At one point during the season, the Thunder were gearing up to be the biggest Western Conference threat to the Golden State Warriors with Paul George having established himself deep into the MVP conversation. They have since dropped off having won only four of their last ten and are currently tied for sixth in the West with the Utah Jazz. With only eight games left before the playoffs begin, can they replicate their form during a mid-season surge or is their playoff seeding just as unpredictable as their recent performances?
The month of March has not been kind to them. Not including the Indiana Pacers, the Thunder have the worst record for any given team that is projected to make the postseason. Their win against the Raptors over weekend ended a four-game losing streak. At one point in the past week, it appeared as though they would face the Warriors in the first round. Even though the story lines of the two facing off would be endless with the Russ-KD beef topping them all, the ideal course for Oklahoma would be to steer away from the defending champs for as long as possible.
There is no doubt that two teams would make for a tantalizing series, but April is just not the time for them to square off. The Thunder would merely be the sacrificial lamb to tune up the Warriors for the rest of the playoffs and Westbrook's sacrifices to allow George to have an MVP-caliber season would have been for nothing. Not good news for a franchise that has failed to make it past the first round in the post-Kevin Durant era. The conversation will once again veer its head to whether Russell Westbrook can be a winning player as the face of a franchise.
Unlike the 2015-16 season (after which Durant became a free agent) or last season (with George in the same position as the latter), the pressures of ensuring that a superstar resigns with the franchise are not on Russ' shoulders. The Warriors dynasty could very well end after this season. Kyrie Irving's future with the Celtics is up in the air. Both Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler are free agents come July 1. To add to this, Elton Brand and the 76ers deal with Ben Simmons who is extension-eligible this summer. The Trailblazers have lost ten-straight playoff games, and this offseason could see the end of the Damian Lillard- CJ McCollum backcourt. Chris Paul is his age 33 season and with his health always teetering - the window for the Houston Rockets is now.
Both Westbrook and George in the prime stage of their respective careers and have two more seasons together before Paul George can opt out of the last year of his deal and once again become a free agent. The rest of OKC's rather young core are all signed for the next couple of seasons with the likes of Jerami Grant and Terrence Ferguson becoming increasingly crucial to this team.
The Thunder are still in win-now mode despite having much less to lose in comparison to some of the other powerhouses in the NBA. Another early playoff exit might not demand calls for the break-up for Westbrook-George tandem, but it will be another thorn in Russ' legacy.
How much of a playoff threat are they?
The Thunder were at their best leading up the All-Star break and have dropped off ever since. Their biggest strength was their ability to shut down any team with George and Adams anchoring their defense. Their defensive rating is still in the top-five though their middle of the pack offensive before mid-February has dropped off to third worst only behind the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans after All-Star weekend.
Given that the Thunder does not have an offensive scheme, much of their scoring is dependent on Russ' ability to push the ball on the break and create easy baskets. Pre-All-star, the Thunder were playing with the third fastest pace in the league and have dropped off to 11th for the month. Forcing turnovers and attacking defenses that aren't set is their forte but have struggled to create the chaotic environment that they thrive in. The likes of Adams, Grant, and Ferguson are not versatile enough as offensive players to create shots for others. George is also volume shooter from deep. Averaging 9.8 shots attempts from beyond the arc and making 38.9% of his efforts, he is the only player capable of shooting this team out of their slump. And given his struggles of late, even he might not be able to drag the Thunder out of their funk.
Doctor's diagnosis: if George and Westbrook are not on song, the Thunder are going to struggle to score.
Their only hope is for George's shoulder to fully heal - not an easy task given that they are in a dogfight in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff standings. Russell Westbrook can always flip the switch and channel the same spirit that earned him the 2016-17 Regular Season MVP. Despite a diminished athletic ability, he is still among the quickest guards in the NBA and is more than capable of taking a larger offensive role while George recuperates. Always one to play with his emotions on his sleeve, his fervor has gotten the best of him. And with the playoffs around the corner, having this reputation is not something he’d want to carry with him.
