In year two of the post-Kevin Durant era, it ended much like the 2016-17 campaign for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a first round elimination in the playoffs, and more questions than answers. With only one win more – 48 – than last year’s record, securing them the fourth seed in the Western Conference, the Thunder underachieved in multiple ways this season.
The crux of it all: the trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony failed to perform the way most fans and pundits smartly predicted that it could.
The culprit may very well be the eternally perplexing season of League MVP Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the second consecutive season, a feat no other player in NBA history has done. After leading the league in scoring the year before, Westbrook led the league in assists with 10.3 per game. He’s the only player ever to accomplish such an incredible feat.
With all of the success of the 29-year-old point guard — 25 points, 10.1 rebounds over the course of the year — this will go down as one of the down Westbrook seasons. Westbrook certainly had his moments where he showed just how talented a basketball player he is, but for the most part, it seems mostly incomplete.
With the additions of George and Anthony, the theory was that Westbrook would have to do less on offense. And maybe then he would have the stamina or rather the inclination to play the type of defense that matches the caliber of player Westbrook is. With less of a responsibility to have complete control, the offense would have a more fluid execution, as opposed to the battering ram that is the Westbrook-do-it-all offense.
For whatever reason, this never really materialized. Much of the beginning of the year was about how Westbrook fit in too much. The offense eventually found its way – the Thunder finished top 10 in the league after spending much of the season as a bottom ten ranked offense – but it never evolved into anything the Thunder looked comfortable running. Much of the offense depended on either George or Westbrook playing like superstars, which they did often.
Westbrook is essentially signed for the rest of his career with the Thunder, where he goes so does the franchise. It’s not solely up to him, but Westbrook should have a summer of reflection ahead of him as to where this franchise is headed.
Could the culprit of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s unfortunate season fall on the tricky fit of Anthony into the offense? Anthony at 33-years-old had to restructure his game to become a stretch four. Taking a step back in the offense was a new task for the career scorer, as he alluded to in his exit interview with the media.
Anthony, all season made sure to say the right things about his role in the offense and how they would soon figure it out. Based on Anthony’s latest comments, the Thunder did not configure the offense entirely to the future Hall of Famer’s liking.
Anthony had career-low numbers in shot attempts, 15 per game, and scoring this season, 16 points per game. His touches decreased, as did his field goal percentage, which sat a career-low 40 percent from the field.
His move to the power forward did not go as planned, or not planned, according to Anthony. On defense, Anthony was a liability that showed itself repeatedly and finally came to a head in OKC’s first-round exit where the Jazz ran pick-and-rolls at him relentlessly.
Anthony did not perform well at his role in his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and if his comments to the media are any indication of his mindset going into next year, he has no plans on giving it another try.
Melo came into exit interviews and burned the damn practice facility to ash: "It wasn't no strategy to me being here, me being a part of the actual system and what type of player and things like that…I don't think I can be effective as that type of player. " pic.twitter.com/Wjeh8HjE3K
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 28, 2018
The Thunder are now faced with the dilemma of paying the aging and unwilling-to-change Melo $28 million next season and have him further crater team culture, or finding him a way out of town. The latter may be more plausible today than it was in say February or March. Anthony says he sacrificed “damn near everything” to make this season with the Thunder work. But seeing how this season turned out and his role in it, he may need to sacrifice even more.
Aside from the requisite ‘Melo drama’ this summer, there is the free agency of George. The 28-year-old All-Star maintained that this was the “first year” of the Thunder’s experiment, but a first-round exit was never in the plans for this group.
Does that change how George views his first year in Oklahoma City? That’s a possibility. The chemistry between he and Westbrook showed flashes throughout the year and most memorably during the Thunder’s improbable 25-point comeback in game five.
George had one of his best seasons as a pro, with career highs or close to careers highs in three-point makes and attempts. George never made as many threes as efficiently as he did this past season. George, however, did show signs of falling into a prolonged lull on offense. His defense, however almost never dipped. With Roberson in the lineup, he, George, and Steven Adams manned one of the leagues efficient defenses.
George and Anthony had their moments, but their on-court chemistry was not a natural fit, and it showed.
If Anthony opts-in, which the most likely of scenarios, can Billy Donovan figure out an offense that compliments both he and George?
George talked of the potential of this team all year, and if the Thunder have any hope of retaining him, they will have to sell him on the same potential. It may not matter anyway, especially considering the early “reports” that he’s “as good as gone.”
The defense reached its peak this season as one the top five in the league but stalled out when Andre Roberson, perhaps one of the three best perimeter defenders in the NBA, suffered a knee injury before the All-Star break.
One should take into account just how impactful the Roberson injury was to this Thunder season, and quite frankly the future of the franchise.
No Roberson meant having to reinvent the defense and offense on the fly, and that involved signing Corey Brewer as a way to fill the leak. It worked about as well as it could have, Brewer proved to be a significant piece down the stretch of the regular season.
During exit interviews, George alluded to the success the team had while Roberson was in the lineup.
In the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first decade of existence, the past two years have been a slight deviation from the norm. Sam Presti and company will indeed look to re-establish the culture that gave life to one of the more successful NBA organizations of the past ten years, the next few months will dictate the Thunder’s next ten years.