After 70 games, unpredictability has been a consistent theme for Oklahoma City Thunder
Thunder face tough final stretch in playoff chase which can once again determine's franchise's future
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Russell Westbrook has reached 100 career triple-doubles, third all-time, an appropriate number for someone who matches that in speed limit on the floor. It’s quite an achievement, for sure, especially considering that, at 29, Westbrook is still in his prime. And as any player assigned to guard him can attest, there are no signs of him easing up.
He also has a chance to average a triple-double for the second straight season if he outwrestles teammate Steven Adams for a few additional rebounds here in the final few weeks, which means Westbrook is virtually the same player who won the Kia MVP a year ago.
But what’s also the same is Oklahoma City. Westbrook’s team is on pace to duplicate the same number of wins (47) as last season and also where it sits in the Western Conference standings and, perhaps, the same out-in-the-first-round playoff finish.
That, more than Russ’ triple-double fetish, is the story here. The offseason All-Star additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony haven’t turned OKC into a super team or made a bump in terms of the bottom line, at least not yet, and time is hardly on the Thunder’s side. Remember, this team is on the clock. The playoffs are fast approaching, and so is George’s free agent decision on his future this summer. There’s no question that those two are intertwined. Unless there’s another gear that Oklahoma City hasn’t shown after 70 inconsistent games, Westbrook might be staring at yet another remaking of his team this summer. If you’ve lost count, it’s at four right now.
There was the Westbrook-Kevin Durant-James Harden Thunder, young talent on the rise, who reached the NBA Finals but eventually self-destructed when it was time to pony up and OKC got spooked by the luxury tax and Harden wanted his own team. Imagine: Assuming Harden gets the vote in his favor this year, that’s three MVPs once on the same roster.
There was the Westbrook-Durant Thunder, where the dynamic deuces carried the club to a string of great seasons, finally undone by untimely injuries and a collapse after leading Golden State 3-1 in the West finals and Durant’s desire to join ‘em after he couldn’t beat ‘em.
The Westbrook-Victor Oladipo Thunder became purely a Westbrook vanity project, where Westbrook was free to roam and wreak havoc while poor Oladipo was, for the most part, a curious spectator and eventual trade chip to get George from Indiana (don’t cry for Oladipo; he’s doing OK now).
We know who we are and what we have and what we’re capable of doing.
Russell Westbrook on team’s potential
And now it’s down to this, Westbrook-George-Melo, a maddening project that too often gets caught in a fog against inferior teams while occasionally flexing the firepower that makes you wonder if they can be better in the playoffs than the regular season.
Ask Westbrook about where the Thunder stand at this checkpoint of the season, and he’s suspiciously non-committal:
“Man, we’re just taking it one game at a time and see how far we can go. We know who we are and what we have and what we’re capable of doing.”
That’s not what Harden would say about the Rockets or Durant about the Warriors, although to be fair, those teams seem beyond the reach of the rest of the league, not just Oklahoma City. It’s perhaps wise to hedge a bit anyway with the Thunder going forward, because the clues they’ve left behind are all so perplexing.
The pluses are obvious, starting with Westbrook. His only flaw this season is 3-point shooting, where he’s under 30 percent. Otherwise, the energy is still there, as evident by his relentless rebounding; he’s the only player under 6-foot-5 who’s in the top 40. And he’s still finding teammates despite what his usage rate might suggest.
He’s only taking three fewer shots this season despite the addition of players who were No. 1 options on their previous teams, and that could be a nit-pick. Blame that on Westbrook’s eternal belief that he can beat his man off the dribble or hit the pull-up jumper. He’s often a victim of his supreme confidence in himself.
Even Anthony, who’s most affected by Westbrook’s 21 shots a night, is impressed.
“What he’s able to do on nightly basis, what it takes to do that, the focus you have to have, for me to be a part of that, be alongside him, it’s special,” Anthony said. “It’s something we all should appreciate what we have and who we have.”
It hasn’t been an easy transition all around for Anthony. Leaving Manhattan for a sleepy Midwestern town that doesn’t offer much after midnight has taken some adjusting, along with being away from his son, who still lives in New York. Yet it’s the basketball side that finds Melo dealing with his mortality.
