On Nov. 22 of last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked every bit like a championship contender in throttling the full-strength Golden State Warriors 108-91 in a game that wasn't even as close as the final 17-point margin.
Then Oklahoma City went out and lost its next three games to the Pistons, Magic and Mavericks. Such was the frustrating reality of a Thunder team that could, on any given night, dominate or get dominated by any team in the league -- a team that ultimately needed until the 81st game of the regular season to even secure a playoff spot before the Jazz eliminated the Thunder in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Everyone thought Paul George was gone after that.
Instead, he came back, and in doing so removed whatever leeway Russell Westbrook might've enjoyed over these last two years. No more feeling sorry for Russ because Kevin Durant left. No more blaming Andre Roberson's injury or Carmelo Anthony's general drain on everything. Roberson is back, Melo is gone, and this Thunder team, though not without its flaws, is legitimately stacked with two All-NBA scorers and the makings of an almost perfect modern defense.
Barring injury, if they can't make a leap into the realm of the elite this year, if they can't raise their profile to a level at least equal to the sum of their parts, even the most devoted of Westbrook supporters will have to come to grips with what detractors have long trumpeted: That he simply isn't cut from that elite franchise-player cloth.
We have long debated whether Westbrook is capable of being the best player on a championship-caliber team. We still don't have an answer. We know he's amazing as the second-best player, as he was all those years alongside Durant when the Thunder were a perennial title contender. Say what you want about how Westbrook played, particularly late, in some of those 2016 conference final games versus the Warriors, but all of that notwithstanding, the Thunder were clearly title-capable that year. If Klay Thompson doesn't go absolutely bonkers in Game 6, nobody is talking about how Russ and Durant couldn't get it done. They beat the Warriors, and likely beat the Cavs for the championship.
But none of that happened. Durant bolted. And with Russ going from second fiddle (even if he never played that way) to the top dog, all we know for sure is that he can put up crazy numbers, which haven't yet translated to any sort of significant winning. Through this lens, you could argue for the Thunder to become the best version of themselves, George would need to supplant Westbrook as the team's best player.
I would argue the same could be said of Bradley Beal and John Wall in Washington. It's just hard to win at an elite level with a ball-dominant, bad-shooting point guard as your best player. The last time a player who met such a description, who was the clear-cut No. 1 guy, took a team even as far as the conference finals was 2010-11, when Derrick Rose's Bulls were no match for LeBron James' Heat. As modern basketball goes, the evidence suggests even that level of success was an anomaly, not to mention it happened in the Eastern Conference, where D-Rose's crew had to go through -- wait for it -- the 37-win Pacers and 44-win Hawks.
Westbrook will have no such cakewalk. For Oklahoma City to make the conference finals this year, it'll presumably have to eliminate either the Rockets or the Warriors -- if not both, depending on where they end up seeded. Chances are they'll have their hands full in the first round. Perhaps a rematch with the Jazz. LeBron's Lakers could easily end up somewhere in that four- to six-seed range. The West offers zero room to breathe.
But again, on paper, this Thunder team shouldn't be the team saying: "We have to go through so and so." From a talent standpoint, it should be just about every other team saying "We have to go through the Thunder." Look around the league, and the only teams you can definitively say are more talented than OKC are the Warriors and the Celtics. The Thunder are every bit as talented as Toronto and Houston, both of which are considered to be title contenders, even if Toronto is more of a fringe one.
Just look at OKC and Houston man-for-man. James Harden and Westbrook are pretty close to a wash. Chris Paul and George are pretty close to a wash. Steven Adams and Clint Capela are pretty close to a wash. Andre Roberson and Eric Gordon, though two very different players, are pretty close to a wash. In fact, I would argue Roberson is the guy who swings this argument as to who's the biggest threat to Golden State out West in the favor of the Thunder.
Remember, the reason the Rockets nearly knocked out Golden State last year was their defense, their ability to switch everything on the perimeter with versatile athletes and force the Warriors into an isolation-heavy attack with their ball movement stunted. But now the Rockets are without Trevor Ariza, a big part of that defensive attack, and in Roberson the Thunder have one of the best perimeter defenders in the league -- probably the best -- to anchor what should be one of the two or three best collective defenses the league has to offer.
When Roberson went down with a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee on Jan. 22 the Thunder had won seven consecutive games and were starting to find their stride, albeit through a stretch of a pretty soft schedule. After Roberson's injury, Oklahoma City's defense got four points per 100 possessions worse over the remainder of the season. Last year's starting lineup, when it included Roberson, outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions -- which, for context, was more than four points per 100 better than Golden State's starting lineup and almost six points better than the Warriors' dreaded death lineup.
