The first round exit of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook wasn’t a surprise considering their opponents and the team’s overall ability this season. Westbrook is the favorite to win the NBA’s regular season MVP for his impressive one-man show and statistical efforts, but this never looked like a team capable of going far in the playoffs.
And with that sad truth in mind and no longer a theory, all the confidence Westbrook is showing in his teammates during postgame interviews and press conferences aren’t getting around the fact that the Thunder have two big problems heading into the offseason, connected to each other, and pretty much the same ones they faced last season after Kevin Durant bolted in free agency.
The first problem is Westbrook himself. The Thunder extending his contract in the offseason only delayed the issue of his long-term stay. Afraid to gamble on him sticking around once he becomes a free agent, the Thunder have just one more full season before he has a player option. So, does this mean the Thunder need to trade him, extend him again (which could be worth over $220 million) or roll the dice and rely on the loyalty and determination to win with him as the frontman to indicate that he’ll re-sign with them?
And if Westbrook isn’t going to be traded (he also has a 15% trade kicker, which means a $32.77 million salary for next season, not something anyone can include on their payroll under the cap), how do the Thunder improve this team? They have $112 million committed to cap hits next season. Even if they don’t pick up the option on Jerami Grant and cut Semaj Christon (unguaranteed), they have no moves in the free agency market to make, just one pick in the draft (21st overall, not usually franchise-changing), and more than one need.
The player most likely to be traded in order to try and bring help to Westbrook will be Enes Kanter, who might have been one of the more efficient bench scorers in the league during the regular season, but lost the faith of Billy Donovan in the postseason due to his defensive issues, playing just 9 minutes per game through the 5-game series against the Rockets. Having a backup center who can’t defend eat up over $17 million under the cap is something the Thunder can’t afford.
Here’s Westbrook Denying His Own Teammate From Scoring
Other high-paid members of this team besides Kanter are Steven Adams, who is safe and continues to improve as a big man in the NBA, and Victor Oladipo, who’ll make $21 million next season. Below them there’s a huge drop in salary, but also in quality. And here is the big question: If the Thunder can’t get anyone good by trading Kanter (if they can trade him at all, considering he has more than $34 million guaranteed for the next two seasons), can they count on the players around Westbrook to improve enough to make the Thunder more than a bottom half seed in the West?
The other question that stems from that one is Westbrook himself: Is it possible to grow around him? When speaking about the last few years of Kobe Bryant’s time with the Los Angeles Lakers, we used the term scorched earth a time or two. Bryant didn’t allow anything to develop and grow next to him, holding back the Lakers and causing years worth of damage. Westbrook might not be the exact same personality as Bryant, but his inability to trust anyone of his teammates while playing with a an intensity that’s sometimes too much for his and his team’s own good could thwart the development process of a few talented young players, while hurting the emergence of Oladipo as more than an OK guard in this league.
Looking at the roster now, before the changes, it’s hard to see where the Thunder turn to in order to improve. After the contracts they dealt out last year, they also don’t have the option of going for the quick rebuild right now. All that’s left is riding the Westbrook lightning until the very end, knowing very well it’s not something to win a championship with despite the levels of excitement. Unless they pull off a trade that swindles someone or strike gold in the draft, the Thunder are kind of stuck with a superstar, a decent team, and very limited playoff prospects.