It’s been a few days now, and everyone in OKC (and beyond) has had time to process the Thunder’s defeat at the hands of the Utah jazz, a series where the Thunder looked like the better team for at most 6 quarters (all of game 1 and the second half of game 5). For the rest of the series, the squad that had been trumpeted as potential “superteam” looked thoroughly outclassed by a team who few had projected to even make the playoffs when the season started.
Life comes at you fast.
Thunder General Manager Sam Presti made it clear in his post-season press conference this week that, despite the early exit, the Thunder would be looking to return the same team next season. He made it clear the team will pay what it takes to re-sign Paul George, saying ownership has no problem footing a massive luxury tax bill. And crucially, he said unequivocally that Billy Donovan was coming back as head coach next season, stressing the theme of continuity.
“I think the best thing for (Donovan), and I think the biggest opportunity for him, is in the continuity...continuity is his best friend going forward.”
Continuity is well and good, and it is the best promise OKC can offer at the moment. This is a talented team, albeit one that hasn’t lived up to its potential. Donovan has had good and bad moments as a coach, but retaining him means the team can hit the ground running instead of building a relationship with a new coach. Still, something has to change after a failure, and failure is the only way to describe OKC’s season after that first round loss and in the manner that they folded.
To avoid a similar failure next season, OKC needs to learn from it’s failures this year and adapt. Here, we’ll go through the ways OKC’s five most important people failed in that first round series — and what they can do to be better next season.
The Big Kiwi had his best season of his still-young career. He led the league in offensive rebounding for most of the season and finished second behind Andre Drummond in that category, averaging 5 per game. That went along with a solid 13.9 points per game on 62.9% shooting from the field. He flashed more moves around the rim, that floater he introduced last season looked even better, and his screen and roll chemistry with Russell Westbrook was excellent. Adams finished second in the NBA in screen assists (this was the first year the NBA publicly released that stat), behind only Rudy Gobert, coincidentally his counterpart in round one.
To his credit, Gobert was the reason behind almost all of Adams struggles in this series. He hauled in more offensive rebounds than Adams did, and he was able to deter Russ from getting to the rim in the pick and roll while staying close enough to recover if Adams got the pass. That effort, which will likely result in Gobert winning Defensive Player of the Year, contributed to Adams getting less attempts per game and less points than in the regular season.
Adams also wasn’t able to get much going when the Thunder threw him the ball in the post against Gobert (in his defense; the post-up is an incredibly inefficient play type for anyone, and Adams isn’t helped by the fact that every other OKC player just stands around and watches on his post possessions). Gobert and the rest of the Jazz were able to get him in foul trouble multiple times in the series, which was Adams’s biggest problem overall; he had the highest net rating of any of the starters in the minutes he did play, but his foul trouble kept him off the court for significant stretches.
All in all, this was probably the worst matchup in the league for Adams. He faced one of the only big men in the league who can go toe-to-toe with him on the glass, and the probably Defensive Player of the Year a that. Anyone would struggle in this matchup. And Adams was still good! But he wasn’t quite as impactful as he was in the regular season, and it hurt.
To Do: Adams needs to keep adding to his bag of tricks on offense to be able to be more impactful in a matchup like this. He’s talked about adding the 3 pointer to his game, and while you wouldn’t want him out there too much (you can’t get offensive rebounds standing at the 3-point line) but a few pick and pops with Russ to try and stretch Gobert away from the rim would have helped in this series. Even extending his range to the foul line would make Adams incredibly hard to defend in the pick and roll.
Beyond that, Adams needs to improve his finishing in tight spaces — he was magnificent at that in the regular season, but to be effective in a matchup against a guy like Gobert, he needs more. Adams has made leaps and bounds offensively, but to evolve into a true third option, which I believe is what the Thunder need from him, he needs to keep getting better. As for defense and rebounding, Adams just needs to do whatever he normally does in the offseason, because he’s gotten better every at those every year he’s been in the league. Uncertainty crowds the rest of the roster, but Adams, still only 24, remains a big bright spot.
