Big issue 1: Before anything happens in free agency - which will mostly be out of the organization's hands - the Thunder must decide whether to make changes in areas they can control. That starts with coach Billy Donovan, who just finished the third of a five-year contract with the team and, in that span, has built an unimpressive legacy. The Thunder are 150-96 under his watch, but were ousted in the first round of the playoffs the last two years and blew a 3-1 Western Conference finals lead in 2016, a series that likely led to the departure of Kevin Durant.
This year was especially frustrating, as the Thunder had added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play alongside superstar Russell Westbrook in an effort to vault back into title contention. But the team never established any real direction and won only one more game than last year. As had been the case when Durant was there, Donovan seemed cowed by his star players, unwilling and/or unable to exert his system on his team.
It all unraveled in the postseason, when OKC was dismantled by a weaker Utah team in six games. Sources around the league have said that this kind of disappointing result would put Donovan's employment status into jeopardy. It's now up to GM Sam Presti to decide whether Donovan deserves a fourth chance.
Big issue 2: Keeping George in town has been the underlying goal since before the season started. The Thunder traded for George, a free-agent-to-be last summer with the hope that Westbrook could recruit him from within and persuade him to pass on a chance to go home to Los Angeles or join a contender like the Rockets in order to stick it out with OKC. There's not much more the Thunder can do on that front.
What might be more pressing is the issue with Anthony. While the Thunder want to keep George long-term, they'd very much like to find a way to rid themselves of Anthony, who could not find a role with the team and did not inspire confidence with his unwillingness to sacrifice, highlighted by his insistence that he would not come off the bench.
As he turns 34 this spring and with his skills diminishing, it's past time for Anthony to consider different ways he can contribute to a good team, if he is still interested in winning. There are times he seems to long for his days of jacking up shots for the Knicks on the way to another 30-win season. At least then he could point the finger elsewhere - the owner, the coach, the absentee team president - and come across as the mature one in the organization.
But Anthony's stubbornness and selfishness have been exposed with the Thunder, who still owe him $28 million for next season, if Anthony chooses to opt in (as he surely will). It's highly unlikely that the Thunder can find a trade for Anthony, who probably won't be keen on a pay cut to pave the way for a buyout, either. The relationship has soured, though, and it might be best for all if a separation can be arranged.
Free-agent outlook: Keeping George is the challenge here, and to do so will take a contract starting at about $30 million, and worth around $180 million over five years. That will push the Thunder's payroll up to about $150 million, with roster spots still to be filled. If, conservatively, we put OKC $30 million over the $121 million expected tax threshold, the team (as a repeat tax payer) will pay $105 million in penalty for that $30 million.
That projects to a $250 million outlay for a roster that produced a middling season in the West and was easily KO'd by Utah in the playoffs. The Thunder want to keep George, but surely someone in the organization must be asking whether it's worth the pallets of cash needed to hold together a team that was a lot more sizzle than steak.
In wheeling out big money to keep this core together, the Thunder will make themselves unlikely to hold onto valuable, low-cost role players like Raymond Felton, Corey Brewer and, most important, Jerami Grant, who has developed nicely with the team in the past year-and-a-half. It all doesn't make much sense, but it might become an insignificant point if George simply decides to sign elsewhere and forces the Thunder to start over.
The young folks: The Thunder will not have a first-round pick in this year's draft (thanks to the Enes Kanter deal in 2015), and are sorely lacking in developmental talent. They traded away Domantas Sabonis as part of the deal to acquire Paul George, and Sabonis wound up being an important and useful contributor for the Pacers.
The one bright spot appears to be 6-7 guard Terrance Ferguson, who will turn 20 in May. He played in 61 games and got 12 starts, and while his minutes (12.5) limited his production (3.5 points per game), he showed increasing confidence in his shot over the course of the year and is probably ready to contribute next season.
Wait till next year: One guy left out of this whole analysis was Andre Roberson, who was lost to an injury in his patellar tendon in late January. It would be easy to scoff at the impact a guy who averages 5.0 points and shoots 31.6 percent from the free-throw line could have, but Roberson was the Thunder's defensive ace, and the team changes considerably without him.
Through Jan. 27, the last time Roberson played, OKC had the fifth-ranked defense, at 103.1 points per 100 possessions. From Jan. 28 on, the Thunder's defense fell to 107.0 points per 100 possessions, 15th in the league. Losing Roberson meant they lost their identity on the defensive end.
If the Thunder keep George and run everything back with much the same group next season, $100 million in taxes be damned, then there's the hope that Roberson returns 100 percent healthy and can get back to pushing OKC into playing top-five level defense. That, at least, gives the Thunder a chance to improve on this season's meager accomplishments.