It was the third straight year Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double, and the third straight year the Oklahoma City Thunder failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. It hasn’t been for a total lack of help either, as the latter two of those years Westbrook had a legitimate star teammate on the wing in the form of Paul George, who, this year, arguably had his best season as a pro. A lot of the blame will fall on Westbrook, of course, as well as on head coach Billy Donovan, but the roster, despite having two stars on it, was inherently flawed, with a major lack of shooting being its biggest sin. Still, a third straight campaign ending in the first round of the playoffs can only be seen as an utter disappointment, one that could very well cause people to lose their jobs, and for the roster to look much different next season.
No matter what, it’s looking like it’ll be a busy summer for general manager Sam Presti and Co., as Oklahoma City simply cannot head into 2019-20 without making multiple changes and expect better results. This core and the role players around it have shown what their ceiling is, and considering the talent levels Westbrook and George possess (and how expensive their contracts are), that ceiling just isn’t high enough.
GUARANTEED CONTRACTS FOR 2019/20
Russell Westbrook: $38,150,000
Paul George: $33,005,556
Steven Adams: $25,842,697
Dennis Schroeder: $15,500,000
Andre Roberson: $10,740,740
Jerami Grant: $9,000,000
Terrance Ferguson: $2,475,840
Hamidou Diallo: $1,416,852
NON-GUARANTEED CONTRACTS FOR 2019/20
Abdel Nader: $1,618,520
Deonte Burton: $1,416,852
Patrick Patterson: $5,711,200
Nerlens Noel: $1,988,119
First and foremost, the Thunder have to figure out whether a coaching change would help optimize the on-court dynamic between Westbrook and his teammates. Would a different voice at the helm, coupled with the failures of the past three years, help Westbrook realize that him shooting 20-plus times a night simply isn’t in the best interests of the team, especially when he starts settling for pull-up threes and contested midrange jacks? Donovan may not be solely at fault for what’s gone wrong for Oklahoma City in the last three playoffs, but at some point, hearing the same voice over and over can get stale for a team, particularly when the results never seem to improve.
After that, the Thunder have to find a way to get more shooting around Westbrook and George. Losing Alex Abrines midway through the season hurt, sure, but Oklahoma City had ample time to trade for or sign other three-point marksmen, and simply never decided to address it. Three names that come to mind who switched teams this year, and who the Thunder could target once again this summer in free agency, are Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock and Kyle Korver (he only has a partial guarantee on his deal for next season). Oklahoma City has finished the last three years ranked 22nd, 24th and 30th league-wide in outside shooting, marks simply not close to good enough when your primary ball-handler struggles so mightily as a shooter himself, yet takes so many jumpers. Somehow, someway, the Thunder will have to address that need this summer.
A final issue Oklahoma City may have to address this summer, and this could be their toughest decision to make, is whether or not this team is really worth paying the luxury tax for. Paying two players the max for the foreseeable future and without much flexibility to improve the roster around them, the Thunder may realize that this team has done all they can, and look to dump some of the pricier contracts around George and Westbrook to get under the tax. That would mean guys like Steven Adams and Dennis Schroeder could find themselves on the block this summer. In particular, Adams had a pretty disappointing playoffs, especially for a player set to make nearly $26 million next season. A big man without creativity out of the post, who doesn’t space the floor and can’t defend on the perimeter, Adams fits an extinct archetype, one not fit to make an impact in modern playoff series. Schroeder, meanwhile, had his moments this year, but paying $15.5 million to the backup of a guy making $38.2 million is too much money committed to just one position.
POTENTIAL FREE AGENCY TARGETS
Reggie Bullock: A three-point specialist with some juice scoring off the dribble too, Bullock would fill a major void for the Thunder.
Wayne Ellington: Ellington is the type of outside shooter who you can run off screens and call plays for, so his addition would help take some of the load off of Oklahoma City’s two superstars.
Kyle Korver: If the Jazz decide to go after a star in free agency and buy out the final year of Korver’s deal, he’d become a hot commodity on the open market. Oklahoma City would be wise to go all-in for him if he does become available.
Wesley Matthews: He’s not as good of a shooter as the other three, but Matthews is a far better defender. Alongside George, the duo could be a point-stopping force.
Trevor Ariza: A 3-and-D wing who can even play some small-ball power forward, Ariza would be a great addition for the Thunder.
POTENTIAL TRADE TARGETS
Kevin Love: If the Cleveland Cavaliers decide to move on from their most expensive deals, the Thunder would be smart to see if they can take Love off their hands. His superior shooting from the frontcourt would be a massive help for Westbrook and George.
Nicolas Batum: The veteran forward would be a great wing partner for George, and help space the floor around Westbrook. He could even take over playmaking duties with second units.
2019 DRAFT ASSETS
The Thunder have their first-round pick for 2019, while their second-round pick goes to the Charlotte Hornets. They will pick 21st overall in the upcoming draft.