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The Future of the Thunder

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Oklahoma City lost against Houston last night but there are encouraging signs for the future

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Last week, Oklahoma City were eliminated from the playoffs. The Thunder lost in Game 7 in heartbreaking fashion. For the first time in a long while, Oklahoma City did not execute all that well in the clutch. The Rockets were able to grind out the victory due to their pressing, intense defense.

It was disappointing to watch the Thunder lose Game 7. Oklahoma City had more than enough to beat Houston but a few key issues hurt the Thunder. Oklahoma City gave up the ball too much and committed too many turnovers.

The coaching decisions taken by Billy Donovan were far from being perfect. I think that Billy relied too heavily on Nerlens Noel in Game 7. Noel is a very good rim protector but he struggles to guard in space especially against someone like Jeff Green who can make plays from the perimeter.

Bazley had a lot of success in Game 6 on Green. Bazley was able to stay in front of Green and his quickness meant that he was more effective than Noel when closing out on shooters.

I would also say that Billy Donovan made a few errors late in the game. The lineup selected for the end of the game made little sense. Steven Adams was on the floor to be a threat around the rim; Adams ended up catching the ball at the perimeter.

Oklahoma City were clearly geared for creating a clean, open jumper. In those situations, it is necessary to completely space the floor and find space for the shooter. This is especially important against a team like the Rockets who have excellent help defenders in the form of Covington and Tucker.

The actual action designed by Donovan was also mixed. I could see what Billy was trying to do but there was very little movement from the Thunder players to try and distract the defense. Moreover, the action called was a play that Westbrook knew.

This particular buzzer beater is from Westbrook’s MVP season. This was the game where Russell Westbrook notched his 42nd triple double. The action is not wholly identical; there are a few minor differences. However, the substance of the play is very similar.

The inbounder looks to deliver the ball to the player who is desperately trying to shake the defense. Steven Adams has to come short and receive the ball with little time on the clock. In the Nuggets’ game, Adams was able to dump the ball off. Steven had to settle for a bad look at the end of Game 7.

Russell Westbrook’s prior knowledge of the action meant that he was well positioned to blow up the play. Westbrook wrestled with Gallinari off the ball and did not allow Danilo to find a square of space from where he could fire a shot.

It is obviously disappointing to see the Thunder lose in the first round. However, there are a lot of positives. Playoff elimination was always a strong possibility. The Thunder have over-achieved at every single step this season; the talent disparity eventually caught up with the Thunder.

Personally, I do not feel down about the loss. My immediate reaction to the defeat in Game 7 is very different to how I felt last year. Last season was deflating. Oklahoma City were expected to make a deep run in the playoffs and the Thunder fell flat on their face against the Blazers.

In an odd way, this series against the Houston Rockets was the start of a new beginning for the Thunder. It is true that Oklahoma City relied on Chris Paul to do the heavy lifting late on in games. However, the young guys turned up to play throughout this series.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander showed real promise as a lead scoring option for the Thunder. Gilgeous-Alexander was not perfect; I thought he played too passively at points in this series. When Shai was playing aggressive, he was a handful for the Rockets’ defense.

Luguentz Dort went from being a relative unknown before the series to a player who was discussed regularly in the national media. He locked up one of the best scorers in the league; his defense was exceptional.

Dort also displayed a lot of maturity on offense. He kept on believing in himself even when the shots were not dropping. His courage resulted in Lu having a huge night from the field in Game 7.

Darius Bazley is the youngest member of the Thunder’s roster but you would not know that when you watch Bazley. Bazley played with a savviness that belied his rookie status. Darius was calm with the ball even when more experienced players around him were losing their head.

Oklahoma City have a few interesting players to build around going forward. One bad loss against the Rockets does not change my thoughts. I am excited to see what the future holds for Oklahoma City.

The start of new beginnings for the Thunder was also fitting end to the decade. For the last ten years, Oklahoma City have nearly always been a playoff team. The Thunder have always posted a strong regular season record. OKC have always had an All-Star on the roster.

It will be a different story next year if Chris Paul is traded. Oklahoma City will not be able to rely on Paul’s steady hand at the point. It will be time for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to take another leap in his game and become even better.

It has not yet been confirmed but it seems likely that Paul will be traded in the coming offseason. Paul’s value will never been higher and Sam Presti will want to cash in on this value. Chris Paul will also want one last chance to play on a contending team while he is still a hugely effective basketball player.

I do not begrudge Chris for this desire; he has earned the right to choose where he wants to go in my opinion. Paul has been so important during his time in Oklahoma City. His on court impact is easy to focus on but it is Paul’s leadership which has been hugely impressive to me.

Paul did not sit around and wait to be traded. Paul has been active in mentoring SGA, Dort and Bazley. Chris has made a point to pay forward the knowledge that he has learned from years as a top-tier professional basketball player.

Chris has been active in building a team spirit within the Thunder. The custom made suits and the Super Bowl trip were little gestures but these moments are hugely important for team building.

Chris Paul has only been with the Thunder for a short amount of time. However, he has made such a mark on the Thunder during his time in Oklahoma City. In my opinion, he deserves the respect that Russell Westbrook received when Westbrook was traded away to the Rockets.

It is impossible to say with any certainty where Paul lands in the offseason but I am fairly sure that a team like the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers will be very interested in Chris Paul. Paul would improve either team immensely.

It has been one hell of an enjoyable season to watch as fan. I still have a lot of fondness for the 2016-17 Season and Westbrook’s revenge tour but this season pushes that year close. There was just something special about watching the Thunder working as a team to clinically dispatch opponents.

On a personal level, this season has meant a lot to me. This was my first year covering the Thunder for ‘Welcome to Loud City’. I have always loved writing and have loved this community. It has been brilliant for me to do both.

It is difficult to say where the Thunder’s future lies. We do not whether the Thunder will start the rebuild in earnest this offseason. Whatever happens in the offseason, there is hope for Thunder fans. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley both look to be seriously good young players. They could be cornerstones of the Thunder in the same way that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant represented the franchise.