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Thunder have big stars and a huge payroll. But do they have enough to contend?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Charlotte Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 13: Teammates Paul George #13 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk during their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on January 13, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook will turn 30 next month, and he’s due nearly $207 million over the next five seasons. He has a legitimate co-star in Paul George, who’s locked up at the max for three more years. They have a dirty-work sidekick in Steven Adams, who’s also signed to a lucrative deal for three more years. And Oklahoma City is on track to pay one of the largest luxury-tax bills in NBA history to keep the supporting cast stocked.

It probably doesn’t get any better than this for the Thunder.

But how good is it?

The season after losing Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City valiantly won 47 games and made the playoffs. The Thunder followed that by acquiring George and Carmelo Anthony, building hype then… winning 48 games and again losing in the first round.

Sure, there were signs of growth from Year 1 to Year 2 post-Durant. Oklahoma City went from 43 to 50 Pythagorean wins, and whatever you think Anthony will do with the Rockets, he was awful for the Thunder. That underlying improvement despite Anthony dragging down the team bodes well for the future.

Yet, Oklahoma City still appears likely to top out at a single playoff-series victory this season. The Thunder are widely projected to finish third or fourth in the West, which would come with home-court advantage in the first-round. But that opening playoff opponent would be no pushover, and in this loaded Western Conference, there’s far more room to fall than climb. It’s tough to see Oklahoma City surpassing the Warriors or Rockets. But I have the Thunder behind the Jazz, and falling into the Nuggets/Lakers/Pelicans/Trail Blazers/Spurs/Timberwolves (if they keep Jimmy Butler) pack is quite possible. That’d come with a potential first-round series against Golden State, Houston or some other better team.

Personally, I’m fine with Oklahoma City competing as hard as possible and letting the chips fall where they may. They have a strong culture and devoted fan base, and sometimes that can be enough. Everyone seems to be enjoying the pursuit. It doesn’t always have to be title or bust.

But the Thunder are just a couple years removed from legitimate championship contention with Durant, and it’s hard to accept less after experiencing those thrills. Plus, this type of spending usually comes with lofty internal expectations.

Is there any way Oklahoma City can break through?

When word initially leaked about George re-signing, the cited reason was his belief in the significance of Andre Roberson’s season-ending injury. The Thunder were hitting their stride when Roberson went down in January and weren’t the same since.

Oklahoma City with Westbrook, George and Adams on and…

  • Roberson on: +13.5 points per 100 possessions
  • Roberson off: +2.7 points per 100 possessions

Roberson is an elite defender, and though he’s a poor shooter, Westbrook has the explosiveness to burst through tight spaces.

But Roberson will miss at least two months with a setback in his rehab. That’s a huge loss for the Thunder. He should be healthy for the playoffs, but seeding matters, and the postseason will intensify concerns about his shooting.

Really, it’s telling Oklahoma City is so affected by the loss of a role player like Roberson. He’s a helpful contributor, but the Thunder shouldn’t be so fragile without him.

Maybe there’s a more dangerous team here than it appears. There’s also time for the Thunder to improve their roster if it isn’t already good enough for championship contention. This isn’t a one-year window.

But whatever is on the other side of the glass, the window is open now.