Oklahoma City Thunder were expected to be a top four seed when the season started. They got the fourth seed by the skin of their teeth, so in a way, they met expectations.
When Carmelo Anthony and Paul George arrived last summer, though, seeding was a supposed guarantee, not a highlight. A late run into the playoffs was considered the bare minimum. Perhaps, even beating Golden State was on the cards, with the Thunder adding two All-Stars to the reigning MVP.
Instead, the season ended this week after a first round 4-2 series defeat to the Utah Jazz. That’s the Jazz who few tipped for the playoffs before the season, the Jazz who traded away Gordon Hayward, the Jazz who missed out on homecourt advantage in this series by a tiebreaker. Utah have been a revelation this season, but Russell Westbrook and co. were still favourites when the series started.
Even after 82 regular season games, the Thunder had no plan. Carmelo’s role was still unclear, George in a similar position, and Westbrook continued to struggle to integrate fellow stars into the team. Melo ended up on the bench during the heroic 25-point Game Five comeback, George scored five points in 45 Game Six minutes.
We shouldn’t forget George’s 34-point effort as the Robin to Westbrook’s Batman in Game Five. That performance, however, was an exception to the rule for OKC this season. The problems we saw in the first 20 regular season games were prevalent in the playoffs, and it has almost certainly cost the Thunder their chance of resigning Paul George.
Melo, meanwhile, has an early termination option for next season. There is approximately a 0% chance he takes that. A place on the bench must surely beckon for the future Hall of Famer, despite his dislike of the idea whenever it was mentioned this year.
Being left with Carmelo – who is a shadow of his past self – and losing George is a disaster for OKC. The ‘Big Three’ has failed in dire fashion. Westbrook’s continued inability to play with other stars, however, might be of greater concern.
Watching Westbrook play basketball is remarkable. He is an unstoppable figure, and his drives to the basket will be remembered for decades. His selfishness – which is part of his greatness – makes his teams all about him. Whoever you put around him, they become role players, and that’s exactly what he needs.
Does Russ need the LeBron treatment?
A combination of shooters and hostile defenders around Westbrook, along with the paint-controlling Steven Adams, and you have a good, although probably not great, team. Simply, improving his supporting cast does not seem to improve the Thunder.
This might mean there’s a cap on the how good the Thunder can be with Westbrook playing the way he does currently. Other players, however talented, do not see enough of the ball.
The comparisons to LeBron James’ Cavaliers at the moment are natural. LeBron is needing superhuman performances for Cleveland to win any game. Westbrook did that throughout the series with the Jazz, but Westbrook is not LeBron James. (Yes, this is quite obvious).
Sure, Westbrook is fantastic, but he does not share the ball in the same way as LeBron and had teammates who needed the ball in their hands. The Thunder should follow a similar blueprint as Cleveland for next season. The Carmelo situation is a roadblock to that, however.
Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer. He has had a pair of individual seasons unrivalled in NBA history. His greatness, though, is so distinctly Russ-orientated, to the point that the team’s success is limited.
So, what now?
With George heading to free agency, the Thunder front office must be wondering what happened after the optimism of last summer. There is a 6-foot 8 inch, soon-to-be 34-year-old owed almost $28 million for next season, and a star player who has struggled when paired with fellow big names.
The brilliant season that Victor Oladipo has had – who was traded to Indiana in the George deal – only reinforces the issues of playing with Westbrook. Oladipo hasn’t had the best postseason so far, but could still progress further than his former team, after carrying the Pacers to an unlikely fifth seed.
It could be a long summer for OKC, as they plan for the post-Big Three Thunder. The attention will remain on George, whose free agency will be pivotal for the 2018/19 NBA season.