Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, and no reason for hope

While the picture of Russell Westbrook and Paul George puffing cigars to celebrate their continued union said 1,000 words, the Instagram caption

Last July, when George decided to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder on a four-year max deal, he was committing to both a franchise and to a superstar partnership. The all-star forward could have requested a shorter, more flexible contract, or he could have pursued other destinations, such as playing with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, he ostensibly turned over the rest of his prime to Westbrook months after losing to the Utah Jazz in the first round.

It was a curious choice then, and an even more curious choice now. The two men share a close friendship and productive on-court chemistry, and they seem to enjoy their lives as big fish in one of the NBA’s smallest ponds. But their business remains as unfinished as ever, and their latest postseason failure casts doubt on whether it will ever actually get done.

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The Portland Trail Blazers eliminated the Thunder in heartbreaking fashion with a 118-115 victory in Game 5 on Tuesday, sending Westbrook and the Thunder home in the first round for the third straight season. Oklahoma City was done in by a late-game collapse and an all-time great shot from Blazers star Damian Lillard. Both Thunder stars acquitted themselves well in their season finale, with Westbrook posting a 29-point triple-double and George finishing with 36 points and nine rebounds.

Still, Oklahoma City lost because its franchise point guard was less efficient, less focused and less reliable than Lillard, and because George was limited by a shoulder injury. No matter how aggressively Westbrook played or as stubbornly as he spoke during news conferences, facts were facts: his Thunder were soundly beaten by the Blazers, who entered the series as underdogs due to center Jusuf Nurkic’s season-ending leg injury.

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The Thunder’s season was not a total loss: Westbrook made history by averaging a triple-double for the third straight year, including one 20-20-20 tribute to slain rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle, and George enjoyed a career year in which he was spent months regarded as a top-three MVP candidate. Yet they exit early amid disappointing circumstances while other star-studded duos, like those of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, play on.

Paul George effectively committed his prime to Oklahoma City and Westbrook last summer. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)
“Identity crisis” is used too casually and too often in sports, but it applies to the Thunder. The 30-year-old Westbrook and 28-year-old George are both relatively young, and they made a combined $66 million this season. Oklahoma City had one of the league’s top-five payrolls and has already committed to spending more money in 2019-20 than any other NBA team. Together, just four of its players — Westbrook, George, center Steven Adams and guard Dennis Schroder — will combine to earn more than the NBA’s projected $109 million salary cap.

In short, the Thunder is spending as if the team is in the middle of a championship window, but it isn’t good enough to win big now and it has little flexibility to improve its short-term positioning.

Westbrook must shoulder much of the blame. While his age and box score stats might suggest that he’s still in his prime, a closer look tells a more pessimistic story. Behind his gaudy averages of 22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10.7 assists are numerous advanced stats that reveal a player whose dominance and effectiveness have waned.

This year, Westbrook posted his lowest player efficiency rating and his worst true shooting percentage since 2009-10, plus his fewest win shares since an injury-plagued 2013-14 season. After ranking 10th in real plus-minus in 2016-17, a metric that seeks to quantify a player’s impact on his team’s offense and defense, Westbrook fell to 39th in 2018-19. Two years after he was named MVP, Westbrook was no longer the best player on his own team. It wasn’t particularly close, either.

The Portland series illuminated some of the issues behind this slippage. Westbrook’s long-standing shooting woes have worsened and he’s yet to discover a lasting and effective compensation method. Against the Blazers, he cycled through various options — to go ahead and shoot anyway, to cede control of the offense to George, to drive and kick out to role players who aren’t capable shooters either — without sustaining success. Westbrook finished the five-game series shooting 36 percent from the field and 32 percent from deep.

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In years past, he was able to justify some of his low-percentage attempts by ranking among the league’s leaders in free throw attempts and by turning to a trusty midrange jumper when he needed buckets. This year, both of those weapons have dulled, and the Blazers often dared him to beat them by granting him a gigantic cushion on the perimeter. Similarly, Westbrook used to be able to explain his lack of off-ball movement and lapses of attention on defense by pointing to his humongous offensive burden. Those shortcomings are even more glaring now that he’s no longer a transcendent scoring and playmaking threat every night.

While Westbrook led the league in assists for the second straight year, his individual distribution ability hasn’t translated to team-wide success. Oklahoma City’s offense ranked 17th despite the presence of two all-stars and its assist rate ranked in the bottom five. The perpetual flow that has become so central to success in the modern NBA continues to be absent in Oklahoma City, where Westbrook’s frantic energy often gets in the way and where George was too often asked to step in and save the day.

There are no quick fixes available to Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, whose path to building a title contender starts with Westbrook transforming into a lethal shooter or a more dependable pass-first engine of the offense. Good luck with that.

A Westbrook trade might sound appealing to outsiders, but it’s almost certainly out of the question given his immense local popularity, his loyalty following Kevin Durant’s 2016 departure, his central role in recruiting George and the four remaining years on his five-year, $205 million contract. Even considering a trade involving George, after swinging big to acquire him from the Indiana Pacers and spending the last two seasons investing in him, would be sheer lunacy.

Firing Coach Billy Donovan, who has accumulated a 199-129 record in four years, will be a popular suggestion this week, but it wouldn’t represent a real solution. Ownership is already paying through the nose for its roster, Donovan’s contract option for 2019-20 was picked up back in December and he’s established a functional bond with Westbrook and George.

One source close to the Thunder described Donovan as a “good partner” — a phrase that speaks to both the internal respect he commands and his deferential role within a star-driven organization. Even if Presti did conclude that Donovan was lacking, Oklahoma City’s next coach would be stuck managing Westbrook’s same fundamental flaws.

That puts Presti back where he’s been each summer since before Durant’s exit: trying to shuffle the deck chairs around his stars. His options this year aren’t particularly appetizing, and his hands are tied. It’s extraordinarily difficult to construct a contender around a poor-shooting, high-usage guard, Oklahoma City has already parted with two future first-round picks in previous trades, and the roster lacks quality young prospects to sweeten trade packages.

Presti could try to trade Adams, a gritty center whose offensive rebounding and interior defensive presence have made him a strong fit alongside Westbrook and George. But there are complicating factors of all kinds. Oklahoma City relies heavily on Adams thanks to a front line that is perilously thin and he has proven to be one of the most dependable staring centers in the league. At the same time, he didn’t play particularly well against the Blazers and is owed more than $50 million over the next two seasons.

Would Presti be selling low by parting with a traditional center with no ability to shoot the three immediately after a dud series? Would he be forced to seek a center in return in an Adams deal, a la the Memphis Grizzlies’ swap of Marc Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors?

The alternatives only get less ambitious. Presti could try to trade Schroder, a streaky scoring guard who isn’t likely to return much of value. He could try to package some of his smaller expiring contracts for a shooter, but Oklahoma City’s barren wings need more than a single shooter.

Or, he can mostly sit on his hands, grit his teeth at a huge luxury tax bill, and hope that Andre Roberson’s return from a season-long knee injury improves the Thunder’s defense enough that they can win a playoff series in 2020.

Presti has tried his best to cycle assets in the past. He traded for Carmelo Anthony and then traded Anthony for Schroder a year later. Both those moves failed to move the needle, though, and it’s difficult to see which of the above scenarios would set the Thunder on a more promising course.

The central question has become: If Westbrook is going to miss 64 percent of his shots and lose his matchup in the playoffs, where will any of this lead? How many minor wins on the margins are necessary if the center cannot hold?

Over the last three years, the Thunder have been almost solely focused on getting Westbrook the help he needs to contend. It’s fair to wonder now if that’s become a flawed premise.


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