Published On: Thu, May 3rd, 2018

Better Luck Next Year: Oklahoma City Thunder edition

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As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 20th edition focuses on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Good


Give Russell Westbrook that damn triple-double. Hard to imagine which would’ve been more unbelievable a half-decade ago: that Westbrook would average a triple-double in two consecutive seasons, or that a lot of NBA fans would end up rolling their eyes at him doing so. But that’s what’s come to fruition in 2018, when Russ followed up his 2016-17 MVP campaign with another season of double digits in points (25.4), rebounds (10.1), and assists (10.3) per game – even posting a 6-20-19 in his final game of the season to secure the average, a stat line that’s never happened before. And you can be fairly sure will never happen again. And that’s Westbrook for you: You may not totally agree with his methods, but you have to acknowledge and appreciate his singularity.

Playoff P. Paul George’s first and potentially last season in Oklahoma City ended rather disastrously – just five points on 2-16 shooting in an elimination Game 6 against the Utah Jazz. But before then, George lived up to his self-applied “Playoff P” nickname, averaging a resounding 29 a game on 45 percent shooting (41 percent from deep) in the first five Utah games, a capper to a similarly productive regular season as Russ’ best wingman since that other guy left for the West Coast. We’ll see how much the experience swayed George to want to stay in OKC himself, but the interest on the other side should be obvious and unwavering.

The first two regular-season games against Golden State. Even as it struggled for most of the first half of the regular season, Oklahoma City could be pretty regularly relied upon to get up for the marquee matchups of the team’s schedule. Case in point: The Thunder’s first two games against the Golden State Warriors, featuring Westbrook’s old running mate whom he is definitely not still mad about. Russ had a 34-10-9 night in OKC’s impressive 108-91 first victory, and then both he and George scored in the 30s in their second matchup, a 125-105 drubbing of the then-41-12 Dubs. “I’m confident every night, regardless of who we play,” commented an unimpressed Westbrook after the second W.

The Comeback. The Thunder were on the ropes in Game 5 of their first-round series against the Jazz, down 25 at home in an elimination game, seemingly doomed to a premature playoff exit. Then Westbrook hit two threes, then he did a lot of other stuff, and suddenly the Thunder were back in the game, ultimately coming back to win 107-99. It was a stunning turn of events, with Westbrook and George ultimately combining for 79 points, as the Thunder pushed the series back to Utah and the reeling Jazz had to figure out what the hell happened. “We just never quit,” George remarked postgame. “We just never got down on ourselves, regardless of the lead they built and the shots they were making. We could surge back and we did.”

Nick Collison’s send-off. He hasn’t played much the last few seasons, and his 14th year in Oklahoma City might’ve very well been his last, but Collison has been an enormous part of the Thunder organization for the past decade-plus, dating back to when they were still the Seattle Supersonics. Before the final regular-season game of the year, Westbrook paid touching tribute to the only man he’s been able to call a teammate for his entire professional career, giving him his propers as “my friend, my mentor, my brother … someone I’ve always looked up to,” with his love being echoed by tens of thousands of appreciative OKC fans.

The Bad

Victor Oladipo, superstar. A season after the Thunder traded for him from the Orlando Magic and gave him a four-year extension worth $84 million, Victor Oladipo justified the team’s confidence in him with a season that saw him morph unexpectedly into a superstar. He averaged a 23-5-4 on 58 percent True Shooting – all career-best marks – while leading the entire league with his 2.4 steals a game. The problem, of course, was that he did all this for the Indiana Pacers, where OKC dealt him over the summer in the shocking Paul George trade. At the time, the deal seemed like a heist – Oladipo was a quality player, but one who had seemingly stagnated, and certainly didn’t seem to fit as an ideal backcourt mate to Westbrook — but now it looks like a potential disaster for the Thunder, who even got bounced from the playoffs a game earlier than Oladipo’s Pacers squad.

Carmelo Anthony, no longer super. The idea of OKC as a superteam following Sam Presti’s offseason trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was deflated by the unfortunate reality that Anthony had officially lost his All-Star luster. The former scoring champion somewhat reluctantly accepted a secondary role in the team’s offense, similar to his role as Team USA’s designated knockdown shooter in the last couple Summer Olympics. Unfortunately, Anthony doesn’t knock down shots so well anymore: Not only did he average a career low in points per game (16.2), he also posted his worst FG percentage (40.4) and PER (12.7), suggesting he excelled neither in quantity or quality this season.

The playoffs were even worse, as Anthony’s stats efficiency sagged even further. He rated as a net negative on both sides of the ball, eventually being yanked from Donovan’s rotation – albeit perhaps too late in the series for it to make the necessary difference. The sad truth is that at this point, not only is Anthony not a star, he might not even be more valuable than an average replacement-level player.

