The Oklahoma City Thunder finished second in the NBA this season with a 59-23 record and took the San Antonio Spurs to six games in the Western Conference Finals. We can call it a successful season even though they couldn't live up to their own title expectations.
And still, there's a nagging feeling with this team that they still aren't all that close to breaking through and getting their championship.
It's weird to conceptualize, because look at where they're standing! An extra made shot or a foul call here or there, and the Thunder could've been playing in Game 7 against the Spurs Monday night. The smart betting probably would've leaned towards the Spurs' favor in that game, but both teams would've had a very graspable chance of winning if it came to down to just one final winner-takes-all game.
But, watching the Spurs disassemble the Thunder in this series was an experience of realization. The Thunder were beat by the Spurs because they were a worse team, not because of bad luck with injuries or missed shots. They were dominated without Ibaka, and even after Ibaka's return, they couldn't gut it out after the Spurs adjusted.
More than most other teams, the Thunder are reliant on the fuel of star talent, because they have little else to offer after that. There was no greater example than seeing the 107 points the Thunder scored in the deciding Game 6 come from five players; 102 of them from Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson.
A beautiful product makes every blemish stand out more, and right now, no team's blemishes seem a greater obstacle in the way of success than the Thunder with their dependence upon their stars. In his exit interview on Sunday, Derek Fisher put it concisely, saying, "The toughest distance to make up is that little bit there at the end. Whatever happens going forward, we just have to figure out a way to get those last inches."
Star talent gets you really far in the NBA. In fact, having superstars (plural) is a vital and rarely omissible element of building a championship winner. Teams built like the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons rarely win it all. Having a LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh or a Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili core is pretty much a given for the majority of title winners. The Thunder should pat themselves on the back for building one in Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. But the weight of your players' names alone can't win you championships. When the playoff field gets narrowed in the later rounds, you're going to start running into other teams with power hitters of their own, and they'll cancel each other out for the other factors to swing the needle.
Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are a greater core of star talent than Parker, Duncan and Ginobili in 2014. I'm not ready to dethrone the Miami Heat's Big Three yet, but a conversation could be made for the Thunder having the most talented trio in the league these days. However, even if they won't be canceled out to a zero (hi, Game 4), the ability of the Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka trio to dominate reduces when they go up against cores of similar strength and the other factors begin to hold more carry.
And no team pays more attention to "the other factors" than the Spurs, built upon the principles of Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford. From the sixth man through to the end of the bench, any player can come on the court and fend off a group of Thunder stars that has to play 40+ minutes (even 50 in an overtime game), allowing Parker/Duncan/Ginobili to gain the advantage of rest. The Thunder's counter to two blowouts to start the series was Ibaka's return, and when the Spurs reached for Diaw as the counter-counter, the Thunder had nothing else to pull out.
Without that next dimension to their roster, the Thunder will have a hard time overcoming the league's best cores as powerful as their own is. As great as this team is, they are all too linear in their approach. When it comes to a seven-game playoff series against those teams with more sides after the stars that got them there, the Thunder's lack of 'more' becomes exposed.
With offense, the team literally foregoes advanced X-and-O's in favor of a basic "get the ball to Durant or Westbrook" strategy. They choose to swallow the loss of effective X-and-O's because "get the ball to Durant or Westbrook" has kept them in the top-6 league-wide in offensive rating since 2010-11. Where Durant and Westbrook are good enough to make something out of nothing, the Thunder can retain a coaching staff led by Scott Brooks that has correlated with team success despite limited playbook creativity. It's where the Thunder meet the selective next level of NBA teams that Durant and Westbrook stop being good enough to make something out of nothing that the team's success hits a barrier.
If you subtract the impact of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder are left with Reggie Jackson on his rookie contract, and a combination of young players still trying to piece it together plus old players trying to hold it together. The greatest attribute of those group of players is, by design, a bounty of wingspan and athleticism, which Brooks and his crew has leveraged into a defense just about as great as their offense – the greatest contribution of the guys not wearing 35, 0 or 9 on their jerseys.
As you saw from the first two games of the Spurs-Thunder series, however, even that strength revolves around having one of the team's stars: Ibaka and his shot-blocking presence. And, much like everything else built on a bargain, it can be picked apart under a close eye. The weakness of the Thunder's length and athleticism is where it comes from those young players or veterans, and precise ball movement trumps rookie mistakes and faded veteran athleticism.
It's not shocking, of course. Of the $70,615,462 in salaries that went against the cap this season, $44,876,533 of that came from the eight-digit contracts of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. That's 63.6% of outgoing salaries coming from their contracts alone, and it leaves the Thunder with a little more than $25 million under the luxury cap threshold to fill out the rest of the roster. Good luck finding impact players with that sort of a budget, especially when you pay $8.7 million ($9.4 million next year!) to Kendrick Perkins. And to be fair, the Perkins extension might've been their only obvious mistake in building this team.
This is an organization that prizes flexibility, and it speaks volumes that they don't have much of it right now. Nearly half of their roster is on a rookie contract, and they're still limited in what they can do. The Thunder will try to figure out how to improve this team and make the leap back to the Finals and further, but the road ahead is uncertain and difficult.
People are going to want changes around the stars after they looked so unsupported in Game 6, but the lack of financial flexibility hurts. With $68.8 million already on the books this offseason after the contracts of Thabo Sefolosha, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher expire (also impact players that will need to be replaced in the rotation), the Thunder are going to go into free agency with a hand tied behind their back even after the projected salary cap/tax level rise. They might not keep both of their first round picks (22nd and 29th overall) this year with so many young guys already lurking in the wings, but signing those two picks would add about $2 million altogether. Even amnestying Perkins doesn't really create cap flexibility unless they make more salary-dumping trades. Not easy to do, without actual salaries to dump after the money already committed to the stars.
