Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka together gave a new heart to the Thunder (formerly Supersonics) fan base. They’ve managed to be a dominant force in the Western Conference. Being one the leading success stories, the up and coming rising talents of its roaster didn’t fall short of any promises. The front office has consistently made moves and Sam Presti has proven his knack for identifying talent. Combining that with the revered coaching techniques of Scott Brooks, they managed a Finals appearance despite their young core. That doesn’t mean that they’ve been perfect by any means; time saw James Harden take his talents to the Houston Rockets. After a historic run with the newly acquired head coach Billy Donovan and the subsequent meltdown against the 73-9 Warriors team, the Thunder were unable to secure the services of Kevin Durant; who made an exceedingly controversial decision of joining the same team which beat them. This directly led them to deal for Ibaka for better pieces to surround the now established dynamo Russell Westbrook.
The 2016 Playoffs established the need for securing Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. The Oklahoma City Thunder now sit at the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Before the start of the season many had ruled them out but with almost 60 games in, they are still three games above the .500 mark.
It is Russell Westbrook’s world and he is letting everyone know about it. Nobody came into the season burning like the Oklahoma City Thunder. Within their conference, Harden, KD and Westbrook are now top MVP candidates at the peak of their game. Harden is having the best season of his career with Mike D’Antonie. Kevin Durant before his injury, was all set to conquer the West and was almost Finals bound. Russell Westbrook has still managed to get his and the franchises’ name up there with a winning record and the media can’t get enough. With the season drawing to a close he is still averaging a triple-double. The OKC Thunder has handed him the reigns and he is bulldozing over everyone.
The real question is how long can he sustain doing what he’s doing and where do the Thunder go from there?
The Serge Ibaka trade to bring in Victor Oladipo and Domas Sabonis hasn’t lived up to expectations. Oladipo can score, and score in a bunch, but he is injury prone and has not displayed consistency as many would’ve hoped for. In fact, his injury made space for Abrines who has displayed a consistent outside stroke. Russell leads the NBA with an unfathomable 60.9 percent usage rate in the last five minutes when the score is within five points. More than the wins, the losses have confirmed that the roaster isn’t constructed to compliment their Star player and is nowhere near the level to rationally compete in the unfriendly ocean waters of the Western Conference. Outside of Kanter (their second best scoring option) who is not a fair defender and gets exploited way too easily, there isn’t any other scoring option for the team. Majority of this deficit becomes Russell’s burden. In many of the games it has been evident that even though the team plays a near perfect game execution wise, there just isn’t enough pieces that can knock down shots. Teams double down Westbrook and are content in gambling with open looks for Roberson. Steven Adams does a good job in hustling and the gritty work but has an uneven touch around the rim.
The recent acquisition of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott was the brain child of Sam Presti to bring in help. In many ways the abundance of bigs with limited offensive capabilities is to collect the rock in and around the paint. Herein lies a flaw, since there aren’t many players in the rotation who can knock down outside shots, the kick-outs which actually result in buckets do not come to fruition as often as they would prefer. This in turn bounces back to Westbrook’s heroics and his no-conscious attitude to deliver usually in late- clock scenarios. The season has shown that Number Zero can get crazy hot, as hot as any superstar can get during regulation and in the clutch. Its fine to mention Isaiah Thomas’ fourth-quarter domination, but Westbrook is the real late-game monster. This calls for the team to have a backup point that could bring the ball up while Westbrook plays the two such that he can be in the best position to capitalise when he’s on a roll (something which they often did with Derek Fisher against the Heat in the Finals).
As if the Triple-Doubles weren’t enough, Westbrook has been getting buckets.Apart from securing his 31st triple-double, he has had a four game streak with 40 plus points, a streak last achieved by Kobe Bryant in January 2012. Moreover, this 6-foot-3 guard, grabbed 17 rebounds for his 10th game this season with at least 15 rebounds. Not a few days back he racked up a personal best and tied the franchise high with 59 points but ended up losing the game where he shot 54 percent from the field (21 of 39). Westbrook had at least one basket against each Blazers player who was on the court. No player had scored as many as 58 points in a loss since Kobe Bryant in December 2006. Their win against the Spurs (snapping their 9 game win steak) has now put them just ahead of the Grizzlies. The win was big but then again they played against a team who definitely missed their closer in the fourth quarter. The OKC had lost 4 straight and twice to the Trail Blazers in the same stretch apart from the Mavericks and Suns; all of which are sub-par teams. This is a major concern. Not only does this tarnish his MVP chances but continuous losses hurt the team’s morale and chemistry. Moving forward, they need to secure a strategic playoff spot to avoid a possible first round exit.