Another season without an NBA title for that seemed destined to be with at least one by now. The Oklahoma City Thunder are great, but so far the tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is improving individually without getting them to the promised land, while Scott Brooks is taking shots of criticism, Kendrick Perkins is once more looked at as something of a liability and Serge Ibaka might be getting a new starting five partner next to him in Steven Adams.
It’s hard to say that a team reaching the conference finals three times in four years is a failure. The Thunder have been the best or second best in the Western conference for the last three years. In 2012, a very young team with James Harden coming off the bench made it to the NBA finals, where they were overwhelmed by the Miami Heat. In 2013 they had the best record in the West but lost Russell Westbrook in the playoffs and couldn’t get by the Grizzlies in the conference semifinals. This year, once Russell Westbrook was healthy, things seemed to fall in place.
But the first round against the Grizzlies showed us that the Thunder’s talent might not be enough. They got slightly lucky with officials giving them some big calls in the series against the Clippers in that memorable game 5. Then Serge Ibaka was ‘out for the playoffs’, as the Spurs rolled over the Thunder in the first two games. And then Ibaka came back, and OKC won two consecutive games. The pressure was on the Spurs.
Game 6 in the Spurs – Thunder series was going according to the usual pattern – one team, and one team only in control. The Spurs blew the Thunder out in the third quarter, as it seemed like the season was going to end in a painful stretch of garbage time. The Thunder came back, and lost in overtime. It’s hard to say what’s more painful. But the criticisms were going to be the same in any case.
Brooks has won 63.3% of his games as the head coach of the Thunder, and if you take away his first season, he has never won less than 61% with this team during the regular season. But Mike Brown had an impressive record when he coached LeBron James. A head coach’s record isn’t the only thing that helps you measure is worth. Brooks falls every time adjustments are called for. Riding the talent you have is nice. It has a bit of luck to it, but ego management, something Brooks certainly has to deal with, is part of the job. The problem is when it’s not enough.
The Thunder, much like the Pacers that we reviewed yesterday, have a very clear plan on how to get to their goal. The problem is when things don’t exactly go their way. When teams suddenly throw a curve-ball at them, and force them to change their lineups. That is where Brooks fails to live up to the standard his two stars set for him, and where the limitations of this team’s bench or possibly the failings of a system to improve certain players in certain areas come to light.
There are some personnel decisions the Thunder have to make going into the offseason. Kendrick Perkins makes $9.6 million next season and although he has shown his value especially when not playing, the Thunder might turn him into a bench player, propelling Steven Adams into the starting position. The concept of two bigs remains the same, even if it has shown to have its weaknesses against certain teams – teams the Thunder are likely to meet along the way.
Thabo Sefolosha, who has been a big part of what the Thunder do with his wing defense, was erased from the rotation by Brooks midway through the Spurs series, never to return. He made $3.9 million on his final year, and the Thunder might not bring him back, although they don’t have cap space to sign players above the minimum except for one mid level exception, so the Sefolosha situation isn’t set in stone.
Scott Brooks has said he doesn’t listen to critics, but known he as a head coach needs to improve, and that his players need to improve as well. Russell Westbrook has to change. He had an amazing playoff run, but was able to destroy some finishes for the Thunder on his own. Kevin Durant is a star but sometimes doesn’t touch the ball in final possessions of game, allowing Westbrook to take over. Something in that combination and hierarchy needs to be sorted out.
Probably for the third straight year, the Thunder are on paper the most talented team in the NBA yet manage to fall short. It’s not just injuries or bad luck, because other teams have that to. It’s not the officials, because the Thunder caught quite a few breaks in the postseason. It’s not about making shots, like Kevin Durant loves to talk about. It’s a head coach that hasn’t improved since the day he got this team in terms of tactics and strategy, and the dependence on a one-track defense and riding his two stars is something that has to change, so this team’s inability to adjust won’t be the reason they fall short next year as well.