You so vividly remember Kevin Durant enthusiastically standing to the side of the stage at the 2008 Draft when Russell Westbrook was selected in what was the final meaningful moment for the Seattle SuperSonics. It was a risky pick as Westbrook was then perceived coming out of UCLA as a raw point guard and a lock-down defensive force. The Sonics were moving to Oklahoma City and they didn’t even have a new name yet, but they had Durant coming off his Rookie of the Year win, Jeff Green and now Westbrook as their young core the NBA was justifiably optimistic upon.
The Thunder still have time but it is conspicuously borrowed time even if Durant re-signs on a five-year deal this offseason, and both Westbrook and Serge Ibaka re-sign in 2017.
A championship this season is certainly not unwinnable. Conventionally and historically, possessing two of the best five players in the world should comfortably equate to a title or at least a trip to The Finals. We know this year is different with the wolfishness of the Warriors and Spurs.
The Thunder were too young against the Mavs in 2011, outcoached and probably still too young against the Heat in 2012, suffered a Westbrook injury in 2013 after finishing with the best regular season record, weren’t good enough against the Spurs in 2014 with Ibaka banged up, and lost 2015 altogether almost entirely due to injuries.
The Thunder still feel like they're in a period of incubation despite being in Year 8 of Durant and Westbrook. Scott Brooks was given an extra year or two and they hired Billy Donovan, who has always been a competent coach and a known confidant of Sam Presti, but not capable of overhauling their system the way Steve Kerr did for the Warriors to become a brand new, better monster.
For example, the Thunder are just now finally staggering the minutes of Durant and Westbrook. Playing against one or both turns the game into a relentless offensive assault of individual scorers and they also play small lineups more frequently, but this is still simply a continuation of Brooks.
Durant and Westbrook have a workload unlike any other players in the NBA, mainly because they don't actively and directly make each other better, they only have one role player who makes them meaningfully better in Ibaka, and they play in a system that demands of them on every possessions they be the top-5 players in the league that they are. The Thunder score 112.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks them second in the NBA, yet they get far fewer easy looks the Warriors and Spurs routinely generate out of a complex system that makes the game look effortless. The Thunder somehow feel like they run an underachieving offense, which is difficult to accomplish when you’re still that dominant.
The Thunder don’t make the extra pass for the even easier shot and they don’t switch the ball to the weak side. The spacing of the Thunder is a constant issue with Durant and Westbrook facing multiple help defenders even after they beat their own man. The Warriors’ offense is about setting up 4-on-3 situations while the Thunder too often end up in 1-on-5.
Durant has talked this season about how the Thunder have an advantage in possessing so many isolation scorers where they don’t need to pass “30 times in a possession” like the Spurs to get good looks, but he’s wrong in underestimating the value in having both options available to them. When the game slows down, the Thunder should have an advantage with Durant and Westbrook in isolations but they’ve already been playing that style of game for the previous 44 minutes. In their three losses against the Warriors, the Thunder have been outscored 176-155 in the third quarter, fourth quarter and overtime of the three games, leaving them just a combined -3 in the first half of those three.
The Thunder get the details wrong by not generating easy layups after out of bounds plays and too often end up 35 feet away from the basket with less than 10 seconds left in the shot clock if their first options in the halfcourt don’t create a shot. This was particularly true in the loss to the Warriors at home, which was one of the most unlikely losses by a good team anyone has ever seen. The Thunder are frustrating because they’re so good on offense while constantly being undermined with so many scattergun possessions.
The beauty of the NBA and simultaneously its beast is that there’s only great players and role players. This has always been an incontrovertible truism of the NBA.
But the best teams today have great players playing with other great players who are capable of also being role players. It takes a galaxy of perfectly aligned players to become the type of title contenders we have seen the Warriors and Spurs sagaciously become.
Durant famously called Kawhi Leonard a system player in a cynical Tweet just as the Spurs were beating the Heat to win the 2014 championship. Beyond the preposterousness of even thinking something like that, let alone publishing it as the MVP of the league that lost to that player’s team in large part because of that player’s defense on you; the farcical part is the Thunder would be a better team with Leonard instead of Durant. To be fair, it probably wasn’t quite the case in 2014 but it certainly became so in 2015 and reinforced today. To be fair (part 2), the Thunder would also be a better team with Leonard instead of Westbrook.
