- The Thunder's future is unclear following another disappointing first-round playoff exit. So what's next? If Oklahoma City wants to improve, the change must start with Russell Westbrook.
For the third straight year, the Thunder’s offseason will begin after the first round of the playoffs. Oklahoma City actually performed slightly worse this postseason than last, winning one fewer game against the Blazers than in its defeat at the hands of the Jazz in 2018. For a chunk of this regular season, OKC actually looked like a potential Warriors irritant, with Paul George shooting and defending at an MVP level, Russell Westbrook happily deferring, and a team defense that was best in the league. Then, the schedule tightened, George injured his shoulder, and in the first round, the Thunder ran into a point guard who routinely drills bad shots. As OKC regroups this summer, the obvious problem the front office will have to solve is how to get a team with two top-20 players deeper into the playoffs.
The calls for Westbrook to change his game have clearly fallen on deaf ears. Russ is obviously a net-positive. Even when he was given free reign to carry out his worst impulses the first year after Kevin Durant’s departure, he led the Thunder to 47 wins and collected a (somewhat controversial) MVP trophy. Westbrook is far from perfect. He still shoots too much, and shoots too many bad shots, and in an ideal world he would learn from his loss to Damian Lillard, a guard who has eclipsed Russ at the position because of his commitment to covering up the holes in his game after each postseason defeat. Every time Westbrook loses, he almost seems to grow more defiant, insisting he can win his way instead of making large changes to his game. If that’s truly the reality, or OKC’s front office believes for any other reason Russ isn’t going to come back a different player, then it’s up to Sam Presti to figure out how to best highlight Westbrook’s talents, especially when him and George are locked in to long-term, expensive contracts.
Presti’s first order of business will be to modernize the roster. That’s a nice way of saying adding more shooting. For all the credit Presti gets for building a sustainable contender, he’s largely escaped the blame for trotting out rosters with massive holes. For five or six years now, the Thunder have been at least one shooter short, often trotting out a fifth player in closing lineups that really doesn’t belong on the floor. That has to change. OKC has the talent at the top to be a dangerous team—and those players need to be more consistent in the playoffs—but nailing the moves on the margins are just as important.
The Thunder need what every team in the league covets, two-way players who can guard multiple positions and space the floor. It’s an obvious fix for so many rosters. What OKC has done that most teams avoid is tie up an incredible amount of the salary cap in guys whose flaws become turning points in the postseason. Steven Adams is a very good basketball player, but he’s being paid over $25 million next year, and he couldn’t stay on the floor during the Thunder’s most important minutes of the season. He wasn’t flexible enough defensively to switch onto Lillard, and he didn’t offer enough offensively to take advantage of Portland’s frontcourt. Meanwhile, Dennis Schroder is a highly paid backup who adds to the spacing issues, and Andre Roberson, who hasn’t played in over a year, also remains on the books.
Presti’s first order of business will be to find out what interest there is on the trade market for these guys. Maybe a team that needs a boost defensively sees a culture changer in Adams. Maybe a point guard-starved roster will return Schroder to a starter. Maybe Roberson’s expiring deal can be attached to a draft pick to scoop up a veteran. Some people may compare the Thunder to the Blazers, another team with multiple first-round exits that chose last summer to stay the course as opposed to tinkering with the roster. I think OKC should instead look to be more like Toronto, a team that responded to early playoff defeats by swinging big when given the chance.
Fine-tuning is Presti’s only realistic option. George would fetch a ton in a trade, but he’s the best part of the team, he seems to be close with Westbrook, and again, he was balling before hurting his shoulder. There’s a case to be made for trading Russ, but he’s proven he can be an asset to a good team, and he and the organization clearly have a deep loyalty to one another, particularly after the Durant departure.
Elsewhere, Billy Donovan isn’t a bad coach, but he also hasn’t been able to find creative ways to lift the team the last two years. He stuck with Carmelo Anthony too long during the 2018 postseason, and this year, he probably waited a little bit too long to play smaller lineups against the Blazers. While roster construction is the main issue, Donovan needs to be more aggressive with his fixes. Maybe give more time to Jerami Grant at center, at least during fourth quarters. See if forcing the team to slow its pace will help curb some of Westbrook’s worst tendencies. There aren’t any easy answers for Donovan, but he also can’t come back next season with the same plan. And the Thunder would not be acting irrationally if they considered replacing him altogether.
Here is what’s for certain: OKC is locked into making the George-Westbrook tandem work. George is signed for at least two more seasons, with a player option for 2021-22. Getting PG to stay with the team last summer was a coup, and the team would be hard pressed to find another talent like him in the near future. Westbrook is signed for huge money through 2022, with a $46.7 million option for 2023. He’s not going anywhere for probably the rest of his career, which means the front office has no choice but to build a team that brings out the best in Russ. For three years now, OKC hasn’t been able to put that team together. It’s unclear what the ceiling of such a team would even be. But as long as Westbrook remains inflexible in his style of play, the Thunder need to be much more aggressive in making changes around him to figure out how to make this work.