The Oklahoma City Thunder had very high hopes at the start of the 2018-19 season. After trading away future All-Star Victor Oladipo along with other players to get Paul George to OKC, George excited Thunder fans when he resigned on a four-year deal.
As the season progressed, the Thunder played exceptionally well with George spearheading the defense. However, they struggled down the home stretch and ended up with the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. That led to a very intense rivalry between Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard in the first round of the playoffs.
Lillard had the last laugh as he clinched the series with a game- and series-winning, buzzer-beating, step-back 3-pointer from 37 feet out in front of George. It might be one of the most clutch playoff shots we have seen over the past two decades, and it left Oklahoma City with more questions than answers. As poorly as the 2018-19 season ended, the 2019-20 season is already off to a bad start for the Thunder.
George out for how long?
Paul George was in the NBA MVP picture for much of the season as he averaged 28 points and eight rebounds per game this year, but shoulder injuries slowed him down late in the season. When the Portland series ended, George turned his attention to his health.
A recent ESPN report claims George is scheduled for offseason rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder and a procedure to fix a labrum tear in his left shoulder, and he won’t be back until the start of training camp at the earliest.
This is clearly a cause for concern as George dealt with shoulder issues for much of last season. When he is at his best, George can not only score at will but be a lockdown defender against the opposing team’s best offensive weapon.
The Thunder will need him to be at 100% if they are going to improve their standing in the West, but if the landscape changes a slow start could ultimately doom their season before it even gets started. Any setback in his recovery that forces George to miss significant time could put OKC out of the playoff picture before the calendar flips to 2020.
Another surgery for Russell Westbrook
As if the Paul George news isn’t bad enough, he isn’t the only Thunder star going under the knife this offseason. Fan favorite and former MVP Russell Westbrook will also have knee surgery. The surgery isn’t major and shouldn’t cause Westbrook to miss any of the Thunder’s offseason program, but it’s still a concern. Given Westbrook’s previous knee issues, you have to worry about the number of injuries that have piled up for the talented point guard.
Plus, Westbrook’s playing style might be significantly altered by the litany of knee surgeries. He always plays aggressively, and while it results in multiple triple-double seasons, Westbrook’s physical style can’t be doing his body many favors.
Can the Thunder survive with both players out?
This is where things get tricky for the Thunder. While Westbrook may come back before the start of the regular season, George is a big question mark. Andre Roberson will also be back in the fold for OKC. He is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, but he won’t be able to match even half of George’s offensive production.
Dennis Schroder was a valuable piece off the bench, but can the Thunder rely on a small lineup with Westbrook and Schroder interchanging at both guard positions for an extended amount of time?
Head coach Billy Donovan hasn’t won a playoff series since his first season in Oklahoma City. Expect him to enter the season with a lot of pressure on his shoulders, and if the Thunder start out with a record at .500 or below after the first month of the season, a coaching change may potentially be in order.
How will Oklahoma City look at the start of next season?
Will the Thunder be able to weather the storm that could come their way if Paul George isn’t ready to go at the start of the regular season? He has been an important piece to the team since coming over from Indiana, and he is arguably the best player on the roster. Losing him for even a month of the season might be too much for Oklahoma City to handle.