It’s the end of the road. The Oklahoma City Thunder have just fallen to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, finishing a season that started with uncertainty but resulted in a fair degree of success and sensational subplots.
Following a brave first-round effort, the team has been welcomed home as only the Thunder can be – at the airport to a resounding applause. Meanwhile, the exit interviews have been conducted, and now we turn our attention to the draft and off-season.
Before we do, though, it would be remiss to not briefly reflect upon the season that was. So here are my musings in the form of an Oklahoma City Thunder roster construct:
Russell Westbrook. He’s the kind of guy you want on your side. He won’t give up, he won’t sell you out, he will go to war with you each and every night. His season was incredible for a number of reasons, the gaudy numbers, the history that was created, the way he went about putting this team on his back. We won’t see another season like this in a long time – not from Russ, not from anyone. It was astonishing to watch.
Resilience. When you lose a guy like KD and still only see an 8 game drop in wins, then that’s impressive. However, when you factor in the injury to Enes Kanter and the time missed by Victor Oladipo, it’s quite remarkable.
Stats only tell part of the story. Don’t for one second let the numbers fool you. Steven Adams is still a standout big man in this league and a perfect fit for the Oklahoma City Thunder. And he’s improving. He gives you his all, and though it might not appear in the boxscore, you need to appreciate Funaki.
The young talent on this Thunder roster is a plus. Yes, raw and inconsistent, but loaded with skills, and now invaluable on-job experience. Domantas Sabonis, Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant – each are excellent pieces to develop.
Billy Donovan is a terrific coach. You may not like some of the decisions, you may not like his rotations and you may question his authority, but I guarantee you, he is an astute basketball brain. Donovan’s initial learning curve proved rigorous —in no small part because of July 6, 2016— but his sideline tact will only improve. He guided the Thunder (just as much as Russ did) to the 6th seed in a stacked Western Conference and could have ascended even higher if it weren’t for injuries. Don’t lay the easy blame on Donovan.
The trade deadline move to secure Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott was shrewd. Gibson found his feet quickly and gave the Thunder a huge boost. McDermott was decent in spurts and will improve as he becomes accustomed to the new team / game style. And if he improves his defence – look out.
Roberson: A lot has been made of Oklahoma City’s shortcomings at the small forward spot; but there are more pressing roster weaknesses to address. Back up point guard for one. The good news is that these roles are replaceable, and Presti won’t enter this off-season without contemplating appropriate moves.
People want to pile on Andre Roberson, but the guy is a defensive specialist who improved his offence as the season progressed. He is still very much in need of shot development, but the signs trend in a positive direction. Shooting struggles aside, the guys Roberson opposes have nightmares before playing OKC – I could almost guarantee that.
We’ve probably seen the last of Nick Collison as an NBA player. But, moving forward I would love to see him on the sidelines with the coaching staff. A terrific character, and true professional, he will be missed within the playing group. Let’s hope OKC can find a role for him and that St Nick accepts it.
So there you have it – a quick snapshot of the season that was for the Oklahoma City Thunder. An incredible season that saw a tonne of new guys come and play in Loud City while giving their all.
But now to the most important question – what next?
Looking ahead. While it is lovely to sit and read some intriguing (if largely impossible) scenarios of Blake Griffin and Paul George coming to play alongside Russell Westbrook, the reality is the Thunder are in for a difficult summer.
A lot of money is already tied up in the core of Russ, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams, not to mention the contracts of Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and the impending “offer sheet” scenario facing the team’s payroll with Andre Roberson.
It’s not the ideal situation to be in and is going to take some shrewd “GM’ing” from Sam Presti to significantly improve the roster without asking Clay Bennett to pony up the luxury tax cash (which we all know is never going to happen).
But as Presti has shown all along, (and you can argue the Harden trade until you’re blue in the face) he knows how to make this team better and how to ensure they stay successful for the long term.
Kanter. The elephant in the room is Enes Kanter. Thunder fans love the guy, he is a wonderful personality, plays his heart out in limited minutes and is an exceptional teammate – but the fact is he can’t be utilised without floor spacers to allow him additional freedom, and his defence is costly.
The quandary here is that without moving Kanter’s contract, you’re not in position to significantly improve your floor spacing with shooters. It’s a tough line to take – especially since Kanter wants to stay with OKC, but if you are truly wanting to improve on the 6th seed and first-round exit, it has to be looked at.
Gibson. That task may be simplified if Taj Gibson decides to stick around. For me, this is the one free agent you really want to entice to stay. The 31-year-old veteran is humble, professional and reliable. He doesn’t complain, plays his role, and is a good mid-range shooter with soft touch around the rim and defensive skills.
He is the “next” Nick Collison, and I’d love it if Presti could find a way to keep him. He seemed to like OKC. I am sure he wants to finish his career playing a valuable role for a contender. We just have to hope that everything marries up and Taj is back next season.
Youth movement and upcoming draft. The rest of the development HAS to come from the young guys. Crazy talent, but incredibly young and inconsistent. The Thunder may or may not keep their first round pick, but if they do, they will want to draft well. It’s a pretty stacked draft – even if the talent pool is top heavy – so you can (and the Thunder have in the past) find value outside of the lottery.
They will have to do that again to ensure future growth and development. But if they can get a guy who is ready to play right away, then that’s a bonus. (I’ve seen a range of Mock Drafts and names such as Tyler Lydon, Dwayne Bacon, OG Anunoby, Terrance Ferguson etc. have been mentioned).
Let’s recap the main points:
- The Thunder are close, but need to provide Westbrook with additional help.
- There isn’t a lot of available money to make a splash unless someone gets dealt —and that is most likely Kanter.
- Roberson will command decent money – will OKC match?
- What will the Thunder do with their first round pick. Keep it? Trade it? Try move up?
- This is still a very good team, very well run and well coached. It’s an enforced rebuild. Don’t talk blow up just yet.
- There is plenty of work to do this off-season, in the front office and in the gym. And it starts now. I can’t wait for the next episode, to see how this franchise moves forward after such a tumultuous, yet historic campaign.
Two steps forward, one step back. OKC took the hit, Westbrook ensured it didn’t floor the franchise, and now we can expect to see the improvement – whatever that may look like.