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Tramel: Winning in the Western Conference will be harder than ever for OKC Thunder moving forward

The difference in the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs and Eastern Conference playoffs is stark.

The East has four really good teams. The West has four really good series.

Game 6 of Thunder-Rockets arrives Monday night. Game 7 of Nuggets-Jazz comes Tuesday night. The Los Angeles juggernauts have advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, but only after getting some pushback from upstarts Portland (vs. the Lakers) and Dallas (Clippers).

And anyone looking forward while viewing the West crusades arrives at this conclusion: life in the Western Conference is only going to get more difficult.

Next season, whenever that is, the Lakers figure to still have LeBron and Anthony Davis, and the Clippers figure to still have Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and a deep and talented roster.

Utah has a budding superstar in Donovan Mitchell with a good core and great culture. Denver has two budding superstars in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, plus a good core.

Houston still figures to have James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Dallas will have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

Portland will have Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

And then you go to the teams that didn’t make the playoffs. New Orleans has Jrue Holiday and a young core of potential stars, led by Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Memphis has expected rookie of the year Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Both should be stars.

Phoenix has Devon Booker and an eight-game winning streak that served notice the Suns are rising. Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns and the overall No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. San Antonio is San Antonio.

And just in case you forget, the Warriors still have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the overall No. 3 pick.

If you’re looking for teams on the decline, you might have to settle for always-squishy Sacramento, which has some young talent but no discernible plan.

That’s the landscape the Thunder faces after this season.

OKC was 44-28 this season, in a three-way tie for fourth place, only a game-and-a-half behind Denver for third. It was a tremendously pleasing season. Gave hope that the Thunder could continue to compete.

But the landmine that is the Western Conference makes you wonder if the Thunder can repeat such a performance, even if Sam Presti retains the core.

If the Thunder resigns Danilo Gallinari and keeps the rest of the nucleus -- Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Steven Adams -- OKC will again have a quality basketball team but no great assurance that it could even return to the playoffs, much less challenge for a top-four seed.

The West is that tough. Golden State almost surely will make the playoffs, New Orleans should and Memphis could. 

If any of those teams finish in the top eight, someone else is falling out.

The Thunder seems most vulnerable, not just because of limited depth and talent base, but because OKC’s penchant for winning close games is a cautionary sign.

The Western Conference panorama could cause Presti to go into rebuilding mode. The Thunder might not make the playoffs even trying; forego loading up, and it almost surely would result in a desirable lottery pick.

There is danger in tanking. The collapsed economy and the social-justice protests means the automatic sellouts could be gone at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Trot out a losing team in a market accustomed to winning, and the financial impact could be massive.

On the other hand, who knows if we’ll have fans in the stands or even home games when the 2020-21 starts. Might be the perfect time for tanking.

You know me. I never vote for tanking, especially with Paul on the roster. He’s not in the habit of letting the Thunder lose much.

But winning never is easy, and now it’s harder than ever. The Western Conference offers no relief. 



Related Photos
Aug 29, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket against Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at The Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 29, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket against Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at The Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kim...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-7154d46c30ca4b26a754bd235e6461d9.jpg" alt="Photo - Aug 29, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket against Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at The Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports" title="Aug 29, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket against Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at The Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports"><figcaption>Aug 29, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder (17) drives to the basket against Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the second quarter in game five of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at The Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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