The Thunder’s regular season is done, but before we look ahead to the playoffs, it might (I said might) do us well to take stock of where the team has come through these past 6 months and what it might tell us about what will come next. Or it could cause us to have to make another run to the local grocery for some more antacid tablets.
The WTLC team has some thoughts.
1. Where is your emotional state right now that OKC has avoided utter and total collapse and, not only has made the playoffs but somehow earned the right to host the 1st round of the playoffs?
RK Anthony - Like most Thunder fans, frustration ruled my emotions through most of the season. So much talent with so many bad losses and no one going ballistic at some point about it. I know Sam Presti is careful about what players he brings on board, but we are still talking about 15+ world-class athletes that aren’t accustomed to losing, especially when they should have the upper hand.
So I changed the question.
Instead of asking, ‘why is this team under-performing?’ I went to, ‘Why didn’t anyone seem upset about it?’ There can only be two possible answers to that question: they don’t care; or, they aren’t surprised by what’s happening.
The first answer is possible, but then we see the Thunder at Toronto and Thunder at Houston, so the players do care. That leaves us with the idea they aren’t surprised by what’s happening. And if they aren’t surprised, then this has all been a part of a plan. And if it’s part of a plan, then I should chill and see how it plays out.
I don’t care if anyone buys that or not, but I’ve slept better since the Houston game since adopting it.
Mark Bruty - If you would have told me that we would grab the 4th seed, take on a team that we have actually had some regular season success against AND have Paul George and Terrance Fergsuon hitting shots as we head to the business end of things, I would have been really pumped. So colour me pumped. I think we have a really great chance to make some noise here. The Jazz rely heavily on the second best rookie this year in Donovan Mitchell and I’m not sure how he stands up under the pressure of the playoffs. We have a GREAT chance.
Dom Flaim - Strangely content. I had predicted low 50s wins prior to the season and the 3rd seed. They ended up with 49 and the 4th seed despite missing Roberson for about 30 games, which I hadn’t accounted for. At this point, I can’t be anything but thrilled with where they are.
Ben Mertens - Here’s how I look at it. If you could be this Thunder team, with some big wins and also some really pathetic losses, or a more “consistent” team that won 50 games by beating the bad teams but losing to the good ones, which would you rather be? Consistency is nice, but to win in the playoffs, you need to be able to take it to another level, and the Thunder have flashed the ability to do that, however infrequently. Give me the Thunder over that hypothetical “consistent” team every time.
Isaiah Freedman - It’s pretty comical that after all the ups and downs and twists and turns of this crazy season, the Thunder ended up where they were expected to be: having home-court advantage in round 1. As always, this postseason will have massive implications on the team’s future. Flame out of the postseason early and Paul George is as good as gone. But make a sustained run, and there’s a very good chance the 27-year-old star returns.
Mark Gilbert- I expected the Thunder to make the playoffs, despite all of the adversity, trials and tribulations that the team went through this season. The team is simply too talented not to. The fact that they get to host the first round is a pleasant surprise though, and I could not be more elated. I will admit that I was the guy who wanted OKC to fall to the seventh seed so they could beat the Golden State Warriors in the first round, getting some sweet, sweet revenge. Guess I still need to go cancel my Ralph’s order of a dozen blue and gold cupcakes with snake confetti.
2. What was your Thunder apex moment during the season?
RK - The win at Toronto. That is when I started formulating “the Theory.” See previous question for details, and for sleeping better.
Bruty - The winning streak right before the Andre Roberson injury. THAT is exactly the type of team we wanted to be and we looked in sync and really dangerous. The two huge wins over the Golden State Warriors were delightful as well.
Dom - Probably the time in late January when it really looked like they finally had it all rolling, the defense was elite and locked in and Melo and George were hitting shots. Westbrook figured out his balance and they were top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. I’d finally come around to feeling seriously good this team was a contender by mid to late January.
