The Oklahoma City Thunder currently have as much as cap room in their budget as Russell Westbrook has NBA championship rings: Zero.
This leaves the Thunder in a tough position. With no money to pursue big name free agents, success in the 2019 NBA season will have to come from internal improvement from individual players and the addition of lower-level free agents that are willing to sign for the veteran’s minimum.
To be a better team, it must start from the top: Billy Donovan has got to go.
From the start of his coaching tenure in Oklahoma City, Donovan has always had the talent to make a deep playoff run. In his first season in 2016, he coached his team to the Western Conference Finals and had the Thunder up 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors before succumbing to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant hero ball rather than forcing them to run more motion offense. Fast forward three years and three consecutive first round exits and nothing has changed.
The talent is still there. Russell Westbrook is still one of the best point guards in the NBA and Paul George is coming off arguably his best season as a pro, a possible MVP candidate. Both are still in their primes. Steven Adams is a solid starting center who almost averaged a double-double last season. They have the star power and the pieces to make it out of the first round, but Donovan’s offensive game plan holds them back. For four years, Donovan has employed the “your-turn, my-turn” isolation offense rather than a motion offense to free up George and Westbrook off the ball and get to their spots.
For Thunder General Manager Sam Presti, it is time to look elsewhere in the coaching market. Donovan has either lost the locker room or does not have a viable offensive system in place. A new voice is needed.
All the blame cannot fall on Donovan, however. The team’s failure to make it deep into the playoffs starts and ends with Russell Westbrook. His playstyle was one of the main factors that drove Kevin Durant away, the same playstyle that has sent the Thunder home three straight seasons.
Yes, he did average a triple double last season. His talent is not in question here, it is the way he goes about playing the game. Last season, Westbrook shot a career-high 65 percent at the rim, virtually unstoppable in the paint. So why did he continue to settle for jump shots, on which he was statistically the least efficient player in the NBA this season? He continued this trend in the playoffs, shooting 36 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from beyond the arc.
It is simple: Westbrook is going to have to get better and smarter. Because of the lack of cap space the Thunder have, each player needs to improve different facets of their game to take the team to the next level. In Westbrook’s case, he must become a better shooter from both the three-point line and the free throw line.
It is a three-point shooting league now. We have known that for a while, but it is clearer now more than ever. Westbrook has always been a streaky shooter, but it’s the volume he takes these shots with. Last season, he shot an atrocious 29 percent on whopping 5.6 threes per game. He has said publicly that he will be a better shooter next season. He needs to back this statement up to improve the Thunder’s chance at success.
Westbrook’s free-throw shooting woes last season was something not many saw coming. A career 80.1 percent shooter from the line, he shot an unusual 65.6 percent this season. His game is predicated on his athleticism and ability to get to the rim, and teams often resort to fouling him to prevent easy buckets. If he can’t make his free throws, it won’t be long before teams look to intentionally foul him on his drives rather than trying to defend. He must return to his normal self from the charity-stripe.
Similarly to how Westbrook needs to improve his game, the Thunder need to trust the development of their two young players: Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant. Ferguson made a huge leap in his second year as a pro, replacing an injured Andre Roberson in the starting lineup throughout the season. He shot the third best percentage from beyond the arc on the entire team at 36.6 percent. Defensively, he was nowhere as productive as Roberson, but took on the challenge of defending All Star level players, at times taking the pressure of Paul George, and took huge strides while doing so.
Jerami Grant established himself as a legitimate starter on a playoff team last season, averaging 13.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He also shot 39.2 percent from the three-point line, a development no one saw coming. He was huge in the playoffs, with his versatility defensively allowing Donovan to go a small-ball lineup that can be deployed next season. With no cap space, the Thunder are going to have to believe that Ferguson and Grant can take big steps and contribute consistently to a deep playoff run next season.
The biggest knock on Oklahoma City’s front office over the past three years has been their inability to put three-point shooters around Westbrook and his co-stars to spread the floor. Anyone else tired of watching Westbrook crash into the line swarmed by three defenders? The team shot a torrid 34.8 percent from behind the arc this season, the lowest of any playoff team. The lack of shooting has been a known problem for the Thunder, but their lack of cap space minimizes their options in free agency.
Some names they could look at are Wayne Ellington or Kyle Korver. Both are aging players who don’t play much defense but can still knock down an open three-point look and would take pressure off the Thunder’s two superstars. With their Taxpayers Mid-Level Exception at nearly $5.7 million, the Thunder could also look at Wesley Matthews or Trevor Ariza, both capable shooters who can defend at a high level on the other end. The Thunder’s number one priority needs to be three-point shooting in the upcoming offseason.
While it may look like the Thunder are trapped with this current roster, there are ways they could improve this team. Donovan must create a legitimate offense or Sam Presti has to let him go. Westbrook has to improve his shooting and his shot selection, while role players like Ferguson and Grant have to step up. But the Thunder absolutely have to add three-point shooting to this current roster to have any shot at a deep playoff run.
If all this happens, who knows? We might see Russell Westbrook and Co. make it to the second round.