As each team is eliminated from the NBA playoffs, The Post’s Tim Bontemps will analyze the biggest question facing the franchise as it enters the offseason. First up were the Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat. Next are the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have a long, and likely painful, offseason ahead.
This was the only way the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season could end. It couldn’t end in a quiet, 10-point loss with no drama, and no controversy. Of course it couldn’t.
Instead, it ended in an insane, 43-second possession in which the Thunder took six shots – including four potential game-tying three-pointers – that all missed. On the last errant shot, Paul George drew a foul on Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert that everyone agreed should have been called — except the three referees.
It ended with Russell Westbrook taking 43 shots for the second time in as many years in a playoff game – both Thunder losses – and getting into confrontations with fans at halftime and after the game. It ended with Thunder Coach Billy Donovan going down with the Carmelo Anthony ship, playing the fading star with the season on the line when all evidence suggested the team would be better with Anthony on the bench.
No, this was undoubtedly the ending this Thunder team had to have. A quiet ending was impossible for a team with this much personality, this much star power and with so much riding on this being a magical season. Instead, as the fire and fury of the final hours of Oklahoma City’s season fade, it’s hard to see a happier ending coming this summer.
The goal of this season was convincing George that the Thunder gave him a chance to win a championship. Instead, he won two playoff games.
“It was an amazing season, amazing season,” George said about the season, and his free agency. “Really a learning experience playing off Russ, playing off Melo, [Steven Adams], seeing what potential it’s like having [Andre Roberson] out there.
“It was great. [There] was a lot to be happy about: the fans, the city, the organization, everything’s been unbelievable. It’s too soon.
“I would love to remain a Thunder, but that’s what the summer is for. So, we’ll address that in the summer.”
When Thunder General Manager Sam Presti traded for George last summer, it seemed like a long shot that George would choose to stay in Oklahoma City. Remember, he had been set either on staying with the Indiana Pacers or going to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ask people today – particularly in the wake of this first-round exit – and they’ll say the Lakers still remain the favorites to get him this summer.
But that doesn’t mean Presti was wrong for making the trade. Sure, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have taken massive steps forward this season for the Pacers, turning what felt like a lopsided trade last summer into one the Pacers are thrilled with. Even still, trading those players for George was a no-brainer for the Thunder then, and remains one now.
The performance he and Westbrook put on in Game 5, helping lead the Thunder back from a 25-point third quarter deficit with virtually no assistance, was breathtaking. It was a glimpse of what could have been, but likely not a sign of things to come.
Trading for Anthony, however, hasn’t worked. Presti believes in accumulating talent, and he was far from alone in thinking that Anthony would be a more efficient complementary scorer when faced with fewer responsibilities than what he had in New York and Denver.
Instead, Anthony was inefficient offensively and a disaster defensively. The Thunder should have benched him in this series, as his game-worst minus-19 in Game 6 clearly indicated. When asked about it after the game, Donovan did his best to defend Anthony.
“Carmelo this year has been a complete pro,” Donovan said. “The guy has made ridiculous sacrifices, I think, for our team to try to help our team … I’m not gonna look at that stat, and think that plus-minus is because of how he played.”
Donovan knows the truth, though; he sat Anthony for large stretches of the second halves in Games 5 and 6. But he didn’t do it enough, and it’s one reason Oklahoma City’s season is over.
In truth, though, the Thunder’s season ended on Jan. 27, when Roberson tore his patellar tendon. Roberson is a flawed offensive player, to be kind, but he’s terrific defensively. When he got hurt, the Thunder had no way to replace him. Even George admitted Friday night that he wasn’t surprised to see the Thunder eliminated in the first round.
“I think talent-wise and all of that, but it’s our first year playing together,” George said. “I understood that coming in. I thought we had a high ceiling to win it, high expectations to win it, but I think you got to really figure out the in-between stuff when you assimilate a team, and that can take some time to unravel how to become a championship team.”
Time, though, is not on Oklahoma City’s side, especially if George departs as expected. In January, Westbrook was asked what his sales pitch would be to keep George: “Sales pitch gonna be when we win a championship. Beat that pitch.”
Westbrook was not interested in discussing the failure of his championship pledge Friday night.
“The game just finished 30 minutes ago,” he said. “We are going to relax, look at this season as a whole and then we will go from there.”
Presti undoubtedly will present a plan to George about how Oklahoma City can build around him and Westbrook. But even if George leaves, Anthony’s $28 million player option for next season will keep Oklahoma City near the luxury tax even before several free agents are re-signed. The team also give up its first-round pick in this year’s draft in a previous trade.
If George stays, the Thunder’s combined payroll and luxury tax bill would be pushing close to $300 million, easily making Oklahoma City – one of the league’s smallest markets – the most expensive team in NBA history. After a first-round exit, that seems untenable.
If George goes, that leaves another question: What happens to Westbrook? Yes, he signed a five-year contract extension last year, but will he be content with being first-round cannon fodder?
Perhaps. Westbrook has never been willing to adjust his game is in any meaningful way. It’s why he has so many legions of fans, and why he is so often compared to another singular lone wolf, Kobe Bryant. He may be content to do things his way, and if that means winning 40-45 games a year, so be it.
Or, perhaps Presti can find another player like George – which isn’t impossible, since Presti is one of the league’s top executives. But he doesn’t have many assets to trade.
The George deal was a swing for the fences, and there is no question it was worth the risk. It gave the Thunder a chance to contend again. But risky moves also have downsides. Friday night, as the Thunder’s season imploded, Oklahoma City learned that the hard way.
Now, an uncertain summer lies ahead. And if it goes the way many in Oklahoma City fear, the pain has only just begun.