Whiplash is common in the Western Conference this time of year. Oklahoma City was eighth in the standings at the start of Thursday’s slate of games, and, without having played, was bumped to fifth by the end of the night ... where it had been the day before. Only 10 games remain for the Thunder, and just as uncertain as where they’ll finish is how they will perform when they get to the postseason.
Oklahoma City has had the worst post-All-Star run of any current playoff team. Earlier in the season, many thought that Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Co. might be Golden State’s most formidable opponent. After falling to Toronto on Wednesday, the squad’s fourth consecutive loss, it’s looking more like OKC could get that matchup with the defending champs after all—in the first round.
If the Thunder do face the Warriors right out of the gate, they’re headed for an early elimination. Someone has to be sacrificed in the first round, but for it to be OKC would hurt. The franchise hasn’t advanced further than the first round since Kevin Durant left, and skepticism over whether Westbrook can do “it” (read: anything significant that isn’t an individual award or stat) without his former teammate has festered in the years since Durant went to Golden State.
But if you forget the 2016 Western Conference finals ever happened and put a pseudonym on Westbrook’s jersey, there wouldn’t be nearly as much pressure for the Thunder this season. Westbrook and George are signed until at least 2023 and 2022, respectively, haven’t been together as long as Portland’s Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and don’t have as tight a window as Houston’s James Harden and Chris Paul do. Outside of its two superstars, the roster is surprisingly young. Every crucial role player is under 26 years old: Steven Adams (25), Jerami Grant (25), Terrance Ferguson (20), Dennis Schröder (25), and Nerlens Noel (24). (Andre Roberson, who is still recovering from knee surgery and has yet to play this season, is 27.)
The Thunder are technically trying to win now, but they also have more leeway than, say, the Blazers or Rockets. If Portland is eliminated, there will be cries to break up the backcourt; if Houston is eliminated, well, this may be it, as Paul turns 34 in May; if Oklahoma City is eliminated, it will be scrutinized, and it will move forward. But how, exactly? Here’s what the Thunder can do to become effective in the playoffs, the summer, and the future.
Short-term plan: Can OKC matter in the playoffs?
When the Thunder were at their peak this season, Billy Donovan was making the most of his roster makeup where it was naturally gifted—employing one of the league’s best and longest defenses—and where it was not (finding solid, reliable offense outside of George and Westbrook).
The Thunder’s defensive rating is still top-10 since the All-Star break, but has regressed in areas where it used to stand alone. As The Ringer’s Dan Devine touched on earlier this week, Oklahoma City has dropped off in true grit areas like forced turnover rate and hustling back in transition, while also getting sloppy and fouling more frequently. It’s slowed the game down for the Thunder, who, as is to be expected of a team run by Westbrook, thrive when they use their speed to create controlled chaos. Before the All-Star break, OKC was the third-fastest team in the league; in March, they’ve steadied to the ninth-highest pace. They aren’t built to survive any way that doesn’t include ripping past defenders to the rim. Outside of George, who averages 9.7 attempts behind the arc per game and converts them at a 38.9 percent clip, OKC’s 3-point shooters are flaky and low volume.
There is no avenue to success without George at his best. He missed three games earlier in March because of soreness in his shooting shoulder, and noticeably struggled with his shot following his return, dipping to 38.2 percent from the field and 32.9 percent from 3 in nine games. Though George said this week that he’s “back to a better rhythm,” performances like Wednesday’s against the Raptors—George failed to make a shot in the entire second quarter and finished 3-for-10 from deep—are worrying.
George may have to wait out his soreness, which isn’t an easy ask for the Thunder’s top scorer, considering what’s on the line in these final 10 games. Westbrook can help there by playing as he did against the Raptors, pushing the speed of the game on every possession, and by not getting any more technical foul calls. And while the Thunder can’t control George’s shoulder pain or how well the relief shooters will perform, they can focus in on defense. Regaining the rigor on that side of the ball is crucial heading into the playoffs.
Medium-term plan: What should OKC do this offseason?
The perfect situation for the Thunder, both in terms of fit and revenge, would be to sign Klay Thompson this summer. Poaching Thompson—the antithesis to Durant’s Next Chapter—would dramatically ease OKC’s 3-point shooting crisis while keeping its defense intact. Except Oklahoma City can’t afford to pay Thompson. It can’t afford to pay any of the major players entering free agency this summer. At best, the front office will have negative-$38.2 million in cap space, according to Bleacher Report, if Abdel Nader is waived, and Noel and Patrick Patterson opt out of the $2.0 million and $5.7 million they are owed. The Thunder have $136.5 million committed with seven open roster spots and few options to fill them.
If Noel turns down his player option—and he should, since he’s rebuilt his value on this minimum deal—the Thunder will need frontcourt depth in addition to veteran shooters, and their best bargaining chip will be the taxpayer midlevel exception, which is projected to be $5.7 million. While OKC has the record (and the budget) of a franchise that could entice role players to take a discount to play for a winning team, Westbrook and George will find it difficult to sell that if their team continues to slump for the rest of this season.
General manager Sam Presti has worked magic multiple times since Durant left in 2016, flipping Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for George and saving the team $61 million in taxes by dumping Carmelo Anthony. He’ll have to do the same this summer for the team to improve.
Long-term: What plans need to be set in place now?
Here’s to hoping Oklahoma City’s front office is more anticipatory with its talent this time around. Westbrook and George are in their primes, and are locked into their maximum contracts, but having X years left on an NBA contract means less than ever before in the current landscape of player movement. A forced trade brought George to the Thunder, and it could take him away if OKC goes nowhere. In Westbrook’s case, his time with OKC could feel longer—the physical nature of his game suggests it’ll age poorly the moment his athleticism wanes, and players like him do not go silently off the hardwood into the night (see: Kobe Bryant’s final years).
Incorporating quality shooters and groomable youth is the key to keeping George happy and Westbrook young. Presti has shown no fear when it comes to experimenting with players then scrapping them when it doesn’t work out, and all the movement in OKC in recent years shows that the front office is constantly working. But OKC’s involvement in the draft will be limited in the near future: The team doesn’t have its second-round pick in 2019, or its first-round pick in 2020 and 2022. In terms of cap space and future assets, the Thunder are in one of the most restricted positions in the league. But the organization has taken many half-empty glasses and still convinced people they’re full enough to drink. In the short time since Durant left, they’ve made two playoff appearances, swayed voters to support an MVP winner on a team with very little chance at winning a championship, and convinced another potential MVP to re-sign. Without the context of the Warriors’ reign, one might even call it a success.