The Thunder were doomed by expectations. Usually that means the weight of external pressures wound up creating fissures and producing a negative environment the team couldn’t manage. In this case, it meant the internal expectations were so strong that OKC never seemed to really grasp the possibility of it not working once it traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
It was going to work because it had to work.
It did not.
The Thunder were eliminated on Friday by the Utah Jazz. George thrived early on, but exited with a whimper in Game 6, finishing with five points and six turnovers. Anthony’s poor play placed Billy Donovan into a vice between alienating a well-respected superstar by benching him and losing nearly every second Anthony was on the floor.
And there was Westbrook, always Westbrook. Chucking, ball-dominating, assist-generating, polarizing Russell Westbrook, always in the extreme end of all categories.
THE WESTBROOK PROBLEM
In October and November, Westbrook tried to defer. At least, that was the narrative. His usage was at a season-low in October, and never really approached last year’s ridiculous mark of 40.8. His highest monthly average was 36%, which is still high. His assist rate in October was 54%; it would drop to 39.7% in November before settling in the mid-40s for most of the season.
But Westbrook deferring didn’t work: The offense stagnated, and most problematic, the Thunder just lost a ton of games they should have won. Not just the “they’re better than that team” variety, but the “held a lead inside five minutes and just blew it” back-breakers, too. It was … confusing. Going into December, they were 2-9 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes.
This stretch honestly decided a lot of OKC’s season. If the close losses to Minnesota don’t go down, this team finishes third and takes on a Pelicans team that was red hot but a better matchup than Utah. If a few more games go the Thunder’s way in that stretch, maybe it changes the whole context of the season. But it didn’t.
And yet, that expectation they would be great never faltered. From Royce Young at ESPN:
If you were to put a pitch count on it, the phrase “figure it out” was uttered two to three billion times. There was never any tangible panic, only fleeting moments of anxiety, such as when Westbrook sat on the end of the bench in Orlando following a baffling 13-point loss to the Magic that dropped the team to 8-12, eyes burning holes into hardwood with a blank stare.
The Thunder bounced back with a win in the next game and, up against every wobble, would win just enough, especially against good teams, to validate themselves. Maybe in the end, though, that was the problem — they never panicked.
To fix things, Anthony and George told Westbrook to stop worrying about them, stop deferring and just be himself. That’s what happened. Westbrook just started doing more. He had more jump shots off the dribble and passes out of the pick and roll. He had more shots around the rim. He had fewer turnovers and more shots.
There’s a perception that George struggled this season, and that’s not accurate. His box-score numbers were down, sure. But it was still the third-best scoring season of his career, and the second-best shooting season in effective field goal percentage. He ranked in the 93rd percentile on spot-up shots, the highest of his career, and 73rd percentile in pick and roll. He was more efficient; he just played next to Westbrook.
Anthony, however, vanished slowly. Olympic Melo never showed up, and to his credit, ISO Melo never reared its head. The Thunder kept evolving toward one specific identity: a physical, bullying, crush-your-spirit defense led by a blunt-force offense. No complicated machinations, no beautiful off-ball movement, just Westbrook’s lethal aggression molded around George slithering into space and the rest of the offense keeping the curtains up on the stage.
It was a model that honestly might have worked … if Andre Roberson hadn’t gotten injured.
I’ve written at large about what that did to OKC’s season, about how important he was, and I won’t rehash it here. Just know that OKC built itself around an identity held up by Roberson’s DPOY-worthy defense because its three stars didn’t intuitively make sense together. It was going to be a work in progress, and after a playoff run this year behind their defense, the Thunder could work on the offense.
Roberson’s injury robbed them of that approach. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Thunder weren’t really anything. Their only identity was: Westbrook.
Westbrook did what he needed to do in his MVP season in 2016-17. As much as everyone wants to side-eye the Thunder when watching what Victor Oladipo did in Indiana this year, Oladipo himself said he learned to be aggressive from Westbrook. Oladipo just wasn’t there yet. The rest of the roster demanded Westbrook be Superman. He relished it and took home an MVP trophy in a historic season.
This year, however, he should have resisted George and Anthony’s calls to just be himself. He should have stuck it out and said, “We have to make this work together.” The bad and quite frankly unlucky start negated that opportunity. OKC didn’t have the credit built up to work through the growing pains. Westbrook needed to come out of this season able to say “I made those guys better and we found something special in the way we played together.”
