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What was the real problem with the Thunder last season?

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Were the Thunder flawed last season?  (USATSI)
Were the Thunder flawed last season? (USATSI)

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Every once in a while, a team comes around that challenges for the title and accomplishes more by not winning it -- something people talk and argue about can have more of a lasting effect than actually accomplishing your goal.

For instance, what would you say about the Spurs? They're great? We've kind of covered that, right? Is there any new marrow to suck from the bones of their consistent, unending, and unfathomably admirable success?

No one's arguing how to fix the Kings. They'll mock the Kings. But no one's talking about how to fix them. Well, we will, but that's not until their offseason report later this month.

But one team people love to argue about, a team that drives the conversation of sports and about whom everyone has an opinion?

The Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder, despite having their second-best player Russell Westbrook miss 36 games due to injury, won 59 games last season. They finished sixth in offensive efficiency in a year of expanded offensive efficiency, and sixth in defensive efficiency. They finished just three games behind the Spurs for the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs.

Despite missing their second-best player for a significant chunk of the season and their third-best player, Serge Ibaka, for the first two games of the Western Conference finals, the Thunder finished as the West runners-up to the eventual NBA champions, with a Game 6 overtime loss sealing their fate. We didn't realize it at the time, but the Thunder tested the Spurs in a way they wouldn't be tested during a dominating NBA Finals victory over the Heat.

Why then is more written and said about what's wrong with this team than what's right? What is it we expect of the Thunder and how valid are the criticisms of the Thunder's failed bid to win the title?

Let's take some real time to answer those questions.

The ghost of James Harden

Could the Thunder have kept James Harden?  (USATSI)
Could the Thunder have kept James Harden? (USATSI)

The common idea is that the Thunder are missing what James Harden provided before he was traded to Houston. The argument says a four-star team of Harden, Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka would provide the firepower to overcome the challenges that befell the team this season. Harden would have carried the load offensively when Westbrook was injured and provided the outside shooter that was missing, forcing too much of a burden on Westbrook and Durant.

This ignores, of course, Harden's defensive struggles which were evident even when he was with the Thunder, and the fact that the Thunder offense was sufficient without Harden. They have consistently finished as a top-10 defense, and it's hard to argue they're lacking firepower when they have the MVP in Durant.

But more than that, we have to consider the constraints put on superteams after the 2011 lockout. Since the Harden trade, there has been a growing sentiment that the move to trade him wasn't out of financial flexibility or simple economic sustainability, but good old fashioned cheapness. The thought goes that owner Clay Bennett, who moved the team from more lucrative Seattle to Oklahoma City, simply didn't want to pay the luxury tax for this team, and in doing so limited their ceiling.

Yet two years after that decision, superteams are slowly dying off and keeping them together has become exceedingly difficult. The Miami Heat just watched their ultra-team separate. One of the reported reasons that led to LeBron James' decision to depart was Micky Arison's decision not to pay Mike Miller and keep costs low last season. Not even the two-time defending champions with the best player on the planet were immune to the harsh punishments set forth in the CBA. The Brooklyn Nets, a paragon of hedonistic personnel spending, watched Paul Pierce and Andray Blatche take off this summer. There are rumors of Mikhail Prokhorov looking to sell the team, and a Grantland report indicated that outside of a lucrative real-estate and branding venture surrounding the move of the team to Brooklyn, the Nets' basketball operations department lost $110 million last season.

No one knows how new owner Steve Ballmer will treat the Clippers, nor if the Knicks will return to their mega-spending when Phil Jackson builds the roster in his vision. The Spurs? Not subject to the tax, thanks to another luxury -- superstars who have made enough money to be willing and able to take significant paycuts.

So were the Thunder cheap, or simply forced to make a financial decision sooner than those other teams? Zach Lowe discussed what would have happened if the Thunder had simply paid Harden, with the possibility that they would only have to pay the tax in one year. But if they didn't have enough weapons in 2014 to get past the Spurs, would Harden have been enough to make up the difference, at the cost of whatever veteran talent they could add in the future?

If Harden was the answer for this Thunder team -- and looking at his defense, that's hard to argue in the first place -- it may not be worth discussing anyway because teams with three legitimate megastars simply aren't sustainable anymore.

