After Underwhelming Regular Season, OKC Thunder Still Believe in Core Stars

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterApril 10, 2018

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 9:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against the Miami Heat on April 9, 2018 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder have spent most of the season making the trivial look grueling.

A team comprised of three stars has alternated between dominant and dull all season in standing toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors but also sinking to the level of the Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings.

In true Thunder fashion, clinching the franchise's eighth playoff berth since 2008 on Monday night came with requisite drama. Sewing up a playoff spot required OKC to battle back from an 18-point first-quarter deficit against the Miami Heat. It was par for the course for a Thunder squad that stumbled to an 8-12 start then spent the rest of the season playing catch up.

"You want to get [to the playoffs], but it really doesn't make a difference if you're there and not playing well," Coach Billy Donovan said on the Fox Sports Oklahoma broadcast. "I feel like we've had two games right now where ... we played pretty well against Houston. We didn't play great in terms of shooting the basketball, but we did a lot of other good things. If you can't win all the time by making shots, you gotta find different ways to win, and I thought we did that."

Oklahoma City's playoff seeding remains unknown heading into Wednesday night's season finale against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Thunder could still wind up anywhere between fourth and eighth in the West. A victory over the Grizzlies secures no worse than the sixth seed. A loss could drop them as low as No. 8.

Regardless of where they land, the Thunder will enter the postseason as a confident team. They finished 6-3 against the Warriors, Raptors and Rockets. That's the kind of company the team believes it belongs with. On the other hand, Oklahoma City finished the season 20-20 against all other teams .500 or better.

It's also notable that the Thunder, with the league's third-highest payroll and an upcoming luxury-tax bill of over $25 million, took this long to lock up a playoff spot compared to its contemporaries. The Warriors, with a payroll barely higher than OKC's, clinched a playoff spot in the middle of March. The Blazers, who aggressively ducked under the tax over the course of the season and now have the no. 11 payroll, locked up a playoff berth in early April.

Could this impact whether Thunder ownership will be willing to bring the team back next season at a cost approaching $300 million?

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

A team source has dismissed the idea that it would be unwilling to swallow that cost. Years of deep playoff runs, combined with exploding franchise values across the NBA, have positioned the Thunder to spend now. It was part of an overall plan laid out when the team relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008, though the harsher tax penalties enacted in 2011 changed things. Kevin Durant's departure in 2016 was another obstacle to overcome.

The Thunder also realize there is a finite window of time to work with Russell Westbrook. His five-year maximum salary extension kicks in next season. With Westbrook turning 30 in November, the time to win is now, which is what made the trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony necessary, despite the potential future high costs.

There is also a belief that another season of continuity will make for a more cohesive squad. The Portland Trailblazers and Raptors are prime examples of teams that improved from within over several years. And despite the slow start, the Thunder won 21 of 29 games before losing guard Andre Roberson to a season-ending knee injury.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

For now, the attention turns to the players entering the NBA's second season.

Anthony, the 10-time All-Star who agreed to waive his no-trade clause to leave the Grand Central of New York City for The Big Friendly of the West South Central, returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

"[I'm] looking forward to not planning vacations," Anthony said. "The decision of wanting to come to OKC, this was part of the reason, part of the bigger picture. We all wanted to come together and have an opportunity to put a run together."

George, who can opt out and become a free agent, is trying to get back in a groove. The All-Star forward has hit only 30.2 percent of his three-point attempts since the All-Star break, but the trend is slowly turning. He has connected on 18 of his last 49 attempts despite ongoing tightness in his right forearm. Though he's spoken positively about potentially re-signing with the Thunder, an early playoff exit wouldn't help matters.

Steven Adams has benefitted from extra space to operate in this season. He's developed a variety of offensive moves in the paint and is a large lob target for Westbrook. Late-season addition Corey Brewer has provided more than most observers expected when he was released by the Lakers. Reserve forward Jerami Grant has made significant strides over the season and at times has displaced both Anthony and Adams in closing lineups.

It's a mix of talent that has the reigning MVP bullish on his team's chances in the postseason.

"We can beat anybody when we're playing our best," Westbrook said. "That's the confidence we need."

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