“Playoff P” showed up as promised in Game 1 of this series, then, apparently confident that the rest of the team could handle things, took most of the rest of the series off. In his place, “March P” returned, with the same cold shooting from deep and inability to get to the rim that plagued George throughout the last month of the season.
A lot was made of how often Russ shot the ball in this series, especially the last two games. We’ll get to that, but at a lot of points Russ truly didn’t have a better option — and that includes his All-Star teammate. PG was downright embarrassing in the closeout game; 2/16 for 5 points. 5 points! Even Carmelo Anthony (we’ll get to him too) outscored “Playoff P” in the closeout game. If you’re going to give yourself a nickname (and a lame one at that) you need to deliver more than PG did when it matters most.
Even including that magnificent game 1, George posted miserable percentages for the series. He shot 40.8% from the field (Russ, in all his incredible inefficiency, shot exactly 1 percent worse, 39.8%, on 41 more attempts), and, crucially only 36.5% from deep (he shot 40% in the regular season and above 40% in each of his last 3 playoff appearances with the Pacers). Those marks aren’t the worst on the team, but they aren’t great either, and not what you need from a star in the playoffs.
There was one area where PG did better in the playoffs than than the regular season. PG played about 7 minutes per game without Russ in the series, and the Thunder played the Jazz dead even in those minutes. Obviously you’d prefer to win those minutes outright, but it’s a lot better than the regular season, when lineups featuring PG without Russ posted a horrific net rating of -12.2. Credit PG for helping the Thunder at least stay even in those minutes.
Defensively, PG was was his usual self. He did a good job keeping Joe Ingles from getting going when he was matched up with him, and was okay when asked to switch onto Donovan Mitchell. The rook still got his at points, but PG was able to contain him pretty well. The Thunder’s defensive failures weren’t on him.
To Do: PG’s offensive struggles weren’t entirely on him — part of it has to do with the Thunder’s general failure to instill a better offense that would’ve allowed him more open looks. On the flipside, PG himself needs to do more to get himself going and find more ways to integrate himself in the Thunder’s offense. We all know what PG’s talent is, and for the first time in his career he has an even more talented teammate he can play off of. That should make his life easier, but it hasn’t happened yet. If PG returns, which the Thunder obviously hope he does, he, Russ and Billy Donovan need to think long and hard about more varied ways to use PG, and ways to get him involved even when the flow of the game isn’t leading to shots for him. That’s doable, and should be easier with a whole year of experience playing together now under Russ and PG’s belts.
Oh boy. No one, not even Russ (and he got hammered) took as much flak for this series as Melo did. Alas, deservedly so. Melo was simply awful in this series. The Jazz targeted him time and time again on defense, and he struggled to hang.
The defining moment for this was game 5. Down big in the third quarter, the Thunder pulled Melo for Jerami Grant and adopted a switch everything defense. Powered by that defense and some red-hot shooting from Russ and PG, OKC managed to climb back into the lead. Melo re-entered the game midway through the 4th, blew multiple switches leading to easy points for Utah, and was pulled again for the final two minutes as the Thunder hung on to win.
Defense has never been Melo’s calling card (although this year was a new low). With Melo, you were always relying on his ability to score to outweigh his bad defense. That’s a sustainable model if you’re really, really good at getting buckets — James Harden is about to win the MVP by doing exactly that (his defense has gotten better in the sense that he doesn’t fall asleep as often, but he still can be taken advantage of).
The trouble for Melo is he’s no longer good at putting the ball in the bucket. He shot 37.5% from the field in this series — the worst mark on the team — and an abysmal 21.4% from 3-point land. The worst part was he got some good looks, but simply couldn’t can them — on 3 points shots classified by the NBA as “wide open” (closest defender 6 feet or more away) he shot just 27%. That functionally made Melo a stretch-4 who couldn’t actually stretch the floor in this series. His ISO mid-range game, the play type that he built his name on, wasn’t falling for him and served only to stall out the offense, and the days when he could blow by larger defenders are long gone. Reflecting this reality, Melo took on average only 2.5 free throws a game, barely more than one scoring opportunity per entire outing. Defenses simply didn’t care what he was trying to do.
