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WTLC Roundtable: This is the end, my only friend, the end

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The Thunder have run out of chances, so we look to the past and to the future to see what happens next.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The WTLC team offers our final thoughts on the series gone by and the series to come that won’t involve the Thunder. Feel free to grab a glass; I have mine. You can keep the ice.

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1. Now that the Thunder are eliminated and the season has culminated in profound, if unsurprising disappointment, how should the Thunder view themselves?

R.K. Anthony - If the 2016/17 team was considered a failure for not making it past the first round, then how does a team with the talent this team had rate? A disaster?

Personally, I think the team last year went about as far as they could go, and this team, at the very least, was a major disappointment. Further, as much as it pains me to say it, the lion’s share of responsibility for this disaster falls on Sam Presti. Many will point the finger at Billy Donovan, but I ask you, who hired him?

Donovan is an excellent college coach and that is no small thing. But like so many excellent college coaches before him, he wasn’t able to transition to the NBA level and the circumstances in which he was hired didn’t help.

I will forever wonder how this season and the future would have played out had Presti not made the trade for Paul George.

Ben Mertens - They should view themselves as a okay team that has the potential to be great, but needs to make a lot of changes to get there. The fact that they had the potential to be great and didn’t get there means they should look at this year as a failure. You learn from failure though, and if this team can learn from it’s failures, they can reach that next level we all hoped to see when this roster first came together.

The core of this team — Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, and Paul George (if he stays) have the chance to be something special, but all 3 of them need to adjust their games. Russ needs to be more disciplined with his shot selection and figure out ways to occasionally be effective off the ball. Adams needs to continue improve his offensive game to the point where he counts as a true third option. George needs to find a little more consistently and find more ways to integrate himself into the offense. Do all that, and the role players will follow your lead (unless of course, one of them think he’s still a star and not a role player, all evidence to the contrary). If the 3 of them can improve and learn to play off each other more, I still believe this can be the core of a 55 win team. But if Paul George leaves and a certain someone else opts in, things don’t look nearly as rosy.

Mark Bruty - Season One. I keep coming back to that phrase and while the names were there, the games just weren’t. We didn’t see enough of the “good Thunder” for a variety of reasons and while my expectations were always curbed from the outset (just understanding the process of trying to implement three ball dominant guys into an offence, manage egos, change roles of players who’ve been playing for 25 years etc) I still feel a little cheated. Largely, that stems from a couple of factors - the Roberson injury was the key point and really summed up the season. Just as OKC got rolling, SOMETHING derailed the progress. We’d see it nightly as Russ deferred to try and involve the team, we saw Melo struggle with his role and then excel at times in the spot up shooting, off the ball role and we certainly saw the best and the worst of Paul George (pre-All Star vs post-All Star, Game 1 vs Game 6). It was a team struggling for identity and OKC looked lost and confused a LOT of the time and while Billy Donovan tried to make the most of it, even he seemed out of his depth on occasion.

As for how they view themselves — they shouldn’t be happy, but they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves either. It was a steep learning curve and they realised quite early on that it would take time to find chemistry. Just as they found it, they lost an underrated and key component to the machine in Roberson. If Paul George could just commit, the Thunder could move forward with much more meaning and purpose and therefore be able to iron out the kinks BEFORE the games mattered so much. Hopefully, that is what occurs.

J.A. Sherman - If the Thunder view themselves anywhere close to how I viewed them this year, they will be quite upset and either not want to continue with the current arrangement, or double-down on it and prove to themselves and the league they can be elite. Really, this was one of the worst viewing experiences I’ve ever had as a sports fan, and I now have a greater appreciation for long-suffering fanbases such as the Kings. There were moments...fleeting moments...where I wanted to actually quit following the NBA all together, it was so bad.

Also, as I noted elsewhere, Paul George’s comment heading into the season that “this feels like a championship team” sticks with me for two reasons: 1) PG doesn’t actually know what a championship team feels like; and 2) There are so many layers of championship building which were absent in this year’s version that the coaching staff is going to have to peel back multiple layers before they can begin to assess things, let alone try to fix them.