Scott Brooks, easy target

Scott Brooks is a target for blame among Thunder supporters. (Getty Images)
Scott Brooks is a target for blame among Thunder supporters. (Getty Images)

If you're not screaming about how trading Harden was unforgivable, you're likely dropping snide remarks about Scott Brooks. For two years the primary criticisms of Brooks have been:

1. His late-game offense is unimaginative, bordering on dysfunctional.

Hard to argue against this one. The crux of this really comes down to the fact that Durant is and always has been bad at establishing position. This has been the knock on Durant his entire career. Everything about his offensive game is sublime, but he struggles to find ways to seal his defender for the catch at the elbow, which means he has to keep going farther and farther out to get the ball. For most stars, the isolation final play is the model. Even the Heat ran it with LeBron James. The difference is that when James gets a head of steam, necessitating the help-down to defend the rim, James was just as likely to drive and kick, and he had Ray Allen. The Thunder didn't have Ray Allen (we'll get there in a minute) and Durant isn't that kind of player. He's looking for the pull-up. His approach is different. It's easier to disrupt, and since he's not able to establish position, he winds up in a time crunch.

In reality, the Spurs aren't running any sort of high-tech super-gizmo stuff late, either. Coaches want a shot. More passing, more mechanics increase the likelihood of a turnover, and that's unacceptable. Bad, low-percentage shots can go in. Turnovers can't. For those who would point to San Antonio's ball movement, the difference is that the Spurs' execution is superior, their shooters are better, and keying in on any one player is dangerous with San Antonio.

But wait, you're going to love this part. With 30 seconds to go, ahead or behind by two points, the Spurs finished 10-2, shooting 35.7 percent from the field and were plus-7 overall and plus-50.4 per 36 minutes, the best in the league according to NBA.com. The second best team in plus-minus per-36 minutes in those situations? The Thunder, at 14-12, shooting a tiny-bit-better 36 percent, plus-15 overall and plus-46.6 per 36 minutes. What's more, the Thunder had half as many turnovers in those situations per 36 minutes.

While the Spurs were better in the crunchiest of crunch time, the Thunder were right behind them. Their record wasn't as good, mainly because they were 8 points worse defensively per 100 possessions, and they gave up 25 free throws to the Spurs' one (1) in those situations. You can assign some of that to random chance, some of that to superior defense, but it doesn't really matter. Here's the key:

The Thunder actually were really, truly great in clutch time, offensively.

2. He plays his veterans, his bad veterans, way too much in crunch time.

In the regular season, you can make this argument a little easier. He played Derek Fisher 7.5 minutes per fourth quarter, the fifth-most of any player, but that's also the same as his playoff minutes. He did play Caron Butler the third-most after signing Butler, though, at 8.6 minutes per fourth quarter. Kendrick Perkins, though? Just 3.8 minutes per fourth quarter.

Kendrick Perkins wasn't really the problem.
Kendrick Perkins wasn't really the problem. (USATSI)

In the playoffs, though, this doesn't really hold up. Yes, in the fourth quarter, Butler averaged the fourth-most minutes, but if you're looking for the defender who can stretch the floor, Butler's really your only option. Meanwhile Fisher played just 7.1 minutes per fourth quarter in the playoffs. That's still too high, but Jeremy Lamb played 5.1, so the gap isn't huge. And Perkins, most often listed as the egregious problem? He played in just eight playoff fourth quarters for the Thunder, and just 2.9 minutes per game at that.

So while Brooks did overplay the veterans, one, it wasn't his decision to have them be the only players with more than three years of experience on the roster and two, he didn't overplay them to a degree that warrants saying "Brooks is the problem."

Maybe you can get past the fact that neither of those allegations seem particularly true and just say that Brooks doesn't have the tactical understanding of the game to make adjustments the way the coach of a contender needs to.

Except Brooks adjusted after going down to Memphis, adjusted to the Clippers, and adjusted to San Antonio to get back in the series. He worked Popovich over in all sorts of ways in 2012 (which no one seems to remember) and beyond all of the anecdotal evidence, the man is 39-34 in playoff games.

The idea that Brooks is the problem comes from a perception which isn't actually backed by any evidence, and by a feeling which mostly springs from default. When we don't know what else to say, we chalk it up to "the coach sucks." And if you look at what Brooks has done, from developing one of the best cores in the league to integrating new components to the overall record and playoff success, you come to realize that if you're going to pin everything on Brooks (and he certainly deserves a little pinning as everyone on a team does for failure to reach a goal), you're probably just throwing darts because you don't know what else to aim at.

