On May 24th, 2016, The Oklahoma City Thunder walk off the court of the Chesapeake Arena, having pushed the defending champion, NBA record 73 win, Golden State Warriors to the brink. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook led the way, with Westbrook putting up a triple double. The franchise’s second finals berth in 4 years seemed inevitable. And here we are, 3 years later. That 24 point victory would be Kevin Durant’s last for the franchise that drafted him. The thunder would go on to blow a 3-1 series lead, only the 10th occurrence of such a collapse in league history, but largely forgotten, due to the same Warriors falling in the finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers after building a 3-1 game lead. Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors, who are now 2 time defending champs.
That Western Conference Finals season was Billy Donovan’s first with the franchise, having almost taken the Thunder to the promised land. This was following the firing of Scott Brooks, who missed the playoffs in his final season with the team. That team was DOA in the 2014-15 season with Durant missing most of the season. In the 3 seasons since Durant left, the Thunder have won 47, 48, and 49 games. In 17 and 18, they bowed out in the first round, and are currently in an 0-2 hole to the Portland Trail Blazers. In that same time, Russell Westbrook has an averaged a triple double in ALL THREE of these seasons, a feat only ever accomplished by Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62, and Westbrook has now done it for 3 straight years. He won the MVP for the 2016-17 season. Never the most efficient shooter, Westbrook’s 3 point percentage has declined each of the last 3 season. Perhaps more concerning is the decline in his free throw percentage, which crashed down to 66% this season. His true shooting percentage (Points/ 2(FGA+(.44xFTA)x100)), has also declined each of the last 3 seasons. Over his entire career, the Thunder are 110 and 28 in the games where he has accrued a triple double. This has not amounted to prolific regular season success, where the Thunder have finished as the 6th, 4th, and now 6th seed in these last seasons. There’s even less post-season success, where the Thunder have not gotten past the first round in this span.
Westbrook and the Thunder agreed to a 5 year, $205 million super max contract extension, which kicked in just this year. The Thunder traded for Indiana Pacers star, Paul George the same summer. They signed George to a max extension in the summer of 18 as well. George has been a boon for the team, but he has faded as the year goes on. Both are excellent players, but the Thunder find themselves in the position of being stuck in the NBA’s middle tier wasteland, good enough to get to the playoffs, but doomed to not win the finals. Blessed with two All-NBA level players, a solid coach, and a decent supporting cast. This writer is a massive fan of Steven Adams and all his kiwiness. But there are deep issues within the franchise. Some of this is due to success, resulting in lower draft picks, but also to poor drafting. They have drafted incredibly poorly since 2013, when Adams was selected. The only NBA level player selected since was Domantas Sabonis, who went to Indiana as a result of the George trade. And this is from the franchise that selected Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Jeff Green, and Reggie Jackson in years prior. And the elephant in the NBA room now is that the James Harden trade looks SO bad for OKC as the years have passed. Since they traded Harden to Houston, he has evolved into an MVP level player, and the Houston Rockets are prepared to advance to the second round. This is clear hindsight bias, and enough hand wringing has been done over this trade but it always bares worth repeating.
This organization is in a tough spot. Their series is not over by any means. The Westbrook-George duo may have a miraculous upset in their future. They are both great players but it may not be enough to overcome some franchise mismanagement, such as the move to employ Carmelo Anthony, and bad contracts like Dennis Schröder’s 3 year $46 million deal. Injuries to key role players such as Andre Roberson have also hurt. Now both George and Westbrook have huge contracts. George may be injured goods. His shoulder injury derailed the Thunder’s excellent start to this year. They finished 12 and 13 post All-Star break. They are floating, but find themselves hamstrung by financial obligations. George and Westbrook alone will count against 48% of the team’s salary cap for the 2019-2020 season. This will make bringing in another star a challenge. The Thunder control their first round pick this year, but do not have a second round pick. The next season, they owe a top 20 protected pick to the Philadelphia 76ers’, but have their second rounder and a top 55 protected second rounder from the Chicago Bulls. This lack of draft capital, coupled with their recent streak of poor drafting, make this avenue of improvement also more difficult.
The Thunder have two star players, but it is looking more and more like they will not be enough to lead a team to a title. They may be closer to 2a and 2b players than a true number one. Being in the Western Conference makes the road to a title paved in a hyper competitive top 8, riddled with brutal playoff series for all involved. NBA teams have to pay their elite players what they are worth, but now the Thunder are now massively committed to an aging, increasingly inefficient guard, and an injury prone forward. Again, these are both excellent players, but this is reality for the Thunder. Another star may become available for the Thunder to make a swing at, or they could strike gold in the draft. Yet, for the time being, it seems as if the Thunder will be stuck in that NBA no man’s land, of being just not good enough to go all the way. They could also shock the league. For the meanwhile, we can enjoy watching a fun competitive team, led by someone who appears to be on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Featured Image: Deadspin
Written by: Austen Johnson (@TheMackAttack5)