Melo had easily the worst plus/minus of the series, finishing -58. OKC outscored Utah in the minutes he didn’t play. Jerami Grant was a far more valuable player and a far better fit around Russ, PG and Adams. Melo deserves credit for willingly taking on a smaller role than he’s used to all season without complaint, until he finally said in his exit interview that he’d basically been misused the entire season. You can understand why he would say that, frustrated in the aftermath of a season that did not go as planned. But the reality is staring us in the face. Melo should be coming off the bench at this point in his career, and starting him in this series cost the Thunder dearly.
To Do: Embrace the bench role. Look at what Dwyane Wade was able to do with such a role in Miami. Melo can extend his career and still contribute to winning basketball in an off the bench role; his ability to create his own shot, even though it’s declined, is still valuable on a second unit, and he can keep the offense afloat when Russ sits. He might even be the right choice to close games when his shot is falling. But it’s time for him to move on to the next phase of his career.
Donovan had two sets of issues in this series: defensive and offensive. The defensive issues were based on decisions the team made for this series, which meant they were fixable, and indeed Donovan did make some fixes in games 5 and 6. The offensive issues, on the other hand, reflected a structural flaw in the team that needed to be fixed long before the playoffs, but were largely neglected.
Defensively, the Thunder chose to blitz the Jazz’s pick and roll in this series, sending the defender guarding the screener to pressure the ballhandler until the man guarding him caught up. The thinking behind such a strategy is that it can force turnovers and bad decisions, and it prevents ballhandlers from getting momentum out of the pick and roll. The downside, as was exposed time and time again, is that a quick pass from the ballhandler to the roll man creates a 4-on-3, which leads to either a free run to the rim or a wide open corner 3. Andre Roberson makes this system work really well, but without Robes, it becomes a crap shoot against smart passing teams.
Sure enough, the Thunder gave up a ton scoring opportunities to the Jazz throughout the first 4 games of this series by using this strategy, because they couldn’t pressure the ballhandler enough to force bad passes across multiple OKC defenders. OKC eventually abandoned that strategy in the latter half of games 5 and 6, opting for a switch heavy defense, which necessitated benching Melo for Grant.
Donovan waited too long make this switch — it was clear even before the series that Grant was a better fit than Melo in a lot of cases, and once it became clear Melo wasn’t getting traction offensively against Utah, the hook should’ve come quicker. Donovan made the right adjustments eventually, but not until OKC was down 3 games to 1. He should have been more decisive.
Offensively, OKC struggled because they run an offense that’s limited on ball movement, doesn’t contain a ton of sets, and relies on Russ and PG (and Melo) to make great individual plays. For long chunks of the regular season that worked, largely because Russ and PG are elite scorers, and in the two games OKC won it did work — PG went off in game 1, Russ caught fire in the comeback win in game 5.
But across the series as a whole, that style of offense was not good enough against an elite Jazz defense that was prepared for them and largely just sat back and waited for OKC to run its primary action and then force a low-percentage shot. What should be clear is that by the time the post-season begins, too late to institute a new offensive system — that needs to happen before the regular season even starts. And it’s fair to note, as a lot of people have, that ball movement didn’t happen much in OKC under Scott Brooks either — and the truth is, there’s one common denominator, and he wears #0 (a number which can’t actually be a denominator). That’s true, and Russ has to buy into any system and be willing to change his ways for that system to work.
But getting stars to buy in is part of a coach’s responsibility, and Donovan hasn’t done that. Next year should present a good opportunity. Russ is under contract for 4 more years, he and Donovan have built a good relationship, and the last two playoff runs have clearly shown the limits of Russ’s berserker approach.
I know a lot of Thunder fans were calling for Donovan’s head after this series, and I’ve outlined his failures this season. Nonetheless, I agree with Presti that keeping him is the right move. You learn by doing in coaching, just like everything else. Continuity is a good thing in general, and it is possible for a long-standing coach to change how a team plays — look at how Dwane Casey was able to get the Raptors to completely change how they play this year without changing the roster at all. Paul George and Russell Westbrook are a far better superstar duo than Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan, with respect to the Raptors’ guards (which should mean OKC can avoid the playoff humiliation the new look Raptors are suffering against LeBron). Embracing a similar system could completely change OKC.