Ben - The two dominant wins over the full strength Golden State Warriors showed exactly what this team can be when they give a damn and actually play up to their talent level. In those two games, they looked like legit contenders- and that’s what they can be, and I hope will be if Paul George returns this summer.
Isaiah - Definitely the Golden State shell-shacking. Paul George stifled Klay Thompson all night, then capped off one of his best nights of the season by displaying his full offensive arsenal. It offered a glimpse of how special this team could be. Alas, it was only a glimpse.
Gilbert -The first win against Golden State. Funny because their first win against the Warriors was sandwiched between two losses to the Pelicans and the Pistons. I don’t care what happened after that, I felt emboldened enough to proclaim that the Thunder can beat almost any team when they actually care. To me, it seems that they always rise to the occasion when the competition is at it’s apex.
3. What was your Thunder low point during the season?
RK - No brainer... when Robes went down. I love Corey Brewer, but he is no Robes. With Andre Roberson, the Thunder could shut down any opposing offense in the NBA and he provided enough on the other end to keep the Thunder offense moving. If I’m Sam Presti, Robes return is my hole card in this summer’s Paul George negotiations.
Bruty - The Roberson injury is probably right up there for me. We then saw just how valuable he was to the team and it’s been a pretty tough slog ever since. Another killer low point was losing that game to the Boston Celtics. We capitulated and that’s all there is to say about it. Totally choked the game away and it was far from pretty and in the context of the season, it had me worried.
Dom - Just after that apex! When Roberson went down there was a sudden loss of hope, but I gave it a few games. They beat the Sixers in a high scoring game and then it went off the rails. A lot of ugly wins and uglier losses that generally felt sloppy and lacked defensive focus and offensive execution. It went from contender to maybe out of the playoffs in a tight race within a month or so.
Ben: The Roberson injury. The 8-12 start was disheartening, but the Thunder performed well by net rating and other metrics during that time- they just got unlucky in close games (who can forget that Andrew Wiggins bank shot?) After Robes went down, the legitimately played like a lottery team for a straight month. They’ve stabilized with Corey Brewer joining, PG stepping up and Westbrook trying a little more, but the month of February was baaaaad, aside from that glorious win over Golden State.
Isaiah - Losing Andre Roberson to a season-ending knee injury. In my humble opinion, he was on track to become the Defensive Player of the Year. In the era of pace-and-space it has become harder than ever to contain explosive perimeter threats, yet Roberson has excelled at erasing a team’s best offensive option. He has been dearly missed.
Gilbert - I’m going to take the road less traveled here, and fall back on my first column for WLTC- Paul George will not be there for you. I went to Buffalo Wild Wings, ordered the biggest batch of lemon pepper wings in the house, snuck in some thin mints (it was girl scout season) and had a nice margarita, all in preparation for this 3-0 smack down that the Thunder were about to lay on the Warriors. Then PG let me down, contributing five points to the game, resulting in a loss. This was the cause of my transient trepidation for the rest of the season, wondering if Westbrook would have enough offensive help to beat teams in the playoffs.
4. How did your perception of the team’s prospects this year contrast with previous years?
RK - Possibly the most complex question in Round Table history because my perception changed with this team with each trade Sam Presti pulled off.
Before June 30th and expecting the return of the “Young Guns,” I felt the team would improve merely as a result of maturing and Victor Oladipo’s Twitter pic showing his sculpted new bod 3 weeks after 2017 season ended. I’ll always wonder how that bunch would have done had Presti stayed the course.
Post PG trade. After Ray Felton and Patrick Patterson signed on I got really pumped about this season. Fats solved the Semaj problem. Not dogging Semaj as the kid gave it all he had and exposed some other guards the Thunder had on board as wannabes. And 2Pat looked like an upgrade on Taj Gibson (was unaware of his knee issues at the time). George is not #35, but he would bring a scorer with some gravity to create space the Thunder didn’t have in 2017.
