Above the Noise: What to Make of This Thunder Season
Game 7 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets series will forever be an instant classic.
The last-minute of the game seemed to last 45 in real-time. It saw a sequence of multiple bodies on the floor that included Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Eric Gordon, and James Harden. It featured a foul/ timeout mishap. And it was trending towards another James Harden elimination game stinker, if not for the block that saved his legacy.
The game contained a confusing atmosphere within it. Its pace, not new to game sevens, but unequivocally different from most other moments in the series. The tension in the air, strained further by the unrealistic expectations that befall star players in moments such as these, factored into creating a game where anything felt possible.
This series and this game reminded NBA fans why they love the NBA playoffs. Each moment showcased to NBA fans the mystique that surrounds these cataclysmic games.
And with game sevens operating in a different defined space and time that doesn’t feel previously decided, seeming to carefully walk the fine line between poetry in motion and utter chaos, they offer up two hours of unadulterated hope filled with sedentary moments of despair. Game sevens embody why fans love the sport.
And thats why the Thunder felt built for it.
So, with the Thunder’s season over, there has to be something to glean from the year of basketball we just witnessed. It’s time to look at what’s next.
A Coaching Dilemma
The first difficult question Sam Presti and the brain trust of Oklahoma City basketball have to answer is what happens with Billy Donovan.
He did not receive an extension on his coaching contract this season, even amidst OKC’s unexpected success. And since Kevin Durant’s departure, he holds a 7-16 record in the postseason. Three of those seasons came with former league MVP Russell Westbrook, two of which had perennial All-Star Paul George paired with them.
His most successful playoff season in the post-Durant era came this year. And this has been, arguably, his least talented team he has coached. The lack of an extension shows a bit of noncommitment to Donovan as the head coach going forward. Keep in mind Presti is a man that preaches continuity and sustainable success before anything else. If Donovan is seen as the coach for the job, Presti will get the deal done. He did bring him in from Florida for a reason.
A rebuilding, Donovan coached team provides the opportunity for the coach to mold young men, something he did in college. The X’s and O’s won’t change much, but he could help mold the young players on this team–currently rostered and on the horizon–grow into their careers nicely.
Yet, the X’s and O’s are exactly what the problem is with his coaching style. Too often in late-game scenarios, Donovan has been the victim of a limited offensive playbook. There was nothing nuanced, or different, in the way he constructed positive possessions out of timeouts in the playoffs–especially the final one. The Thunder were last for the postseason in after-timeout scoring per NBA.com.
The running joke has been that in the half-court Donovan’s offensive gameplan has one-on-one iso ball as plan A, B, and C. That strategy subverts the direction the NBA’s headed in. This season, Donovan’s system was perceived to have arrived, unshackled by the ball domination of the Russell Westbrook era. It was 17th in Offensive Rating in the NBA.
Now iso ball is not the problem if you have the right players to run the system. Arguably Donovan hasn’t had those guys his whole tenure. The best unit within the roster this season was the three-guard trio, which proliferated one-on-one play with more, better creators. But eventually Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be running the show without a veteran iso presence to take turns with.
You never want to have a coach that coaches to a system instead of to his players. That puts a ceiling on just how good a given team can be because players win games not systems. This is why it’s so important for Presti to decide on Donovan, and soon. Is his system essentially isolation, or has he catered to isolation around his two ball-dominant Hall of Fame point guards? This decision can either leave the Thunder perched over the spoils of the next decade, or under Occam’s Razor.
Sports Illustrated has reported that Donovan may be noncommittal to sticking with the Thunder himself, pending the outcome of the next question for OKC.
Remember, this team was supposed to blow it up by the 2020 trade deadline. But they were too good at that point in the season, and thus Presti stuck with guys like Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schröder.
That decision is now on the table for Presti, and every option is wide open.
The treasure trove of draft picks is a nice commodity to throw around, but you have to look at the reality of the situation. Draft picks haven’t proven themselves in the league. Given the flattened lottery odds, all bets seem to be off on whether a team’s top pick will actually be a premium selection. Just see the Cleveland Cavaliers’ recent luck if you want an example.
The best value in these picks comes in being able to move them for the next disgruntled superstar that is bound to come along. NBA teams consistently overvalue the idea of drafting the next superstar. The facts of the case are, it happens seemingly at random. Some are adamant that drafting is a strategy some have and others don’t, and to a degree, I agree. But every year there are the can’t-miss guys and the guys that become good NBA players just by determination and an unwillingness to quit. See: Lu Dort. For many players, it’s all about scheme, fit, work ethic, and opportunity–not necessarily the position in which they were drafted.
Presti has the leverage to move these picks for a young superstar who doesn’t want to play where he’s at. That would usher in a win-now mode for the Thunder organization and maybe they double down on guys like Paul and Schröder. I doubt that is going to happen because that would mean Presti would be sacrificing long term sustainability for short term gratification.
This is a real dilemma Presti has on his shoulders now. Do you turn the page on guys like Paul, Adams, and Schröder to usher in the new era? Do you field a competitive team that at least aims to make games interesting every night? Or are you banking on the Clippers’ demise to bring about the future of Oklahoma basketball via the picks owed OKC from LA?
If you have an opportunity to win, always take it. If the Thunder haven’t taught you anything else, it’s that the window for a championship is so small. Giving up a chance at a ring in hopes of a dominant decade never ends as planned. The team is never as good as initially perceived to be, and the period of dominance is always shorter than expected. Basketball is a cruel game and very rarely is it a just one.
So the future
The future of OKC may be bright, but the way Presti and the organization handle this offseason could be the difference between that brightness being on full display, and disappointment.
This season’s success was an expected and unexpected surprise. This playoff series was far more competitive than many thought it would be. And the Thunder are still in a position where it could be right back in the mix next season.
So let this be your takeaway from the season: the Thunder played hard, and won a lot more than many expected. And also, the page is turning on the next decade of Thunder basketball. The decisions the organization makes this summer could define the next ten years of Thunder basketball.
Yet, Chris Paul said it best. Some are built for it, some shy away from it. The Thunder definitely aren’t the latter.