Sam Presti is all in.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s General Manager felt the pressure and pulled out all the stops this offseason, landing perennial All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to put alongside superstar point guard Russell Westbrook.
The immediate result was positive. It sure showed that Presti was going to do what he needed to bring supreme talent to keep OKC as a championship contender and make Westbrook want to stay. That happened, as Russ signed a five-year, $205 million extension on Sept. 29.
One problem solved.
Next came figuring out how to put this team together. Because while it sounds good on the surface, this isn’t fantasy basketball. You don’t suddenly put two guys used to being “the guy” with the reigning MVP and a new situation and just think it will work with no bumps.
Basketball in Oklahoma City forever changed July 4th of 2016, the morning Kevin Durant announced he was leaving for Golden State. Suddenly, OKC had lost its biggest star and gotten nothing in return. Worse still, the Thunder had traded Serge Ibaka weeks earlier to try to gear up a lineup to build around Durant being there.
They did what they could that season, which largely meant Westbrook being Superman, becoming the first player to average a triple double for a season since Oscar Robertson did so 55 years prior. Despite OKC only being the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, Westbrook was a deserved NBA Most Valuable Player.
But there was a clear ceiling with that squad. Presti knew things needed to happen to keep Russ around, and he made them happen.
First, he dealt promising youngsters Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana, at the time getting comments from all around that he had “fleeced” the Pacers. (Since, it looks a lot better for Indiana, with Sabonis playing strong ball in his second season and Oladipo competing at an All-Star level.)
Next came the move to New York to get Melo, with bench players Doug McDermott and Enes Kanter going to the Knicks. Suddenly, OKC’s starting lineup had become a whole lot more high-profile.
Oklahoma is football country. Having only had NBA basketball here for 12 seasons (counting two the Hornets played while New Orleans was recovering in the mid-2000s) people still are getting used to the sport.
For football fans, any loss is huge. Lose 2 or 3 in a row and you’re ready to fire everyone. Have a “big three” like this and start the season with multiple losing streaks and be just 8-12 after 20 games, as the Thunder did through October and November, and fans are ready to jump ship.
That’s where the Thunder found things on Nov. 29 after an ugly double-digit loss at Orlando. It was looking more and more like this year’s experiment might flop and talk might be turning to firing coach Billy Donovan and trying to see what kind of offers they could get to deal Melo and PG13 before the deadline.
Since, things have taken a little better turn. In the next five weeks the Thunder went 14-5, benefitting partly from a softer schedule but also scoring wins against San Antonio, Indiana and Utah.
“We just had to sit down, talk, watch tons of film, communicate, sit down with coach and say ‘coach, we really need you to tell us what you need from us,’” Anthony told reporters before a game earlier in January. “We’ll accept that and make it work from there. It’ll be on us. It’ll be us holding each other accountable once we know exactly what you want us to do.
“It’s in the fact that we’ve accepted those roles now so we can just relax and just play basketball and just focus on that.”
For all their early inconsistency – and losses Jan. 7 at lowly Phoenix and Jan. 9 at home to a Damian Lillard-less Portland shows the inconsistency isn’t yet totally gone – the Thunder still find themselves in the chase for a decent playoff seed.
Just past the halfway point OKC stands 22-20, sixth best in the West and 4.5 games out of fourth. On the flip side, that mark only puts them 2.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Clippers.
Needless to say, being closer to missing the playoffs than being fourth place wasn’t what fans locally wanted to see so far. If it can’t start really trending in the right direction soon, this year’s experiment could prove to be a failed one.
While the starting lineup did get an All-Star boost, it gutted the bench, and newcomers Patrick Patterson, Ray Felton and Terrance Ferguson along with holdovers like Alex Abrines and Josh Huestis have been streaky. Forward Jerami Grant has been perhaps the most consistent source off the bench.
This was supposed to be an all-in year, one to challenge for a title. So far, it’s looked like that in bits and flashes, but for the most part it’s just brought on as many questions as answers.
For now, there still is optimism coming out of the mouths of the team.
“We’re finding our groove, we’re figuring it out. We’re learning how to play with one another,” George said after a recent win at the Clippers. “We’re trusting one another. The chemistry is getting even better and it just comes down to having fun out there.”