Two more months. That's roughly the amount of time the Thunder have to figure out if their bold experiment—bringing in Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to play alongside Russell Westbrook—is going to work. By the time February rolls around and the trade deadline is imminent, Sam Presti should not hesitate to blow this team up if it’s still struggling.
After what seemed like a turn-the-corner win against the Warriors, OKC has dropped three straight games, falling to the Pistons, Mavericks and Magic—the latter two by double-digit deficits. Against the Pistons, the Thunder blew another close contest. Against the Mavs, OKC couldn’t find a way to score. And against the Magic, nobody could stop Aaron Gordon.
While the Thunder may be finding different ways to lose on any given night, their issues are fairly clear. On offense, the ball sticks, resulting in too many midrange jumpers and not enough free throws. On defense, OKC has actually played much better than expected, but they too often fall apart in the fourth quarter, and opponents seem unafraid to attack Steven Adams.
What’s most frustrating, however, is Anthony, Russ, and George are all too content to try to do things alone, as each player for stretches will morph into the solo act they seemingly wanted to leave behind when they joined forces. OKC just doesn’t have enough action. Players don’t pass. Players don’t move. It’s an iso-heavy attack that’s predictable and easy for opponents to defend. (The Thunder’s starting five has a pitiful offensive rating of 99.2.) Billy Donovan could very well end up falling on the sword for this team’s struggles, but the Thunder’s failure to put together an efficient attack is likely more a reflection of Westbrook.
This was the season Westbrook was supposed to change the narrative about his abilities as a teammate. Simply, Russ is yet to prove he can make the players around him better. It’s bad enough that Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have blossomed outside of Westbrook’s shadow in Indiana. Seeing George and Anthony waste away in OKC as well is an extremely poor reflection on Russ, who is still the unquestioned leader of his team.
Isn’t this a large part of why Kevin Durant left? It’s not that Westbrook is chasing personal stats in lieu of wins. But it’s fair to wonder if his brand of basketball is conducive to collective success. Russ already proved in his MVP season that he can be a dominant force without Durant. For the next chapter of his career, however, it will be much more important for him to prove he can thrive when sharing the court with stars.
It’s still certainly not all Westbrook’s fault. Our dreams of seeing Olympic Melo in the NBA have also been dashed, as Anthony seems intent on playing a style similar to the one that led to years of uninspiring basketball in New York. And George could afford to be a little less passive on many nights, though that’s a risk you run bringing in so many strong personalities to one team.
The bigger issue for the Thunder and Presti is the future of this core. This isn’t quite the same experiment other teams have made in the past when grouping stars together. The only player committed to being in Oklahoma City for the long haul is Westbrook. George will be a free agent next summer, and Melo can join him if he opts out of his contract. Presti will have to seriously consider cutting bait if his team keeps losing to the likes of the Magic and Mavericks.
There are a couple reasons to believe the Thunder can turn things around. Their net rating of 2.4 is eighth-best in the league. And their terrible record in close games should even out over time. (OKC really is a couple bounces away from being a .500 team.)
But pretending like it’s too early for the Thunder to question their roster is foolish. This isn’t a wait-and-see situation. Presti can’t afford to keep this squad together if it finishes in the bottom half of the West and risks flaming out early in the playoffs. Melo and George can still fetch some useful parts at the trade deadline even if their contract statuses hurt their value. OKC isn’t the type of market that can reload through free agency, and Presti especially knows too well how much it hurts to lose talent for nothing.
And 20 games into an NBA season isn’t exactly early anymore. Look around the league and teams are settling into where they stand in the hierarchy. Injuries and hot streaks can change things here and there, but the first quarter of the season has definitively not been a success for the Thunder.
It’s not quite panic time yet for OKC. The organization still has reasons to believe this current group can be a success. But the clock is certainly ticking on how much of the team’s struggles can be attributed to an early-season adjustment period.
Two more months. If OKC doesn’t have its affairs in order by the time February arrives, Presti can’t afford to keep gambling on this roster. In the meantime, we’ll be watching closely.