On the morning of Feb. 23, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in a fantastic position. Billy Donovan’s team awakened with a 38-20 record and a comfortable spot at No. 3 in the Western Conference standings, with a three-game advantage over the No. 4 Portland Trail Blazers. Given that more than half of the 2018-19 campaign was in the books, reasonable minds assumed that the Thunder would simply coast to the finish line with home-court advantage in round one of the NBA Playoffs but, after a dismal stretch, Oklahoma City’s standing isn’t so favorable.
Beginning with a loss on Feb. 23, the Thunder are 6-13 in their last 19 games and only the New York Knicks (the league’s worst team) have an offensive rating worse than the 104.9 points per 100 possessions posted by Oklahoma City. Though there were some positive moments during the run, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and company arrive in April having lost seven of the past nine games and, during that downturn, OKC’s patented defense has also slipped, allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions.
It would be wise (and necessary) to point out that OKC hasn’t enjoyed full health during this stretch, headlined by George’s participation in only 16 of the last 19 games. Beyond that, the All-NBA forward’s performance has slipped as George has attempted to play through discomfort, shooting only 38.3 percent from the floor and 32.7 percent from three since Feb. 23, with much more encouraging marks (45.5 percent from the floor and 40.5 percent from three) in the 57 games prior to the team-wide dip.
On the bright side for the Thunder, there is absolutely no danger of falling out of the playoffs, as the top eight Western Conference squads have clinched berths in the league’s “second season.” However, there is a massive difference between the team’s standing in late February and now, as they awaken on Apr. 2 in a tie with the San Antonio Spurs for No. 7 in the conference, putting the possibility of a first-round match-up with the Golden State Warriors on the table.
In fairness, any team trying to make the NBA Finals out of the West would have to blaze a path through Oakland along the way but, considering Oklahoma City’s sky-high payroll and lofty expectations, another first-round exit would be brutal. The Thunder have a gigantic payroll allotted to the 2019-20 season and, in short, there isn’t a ton of flexibility for the immediate future, indicating that this team’s core needs to perform on the biggest stage.
Almost everyone would agree that the Thunder are capable of (much) better performance than they’ve deployed in the recent past and, in an instant, Oklahoma City might be able to flip the switch to showcase their terrifying defensive profile. That, combined with the two-headed monster of George and Westbrook would be devastating but, at the moment, the Thunder are stuck in the mud at an inopportune time.
Where does Oklahoma City land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore the space.