent). He can be more than just Russ’s sidekick.