To Do: Send Melo to the bench. Sit down with Russ (and PG if he stays) and do whatever it takes to get him to buy into a better system. That doesn’t have to mean taking the ball out of Russ’s hands — this team will always be at their best with Russ in control — but it does mean instituting more sets and getting rid of those ugly iso possessions and mid-rangers. The Thunder were still a good offensive team this season, but with better discipline and a more varied offense, they could become a great one. Again, for this to work, it’s not enough for Donovan just to have sets drawn up; he needs the players to buy in, and hold them accountable when they don’t. Which, of course, brings us to...
It all comes back to Russ. His name has come on in the discussion of everyone else, because this team revolves around him. The paradox of Russ is this: He was the Thunder’s best player in this series and also the reason they lost. He carried them in game 5. He also carried them in game 6. Zach Lowe had an excellent article about the Thunder’s playoff failure and lack of a system, and you should read the whole thing. But this was the part that stuck out to me most:
“Westbrook’s heart is in the right place; he wants to win, and when he takes a lot of shots, it is because he has concluded that is the best path to winning. More than one person described Westbrook’s process as doing math while scanning the floor: he knows he can hit X percentage from this spot. A teammate can only do better if they are in the right spot, in rhythm, in the middle of a good game. Passing brings the risk of a turnover -- lowering the expected points per possession. There is a method.”
In the moment in game 6, Russ taking those 43 shots may have been the best decision. PG’s shot wasn’t falling, Melo looked washed, Grant, Brewer Abrines were struggling. In that moment, Russ shooting was probably the best option, but the problem is the team should never have reached a moment where Russ shooting 43 times was their best chance at success. That’s partly a failure of roster construction, partly a failure of coaching, and partly a failure of Russ himself. It’s all intertwined.
The Thunder traded a lot of their depth to acquire PG and Melo, and when PG was off in game 6 and Melo wasn’t on all year, they were left to rely on some far less experienced players, or rely on Russ. But maybe if the team had a system that didn’t need Russ (and PG and Melo, to be clear) to be so do-it-all, those players would have been more prepared when the playoffs came. Russ can make the game easier for other players with his style and playmaking — you see it with how much Adams has improved, how many good looks PG got this year, etc. But the Thunder have run up against the limits of what they can do with their current system (or lack thereof).
I’ll say this — many people used this series to conclude that a team with Russ can never win a championship. I completely disagree. Talk of trading Russ, blowing the team up and tanking misses a crucial point — the reason you tank is so you get a chance at a player like Russell Westbrook. He can be the centerpiece of champion team. He is an elite rim attacker, a strong passer whose ability to draw defense has led to countless free looks for teammates, and a merciless transition player. He is by most accounts a good leader, beloved by his teammates, and cares deeply about winning. He is the type of player GM’s dream of building around.
He is also flawed — he is a below average jump shooter, his defense comes and goes, and his shot selection, well-intended as it may be, needs work. Most of all, he is running out of time — he will be 30 in November, and his game relies heavily on athleticism. He has, at best, 2-3 years of being a truly elite player left. The Thunder can build a better team around him. His teammates can improve. His coach can develop a better system. But it starts and ends with Russ. The improvements discussed for everyone else won’t amount to a championship if the man at the top can’t change his ways.
To Do: Work with Donovan on finding a system — a system he is comfortable with, that features more variance, more movement, and more playmaking by others — a system that sustains itself when he sits for a break. Work with Paul George (hopefully) on ways to play off each other more. Keep working on your 3-point shot, especially the catch and shoot variety. Change your mindset to avoid early in the shot clock pull up jump shots like the plague.
Embrace a new and improved Russell Westbrook — one who relies a little more on others, but remains the engine of the team and it’s unquestioned leader. The critics of his game, and there are many, don’t think Russ can do it — he may only have one more chance to prove them wrong. Make the most of it.
Stipulating that Paul George re-signs, which person is most essential to OKC contending next season?
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