Oklahoma City’s Stars Face The Crossroads

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s season ended on Friday night when they lost a six-game series to the Utah Jazz. The defeat wasn’t a huge shock, given the teams had identical 48-34 records in the regular season, but it put the finishing touches on a disappointing year in OkC and sent the franchise—along with its individual stars into an offseason facing a crossroads.

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Hopes were high in Oklahoma City last October when they traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, putting them alongside reigning Russell Westbrook. The Thunder were one of two teams in the Western Conference to roll the dice on a big-name veteran acquisitions. The other was Houston, with its deal to bring in Chris Paul to run with James Harden. In both cases there were valid questions of whether the stars could share the ball with each other and make it work. The Rockets did. The Thunder…not so much.

Oklahoma City, with its three future Hall of Famers, fell to a mostly no-name Utah team. They finished with the same record as the New Orleans Pelicans, with “only” one great star in Anthony Davis. The Thunder finished just marginally ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves, most of whose talent is still young and growing. Oklahoma City barely finished ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, who were decimated by the loss of Kawhi Leonard. And the Thunder finished a game behind Portland.

So much for making a run at Golden State—Oklahoma City’s Big Three couldn’t even separate themselves from the rest of the pack in the Western Conference. The season was virtually identical to what had been accomplished without George and Anthony a year earlier.

That brings us to the first crossroads, that of Westbrook. I love watching him play and for pure electricity, he’s the most dynamic in the league. He averaged a triple-double for the second straight year and plays with a raw fury that’s just fun to watch. But for whatever reason, he insists on trying to be a three-point shooter.

Westbrook only made 30% of his three-point shots and he attempts five per game. It seems the results of the last two years suggest he can singlehandledly push most any team to 45-50 wins, but even if you give him Hall of Famers as a supporting cast, he’s not going to move them any higher. The best way to change that is to cut down on the long-range gunning.

By the numbers, Paul George is a star, averaging 22 points per game. If you measure stardom by ability to brand oneself, he’s even higher. After a brilliant performance in a Game 1 win over Utah, George gave himself the nickname “Playoff P.” Enough already. George’s Indiana teams couldn’t count on him in the biggest moments of playoff battles with LeBron’s Miami Heat teams in 2012-14. And after taking the Playoff P nickname this year, the Thunder immediately lost three straight and effective control of the series.

For George, the crossroads is more for the rest of the NBA. He can opt out of his contract this summer. The track record says that if you sign Paul George, you better have a proven winner as the lead actor in your cast. If the Lakers could pair up him with LeBron, it’s safe to say that would work. But if George goes to Los Angeles by himself and takes on those championship expectations, the track record suggests that the team paying the freight will be disappointed.

Finally, we come to Carmelo Anthony. At age 34, he should still have some gas in the tank. But his regular season was quiet. The 16ppg were tolerable, but not when you shoot 40% from the floor. Carmelo is never going to be known as a defensive player. Now he’s not shooting the ball very well either, and he couldn’t be found at the biggest moments of the Utah series. Anthony has the ability to opt out of his contract, although it’s hard to imagine he could match the $28 million he’s assured of in OkC on the open market.

Westbrook has to decide if he wants to make the subtle tweaks to his game in order for his team to elevate. NBA front offices have to decide how much they want to shell out for George and Anthony. It’s decision time in Oklahoma City.