The Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs by the Houston Rockets, closing out one of the most polarizing seasons in NBA history.
Has a 47-win team ever been so scrutinized? So dissected, so controversial. To many NBA fans, the Oklahoma City Thunder were as likely to heroically battle the Golden State Warriors as they were to be swept by their first-round opponent, the Houston Rockets.
That polarization began and ended with Russell Westbrook and his year that broke records and barriers across previous basketball emergent truths. Famous records, dubious records and the triple-doubles. My goodness.
It became business as usual to log in to Twitter or watch Sports Center and see Elias Sports Bureau or another statistical tracking company to note that Westbrook had shattered another mark etched in history.
The problem being many of those records broken began with the words “most, highest, biggest.” Most triple-doubles, highest usage rate, most points scored in a triple-double, most turnovers (though that was topped by James Harden).
Westbrook’s season was best defined by volume, except for wins.
It created a following for Russ, not the Thunder, that spawned a deity effect the likes the NBA, a player-driven league, had rarely (if ever) seen.
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Evidenced by the countless number of people who roamed Twitter with their names as some iteration of “Russell Westbrook MVP.” Somewhere along the way, team and playoff success took a back seat to whatever it is that we witnessed this year.
According to Basketball Reference, in the regular season with 5:00 or less in the fourth quarter or overtime with the score within five points, Westbrook took 198 shots. That is 62 more than the next closest player, Isaiah Thomas.
Out of the 86 makes in those stretches, a mere six were assisted, meaning that those other 80 field goals were in isolation/high pick-and-roll/post-up situations.
The recipe was clear when it came to winning time: clear out and watch Russ go to work. It was enthralling and breathtaking and ultimately hard to not get caught up in.
This was particularly true in the stretch late in the season where Westbrook seemed to be hitting 35-foot game winners every night, with his signature shot coming against the Denver Nuggets.
On that night, it seemed Westbrook could will himself and his teammates to win any game put in front of them. They always had a chance.
And yet, there’s a reason the highest usage percentage seasons haven’t (usually) translated to outstanding team success. Basketball is a team game, even in the NBA where great players dictate the market and standings.
In the five highest usage percentage seasons in NBA history that include Westbrook’s 2016-17, Kobe Bryant‘s 2005-06 season, Westbrook’s 2014-15, Michael Jordan‘s 1986-87 season and Allen Iverson‘s 2001-02 season, none of the teams have advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
All five teams finished between 40 and 47 wins. The overarching theme? Such massive individual volume from historically great players doesn’t translate to team success. There’s a line to toe. The game isn’t as easy as “put the ball in your best player’s hands every time.”
Especially now, when coaches, players and front offices are smarter than ever with more tools at their disposal than ever before.
The Oklahoma City Thunder did succeed in one way that I truly believe they set out to do, once they knew Kevin Durant would not be returning. They changed the narrative of this year. They didn’t want to be the Cleveland Cavaliers of 2010-11, the post-LeBron era.
They didn’t want their biggest home game of the year to be KD’s “homecoming” to raucous boos and testy altercations.
And that was likely the best way to go about having a successful season. Run everything through Westbrook. It created a perfect storm of player and team unity, from the front office down, that Russ was the pilot, co-pilot and traffic controller rolled into one flaming, scowling package.
A team-wide consensus emerged that this was their best chance to reach 47 wins and remain visible amid the NBA landscape, at the expense of playing basketball in its current iteration.
Much of this has to do with the roster as well, and that general manager Sam Presti values stretchy, athletic wings and traditional bigs over shooting and offensive skill.
That Oklahoma City’s starting lineup in the playoffs consisted of three non-threats from the perimeter (Andre Roberson, Taj Gibson, Steven Adams) merely reflected the rotations and plans of the team all year.
Pound the glass, be a pain on the defensive end and get out in the open court. Only in the age of the 3-point shot being the most important shot in basketball, there is some level of prerequisite shooting that must exist on the court for an NBA offense to function.
Maybe even more so in a Westbrook-led offense, who thrives on lanes to the rim and using his jet pack-induced burst.
That has been a problem since day one of the season and continued through the acquisition of Gibson and Doug McDermott.
This summer, it remains to be seen what the Thunder do. Presti has always been shrewd and extremely calculated in his moves, certainly not one to shy away from draft day deals or free agency acquisitions.
Roberson and Gibson will both be seeking new deals, with Roberson sure to get a pay raise. Adams and Victor Oladipo are fresh off signing new extensions in the fall.
The Oklahoma City Thunder did they had to in order to stay viable. Hopefully, it doesn’t hinder them going forward.