Russell Westbrook heroballed his way to 91 points on 82 shots in the Oklahoma City Thunder's final two playoff games, saving their season on Wednesday and coming up short on Friday. While , you'll find few people arguing that this Thunder team was better than the Utah Jazz, who finished them off in six games and will play the Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs.
Compared to the Jazz, Oklahoma City's formula did not look reliable or sustainable. The loss of all-world defender Andre Roberson to a season-ending injury in January proved to be catastrophic rather than simply challenging. Carmelo Anthony sacrificed minutes and touches, only to turn into an ineffective stretch 4 who could be easily exploited on defense. There was never enough ball movement, never enough spacing and, while the Thunder were obviously an above-average team, they never coalesced into anything special.
This was not how things were supposed to work with Anthony and Paul George in the fold. George, a free agent in July and theoretically the perfect on-court complement to Westbrook, started the series with a 36-point masterpiece and ended it with a five-point, six-turnover effort, missing 14 of his 16 shots. There are now serious questions about his future, Anthony's role and how exactly Oklahoma City is supposed to build a coherent team around a talent like Westbrook. Let's take stock of the fascinating and messy situation:
The Paul George problem
The beauty of the George trade, in theory, was that the worst-case scenario wasn't that bad. At the time, Victor Oladipo's contract was seen as value-neutral at best and Domantas Sabonis was coming off an unremarkable rookie season. The Thunder acquired George without losing a first-round pick, so even if it turned out to be a one-year partnership, they would be able to look back at it and say it was well worth the risk.
Ten months later, the worst-case scenario looks dire. Oladipo is suddenly a superstar, Sabonis might swing a first-round series and Oklahoma City desperately needs depth. If George bolts for Los Angeles (or elsewhere), as is his right as an unrestricted free agent, the Thunder will be in a rough spot because of their lack of financial flexibility. If he stays there will still be questions, but at least general manager Sam Presti and coach Billy Donovan will have a Big Three to build around: Westbrook, George and center Steven Adams.
"I haven't really put everything in perspective," George said Saturday, via the Oklahoman's Erik Horne. "I think the biggest thing is just trying to keep a relationship with Sam, continue to talk with Sam. Continue to talk with Billy [Donovan], with Russ, and figure out the direction we want to go as a group, more so than anything."
A first-round exit was certainly not what George had in mind at the beginning of the season. It sounds like he is still at least willing to hear Oklahoma City's pitch, though. That's something!
The Melo problem
Sigh.that Anthony spectacularly failed when it came to fitting in on this team. Or maybe the Thunder spectacularly failed when it came to integrating Anthony. Any way you look at it, this was a disaster and it's probably not over. When Presti's front office acquired Anthony, they also acquired his $27.9 million player option for next season. Anthony would be crazy not to want that money, even if he is disappointed with the season and dissatisfied with his role. If he leaves, it will likely have to be a Dwyane Wade-like buyout scenario.
The most troubling thing here how Anthony is looking at all of this. Not only did he say Saturday that he, he argued that he had sacrificed too much and changed his game too drastically because he wanted this experiment to work.
"I think the player that they wanted me to be and needed me to be was for the sake of this season," Anthony said, via ESPN's Royce Young. "As far as being effective as that type of player, I don't think I can be effective as that type of player. I think I was willing to accept that challenge in that role, but I think I bring a little bit more to the game as far as being more knowledgeable and what I still can do as a basketball player."
Anthony said he had to think about "if I really want to be this type of player, finish out my career as this type of player, knowing that I have so much left in the tank and I bring so much to the game of basketball." The implication is that he thinks he can still be the focal point of an offense, rather than figuring out how to be help his team win without having the ball in his hands the way other aging stars like Grant Hill and Vince Carter did.
The Westbrook problem
How much blame should Westbrook get for Oklahoma City's shortcomings? Is there a world in which he, George and Anthony could ever have made each other better? Since we have only ever seen him play in simple, relatively stagnant offenses, the Thunder's style of play is a chicken-and-egg thing -- can you even imagine him functioning in a system like, say, the one that Quin Snyder installed in Utah?
