The Oklahoma City Thunder ended the season earlier than expected. Most said they would contend with the likes of Golden State but getting eliminated in the first round against Portland says otherwise. Heading into this off season they don’t have much cap space to bolster the roster, but what can help them take the next step?
Oklahoma is in a tough situation coming into this upcoming off season as their payroll is over $148 million next season which is 3rd most in the league and that’s not even the bad part. The Thunder are also $132 million over the luxury tax hold which is a very hefty bill for the owners to pay and also affects what they can do in free agency. As a team that’s been eliminated in the first round 3 years in a row they need to make changes, but should the organization take all the blame, or should a certain player that’s been slandered for the lack of post season success take it?
The Russell Westbrook problem?
Russell Westbrook has had three consecutive seasons of averaging a triple double, which hasn’t been done by anybody else in NBA history. The media and fans however, don’t give him a pass for being a first round exit year after year. His play style revolves around him having the ball most of the time and his 2016-17 season reflected that when he broke Kobe Bryant’s record for the highest usage rate in NBA history at 40%. Many people even stated that Kevin Durant left the Thunder three years ago because Westbrook was known as a “ball hog” or “he isn’t fun to play with.” Despite all the speculation and talk of Westbrook not being a good teammate, NBA star, Paul George, decided to re-sign and come back for another few years. He even turned down Magic Johnson and his hometown Lakers to play with Westbrook which really revived Russell’s reputation as a good teammate and not just a stat-padder who couldn’t care less about the other players on the floor.
The stats and being a good teammate hasn’t translated to success when it really matters. His Field goal percentage dipped from 42% to 36% in the first round against Portland this season, and he also has a tendency to prematurely start taunting the other team for no reason. At times it’s his ego that gets the best of him in clutch situations. Like in his last game of the year when he went for a contested layup instead of giving it to Paul George in the post, who’s made those same shots all game long, with the clock running down. In the end, Damian Lillard hit a buzzer beater to clinch the series 4-1 and advance to the second round.
Opinions from the media and some fans are to trade the superstar point guard to fix these problems, but is it really that smart to do? Westbrook hasn’t had any major success in the postseason to this point. In his exit interview, he stated that “I’m okay with who I am” and called out the haters criticizing his game by saying, “The conversation used to be I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists and that’s getting squashed.” He went on to talk about how he’s going to improve his lacklustre shooting which most laughed at, but whether you think Westbrook should stay or go you have to appreciate how hard he works on the court.
Should Coach Donovan take all the criticism?
Billy Donovan just completed his fourth season as the Thunder’s head coach and many people are calling for his job. During his tenure they haven’t won a single series since Kevin Durant decided to leave for Golden State. Durant shortly after leaving, tweeted through his burner account, “Didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan. His roster wasn’t that good, it was just him and russ.” Many called out Durant for having a burner account for a player his caliber but it put the attention back on Donovan and people wondered “Is Billy a coach who can help take you far in the postseason?” After another disappointing season, people thought it was for sure that he’d get fired but the general manager said, “We anticipate Billy being back.” That doesn’t sound like a full on guarantee–it still tells you his job isn’t safe by any means.
The Thunder’s lack of success could also be blamed on general manager Sam Presti himself for not adding competent players to be alongside their superstars Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Presti has also been blamed for not giving another former Thunder player, James Harden, the money he wanted, so they decided to trade him! The Thunder could have kept the big three of Harden, Durant and Westbrook–all of whom have all won the MVP trophy and made the finals in the first couple years they were together for. Some fans have praised Presti for bringing in Paul George, which is fair but if you’re not going to help add players that fit alongside your superstars, you’re just begging for failure.
Oklahoma will have to make some tough decisions if they want this team to contend for a championship next season. Although they don’t have much cap space to use to sign anybody major, you can still have a good offseason by adding some decent role players. Most people are pointing to guys like Wesley Matthews who are great three-point shooters and defenders. Putting a good 3&D player alongside George and Westbrook would make a major difference come this time next year. Sam Presti also has to be thinking about moving the big man Steven Adams who’s making $25 million next season. For the amount he’s getting paid, it’s not translating on the court. The money he’s getting may scare people off but lots of teams are desperate for more talent, so It wouldn’t be a surprise if he left OKC, which would give them some cap relief. But while they’d obviously love to add another star to the mix, that’s not what they need at the moment. Adding veteran players who know how to win can take this team to the next level come playoff time.
A summer filled with tough decisions is coming for Sam Presti and the OKC Thunder, with young improved rosters vying for a playoff spot, this is a pivotal year for everyone involved. Jobs are on the line and this roster will have eyes kept on them at all times throughout the year. If another early exit happens it’s safe to say the team would have to make a decision on rebuilding and starting over or settling for mediocrity come playoff time.
Cover Image: Flickr