The Oklahoma City Thunder wrapped up one of the most successful seasons in franchise history Friday night with their 96-91 loss to the Utah Jazz, completing an unexpected first-round playoff exit and setting the stage for an interesting offseason.
No, that's not a typo or a garbled sentence—and for any Thunder fan, that thought is outrageous. Adding four-time All-Star Paul George and 10-time, albeit aging, All-Star Carmelo Anthony to reigning MVP Russell Westbrook was supposed to mean, at the very least, a 50-win season and contention for a conference finals appearance.
The Thunder obviously didn't come anywhere close to the championship Westbrook said in January would be the best sales pitch the team could make to convince free agent-to-be George to abandon his stated dream of playing in his hometown, Los Angeles, and stay in Oklahoma City.
An informal poll of a handful of local media was unanimous that George will not be back. A poll of opposing executives was also unanimous that Anthony will opt in to the final year of his contract, worth $28 million, which would leave the Thunder without any cap room even if George leaves.
So how could anyone possibly tag this season as one of the franchise's best, especially for a club that has reached the conference finals three times and the Finals once in the last eight years?
By considering where it was this time a year ago and the dark, foreboding problem general manager Sam Presti was staring down.
For fans and media, success is graded almost exclusively by how much a team wins versus how much it was expected to win. Which is all well and good, but it's not how many franchises measure their success—not by a long shot. Holding on to, or acquiring, star players or future assets upon which to inspire ticket sales and corporate sponsorships is the first order. Especially in a market like Oklahoma City.
A year ago, the Thunder were coming off their first season without Kevin Durant, who had bolted for the Golden State Warriors to win a title. The team still scratched out 47 wins behind Westbrook's MVP performance and historic triple-double average before it bowed out in the first round as the sixth seed in five games to the Houston Rockets. It was viewed as a remarkable achievement in Durant's absence, but it also was hard to imagine the team, as constituted, doing much better. Which loomed as a problem.
Much as they were the previous year with Durant, overtures to get Westbrook to sign an extension had been postponed. KD had demonstrated that going elsewhere could deliver what he desired most, a championship ring; what if Westbrook came to the same conclusion, that the first step to winning a title was getting out of OKC? A franchise that had been to the playoffs seven times in the nine years since it moved to Oklahoma City was looking at the very real prospect of losing a second league MVP in the span of two seasons.
Fellow executives around the league couldn't imagine how Presti would keep his job if that happened, regardless of how much previous success the franchise had had.
It never came to that, thanks to the deals he made for George and Anthony—and make no mistake, they were instrumental in Westbrook's signing his five-year, $205 million extension. George arrived from Indiana on July 6. The deal for Anthony was announced Sept. 23. Westbrook signed his extension Sept. 29.
There's no way to fairly assess this season without considering the alternative reality the Thunder could have been facing right now. Which would have been, potentially, having Westbrook entering free agency and both George and Anthony exercising their options to do so. All that would have opened a ton of salary-cap room, but imagine the optics if Westbrook, George and Anthony had followed KD out the door. You thought tumbleweeds and bison on a deserted prairie were part of the OKC image before?
It's not a stretch to say the second Westbrook completed the final loop of his signature on that extension, this season was an unqualified success.
The fact is, George is the equivalent of house money. If he doesn't opt out of the final year of his deal or he re-ups with the Thunder, this season will go down as a good one simply because the franchise has never had a free-agent superstar of his magnitude whom it didn't draft choose to stay. That's a huge image-flipper for the franchise and the city. While the local media don't believe he's staying, there are those inside the organization who are quietly optimistic he is.
For whatever it's worth, when I asked George last week about the team's inconsistent play in general and inconsistent offense in particular, he said, "It's Year 1." Maybe he was just following the script or trying to throw me off the scent, but when someone talks about "Year 1," the natural presumption is that there is going to be a Year 2 at the very least.
There is reason to believe that, given a second turn, the Thunder could find more consistency. George, a ball-dominant forward for his entire career with the Pacers, went through the growing pains of figuring out how to be more effective without it. Anthony, similarly, moved from small forward to stretch power forward and had to come to terms with averaging the fewest shots of his career and the second-most three-pointers.
"We didn't play well enough long enough," coach Billy Donovan said after the team's Game 4 loss to the Jazz, but he could've been talking about the entire season. "Consistency has been this team's greatest challenge."
Donovan's belief that it can be overcome is based on the cooperation of his three stars.
"What I really appreciate is how hard they've tried," Donovan said. "I like the group we have as people."
Several people in the organization vouched for Anthony, saying he has said repeatedly he would do whatever is asked of him. That is most likely to be space the floor as a three-point threat; play both power forward and even some center, as he did in Game 6 against the Jazz; and improve both his strength and conditioning so he can defend bigger bodies and outrun them to the other end.
Rumors have floated about both Donovan's and Presti's jobs being in danger. Some have blamed Donovan and his offense for not successfully harnessing the talent of his three stars; the same criticism was levied at his predecessor, Scott Brooks, when he had Westbrook and Durant. But you've no doubt heard of pace-of-play statistics, which track the number of possessions a team has per game. The Thunder were one of the league's top five in that department in the playoffs.
When it comes to change of pace in the franchise, though, they have to be in the bottom five. They are more likely to tweak the coaching staff and add a harder-edged veteran assistant—think Tom Thibodeau for Doc Rivers in Boston or Ron Adams with Steve Kerr in Golden State—than fire Donovan, who appears to have a rapport with all three stars.
League sources would not be surprised if the Thunder also approached Anthony about not opting in to his contract and offered, in exchange, an extension that offers him a greater total stretched over several years, reducing the cap hit in any given year.
The first order of business, of course, is to find out if George is staying. Hard as it may be to imagine for some, think back to this time a year ago. Did you see George ever being in OKC? Did you see Westbrook, the L.A.-born fashionista, staying? Or Anthony, who longed to leave Denver for New York, accepting a trade to Oklahoma City?
As nerve-wracking as this summer could prove to be, the circumstances for the Thunder are not as dire as they were a year ago. Worst-case scenario: George leaves, and they go as far as their league MVP can take them; it's basically the same place they were after Durant left. Potentially OK scenario: George accepts a sign-and-trade in order to not lose out on the added $46 million the Thunder can pay him, and the team receives some sort of compensation. Best-case scenario: George opts in or re-signs, and Anthony embraces his new role. If all goes right, Oklahoma City could, as Westbrook did in January, harbor visions of chasing a title.
All of which is more than the Thunder could have envisioned a year ago.