The improvement arc of the young guys currently littered near the end of the bench will be huge. Jeremy Lamb is close if he can find the three-point shot and put in some work on defense, but Perry Jones III and especially Andre Roberson appear further off. The Thunder's offseason assets currently consist of those three, the Mid-Level Exception (which they can safely use this year without fear of the luxury tax) and their two first-round picks. Not much, unfortunately, and the faintest hope is that they can address the three-point shooting need.
The bigger and even more difficult questions will revolve around Scott Brooks and the team's superstars, more foundational points that will have a greater impact. I'm not so certain that Brooks' job is in as much danger as people seem to think after how far he's taken this team from 23 wins in 2008-09 (read the first paragraph of this post again!), but he does represent the easiest change the Thunder can make right now. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've seen that his offense is bland to the point of setting his team back at points, especially in late-game scenarios. Durant and Westbrook can only bail you out of so much.
The problem with replacing Brooks is that there might not be a clearly better option on the market right now. Coaching can be a difficult thing to judge, but the only name I'd say is clearly an upgrade and without a coaching job today is Jeff van Gundy. After that, you're looking at gambles on names like George Karl (popular, but I'm not sold), Mike D'Antoni or one of the many assistant coaches waiting their turn at a head coaching job (David Fizdale? Nate McMillan?). Given that list, I'll pass and stick with continuity.
If there's no clear answer in the team's depth or by firing the coach, then the conversation is going to flip to the Thunder's stars themselves. Though they're the team's core, we can't just stick the 'star talent' label on them and then leave them be as they are.
The idea of trading Westbrook is one that seems to keep coming up, and no matter what Twitter bots will have you think, I'm staunchly against it. He's a wildcard that does some really dumb things on the court sometimes and generally is good at being difficult to like, but he's also a borderline top-5 NBA player. You're not getting anything better than Westbrook by trading him.
Here's a less extreme idea: maybe the Thunder should just get someone accountable on its superstars. It's a vague solution and it might not be a particularly reassuring since there's not really any tangible to track it except for the win-loss columns, but considering this team's flaws, it might be the greatest one that setting them back. You could complain about a lot of things in regards to how this team plays, but none of it is more deserving and more important than the criticism of its stars given how much they're paid to be the, well, stars.
Maybe that's a bit unfair, considering Durant was the MVP and I just called Westbrook a top-5 guy. But, just as the Spurs defeat was an experience of realization about this team's dependence on star talent, it was also one of the flaws of the team's stars and why they haven't managed to trump the rest of the league's stars in the title chase. There's no greater contrast between the Thunder's stars, insanely talented but fraught with bad habits, and the Spurs' stars whom are so well-managed by Popovich that they continue playing at a level past their independent talent in their 30s.
It's little things really, but the little things make the difference at this stage. We see too many plays on both ends where Durant becomes a spectator, standing way behind the three-point line on offense and not even getting into a spot-up stance at times or ball-watching with his knees straight while off the ball on defense. Westbrook takes too many pull-up threes early in the shot clock and is too eager (or confident in his ability) to make the flashy but ultimately lazy shortcut in a play. Even Ibaka, a clear tier below Durant and Westbrook, should really learn to be good at doing things other than catching and shooting when the basketball is in his hands after five years in the NBA.
If Brooks can't get on his stars for their bad habits while they get paid nearly two-thirds of the team's total player salaries, he's going to be the final barrier in the way of this team. There's no way for us to know the coaching dynamic between Brooks and his players, but if he can't get them to clean up the decision-making, then the Thunder will need to take a gamble on a different coach to find someone who can. This team's core means too much to its success to let them sit on their ability to out-talent 95% of the team while losing to the more well-managed 5%. I don't believe in the idea of "a guy who just wins", but there is a ceiling cap on superstars with bad habits in this league and that's when they meet superstars without bad habits.
But again, managing stars and cutting out bad habits can be vague and difficult to track. For the sake of appearances and even for their own comfort, as much effort will be spent something more tangible like a free agent signing. As long as they make the decisions that they think can remove the barrier between them and a team like the Spurs, there's a number of avenues they can explore. But the pressure is starting to ramp up now.
Durant has two seasons left on his contract, and Westbrook and Ibaka both have three. If the Thunder can't win a title or even get back to the Finals, the talk of Durant to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016 is going to pick up some very tangible ammo, and there's no telling what Westbrook and Ibaka choose with their own careers if one of the league's best players (maybe even the best by then) leaves. The final worst case scenario where the Thunder lose their stars means they lose the backbone that they've relied for the past half-decade, and it's starting to get alarmingly real.
The Thunder have been tame in recent offseasons, and that's fine. Last year with the Westbrook injury was plain bad luck, something they were supposed to get past by this season. They did get past it, and extended this season further into the playoffs. This time, that revealed more weaknesses, and that means this offseason is the one where the Thunder need to seriously analyze themselves. This wasn't a loss because of bad luck, but it was because the Spurs are a clear level better.
The Thunder don't need to start acting for a post-Durant future yet, and the big change isn't necessary this offseason. They do need to start acting now though, big or small, to prevent a post-Durant future from coming sooner than they'd want it to. As talented as they are now, their greatest fear is to rest on the core they've gathered and forego the dimensionality of basketball.