B / R
The Oklahoma City Thunder concluded one of the most successful seasons in the history of the franchise on Friday night with his 96-91 loss to Utah Jazz, completing an unexpected first-round playoff start and setting the stage for an interesting offseason.
No, that's not a typo or confusing phrase, and for any Thunder fan, that thought is outrageous. Adding four-time All-Star Paul George and 10 times, though old, Carmelo Anthony to reigning MVP Russ Westbrook was supposed to mean at least a 50-win season and a contest for an appearance at a conference.
The Thunder obviously did not get close to the championship that Westbrook said in January would be the best sales pitch the team could make to convince future free agent George to abandon his stated dream of playing in his hometown, Los Angeles, and Stay in Oklahoma City.
Fred Katz @ FredKatz
Russell Westbrook on whether he feels he is making a presentation to Paul George this season: "No. The sales pitch will be when we win a championship. "Https://t.co/85253kuguu
An informal survey of a handful of local media was unanimous in that George will not return. A poll of opposing executives was also unanimous that Anthony would opt for the last year of his contract, worth $ 28 million, which would leave the Thunder without cap space even if George leaves.
So, how could someone tag this season? as one of the best in the franchise, especially for a club that has reached the conference finals three times and the final once in the last eight years?
When considering where I was this time a year ago and the general manager of the dark and omen problem Sam Presti was looking down.
For fans and the media, success is rated almost exclusively by how much a team earns and how much it was expected to win. Which is fine, but it's not how many franchises measure their success, far from it. Clinging to, or acquiring stellar players or future assets on which to inspire the sale of tickets and corporate sponsorships is the first order. Especially in a market like Oklahoma City.
A year ago, the Thunder came from their first season without Kevin Durant who had raced for the Golden State Warriors to win a title. The team still racked up 47 wins behind Westbrook's Most Valuable Player performance and the historic triple triple average before retiring in the first round as the sixth seed in five games against the Houston Rockets. It was seen as a remarkable achievement in Durant's absence, but it was also difficult to imagine that the team, as constituted, would do much better. What seemed a problem.
As they were the year before with Durant, the proposals for Westbrook to sign an extension had been postponed. KD had shown that going the other way could offer what he most wanted, a championship ring; What if Westbrook comes to the same conclusion, that the first step to winning a title is to leave OKC? A franchise that had been in the playoffs seven times in the nine years since moving to Oklahoma City was considering the real possibility of losing a second MVP in the league in the span of two seasons.
League executive partners could not imagine how Presti would keep his job if that happened, regardless of how much previous success the franchise had.
Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press  It never came to that, thanks to the deals he made for George and Anthony, and make no mistake, they were instrumental in Westbrook signing his five-year, $ 205 million extension. George arrived from Indiana on July 6. The agreement for Anthony was announced on September 23. Westbrook signed his extension on September 29.
There is no way to evaluate this season fairly without considering the alternative reality that the Thunder could have been facing now. What would have been, potentially, have Westbrook entering free agency and both George and Anthony exercising their options to do so. All that would have opened a ton of salary cap room, but imagine the optics if Westbrook, George and Anthony had followed KD through the door. Did you think that the rolling plants and the bison in a desert meadow were part of the OKC image before?
It is no exaggeration to say that the second Westbrook completed the final cycle of his signature on that extension, this season was a resounding success.
The fact is that George is the equivalent of house money. If you do not choose not to participate in the last year of your contract or make a new contract with the Thunder, this season will be a good one because the franchise has never had a superstar of free agents of its magnitude that you have not chosen. & # 39; t project choose to stay. That is a great image of the franchise and the city. While the local media does not believe it stays, there are people within the organization who are discreetly optimistic.
For whatever it is, when I asked George last week about the team's inconsistent game in general and inconsistent offense in particular, he said, "It's year 1." Maybe I was just following the script or trying to get rid of the smell, but when someone talks about "Year 1", the natural assumption is that there will be at least a year 2.
There is a reason to believe that given a second turn, the Thunder might find more consistency. George, a striker who dominated the ball throughout his career with the Pacers, went through the growing pain of discovering how to be more effective without him. Anthony, similarly, went from being a small forward to a power forward and had to come to an agreement with averaging the fewest shots of his career and the second most triple.
"We do not play long enough." Coach Billy Donovan said after the loss of Game 4 against the Jazz, but he could have been talking about the whole season. "Consistency has been the biggest challenge for this team."
Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press
Donovan's belief that it can be overcome is based on the cooperation of his three stars.
"What I really appreciate is how hard they have tried," Donovan said. "I like the group we have as people."
Several people in the organization endorsed Anthony, saying that he has said repeatedly that he would do anything he is asked to do. Most likely, it occupies space on the floor as a three-point threat; play both power forward and center, as he did in Game 6 against Jazz; and improve their strength and conditioning so that they can defend larger bodies and escape from them to the other side.
Rumors have circulated that the works of Donovan and Presti are in danger. Some have blamed Donovan and his offense for not having successfully used the talent of his three stars; the same criticism was imposed on his predecessor, Scott Brooks, when he had Westbrook and Durant. However, there is no doubt that he has heard of rhythm statistics, which record the amount of possessions a team has per game. The Thunder was one of the top five in the league in that department in the playoffs.
However, in regards to the change of pace in the franchise, they have to be in the top five. They are more likely to modify the coaching staff and add a tougher veteran assistant (think of Tom Riversof for Doc Rivers in Boston or Ron Adams with Steve Kerr in Golden State) than Fire Donovan, who seems to have a good relationship with the three stars . .
The sources of the League would not be surprised if the Thunder also approached Anthony about not accepting his contract and offered, in exchange, an extension that offered a greater total for several years, reducing the salary cap in a given year .
The first order of the day, of course, is to find out if George stays. Although it may seem hard for some to imagine, think about this time a year ago. Did you see George ever being in OKC? Did you see Westbrook, the fashionista born in Los Angeles, stay? Or Anthony, who wanted to go from Denver to New York, accepting an exchange with Oklahoma City?
Although this summer can be very stressful, the circumstances of the Thunder are not as terrible as a year ago. In the worst case: George leaves, and they go as far as their league MVP can take them; It's basically the same place where they were after Durant left. Potentially acceptable scenario: George agrees to sign and trade so as not to lose the additional $ 46 million that the Thunder can pay him, and the team receives some form of compensation. In the best case: George opts or re-signs, and Anthony accepts his new role. If all goes well, Oklahoma City could, as Westbrook did in January, have visions of pursuing a title.
All of which is more than the Thunder could have imagined a year ago.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher .