Photo by Michael Kinney
By Michael Kinney
The one thing no NBA player, coach or general manager wants to be doing is conducting exit interviews while the season is still going on. Because that means other teams are still fighting for an NBA championship, while they are cleaning out their locker.
For the third straight season, the Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33) found themselves cleaning out their locker earlier than they hoped or expected after losing in five games to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
However, according to point guard Russell Westbrook, there is no common theme between the three playoff exits.
“Teams are different. Personnel is different,” Westbrook said. “The guys, we play a lot of different combinations, reasons why we lost. We’ll look at it, reevaluate, get some time to go back to the drawing board and see how we can be better.”
Yet, that is not entirely true. While some pf the personnel is different, the core group of the Thunder has been intact. Especially the last two years with Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, Jeremi Grant and Terrance Ferguson. Dennis Schroder was added before this season.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around that, on what’s the next step, the next phase for this group going forward,” George said. “So you know, that’s something I think we’re all trying to work on internally, figure out like what can we do, because this is a team that can go far. We have pieces in place to have a long postseason reason. I am trying to figure out like what it is for this group.”
What makes this year’s early exit the most stunning of the three is the way the season began. At one point Oklahoma City was in third place in the West with a 38-20 record and was a couple of games away from possibly taking the No. 2 seed.
“For 70 percent of this past season, we were playing at an extremely high level, and I felt like we were playing some of the better basketball that we’ve seen in Oklahoma City, just with respect to the style of play goals we laid out, the defensive improvement that we tried to establish from last year to this year, pace of play, athleticism,” Thunder GM Sam Presti said. “I really felt like the players and the coaches were doing an excellent job of that, and they created an extremely high standard. We were on our way to having the third best record in the league against the top 10 teams in the league. We were playing a really balanced game.”
But then the All-Star break came and everything changed for the Thunder. From the moment the team returned from the week off, they looked completely different than before. Their defense took a nose dive, they were unable to close out games and they became three-point dependent.
But when Presti was asked if he could pinpoint exactly why the downturn took place, he was unable to shed any light on an 11-13 run to close out the regular season.
“That’s the crux of the question for me. Before we can even start thinking about like how do we solve for that. We don’t have the liberty of just making like a snap reaction or coming in with an emotional vantage point,” Presti said. “I don’t think you can discount the fact that we got our ass kicked in the Playoffs. There’s no getting around that. But I think anyone objective and anybody that is more than a momentary problem solver would probably take a step back and look at the whole thing. To try to answer your question, it’s to say, I don’t have that answer, and I would think that if I did, you shouldn’t listen to me because I would just be coming in here with an emotional perspective, which as a leader I can’t do that.”
Coach Billy Donovan also was unable to give any insight on what the true problem was for a team that has the second highest payroll in the league, but can’t get past teams they are favored to beat. That includes the Blazers, who Oklahoma City swept in the regular season.
“I always believe it takes what it takes for a team when you’re competing, and what I mean by that is you go through these disappointments and you go through these struggles, I think you find out more about what you’ve got to do to get better and to improve,” Donovan said. “You know, this is just not an excuse, but every team has got things they have to deal with during the course of the year. We obviously had to deal with two wing players that we were hoping to be a big part of our team this year that was not here, and we tried to do different things to overcome that.”
According to Presti, Donovan will be back for his fifth season with the Thunder. With most of the core unit of the team are signed to long term deals, there doesn’t seem to be much room for drastic changes heading into the 2019-20 campaign.
“The margins for error are small, in the Western Conference for sure, but to me that’s one of the things about competition that doesn’t bother me,” Presti said. “Like sometimes you lose. Competing doesn’t mean you only compete when the wind is at your back. So yeah, listen, we’re not entitled to anything. We don’t come into the year expecting to just automatically be served up opportunities to play in the Playoffs. You’ve got to earn those. But you’ve also got to perform when you get there, and we haven’t done that, so we’ve got to figure out what that is. We’ve never been shy about the fact that like we’ve got to go out and do the work, study it, and make the best decisions for the future of the franchise and the health of the franchise, and that’s what we intend to do.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Copywriter and content creator