2. The Thunder are staring at an off-season of great uncertainty, radically different from a year ago. Thinking back, how did you feel in 2017, and how do you feel now?

R.K. - Last year I thought the Thunder were standing at the edge of a total rebuilding precipice and this year I think they have a foot raised and hanging over that edge.

Ben - After 2017 it was “hope Oladipo and Sabonis improve quicker than expected and maybe OKC makes the second round next year. If Russ decides to stay.” This time last year Russ signing that extension was far from a guarantee. This year our best outcome feels better than anything we would’ve expected for OKC last summer (nobody thought Oladipo would pop like he has). If PG stays, we’ve still have the core of a contender, with admittedly a lot of changes needed in how the core works together. But growing pains are normal for a new team. If PG leaves however OKC will be in an even worse spot than last summer- the young prospects gone, in their place an aging and ornery Carmelo Anthony.

Mark - I think the past 3 summers have been make or break for Sam Presti. Not in the “you’ll get fired” way, but more or less for the future direction of the team. L:ast off season, he made some terrific moves. BUT...Scrambling on an audible ( THAT situation) he had to tweak on the fly. Oladipo and Sabonis were great, but Sabonis was a year too early in terms of development and reliability, and Dipo wasn’t meant to play alongside Russ so much, he was designed to play the Dion Waiters. Reggie Jackson, James Harden role - but was forced to be a starter with a “far too similar” game style to Russ. Still - I was excited but tempered and I am still the same now. I honestly feel, that at full strength, the Thunder can beat anyone. We demolished Golden State on two occasions. We could do it again. Winning cures all ails, and had Roberson not got injured, I think the winning would have started to change the dynamic of the team and we would be in a much better position, playing Game 1 of the second round - probably with home court advantage. Hopefully PG and Melo can see that, hopefully Presti finds a way to keep Grant and maximise 2Pat. Hopefully TFerg develops into the guy we saw trounce the Lakers. I’m warily excited - but it does largely hinge on the Paul George situation.

Sherman - As they say, hindsight is 50-50. Let’s just say we were all irrationally overconfident heading into the season, but that’s OK. That’s sports.

I was looking for 4 distinct things: 1) Westbrook would remain relatively consistent year over year; 2) Steven Adams would make a leap; 3) Paul George would allow Westbrook and Andre Roberson to make the game easier for him; and 4) Carmelo Anthony would understand his role at this stage of his career is similar to David West or Shaun Livingston in Golden State, or Jason Kidd when he was with the Mavericks’ championship team.

How did we do?

  1. If Westbrook’s 206-17 season was his A+ performance, this one was closer to a C+. To be sure much of it was spent trying to figure out how all the pieces fit, but on a personal level, Westbrook rarely looked ‘right.’ His balance was off, his handle was sloppy, and his shooting mechanics disastrous. Whatever cause you want to ascribe, Westbrook’s overall effectiveness and impact were not where they needed to be, regardless of final statistics.
  2. YES. Now find him a backup and keep him healthy.
  3. PG didn’t really accomplish this, and that might be a critique toward him or, more likely toward the team’s structure. As Zach Lowe broke down in a respectfully nuanced way, there is no offensive structure. Only set plays. Defensively though, their structure particularly catered to OKC’s distinctive talents, letting PG play free safety while Robes played shutdown corner. It was the only system that actually made the Thunder look good.
  4. Aughhhhhhh.

3. If you were to watch the remainder of the playoffs with one Thunder, who would it be and what would you want him to pay attention to?

R.K. - Terrance Ferguson (because he may be all that survives this summer). I think TFerg has the makings of a solid two-way player. He’s long, aggressive, and not afraid to take his shot. It’s a bit unorthodox, but if given the chance, I would show him footage of my Dad’s favorite boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson.

Robinson was the poster child of efficiency. Every step he took, every hand motion, had a purpose.

Then we would focus on the best perimeter defenders feet and the best 3-point shooters mechanics and when it was all over, we would watch footage of Ferguson. The contrasts should show him exactly what he should focus on during the off-season.