There has been another public referendum on Westbrook's approach recently over the last couple of weeks because of the sheer volume of his shooting against the Jazz. He took an average of 26.8 shots per game and made 39.8 percent of them. He had a usage rate of 38.2 percent and a true shooting percentage of 49.3 percent. It wasn't quite as much of a one-man show as it was last season, but it was absolutely uncompromising and perhaps less defensible.
There is a case to be made that Westbrook's style simply isn't conducive to winning at an elite level. The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks suggested that both he and John Wall of the Washington Wizards are essentially doomed to a life of first- or second-round exits as long as they can't shoot well enough from distance to space the floor when they don't have the ball. The Thunder, who invested $205 million in Westbrook last summer, must disagree.
I often think back to how Donovan talked about Westbrook in the months after Kevin Durant's departure and the start of Westbrook's MVP-winning rampage. While many speculated the world was about to see Westbrook in his purest form, unhinged and unrestrained, Donovan directly said the plan was not for the star guard to go nuts the way he did when Durant missed most of the 2014-15 season.
"Let's say Russell becomes a one-man wrecking machine, night in and night out: Where's the growth in that?" Donovan asked in a 2016 Westbrook profile by Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins. "Can you develop the rest of the roster to complement Russell and help Russell? He's so bright. I think he understands the importance of having guys he can rely on."
Clearly, things didn't go as Donovan envisioned. Maybe, though, management still needs to help Westbrook grow. In another Jenkins story, last year's profile of Presti, it was reported that the general manager "asked loyal lieutenants such as Paul Rivers and Michael Winger to research the nature of shots Westbrook creates. Outsiders assumed Westbrook should be ringed by floor-spacing snipers, like Harden in Houston, but Presti demands evidence."
What did the Oklahoma City front office find in that investigation? And how much has it studied alternative ways for the team to play offensively? As predictable and preposterous as the Westbrook Show was in his first season without Durant, you could see what the Thunder were trying to do: Dominate the glass and let Westbrook loose in transition, with role players doing the dirty work and spacing the floor just enough for him to have room to attack.
Even before Durant left, it did not play like a lot of other elite teams. It almost knocked off the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors by switching like crazy, running at every opportunity and overwhelming them with size, physicality and athleticism. The Thunder seemed to be sticking with that formula in a post-Durant world, but then they swapped Enes Kanter for Anthony and they weren't all that big, fast or versatile.
Personally, I am skeptical that Westbrook would work in a movement-oriented offense, but I'd love to see him in a more structured system where just about everybody around him (Adams excepted) can shoot. I'd also love to see him lower his usage rate and play hard on defense more consistently. If George stays and the organization shuffles some other pieces, maybe Westbrook and the team can break some bad habits and evolve over the next few years. As nice as that sounds, though, it will not be easy.
The money problem
Presti has surely plotted out all sorts of different possible outcomes for this summer. His staff has probably thought about how to amplify Westbrook's strengths and minimize his weaknesses more than any of his critics. Even if the Thunder have all the best ideas in the world, though, they will be constrained financially.
If Anthony opts in, even if George leaves and Oklahoma City lets all its other free agents -- Jerami Grant, Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Josh Huestis and Nick Collison -- walk, the team would still have a $119 million in committed salary next season. Losing George would hurt not only because it would be impossible for them to replace someone of his caliber, but because the Thunder would be close to the luxury tax with a shallow roster that has no short-term chance of competing for a title.
The good news, at least for people who are optimistic about the viability of a Westbrook-led championship team, is that Westbrook and Adams are signed through the 2020-21 season. Even if George leaves, Presti could sell the fan base on taking a step back before taking a step forward with a different cast of characters around Westbrook.
The bad news: Westbrook's salary will balloon to $41 million in the last year of that contract, which in itself limits Presti's flexibility.
Ultimately, like all things Thunder, everything comes back to their franchise player. As much as been made of former teammates thriving without Westbrook, will George decide to spend his prime in OKC alongside him? Can the 2017 MVP prove he can make others better like his peers who have signed supermax contracts? This year's Thunder did not prove to be a superteam, and it is going to be extraordinarily difficult for the front office to construct one. Let's see if Presti can surprise us the way he did last year.