When the season began, he chuckled at the thought of a reduced role or coming off the bench, and while he’s still in the starting lineup, his role clearly has changed. It has hit him all at once: His surroundings, limitations and pecking order, and that’s not easy for a star to swallow.
This is the first time in memory that Melo hasn’t been his team’s lead singer, and this goes beyond 13 years in the NBA and his one year at Syracuse. Also, when he does have the ball, his freedom on the floor is different. Until now, Melo could do as he pleased, shoot from where he wanted. With OKC, in this system, he rarely posts up anymore, which means fewer free throw chances — he’s taking just 2.6 per game, down from an average of seven during his Knicks days, although age (33) and surgery also plays a part.
“You just have to accept what this team needs,” he said. “I was able to accept that, although it took a while. Now the game is just coming to me. It’s a different style than what I’ve been used to but when we’re playing like this and (Russ) is doing what he does and everyone playing their role, we’re successful.”
The ball was constantly in Melo’s hands for his entire basketball life and every offense he’s been involved in ran through him. He dictated everything. Now? He’s a spot-up shooter who, for the most part, waits for his cue from Westbrook.
Coach Billy Donovan said: “We’ve had different talks through the year about what we need from him to help our team, and he’s been mature enough to go through that. Carmelo has been the best in this league for a long time at what he does, but obviously not everybody’s going to get everything they had in the past.
“Paul doesn’t have the ball as much as he did, Carmelo’s not going to score as much as he did, same with Russell,” Donovan said. “It speaks to their character about wanting to win that they’re willing to figure out what can we do to try and come up with a way to play that’s the best version of ourselves. All those guys had to take less. Winning’s important to all of them.”
Winning in the playoffs could ultimately push George in one direction or another once he hits free agency in July. That’s a lot of pressure awaiting the franchise next month. OKC lost to the Rockets in five games last April, although the Thunder’s first-round matchup this time should be more favorable if they get the 4 or 5 seed. George still maintains that his belief in OKC’s ability to win a title will factor heavily in whether he stays or leaves.
“We just have to pick up the pace and keep it rolling,” he said. “It’s all coming together for us, we just have to keep it going.”
The remaining schedule isn’t cooperating. The Thunder have only one game, the season finale against the Grizzlies, against a team that’s not fighting for a playoff spot or seeding. That means Donovan probably won’t have the luxury of resting any of his most important players, and that includes Adams, who’s dealing with a bum ankle. Also, they’re without Andre Roberson, their next-best defender after George, the rest of the way.
With a strong regular season finish, OKC could get third place, behind the Warriors and Rockets, right where they were projected to be. Or, in the event of a struggle, which is also possible given their behavior pattern, they could be seventh or eighth and see either team.
“One game at a time,” said Westbrook.
If nothing else, OKC is destined to get the usual from Westbrook, who surprisingly isn’t in the conversation for MVP, yet could average a triple or close enough. That surprises the people around him.
“He’s engaged,” said Donovan. “It speaks to his control of the game and how hard he plays. It’s a heck of a milestone, getting 100 triple doubles. He doesn’t have to take a shot to impact the game.”
Yet if Westbrook doesn’t win a playoff round or two, he could be staring at another off-season of changes around him. Anthony isn’t going anywhere because the $27 million he’s due in his option year is more than anyone will pay. George has other avenues to explore, if he chooses.
If George leaves, then there’s a very real chance Westbrook will be a star on his own island for some time. That’s because it’s tough to get free agents to come to OKC, which is why GM Sam Presti has worked overtime trying to trade for help (Oladipo, George, Melo, etc.). Put aside for the moment the perception, true or not, that few would want to play next to Westbrook. Oklahoma City, in spite of its charms, isn’t the type of place that’s on radar for stars. OKC got Durant, Westbrook and Harden because they were drafted, and Westbrook stayed for 205 million reasons. Would Melo in his prime sign in OKC? LeBron? Anybody who’s an A-list star?
That’s an issue for this offseason. Right now, all the promise that Westbrook, George and Melo generated in the preseason needs to make an appearance this spring, if that’s possible. After 70 games, how many more games does the Oklahoma City Thunder need in order to show us they’re better than what the record says they are?
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