Then came Melo. And my expectations and sleeping patterns have been on an old wooden roller-coaster ride ever since.
Bruty - I thought this year we may have won 55 games where as last year I knew we didn’t have a 50 win team. However, it took a while to gel and we lost a HEAP of close games (I think it’s something like 16 games within 5 points or less). So I tempered my expectations over the past couple of seasons, but in my gut, I feel that this team when on song, can honestly come out of the West and take home an NBA Title.
Dom - I expected more this year than last (and by SRS they’ve been quite a bit better), but less than the years prior. At this point, though the team mostly lacks a ton of younger prospects so hopefully George sticks around as otherwise, things are going to get weird really fast.
Ben - A million times better than last year, where the ceiling was always a first round exit, no matter how high Russ flew. But lower than the KD years, where the Thunder felt like contenders as long as they were healthy. This team, with so many new parts, had the talent to be contenders, but only if they gelled, and learning to play together takes a long time. even the Lebron Heat didn’t win their first year together, so title or bust always felt extreme. A first round exit would be a huge disappointment for such a talented team. A conference semifinals or finals lost to Houston or Golden State was always the most likely outcome that I’d be happy with. Hopefully Paul George feels the same.
Isaiah - To be perfectly honest? None. Throughout the Durant years, the ceiling was always a championship. And while this version of the Thunder is slightly less talented than the Peak KD years, they still have an enormous amount of talent and have a legitimate shot to win it all. George is basically 90 percent Durant’s production while Steven Adams has blossomed into one of the NBA’s best centers. I still perceive a potential champion.
Gilbert - Much better than last year, and probably equivalent to how I felt the 2015-2016 season, and the 2012-2013 season before Westbrook tore his meniscus against the Rockets. Barring any injuries or unexpected snake bites, the Thunder always find a way to compete for a championship.
5. What happens next?
RK - Call me a cock-eyed optimist, I don’t care. I’m ridin’ with Russ:
Westbrook doesn't mince words when asked what this Thunder team is capable of..... pic.twitter.com/UrXRrxxvXY— RKAnthony (@RKAnthonyWTLC) April 12, 2018
Bruty - The Thunder will take care of business within 6 and await the outcome of the Rockets and Timberwolves. Everyone thinks that’s a wash for Houston but Harden and Chris Paul are really shaky in the playoffs and they may have lost Mbah a Moute with a shoulder injury and he is a key piece to the puzzle. I wouldn’t mind seeing those teams beat each other up for 7 games before advancing. I think OKC can take out Houston or Minnesota but it will take some really disciplined play. For what it’s worth, I also think Paul George sees just how good this team can be next season having built off this inaugural one, and he stays.
Dom - At this point I’ve been through 6 months of trying to figure that part out. Mentally I can’t do it anymore, so screw it I’m just along for the ride.
Ben - A tough but winnable series against the Jazz, and then hopefully a trip to Houston for another face-off with Harden.
Isaiah - The Thunder should beat the Jazz in either six or seven games, then they will probably have a matchup with the Houston Rockets. They may be second-round outs, and it’s undetermined if that’s enough to keep George in town. But if he elects to stay, the Thunder have the three most important team building positions locked up; a superstar facilitator (Westbrook), wing star (George) and rim-running big man (Adams). Filling out a team around that core is easy. All of the hard work is done. But lose George, and the Thunder would have one of the worst wing rotations in the league. Once again, OKC is in for a fascinating postseason. Buckle up.
Gilbert - I don’t know. The west is wild man. Ostensibly, the Thunder have a tough road to prosperity. I mean we are looking at the Jazz, then Rockets, and the Warriors theoretically if they make it that far. If I’m going off of logic, then they advance to the next round and have a game seven in Houston, which is up for anyone to grab. You know what? I’ll go on a limb here. They will advance to the Western Conference Finals and if the Warriors are there, then let’s talk then. But for now, I’m just going to sit back and mind my business.