Breakup or Make-Up: The Safe and Extreme Fixes For the Oklahoma City Thunder

We’re still on our NBA journey. The playoffs have begun, and sixteen teams vie for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Fifteen teams will join the other fourteen non-playoff teams as those who did not win the championship. If a team did not win the title, then that means adjustments must be made in order to best position themselves to win next year. Here at TSFJ, we are going to present ways each franchise can fix themselves. We will have a safe way and an extreme way to do this. Sometimes, relationships just need repair. Other times, a breakup in some form is necessary. We continue with the seventh team eliminated from the postseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Record: 48-34. 4th seed, Western Conference
Head Coach: Scott Br-, uh, Billy Donovan
Playoff Result: Lost 1st Round, 4-2, to the Utah Jazz. (Beaten in 6/8 time)

It is paramount to begin the body of this piece acknowledging the fact that Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for a second-straight season. Proper credit should be given while great players are still great, and not just appreciated with nostalgia. However you feel about Russ, and he certainly doesn’t care, should not keep anyone from praising him for a feat never before seen. Congrats, Russ. You deserve it.

The season started with so much promise. A year after Kevin Durant left for sunnier times by The Bay and became a champion, and Russell Westbrook had the most energy-consuming season in the history of the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder were desperate for hope. General manager Sam Presti, who managed to go from having four Olympians on his roster to one while keeping his job, traded for both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. With Paul George in his prime and Melo in his hoodie, Russell Westbrook regained the help he didn’t have in 2016-17.

Of course, based on previous All-Star trios, it would take time for them to figure out how to effectively play well together. Surprisingly, OKC’s defense was formidable, with Paul George leading the way. There was even a brief period of time where Westbrook, George and Anthony were averaging the same amount of points on the same amount of shots. The effort to compromise and sacrifice was there all season, even with Melo scoffing at the idea of coming off the bench. He also understood that he needs to step back and fill a role.

But something wasn’t quite right. The gelling never fully took hold. And they lost to a better-constructed team, with players who better grasped their respective roles. Russell Westbrook, in all his heroic splendor, couldn’t lead the Thunder to four victories against the Utah Jazz.

So how do they fix it?

The Safe Fix
The Make-up Song: SiR – “Love You”

Chemistry isn’t something that is acquired immediately. Even when two or more people “click” instantly, those people must continue to work towards learning each others’ various idiosyncrasies. There were times that the Oklahoma City Thunder looked like what we hoped they’d consistently look like — explosive and unstoppable. Scoring 148 points in the regulated 48 minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers, even with all of Cleveland’s woes this season, is as impressive a team feat there has been this year.

Westbrook, George and Anthony are willing to make it work. If everyone remains on the team (specifically, if George doesn’t go someplace else via free agency), that roster still has more top-end talent than most teams in the NBA. Some small tinkering with the rest of rotation, like another backcourt offensive threat, and Oklahoma City is more than in contention for a title.

The Extreme Fix
The Breakup Song: Mint Condition – “Nothing Left To Say”

Billy Donovan replaced Scott Brooks in what appears to be only as a different person as coach of the Thunder. While there may be a different offensive system, Donovan has done little to maximize his best players. It seems OKC just relies on the sheer energy and will of Russell Westbrook to turn raw power into a victory. Billy Donovan didn’t do much to define roles for his players, thus leaving them to determine those roles themselves.

There is also the matter of those three players: Westbrook, George and Anthony. Though their respective games are different, they share one commonality: each of them need the ball to be most effective. Each of them require the ball, particularly in isolation situations, and make their offensive impact through a high volume of shot attempts. Because each of them have been number one options on former teams, they’re used to being able to shoot their way into a rhythm. It’s much harder for a player used to having the offense run through him to adjust to having to wait for a play to be made for them. For perspective, know who really thrived with three ball-dominant players on the floor? Steven Adams. The reason why is he understands that plays will be made for him if he places himself in a position to receive a pass.

Sometimes, even though the effort is there, things just don’t work. Maybe Paul George needs to be allowed to sign with another team. Or maybe Carmelo Anthony needs to understand he’s well past his prime, and if he wants to stubbornly hang onto nostalgic fantasies of still being a main option, then he can try that somewhere else. Or maybe, both of those scenarios need to happen. Either way, all the components didn’t quite come together. That means the formula is wrong.

I don’t have the perfect formula to change the Thunder from another first round loss to champion in one year, but something must change. Happy NBA, folks.

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