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Boys, Bye: The Thunder Just Got Bounced in the First Round Again. Now What?

For the third year in a row, OKC has failed to win a playoff series. What are their options heading into the offseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In select games this season, the Thunder looked ready for the Warriors. They featured a commanding defense and a newly recommitted, sharpshooting MVP candidate. But Oklahoma City’s campaign ended the same way it did the season before and the season before that: zapped in the first round. The faces, names, and handles have changed around Russell Westbrook (and Steven Adams) through the past three years, but the result has remained steadfast. This specific roster has lost just one series, but there’s little confidence the result would be any different if they ran it back next season. What will change during the offseason, and what can’t?

What will happen with the center position?

For having such an exhausted budget, the Thunder don’t have many operable bodies. One of the thinnest areas is center. Luckily, (1) Steven Adams is indestructible; (2) Jerami Grant is flexible; and (3) Nerlens Noel is serviceable. Oklahoma City signed Noel to a 1+1 minimum deal last offseason, a low-risk, medium-reward investment that was a potential win-win for both sides. Noel needed exposure to prove he wasn’t just an injury-prone bad boy; the Thunder needed a discounted 5.

Noel, 25, is entering Season 2 of “betting on himself.” Waiting another year to get paid doesn’t make sense if the money’s out there. But if he can’t find an attractive contract elsewhere, Noel could opt in for $2 million. Other than the Thunder’s success—Noel had never before been on a team that finished with more than 33 wins—there’s no reason to stay with OKC for less. Billy Donovan gave Noel limited time on the court—an average of 13.7 minutes. (In those minutes, Noel still managed to average the second-most blocks on the team with 1.2, behind Grant.)

Without Noel, Oklahoma City can go small with Grant, as it did against Portland in the first round. But borrowing your primary backup from the forward position is a temporary solution, not one that will last a season—especially since Markieff Morris will be a free agent this summer and Patrick Patterson is playing like a shell of Toronto Patrick Patterson.

Can the team acquire a shooter?

Finding more shooting should be the top priority of the offseason. Of teams with a winning record, Oklahoma City was the least accurate from behind the perimeter (and tied for eighth worst overall) and shot 34.8 percent in the playoffs against the Blazers. The Thunder’s 3-point attack began and ended in Paul George’s hands; a hot night from Russell Westbrook, Dennis Schröder, Jerami Grant, or Terrance Ferguson was too irregular to be anything but a pleasant surprise.

How does an NBA team find a shooter in 2019? The most in-demand skill is also the most expensive, and it just so happens that the Thunder can barely afford to rent the conference rooms to host free agents this summer. OKC already has $147.6 million in total cap allocations next season. The team can shed Raymond Felton and Morris next season, and possibly Noel and Patterson, who both have player options. (It’s in Patterson’s best interest to opt into his $5.7 million deal.) More realistic than signing a player is for Sam Presti to pull off another foundation-altering trade. Unfortunately, you need trade assets to do that, and the Thunder are strapped in that department, too. If nothing else, OKC has the 21st pick in the draft. A couple of shooters are projected to be available in that range: USC’s Kevin Porter Jr., a guard; Kentucky’s Tyler Herro, a shooting guard; and UNC’s Cameron Johnson, a small forward.

Is there some way to navigate cap hell?

There’s a question being asked deep in Reddit threads and past the one-hour mark of NBA podcasts: Is this, a third straight first-round exit, when the “trade Russ” train leaves the station? Certainly no one in the state of Oklahoma will be calling for this, and there are myriad reasons it probably won’t happen: Parting with the beloved son who stayed would alienate OKC’s fans. It would also, quite possibly, cause George to become estranged from the organization. Westbrook is the reason he stayed.

Still, it’s an interesting question to toy with. Outside of the Thunder fan base, the idea of trading Russ is beginning to trend away from radical and toward rational. Who else can be moved? There’s Adams and his $25 million per year, but like I said up top, there’s no center in the succession line. There are the young’uns, like Ferguson and Grant, but they’re both starters and would clear just $10 million combined. Schröder is the first competent backup Westbrook’s had in years. That leaves Westbrook himself. Because what’s the alternative? It’s starting to feel like OKC has hit its ceiling—and it’s a first-round exit.

But the old “the NBA’s a business” adage would never fly in that scenario. Oklahoma City has embraced Westbrook as family in the Kevin Durant aftermath. Ironically, running it back like Portland has the past couple of years out of necessity might be the front office’s only choice.