The Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t won a playoff series since Kevin Durant skipped town in 2016. In fact, the Thunder are now 4-12 in playoff games since KD’s departure after losing in five to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night. That’s not very good for a team that was an unconscious Klay Thompson explosion from the NBA Finals three years ago.
The next few hours and days will be filled with theses on whether the Thunder should consider trading Russell Westbrook or Steven Adams to add some help, or maybe even sell off everyone and start from scratch a la the Seattle SuperSonics in the run-up to the move to OKC a little more than a decade ago.
But the Thunder just saw up close the best case to reject those calls to rebuild or make massive changes just to shake things up. The Blazers, after all, faced the same panel of questions a year ago, and look at them now.
Portland was swept out off the playoffs a year ago as a No. 3 seed, leading to calls for the Blazers to break up the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Portland did not heed those calls: Lillard responded by having his best season ever, and McCollum had a good playoff series against OKC. The Blazers will quite possibly be favored in their second-round series against the Nuggets or Spurs, depending on Enes Kanter’s injury status. The Blazers also won their series over the Thunder without their third-best player, Jusuf Nurkic.
These are all indications that the Blazers were a pretty good team that simply underperformed in the playoffs last year. Why don’t we assume the same can apply to the Thunder, who have now had just two years with the Westbrook-George duo?
Thunder boss Sam Presti has been mighty patient in the past, and he’s also shown a real creative streak. No one thought the Thunder would be in play for George until the Thunder actually traded for him. Presti has some controversial deals in his past (the James Harden trade, of course, but also both Carmelo Anthony deals), but he is generally considered one of the best executives in the league. Among the general managers you’d trust to understand when it’s over and time to break up a core, he’d be high on the list.
The Thunder picked up the option on Billy Donovan’s contract for next season a few months ago, and it’s unlikely OKC will eat the salary to replace him without an obvious successor on the table. Barring that, the moves on the table won’t be dissimilar to the type of moves Portland had available to it last summer: tinkering around the edges.
Again, Presti is reputed for pulling surprises out of his back pocket. But it’s tough to see the team’s top three players — George, Westbrook, Steven Adams, in that order — changing this summer.
Portland just proved you don’t need to change your top three players to have a more successful season, if you find some fortune and stick with it. Lillard’s leadership is becoming legendary before our eyes, and the Thunder stars don’t quite seem to have that, but that’s just one ingredient. There are also fair concerns about OKC’s retrograde make-up when it comes to modern NBA offense — in other words, Portland has shooters, and the Thunder don’t. The odds of OKC getting hot in a future playoff series are lower than they are for other teams with more long-range options, which is basically all of them.
If it seems like I’m waffling on the core question here — whether the Thunder can remain patient with PG and Westbrook — it’s because there’s not an easy answer. It seems likely that the Thunder will remain patient, but there are enough concerns that it’s not an open and shut case.
Here’s the thing: it certainly wasn’t an open and shut case for the Blazers last year either. There were cogent arguments as to why Portland should flip McCollum for an athletic wing or rangy big man. The Blazers instead stayed the course, and it paid off.
That’s no assurance that the Thunder staying the course will have similar results, or that the Blazers will now have sustainable playoff success. But it is an example of how patience can pay off even amid repeat postseason failure. Lillard and the Blazers just threw the Thunder into an uncertain despair while proving to them it’s possible to climb out of an uncertain despair without changing much.
Will OKC heed the lesson? If so, will it work? The beautiful thing about sports is we won’t know until we see it happen.