Going deeper, last year's OKC team had 13 different four-man, three-man and two-man combinations that boasted a double-digit point differential while playing at least 300 minutes together. Roberson was in 11 of them. According to Cleaning the Glass, OKC's defense gave up almost 12 points fewer per 100 possessions when Roberson was on the floor, which put him in the 99th percentile of defenders -- all of which is just a nerdy way of saying there aren't many players in the league who can lock up the best scorers in the world like this:
In Roberson and George, the Thunder have two elite perimeter defenders that most teams in the league would kill to have one of, guys who can realistically keep star players in check on their own and switch any action to boot. They have an All-Star caliber big man and monster rebounder in Steven Adams. They have even more defensive length in Jerami Grant and the newly signed Nerlens Noel, who has elite defensive potential in this system in his own right. Even Westbrook is a capable defender if he just commits to doing his job rather than overzealously attacking personal matchups or ball-hawking.
And perhaps the most important part of all this defense the Thunder have is that Carmelo won't be there to cancel so much of it out. Pretty simply, a defense, no matter the other four parts, is inherently hamstrung with Anthony on the floor. Houston will find that out very quickly. Look at this next clip. Look how hard Roberson fights over the ball screen to stay with Harden, at which point any half-way engaged help defender would rotate back to the shooter to do his part, even if he wasn't his man to begin with. Instead, look at Melo just completely give up on rotating out to Eric Gordon, who has time to sip an umbrella drink before draining a three.
To be fair, Gordon was originally Westbrook's man, and Westbrook's effort wasn't exactly stellar here either as he didn't even try to get around P.J. Tucker, who was Melo's original man. Still, good defensive teams don't worry about little confusions like that. They just react. They run out to shooters whenever and however they can and figure out the details later. Melo was either too confused or too lazy to at least try to get out on Gordon. Either way, there are no words for how bad that defense is, how disrespectful it is to the effort of your teammates, and you could've picked out multiple plays like that from any one of OKC's games last year.
This is to say nothing of Melo's one-on-one defense, which was also abysmal last year, to the point that teams were singling him out like lions locking eyes on the weakest gazelle.
This year's Thunder team has no weak link. Nobody to consistently exploit in switches. Oklahoma City is going to be a monster rebounding team, notably on the offensive glass, where it led the league last year by a wide margin. Getting those second chances will be important because the one weakness it has as a team is shooting, which is obviously no small deficiency in today's game. Of the presumed regular players, four shot worse than 30 percent from 3-point range last season -- Westbrook (29 percent), Grant (29 percent), Roberson (22 percent) and newly acquired Dennis Schroder (29 percent).
But this might not be as bad as it seems. For starters, Westbrook isn't as bad a shooter as that number would indicate and is more than capable of raising his percentage to the high thirties, and the Schroder addition is interesting. Like Westbrook, he's capable of bringing his 3-point percentage closer to the mid-thirties, which is an entirely different stratosphere than sub-30 in terms of spacing and flat-out point production. He'll have to have an above-average year by his shooting standards, but not by a crazy margin, and besides that, every team besides Golden State will have to play at least a little bit above their heads to truly compete. The Thunder are no different. They're not good enough to make real noise on their collective averages.
At the same time, OKC is not a team which will have to hit some pipe-dream level to battle the best teams. The shooting will come and go, but the defense should be there every night, and the bottom line is Westbrook and George are capable of carrying the offense, if only just enough, on most nights. The addition of Schroder gives the Thunder a guy who can create his own shot when Westbrook sits, and perhaps alongside him for stints.
That's important. I've had multiple scouts tell me that's where playoff basketball is heading with all the defensive switching. You have to have multiple guys who can flat out beat their guy to create a bucket or a shot for someone else. Schroder gets a lot of flak when you talk about him next to the elite point guards in this league, but this is a guy who averaged 19 points and six assists last year, and he'll likely be coming off the bench in OKC. Best-case scenario, he goes from a lower-third starting point guard to a game-changing weapon in shorter stints with less responsibility. It's not crazy to think he could get into the Sixth Man of the Year discussion.
All this said, OKC's season will, largely, come down to Westbrook. We can pretty much pencil in the numbers he'll put up -- 27-plus points a night, somewhere north of eight rebounds and eight assists -- but we have no idea what they'll add up to. Could be a No. 7 seed, could be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Could be another first-round bounce, could be a conference finals appearance or maybe even a Finals berth. Crazier things have happened to less talented teams. OKC is built to defend the Warriors, against whom it went 2-1 last year. OKC is even better this year, no question. Houston, many would argue, is worse as of now. If you're a Thunder fan, there is enough here to at least hope for something special.
