By Voltaire Lozada
The Oklahoma City Thunder saw the end of their Big Three’s year one with their defeat at the hands of the Utah Jazz, 96-91 in game six of their first round encounter.
Uncertainty now looms as Carmelo Anthony’s contract has an early termination option for next year, while Paul George can opt out of his.
They had the potential to be a great team, but more oftentimes, they’re as disjointed as critics say they are.
The Thunder had three of the best closers together in their team, but gave up home court advantage in game two of the playoffs by going a combined 0-for-15 from the field. With their backs against the wall, they seem to have crumbled under the pressure as they went down by 25 points in the third quarter of game five at home.
Then Russell Westbrook had a performance of a lifetime, scoring 20 points in an electrifying third quarter that had them crawl back to tie the game entering the fourth quarter and never looked back.
In game six, the Thunder had all the chances to force a game seven. With a minute left in the game, the Thunder were down three with the ball in their hands. They had an incredible five offensive boards and four three point attempts – two each from George and Westbrook – but they couldn’t get it to fall.
It was a fitting end to their season, as they truly just could not get things to fall the way that they want to.
Westbrook will most certainly be here next season, but with the emergence of Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, and Domantas Sabonis among others away from the shadow of Westbrook, George and Anthony have got to be thinking that their talents are not being utilized to its full potential.
Here are some paths the Thunder could take:
Blow It All Up, Keep Westbrook
Despite the questionable shot selections and stats-hunting, Westbrook is still their best player. Playing any other way is not what makes him the Russell Westbrook that we know. That said, they could let both George and Anthony walk away and maybe even trade Steven Adams for multiple players with high upside. While it may seem idiotic to trade away arguably one of the best big men in the league, consider that he’s owed $24 million compared to George’s potential $20 million if he opts in and still wouldn’t be considered an All-Star. Finding a guard-centric coach could also help their cause, as Billy Donovan couldn’t even implement a system with the way Russ is playing.
Stay the Course With George and Westbrook
George and Westbrook work almost as well as the Durant-Westbrook combo, but without the drama. Throughout the playoffs and even in their best stretch in game five, their best lineup on the floor was one that featured Steven Adams (for the boards), Alex Abrines (for perimeter defense and three point shooting), and Jerian Grant (for defense, athleticism, and energy) playing alongside George and Westbrook. As much of a big name Carmelo Anthony is, he couldn’t even fill the role that Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, and Klay Thompson played in their own versions of the Big Three. Convincing George to stay could be their best course of action if they want to stay competitive in the stacked Western Conference.
Give it Another Year
The Miami Heat needed to lose to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 before they won back to back championships. This year’s first round exit to an unheralded Utah Jazz team led by a rookie in Donovan Mitchell should be a humbling experience that fuels a fire in the Thunder’s Big Three to be better next year. They didn’t silence critics, and only added to the notion that Carmelo Anthony is done. They’ve seen what they can do together when everything is clicking – all they need to do next year is to do it consistently by knowing the roles they play. Maybe they could file a petition to allow players to wear hoodies inside the playing court during games.
Which path do you think the Thunder should take?