Ben: I’d have Russ, PG and Billy Donovan watch the Raptors to see how a team with two ball dominant stars can still achieve good ball movement, and how a historically stagnant offense that used to rely on iso play can grow into something more. Russ and PG are a more talented superstar duo than Lowry and DeRozan, but were less successful because they played in such a predictable, blah offense. Donovan can and must try harder to implement a fuller offensive scheme, but PG and Russ also have to buy in, the way Lowry and DeRozan have.

Also, I’d have Melo watch the Warriors so he can see how successful a former Denver Nuggets star can be coming off the bench and accepting a more limited role.

Mark - Russ of course. I mean, I’d also love to watch the playoffs alongside Steven Adams, because it would be incredibly fun and I would love to watch him dissect Anthony Davis’ game - but it’s Russ. He’s the leader of the squad and he wants to win so badly, I can just imagine it would be as intense watching WITH him as it is watching him play. I’d love him to really pay attention to how other guys like LeBron James and Chris Paul control a team and a game. Russ is frenetic and it works, but if he could mature his game like Bron has, then he’d be even better. We see it every year, Russ works on something and comes back better, so watching LBJ is only a good thing. I’d also like him to tune into the effort guys like Holiday and Donovan Mitchell put in on the defensive side of the ball. Russ is a superstar, but even they can get better. So taking the best bits of others and trying to implement them into your game and your team is a no brainer.

Sherman - Ben stole my answer, basically. So, you’re fired. (j-k)

I’d have Donovan and Russ watch how the Raptors play to realize how much OKC is leaving on the table by not actually meshing their strengths together. Lowe also wrote a great piece on the Raptors’ desire and willingness to change how they approached the game. It was essentially a mandate from the front office — either you change, or I will change you.

I’d also have Carmelo sit down and watch David West and LeBron James. One of these two men is your peer and one is not. If you can’t tell which one, then you need to sit on the bench next to Kyle until the answer becomes clear.

4. How does this postseason end?

R.K. - As cynical as I am about the NBA at this point, here are my predictions:

My source?

Ben - The Raptors and the Sixers on paper should be able to knock out this awful Cavs roster. But I’m not picking any east team to beat LeBron James until I see it happen. He’s proved us all wrong too many times. Boy, did they look bad against the Pacers though. I’m thiiiiis close to picking the Raptors, but I just can’t bet against LeBron, even now.

Out West, Hosuton is playing elite basketball, and have built a really incredible team around James Harden (their model isn’t too different from the ideal team I wish OKC could put around Russ). They were built with defeating Golden State in mind, and the Warrior have been banged up. But Steph Curry is now back, and I don’t think the Rockets are getting past what may be the most talented roster ever assembled.

So on to Warriors-Cavs IV. Don’t you just hate it when a once great franchise puts out too many sequels?

Mark - No one wants to hear it, but deep down we are all coming to terms with the fact that Golden State are most likely going to hoist the Larry O again. It flat out sucks as a Thunder fan because I fully believe had the treachery not occurred that it would have been us at some point in the past couple of years. I’d like to think SOMEONE can beat them, but they’re looking ominous. LeBron just isn’t getting the help from his team and without any real superstar beside him, how can he take out the golden 4? And that’s IF he can will the team out of the East. Unless Houston can derail GSW (and even that would suck) it’s looming as “post-season as usual”... unfortunately.

Sherman - Well, in the East LeBron survived the Pacers, and the 76ers are looking shaky after dropping game 1 to Boston. Which means the Raptors are probably the only team (again) that stands between James and the Finals. Somehow, even losing Finals year after year, it hasn’t hurt James’ overall stature one bit. Go figure.

In the West, we’re looking at an inevitability with the defending champs and the Rockets likely squaring off in 2 weeks. What a weird season it has been. I’ve gone from subtle hostility toward Golden State to general appreciation, and all it took was a) KD finally owning up to his role in his disastrous departure from OKC; and b) the Rockets being the Rockets.

What might happen when James Harden and his flailing and head-whips encounters the equally preposterous Draymond Green, while Andre Iguodala keeps picking his pocket? Kind of makes me smirk. A little.

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