The last two regular-season games against Golden State. As much as it might’ve seemed like Oklahoma City had gotten into Golden State’s heads after their first two regular-season matchups, and that the Thunder’s best could meet if not exceed the Warriors’, the last two games they played each other flipped the script completely. Golden State won the third game by a score of 112-80, posting assists on 36 of their 42 made field goals in the Saturday night matchup, and then squeaked by OKC in the teams’ fourth and final showdown by a score of 111-107. The last loss for the Thunder came despite the Dubs missing Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala and the Bolts needing the late-season W a lot more. “We’re not worried about that,” Westbrook said about the loss that dropped OKC to sixth in the standings. “We’ll be here in the postseason, ready to go.”

Andre Roberson’s injury. It certainly won’t be the first thing people talk about when they discuss OKC’s ultimately underwhelming season, but the Thunder’s outlook changed dramatically in January when Roberson was ruled out for the rest of the season with a ruptured left patellar tendon. The team’s wing defender – one of the best wing defenders, period – was instrumental to the team’s two-way success, and not easily replaced: Billy Donovan tried with Josh Huestis, rookie Terrance Ferguson, and veteran pickup Corey Brewer, but no Thunder lineup was as consistently effective as with Roberson – the starting five with him, Westbrook, George, Anthony and Steven Adams was plus-15.6 per 100 possessions. “The injury was a bit of an inflection point,” Presti admitted after the season. “If we had Dre, we saw what that would look like.”

The first-round exit. No matter what you attribute it to – Anthony’s decline, Roberson’s injury, Westbrook’s monomania – not getting through one round of the postseason rates as a huge disappointment for a Thunder team that had aspirations of contention. Losing in six is one better than they did last year, before Presti’s summer haul, but that’s not exactly the amount of improvement they hoped to show, two seasons removed from Durant’s departure and heading into another crossroads offseason for the franchise.

The Questions


Is Paul George coming back? One of the biggest stories of the NBA offseason will be PG-13’s summer plans – whether he elects to stay in OKC after his one sporadically successful season playing second banana to Westbrook, or if he searches out greener pastures in L.A. or elsewhere. If it’s the latter, the blow to Oklahoma City won’t be easily overcome: Getting George was somewhat miraculous in the first place – even though it cost the team a guy who’ll probably finish top 10 in MVP voting this year – and without him, the Thunder officially revert to Russ and Friends status, with no obvious path towards adding a second star of his caliber. George says he hopes to remain a Thunder – stupid non-plural team names – but it’s gonna be a lot of night-sweating for Sam Presti unless and until George makes it official.

Are the Thunder stuck with Carmelo for another season? Anthony has a player option for $28 million next season, and since that might be more than he could command in total, much less annually, on the open market right now, he’s all but certain to exercise it. However, Carmelo has also voiced his frustration with the backseat role he took on the Thunder, and seems entirely non-amenable to the prospect of being moved to the bench – which the Thunder may make a requirement of his staying in Oklahoma City next year. Is Melo’s superstar pride worth $28 million to him? Or will he and OKC work toward a buyout, like the one Chicago reached with Dwyane Wade after his one underwhelming year in the Windy City? Regardless, it’s hard to imagine another season of Anthony on the Thunder going well for anyone.

Will the team resign Jerami Grant? Grant had long tantalized with his defensive skill and general explosiveness, but struggled with his tweener status and lack of offensive consistency. Billy Donovan and OKC seemed to finally maximize Grant’s usefulness this season as essentially a backup five, not requiring him to stretch the floor or be much of a ball-handler, as he posted career highs in points (14.9) and rebounds (7.0) per 36 minutes, with by far the highest FG percentage (53.5) and PER (16.2) of his career. But he’s a restricted free agent this offseason, and the Thunder mayhave their cap space earmarked for players with more of a two-way track record. Still, Grant is young – just 24 – and improving, and Presti might be inclined to do what it takes to hold onto him now, and figure out what to do with him later.

Is this who Patrick Patterson is now? Two-Pat seemed like the sneaky value purchase in Oklahoma City’s offseason shopping spree, a longtime advanced-stat star who would give the Thunder badly needed frontcourt depth and versatility. But Patterson was something of a bust – averaging less than four points a game and shooting under 40 percent, without being the defensive difference-maker the team was likely hoping for. There’s a chance the regression was injury-related – he was still recovering early in the season from arthroscopic knee surgery – and the Thunder better hope so, since he’s under contract for at least one more year, with a player option for a second.

Can you build a contender around Russ? The Thunder added two players last summer who’ve been volume scorers for most of their careers, but at the end of the season, it was still all Westbrook, scoring 46 on an eye-popping 43 shots in the Thunder’s Game 6 loss. As always with Russ, you saw both why he’s one of the game’s most unique and undeniable forces, and why it’s so hard to win big and win consistency with a player like him running the show. If George leaves, the Thunder might be best off investing in maximum shooting to complement Westbrook, running a million pick-and-rolls with him and Adams a game, and replicating something close to what the Rockets built last year around James Harden. But whether that team could ever be the perennial contender the Thunder were when Durant (and Harden) was around remains to be proven.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)



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