Instead, it is: “Westbrook had a fairly typical Westbrook year and Paul George had a pretty good one. Melo sucked.”
Maybe it’s not fair because of how those random games worked out, or because of the Roberson injury, or because of the matchup … but it is what it is.
Westbrook is now 0-2 in the first round without Kevin Durant.
A FRAUGHT FUTURE
George made it clear in his exit interview that the Thunder “checked all the boxes” to keep him in free agency. They traded for him with the intent to win. They put him in a featured role in the offense, even if it was always firmly behind Westbrook by his own demand. They traded for Anthony to get a third star. Westbrook reached out to form a bond with him.
But it might not be enough. For all of George’s positive comments, he’s going to leave the door open. And while debates rage on social media about what he should do, the decision is George’s alone.
If his priority is to live in LA for almost the entire year instead of just the offseason, the Lakers (or conceivably the Clippers) it is. If he wants the best chance to win, the Sixers will appeal heavily. If he really did think that OKC had something going and the ball just didn’t bounce right, the Thunder could keep him.
If they lose him, well, as you can expect, it’s calamitous. Westbrook will bear the brunt of it, fairly and unfairly at the same time, as someone who plays a style that other stars simply don’t want to be around. His toxic intensity might play a role in this, as well. Westbrook commands the locker room, and that earns him the respect of guys such as Steven Adams and Roberson. He also bullies anyone who might try to interfere (specifically the media). That might not matter to players, but the greater environment does.
If George leaves, the Thunder gave up Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo and versatile big man Domantas Sabonis for nothing. A trade that once appeared to be inconceivably one-sided for OKC would look like a steal for the Pacers instead.
If that happens, OKC will be over the luxury-tax threshold with just eight players on the roster. Key contributors Raymond Felton, Jerami Grant and Corey Brewer are free agents as well.
And then, of course, there’s Melo.
THE MELO DISASTER
Melo tried this year. He gave better defensive effort than I’ve seen from him in almost eight years. He shot 54% eFG% on catch-and-shoot situations (59th percentile). Not bad. But he’s also not physically able to do as much as he used to. Overall, his offense was dismal, every isolation attempt more dismal than the last. He shot just 53% at the rim.
In the playoffs, Melo found himself as that weakness the opponent targeted. The Jazz went after him over and over again in pick and rolls, and OKC couldn’t switch. When the Thunder benched him in Game 5, they mounted their comeback behind that switching mechanism.
Anthony finished with the worst raw plus-minus of any player in the playoffs.
All the while people clamored for Billy Donovan to bench him entirely, not realizing how complicated NBA star player politics are. Bench him, and you might win the game, but you might lose the support of Westbrook and George. Superstars tend to stick together; they’re the only ones who know what it’s like to live that life.
At his exit interview, Melo basically burned the team down, saying he wouldn’t take a bench role next year and that there was no strategy to incorporate him this season. This ignores how difficult that idea is, and how Anthony simply didn’t thrive in the only role that’d make him playable for a playoff team.
Anthony has a $27.9 million early termination option for next season. His entire career, the money has come first. It’s why he forced his way out of Denver, so he could get the max extension and the new team he wanted. It’s why he re-signed with the Knicks even though they were terrible. This isn’t a good or bad thing; Anthony comes from absolutely nothing; the man has a right to pursue as much coin as he can.
If he were to opt out, however, it would be a huge sigh of relief for the Thunder, especially if George is gone.
If Melo and George both go, you reconfigure around what Westbrook needs (shooters, shooters, shooters everywhere) and you go from there. If Melo goes and George stays, you are cap-strapped but at least have a Big 3 with Adams and you can figure things out around the margins.
If George leaves and Melo stays, well, OKC might be stuck in purgatory for a long while. No cap room to upgrade around Westbrook. No real trade chips. This is easily the worst-case scenario.
Don’t rule anything out this summer, and don’t count out GM Sam Presti yet. He always seem to find a way to pull a rabbit out of his hat to make the team better. But after a season in which so much had to go wrong for OKC’s internal expectations to fail, almost all of them did. Keep an eye on their win total this summer, especially if that worst-case scenario comes true, and fade their title odds. The Thunder were closer to being title contenders this season than they were last year.
It was just hard to tell.