It’s not wrong to be extremely concerned about the Oklahoma City Thunder following Wednesday night’s ugly loss against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The unvarnished truth of a Grade-A gack attack offers more than enough reason to question the future of this franchise. Facts – presented simply – represent the best editorial commentary about the wayward direction of the 2015-2016 season.
In Staples Center, the Thunder blew a 22-point second-half lead. They squandered a 14-point lead at the five-minute mark of regulation. They scored five points in the final 7:25 of the fourth quarter. Kevin Durant committed numerous turnovers, days after his errant pass against Golden State enabled the Warriors to erase a four-point deficit in the final 14 seconds of regulation.
Oklahoma City has recently been defeated by knockout (Cleveland) and by nail-biter (Warriors, Clippers). The Thunder have lost by not showing up in first halves (Cavs), and by showing up but then disappearing in fourth quarters (Dubs and Clips). Wednesday against the Clippers, they allowed 35 fourth-quarter points. Only 12 of those points were scored by Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, or J.J. Redick. OKC surrendered 23 points to other Clippers in that final stanza. Los Angeles won because it helped its foremost stars. Saturday, the Thunder were torched by Steph Curry on a night when the Warriors’ supporting cast wasn’t at its best.
Oklahoma City is a balanced team… in that it is losing in different ways under sharply contrasting circumstances and in distinctive contexts. Yet, the end result is the same: a losing record over the past 10 games in a backloaded schedule. The Thunder did a lot of “getting by” to surge to third place in the West, but “getting by” isn’t a game plan against the other members of the NBA’s top six teams (Cleveland, Toronto, Golden State, San Antonio, and the Clippers). Billy Donovan and his players are finding that out right now.
Wednesday’s gruesome collapse raises an obvious question: Are the Thunder in a state of crisis?
Narrowly viewed, the answer can surely be yes. The Warriors and Spurs are setting the bar at a great height. Oklahoma City keeps tripping over its shoelaces late in games. Home-court advantage in the second round of the playoffs is pretty much out of the picture at the moment.
The Thunder’s organizational aspiration is to win the NBA Finals, but the team isn’t very likely to get there if it has to beat both the Warriors and Spurs on the road in best-of-seven series. The fact that Oklahoma City is stuck in an endgame rut (the team also blew a late lead to the Indiana Pacers in the first game after the All-Star break), combined with its place in the Western Conference pecking order, points to a relatively short stay in the playoffs. One can certainly choose to view that as a crisis for a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That point can be widely acknowledged by reasonable people.
Yet, if viewed from a more distant vantage point – in which the camera isn’t zooming in on that immediate theater of events – it becomes very difficult to view the Thunder as an organization in crisis.
Oklahoma City could have won last Saturday against Golden State, and yet the fact that the Warriors were at the end of a long six-game road trip would have enabled critics to say – very legitimately – that the defending champions were worn out. The weight of that loss last Saturday for Oklahoma City lies not in failing to win, but in managing to lose a game that should have been won. Winning wouldn’t have changed the dynamic of the Western Conference, but losing in the manner they did gave the Thunder reason to doubt themselves in any future moment of tension.
That self-doubt was evident on Wednesday in Los Angeles.
Suffering a wrenching loss has eroded this team’s sense of itself – that’s a true deficit, a step backward which could have been avoided had OKC closed down the Warriors a few days ago. To that extent, the Thunder are a diminished team, one which has to find a way to reverse course before too long. Yet, in the larger picture, it’s not as though recent wins versus the Dubs or Clippers were going to lift OKC to the 2 seed in the West. It’s not as though a march through the Western Conference playoffs was going to be any easier. It’s not as though Billy Donovan would have transformed his reputation – it was always the case (and is now, and always will be) that Billy D would need to prove himself in the playoffs.
The Thunder – maybe a 3 seed in the playoffs, maybe a 4 seed if the Clippers pass them – are waiting for early May like everyone else. The season is never decided in March for a title contender which will still comfortably win more than 50 games. Moreover, let’s say that the Thunder had passed their recent tests – even then, they’d walk in the shadow of the knowledge that Golden State is producing one of the two or three best regular seasons in the 70-year history of the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs are not far behind.
Even if the Thunder had been better, chances are they wouldn’t have been good enough, anyway.
The true concern facing Oklahoma City – as mentioned above – is that it has suffered the kinds of defeats which can acquire too much head space and carry a very negative psychological effect through the rest of the season. If players stop trusting each other and can’t cultivate clarity at crunch time, OKC will be lost, and many will rightly doubt the franchise’s future. That’s worth discussing… and fixing.
Expecting Billy Donovan to get it right in year one? That’s not a productive inclination, well-intentioned though it may be. Donovan, in his first season, will need at least one more season beyond this one to see if he’s worthy of the challenge posed by the NBA at its highest reaches of competition. The danger here is that if endgame failures – the very source of Scott Brooks’s departure – persist to this degree, Donovan’s tenure will become shaky in his second season. A 2016 problem bleeding into 2017 is the nightmare the Thunder want to avoid.
The 2016 season already belongs to an organization other than the Thunder (Warriors). These recent events, which appear to be very depressing on a micro level, aren’t that weighty on a macro level… unless they’re still in evidence a year from now.
It’s time to be concerned about Oklahoma City… but it’s not time to embellish grim facts or draw overly broad conclusions.