Westbrook's emotions, George's shoulder, and the inconsistent shooting of the role-players are all out of Billy Donovan's control. His best hope of a deep playoff run is by focusing on the Thunder's calling card - defense. Besides the Warriors and Rockets, there is not a team that the Thunder should fear. Making the most out of their lengthy and versatile defenders can be a blessing for their offense - generating turnovers from which Russell Westbrook can relentlessly attack the rim.
What’s the Thunder’s off-season plan?
Oklahoma takes the 10th most shots from beyond the arc but ranks among the bottom team in three-point percentage. Their ideal play would be to look for a sharpshooter who could add to their wing-depth while also preserving their defensive identity. Two players jump straight off the mark - Klay Thompson and Khris Middleton. Both are among the top-20 players in three-point shots made for the season and in the upper echelon when it comes their accuracy from beyond the arc. They also have the length and defensive prowess to take the Thunder to the next level.
Their biggest hurdle - an absolute lack of flexibility. Clay Bennett is set to have the highest payroll for next season, and the Thunder once again find themselves deep into the luxury tax. Both players will at least get max-contract offers from their respective teams (even the super-max for Klay Thompson should Durant leave, and he becomes eligible for it). Their books are stacked with top-end contracts. Even if GM Sam Presti could work his magic, it is next to impossible for the Thunder to become a serious player in free agency this summer.
Presti's best hope is if he can sign a veteran wing on the taxpayer mid-level exception. Even though the Thunder have the pedigree to churn out competitive teams and two All-NBA caliber players in Westbrook and George, their hopes of getting a productive player on a discount hinges on their playoff success. Having crashed out of the first round for two straight seasons, this year was supposed to be different. The injury and subsequent slump to Paul George combined with Westbrook's shocker of a season put all that into jeopardy.
But Sam Presti is not a man that should be doubted. A year after Kevin Durant left, he flipped Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis into Paul George - who has firmly placed himself into the MVP conversation. Carmelo Anthony's otherwise untradeable contract was flipped into a much-needed back-up point guard in Denis Schroder and saved his ownership group $66 million in luxury tax and $73 million in total. Their vault of assets looks drier than ever, but Presti has done the impossible in back-to-back seasons. Who's to say he can't make that three in a row?
What are their long-term contingencies?
They have to have bank on Presti Magic. Westbrook and George are both signed for the next couple of seasons and are in their respective primes. With the wave of player empowerment and their ability to strongarm organizations, the security of having a player signed for multiple seasons does not guarantee anything. The only reason George is even in Oklahoma is that Presti gambled on the All-Star wing despite it being in the air that he would sign with the Lakers as a free agent. While he resigned with the Thunder, their future looks bleak for a talented team, and George could be their best asset to trade should a rebuild become necessary.
Westbrook, on the other hand, became untradeable the second he signed the super-max. This was before he had another knee surgery and his athleticism has diminished this season. For a player who solely reliant on his explosiveness to be effective while also be an inefficient volume scorer, Westbrook's contract might turn into an albatross around the necks of the Thunder. Most superstars do not have the luxury of aging gracefully to finish off their careers by riding into the sunset.
With limited flexibility, the only hopes for this iteration of the Thunder are if Jerami Grant and Terrence Ferguson jump to the next level with Andre Roberson having some semblance of a jump shot. George is happy with his situation in Oklahoma though this is something that cannot be taken for granted - just like Westbrook's athleticism. Their cap situation asides, the Thunder will also struggle to rejuvenate their squad with young talent from the draft.
For all their faults and missteps, this organization cannot be underestimated. Time and again they have proven in the post-Durant-era that they can put out a competitive squad that has title contention as their ceiling. This decade has been defined by superteams starting with the Miami Heat and now ending with the Golden State Warriors. The bar for success has been set incredibly high. Forget those two teams for a second. What the Thunder have done this decade has been nothing short of incredible in one of America’s smallest markets.