Would Westbrook have to completely change his game for this title-contention fantasy to become reality? Of course not. He's not even capable of that. This is a guy who took 82 shots combined in Games 5 and 6 vs. the Jazz in last year's playoffs. Eighty-Two! The man is what he is.
But the best players, on the best teams, always find a way to make subtle changes without losing what made them great in the first place. Steph Curry downshifted ever-so slightly when Durant came on board, and conversely, Durant has blended parts of his game into what the Warriors do. Those guys are both better than ever. Chris Paul also bent his game a little bit toward the Rockets' philosophies. Nobody is asking Westbrook to make over his entire game. That would be the worst thing he could do. The Thunder need him to dominate. They don't have enough firepower for him not to.
We're just talking about trimming a few of those long, contested 2-pointers before anyone else has touched the ball. Just one or two times per game, don't settle for a 3-pointer you would've settled for last year. Perhaps let George initiate a few more pick-and-rolls each game. Now and then, be willing to give up the ball early in the possession, rather than at the end of the clock, so as to promote even a little bit of ball movement for a team that made just 254 total passes per game last year, which ranked 29th in the league.
Suddenly you make a few more passes early in the clock, and you start moving a little more without the ball. Nothing crazy, just a little bit. Habits begin with experimentation. With his athleticism, Westbrook should be one of the league's most dangerous cutters, and indeed he's quite good at it when he does it, scoring almost 1.3 points per cut on 68 percent shooting, per Synergy. Problem is, he almost never does it. Barely 1 percent of his possessions end in a cut. Is it asking too much to take that number to, say, 5 percent?
These little changes, or concessions, or whatever you want to call them, can easily be the difference between winning and losing close games. In the NBA, you have to win close, or clutch, games, which the league defines as games that are within five points with five minutes or fewer to play. In fact, last season's four conference finals teams -- the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs and Celtics -- were the four best teams in the league at winning clutch games, each with a winning percentage north of 63 percent. The Thunder won just 52 percent of their clutch games.
That's the difference between a good team and a great team -- a few games, which come down to a few possessions, whether that be in the first quarter or the fourth. You either want to do what it takes to win a just a few more of those possessions, and ultimately games, or you don't. To some degree, all NBA teams reflect the most dominant traits of their stars, but the Thunder, even in the Durant era, have largely been a spitting basketball image of Westbrook: Unquestionably talented and frustratingly untrustworthy, a team that splits its time fairly evenly between killing opponents and killing itself.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti has done an incredible job in putting this team back together after Durant left. To Westbrook's credit, he signed on early, and long-term, giving the team a foundation from which to build rather than rebuild. Presti made a gutsy move in trading for George when he knew he might leave in a year, then convinced him to stay. In a small market facing a potentially catastrophic blow with Durant's leaving, Presti has almost immediately re-assembled a team that, with two All-NBA players and a killer defense, would be, or at least should be, an absolute title contender in almost any non-Warriors era.
That said, the Warriors do exist, so this isn't a Finals-or-bust situation. It's simply time for the Thunder to start playing up to their talent. They're not a 48-win team. They shouldn't be squeaking into the playoffs in the last week of the season. They should be something more than a "dangerous" team with a puncher's chance, a team that too often ends up getting out-boxed by an opponent that actually understands fighting isn't all about fury.
It's not a death sentence if Westbrook -- and by extension the Thunder -- proves incapable of evolving even a little. There are worse places to be than a team with an outside shot to contend for a Finals berth looking to catch lightning in a bottle. In 2015-16, the Thunder did not look like title contenders for most of the season. They were all over the place defensively. But they put it together at the right time, the defense found its stride and Westbrook and Durant clicked, and the next thing you knew they had the Warriors on the brink and were one win from the Finals.
This is a possible scenario again this year. In the NBA, for all the talk about seven-game series and how the best team always wins, when you have players like Westbrook and George who can be the best player, or the two best players, on the floor on any given night, when you have a defense that at any point can turn it up a notch and smother even the best offenses, stumbling into your peak level of collective performance for a 7-10 day stretch to win a playoff series isn't asking the world. That might be this team's destiny. It might be any Westbrook-led team's destiny for the rest of his career. To fly into the ring and start swinging with no real rhyme or reason and see what happens.
The frustration is that it doesn't have to be this way. This is a really good Thunder team that doesn't need to be pulling rabbits out of hats. Again, on paper, a team with arguably two of the top 10 players in the world and an elite defense should be a title contender in any era, plain and simple. Maybe not a favorite, but a contender. That we can't confidently say that about the Thunder, that we can't even completely pencil them in for a playoff spot in the torturous West, speaks directly to the volatility of Westbrook. This is on him, for better or worse. He has everything he needs. It's time to prove his MVP wasn't just about numbers.