The Oklahoma City Thunder have reached their third-straight off-season prior to the month of May. Other than the first year after Kevin Durant left for Golden State, there have been two straight years of high expectations ending in disappointment. More specifically, a first-round exit.
As the Los Angeles Clippers are currently fighting, giving the dynasty that are the Golden State Warriors all they can handle in the first round of the playoffs, with no NBA all-stars on their roster, OKC couldn’t muster up two wins against a literally crippled Portland Trail Blazers team. Any and everyone that calls themselves a Thunder fan is frustrated with the direction the franchise is headed, and that is completely justified on the surface.
Although OKC’s roster, outside of the top five, is severely feeble and inexperienced, the combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schröder off the bench should suffice for a first-round victory, but there are multiple things that aren’t up-to-snuff. The bench is one of those things.
I’ve spent a lot of time this season being critical of the way Sam Presti constructed this team. After covering OKC since the 2014-2015 season, I’ve witnessed the transformative process. I’ve witnessed first-hand the transition period from OKC’s honeymoon phase, where deep playoff runs were expected, to the reality phase, where things have turned left for the franchise after Kevin Durant. One of the main things I’ve been able to observe is the culture surrounding the franchise, which has changed. Before, the Thunder’s bottom line was community and team-basketball. Now, while the Thunder still take their outside community seriously, the community within the franchise doesn’t mirror that.
Losing Durant was heartbreaking for a fanbase that didn’t know the first thing about being a real NBA city. They haven’t grown accustomed to that life quite yet. Oklahoma was a college state. You fell in love with college athletes and followed them throughout their professional careers. Now, things are different. Trust me, I know. I’m born, raised and still live in OKC. General Manager Sam Presti saw the impact the loss of Durant had on the city, plus the hindsight of trading James Harden and he couldn’t let that happen again, so everything was geared towards being able to keep their last star from those honeymoon days; Westbrook.
The Westbrook resigning was one of the biggest, exulting moments for the organization and the city. What they didn’t notice was that it set the stage for a potentially toxic situation; the complete abandonment of team basketball and culture centered around community, by worshiping their loyal star. Westbrook deserves all the praise and then some for being loyal to the franchise. He’s the last of a dying breed. But the way the franchise has reacted to his decision has hurt them in the long run, evidenced by their latest first-round exit.
OKC’s roster fully reflects their new focus as well. While trying to build their next championship contending team, the Thunder are overly top-heavy. Outside of Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, Jerami Grant, and Dennis Schröder, this roster is lacking. Terrance Ferguson has shown signs of improvement from his rookie season, which is promising, but as far as the rest of the roster goes, something has to give.
The thing is, Thunder fans deserve to know what direction Sam Presti is trying to go in. Is this a rebuild, or are they trying to contend for a championship? Because right now, looking at the roster on paper, it looks like the Thunder are trying to develop strong core around two superstars. If that’s the case, then Thunder fans deserve to know that’s the direction the franchise is headed. But if not, Sam Presti has to look for some still-productive veteran pieces to pair with Westbrook and George if they seriously want to compete for a title or better yet, get out of the first round in the immediate future.
Of those still-productive veterans, the Thunder desperately have to acquire shooters. I’ll save the possible acquisitions for later, but that’s OKC’s biggest need this offseason because their three-point shooting was the most significant flaw in the series with Portland. That’s if Presti and Co. are serious about trying to win a championship during Westbrook and George’s prime years because that window is definitely closing for Westbrook, who will be 31 in November.
Something else that was popular among Thunder fans when things went wrong this season was the firing of Billy Donovan. His questionable in-game decisions were an issue all season, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he’s never had the same roster in his three years as head coach. He really hasn’t been able to settle in and get comfortable with his supporting cast. What changed my opinion a bit was the exit interviews on Thursday morning. The end narrative on Donovan by a few Thunder players were “I like Billy, but…” There seemed to be an asterisk next to each compliment regarding OKC’s third-year head coach. Dennis Schröder may have had the most insightful quote from the exit interview.
Comparing him to his former coach for more than half of the quote and then ending saying that sometimes, he listens to the players too much is a telling statement by Schröder. It also explains a few of his decisions this year. Perhaps, Donovan isn’t aggressive enough to manage two NBA all-stars.
Not to mention, Markieff Morris’ comments about not receiving enough playing time in his short stint in OKC tells a story of its own.
The Thunder are a legitimate bench away from being a contender again, but right now they are just an average NBA playoff team. The Thunder need an identity check. They also have to make the tough decision whether or not they want to continue heading down this path being good enough to make a nice profit, but not making the sacrifices needed to get back to those honeymoon days.