When the Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the 2017 NBA offseason, to go along with the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook many assumed how the Thunder were going to be serious contenders and a team that could dethrone the Warriors dominance. But was that a realistic expectation?
The key was in the pure star power of the team and a variety of offensive talent. The star duo of Westbrook and George followed with the 3rd option in Carmelo Anthony who seemed to be as motivated as ever after a few drought full years in New York and the phenomenon of “Hoodie Melo” emerging, were supposed to be a problem in the league. The only pitfall people could see was the lack of depth on the bench and how the defense would look.
As the season started the Thunder surprised many with their strong start on the defensive end which they maintained in a solid measure during the season. But it was clear from the start that the system Billy Donovan set up wasn’t getting the maximum from his stars. Westbrook started out the season too passive trying to force the play to his new teammates and it just didn’t look like the best version of himself which resulted in a poor opening of the season. On the other end, Paul George was made more into a spot-up shooter rather than a creator and it hurt the Thunders’ offensive ability. Carmelo had his moments but for the most part, it was a below-average season for him, playing in a full-time power forward position that isn’t his primary, which was evident on the defensive side of the floor. Often we would see Carmelo getting benched in the 4th quarter, while Jerami Grant, one of the brightest spots in the Thunder season was getting his minutes.
The supporting cast around the big 3 did a solid job, better than most expected. Steven Adams had his best season and found a perfect role being the bruiser, collecting all their misses, and finishing around the rim. The only left starter in Andre Roberson was playing also a pretty good season, anchoring the defense and presenting a very long and athletic defensive duo on the wings with Paul George. Offensively, although he was the weak link, he improved his shooting a bit to a point where at times you have to commit to him at least a bit. After his injury, his impact was felt missing and the Thunder found a solid replacement in Corey Brewer who although wasn’t nearly a defensive stopper like Roberson, he was still a good defensive player who was much more of a threat on the offensive end.
As far as the bench comes, as was mentioned earlier, the 6th man for the Thunder was Jerami Grant who showed great improvement and had a huge impact on the floor with his athleticism and ability to spread the floor. A few veterans like Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson had their roles, but there was a feeling they could have done much more. Along with them, the Thunder had a couple of youthful wings who all had good and bad stretches throughout the season and on occasion were included in the starting lineup at the shooting guard position after Roberson's injury. Abrines was steady, didn’t show much improvement from his rookie year, Huestis emerged as a solid 3&D player but kind of got forgotten near the end of the season and in the playoffs, and the rookie Ferguson showed a lot of potential with his sweet stroke and unreal athleticism.
All in all Billy Donovan struggled throughout the season to find a system that will suit all his stars and make them a contender. There were games when it was thought they figured it out, for example blowing out the Warriors in their first two matchups of the season, but then they would lose games to teams from the bottom of the standings. The inconsistency was off the charts.
With a few good win streaks, the Thunder would eventually clinch the 4th spot in the tight West and face the Utah Jazz with home-court advantage. Many saw it as a favorable matchup with Utah not really being a team loaded with superstars, which in a lot of cases is the key to winning in the playoffs. But instead, they had a better team, played better basketball, and out-coached the Thunder with their coach Quin Snyder doing a great job.
To conclude was the Thunder getting eliminated in the first round an upset? Yes, although the system wasn’t right and the Utah Jazz were not the best matchup, Westbrook just needed one of his two stars to help him win this series. The two games in which Paul George showed up, the Thunder won and you could see the difference in the sheer star power of the two teams. But the inconsistency that followed the Thunder through the season continued in the playoffs and the Jazz knew how to take the opportunity. There is just a bitter feeling of what could have been in a matchup with the Rockets or Warriors, could they have beaten them and live up to the expectations. Now they have to restart, hope Paul George stays in the offseason and find a way to deal with Carmelo’s situation and contract so they can enter next season more prepared and with the experience of this season try to achieve what many already expected from them this year.