Your other option of course, is to blame the roster.

Not enough guns, not enough ammo

Everyone who gets shelled by the Spurs looks like they don't have enough weapons. There was an idea that the Thunder just didn't have enough good players, except this is what they had: The MVP who is the most dominant offensive scoring force we've seen since prime Kobe, and more efficient. A hyper-athletic takeover guard who rebounds, runs the floor, can hit from the outside and is generally a killer. (We're going to ignore the whole Westbrook argument because this thing's already long, but needless to say, no, Westbrook is not the problem and look no further than their 2013 run for proof of that.) A top-five defender who can stretch the floor and finish offensive putbacks in Serge Ibaka. A crew of veteran shooters not unlike what Dallas had in 2011 when it won the title, and several key veteran defenders who typically do better than younger swingmen. A couple of young scorers in Reggie Jackson and Lamb, and Hasheem Thabeet's awesome towel-waiving.

Russell Westbrook: still spectacular.
Russell Westbrook: still spectacular. (USATSI)

You know how you can tell that's enough to put them in contention to win the title? Because the won 59 games and lost the Western Conference Finals to one of the best teams of all time in six games!

Of course, you can go the Thunder fan way, if you want. You can boil down the reason the Thunder failed to win the title last season to one thing...

The lost Ibaka

Since the Thunder absolutely caved in the heads of the Spurs in Games 3 and 4, and given their advantage in both raw athleticism and in the regular season, it's reasonable to suggest Ibaka's injury was what cost OKC the West.

Except that the Spurs caved the Thunder's head in in Game 5, and given their obscene margin of victory in Games 1 and 2, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Ibaka's presence would have actually shifted the first two games. Made a difference? Sure. But the end result would have likely been the same. We'll never know and we can't know how it would have gone, but we do know that OKC had a chance to win on its home floor to send it to a Game 7 and put all the pressure on the Spurs. And they blew late leads and lost in overtime in their own building. Ibaka may have been worn down from the injury.

Serge Ibaka's injury problems hurt the Thunder, but didn't cost them a title.
Serge Ibaka's injury problems hurt the Thunder, but didn't cost them a title.(USATSI)

But the Thunder had a game in their building to keep their season alive, with all players available, and they lost. Injuries happen.

OK, then. So it's not Harden, and it's not Ibaka, and it's not the roster, and it's not Scott Brooks. So what is it? What was the problem with the Thunder? Where did they go wrong?

Who do we blame, damn it?

Don't worry, I'm here to tell you. Here's the real problem with last year's Oklahoma City Thunder.

The San Antonio Spurs were better

I know, crazy right?

The Spurs last season were one of the best teams we'll ever see. Really, you can define "that Spurs team" as the one from 2012-2013 to 2013-2014. They finished 1-1 in the Finals, which means consecutive trips. They had a historic winning streak in 2013. They won a metric ton of games, and did it while resting starters, with various injuries, with an aged core no matter how much Spurs fans will tell you they're not that old.

They shared the ball, they executed each play and possession nearly perfectly. They defended all five positions and as one cohesive unit. They communicated on both ends, they rebounded effectively, they ran the floor and grinded out possessions and above everything they shot well. They shot crazy well. They shot as well as you're ever going to see a team shoot.

And sometimes, just sometimes, that's why the other team loses.

The Thunder were a really good team led by a phenomenal player having one of his best seasons that battled through injury issues and a roster that while good, wasn't quite perfect. The Spurs were a great team.

We want to assign blame and diagnose illnesses with teams in the face of failed expectations. When Oklahoma City failed to make drastic roster changes this summer, there were questions if it had somehow failed to address its needs. But the Thunder, at their core, had a team that was good enough to finish with 59 wins, second in the brutal West and make the conference finals. Their young players will mature and improve.

Whether their best next season will be better than the Spurs' best remains to be seen. The Spurs have to be considered the favorite. But unlike so many teams who are truly doomed by their own fatal flaws, Oklahoma City's enemy isn't some internal strife, superstar flaw, roster instability or the clock running out on their superstars.

Their enemy is San Antonio. And last season, San Antonio was simply better.

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