The strength of Leonard’s defense combined with his catch-and-shoot ability gives a team that also has Westbrook a more meaningful all-around influence than Durant. You can also make a similar argument for Draymond Green, who is also one of the league’s top-3 defensive players and is an extraordinary passer. Westbrook and Durant are certainly good passers and create easy looks but it’s more about their gravity and how they collapse help defenders than being preternaturally gifted in that facet of the game.
Both Durant and Westbrook want to be the MVP of the league, let alone their own team, but their title odds and even their MVP odds would improve by evolving into the types of all-around, two-way players Leonard and Green are every night of the season. It’s a big ask for the top-5 players since they’d then become first and second but that’s where they’re stuck. The Thunder rank 15th in the NBA in defensive efficiency and that requires an evisceration of your opponent on offense to overcome being league-average on the other side of the floor.
There should be no victimization of Durant and Westbrook for the Thunder trading away James Harden. Harden wanted to play as some team’s best player and also get paid like one. Harden wasn’t going to be a super role player for the Thunder like Manu Ginobili did for the Spurs. Harden wasn’t going to be satisfied being third in line to dominate the ball. Harden was never going to be mentally plugged in to stand in the corner to shoot three-pointers but then defend the other team’s best wing in a total locked-down manner. Harden would have been insurance for injury or an overpriced, maxed out role player and we wouldn’t even fully realize how good he has become.
The wisdom of trading away Harden would look entirely different if they had moved him to the Warriors for a Klay Thompson and Draymond Green package, which would have been a viable alternative in October of 2012. A five-man unit of Durant, Ibaka and Green in the frontcourt with Westbrook and Thompson in the backcourt would be the lineup of the apocalypse to the Warriors’ lineup of death that actually materialized.
Kevin Martin gave the Thunder a veteran scorer to transition them out of the whiplash of trading Harden and the Adams pick was a good one. Jeremy Lamb had the length, athleticism and shooting to become the perfect 3&D wing beside the Thunder, but he was constantly in and out of Scott Brooks’ rotation and never became a useful player. Maybe the Thunder crumbled his confidence to contribute, or maybe he just isn’t on that level altogether.
The Thunder gave up real assets for me-first players Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter that their previous teams considered to be additions by subtractions. Waiters even came in the same trade that sent out Lance Thomas, and saw Iman Shumpert routed to the Cavaliers; both players would be better options for the Thunder than Waiters. These were the dutiful moves to show the Thunder were using every resource available to them in the short-term to win a title instead of that long, measured, sustainable plan that revealed itself in 2012. This year’s half measure is Randy Foye and he will make the smallest of differences. It's a jog against a breakaway dunk to show you at least tried a little bit. Even the Hornets had the urgency to trade for Courtney Lee, who would perfectly and substantially improve the Thunder.
Oklahoma City has inexplicably acquired a surplus of big men at the same time they haven’t been able to develop any reliable wings. The Thunder have all these extra knives for a gun fight against the Warriors’ wings. Oklahoma City should have Durant, Ibaka and either Kanter or Steven Adams plus a little Nick Collison playing 96 of the center/power forward minutes. The Thunder have tried to remain conventional in the middle of a radical evolution of the game.
Trading up from 48th in which they selected another big in Dakari Johnson to stash in the D-League could have instead resulted in the Thunder beating the Heat to a perfect young 3&D wing in Josh Richardson. This came a year after their contract shenanigans with Josh Huestis, who hasn’t looked like an NBA player. Cameron Payne is another Reggie Jackson-level draft pick, but Mitch McGary has to go to the D-League to get minutes while Rodney Hood is getting Harden comparisons.
There's been dozens of opportunities to find the perfect complement of role players around Durant and Westbrook, but there's still no workable five-man unit available to the Thunder to match the Warriors and Spurs. The Thunder did the impossible in drafting Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden-- the rest should have been the easy part. Is this an abject failure on the part of the Thunder front office and multiple coaching staffs to not find those role players for Durant and Westbrook, or should they share part of the responsibility for not making their teammates better?
If the Thunder do get past the Spurs to play the Warriors, Durant and Westbrook will need to play nearly perfect basketball in four of seven games. Their biggest issue will be how they have to defend the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick and roll, but on the other end, it will be Thompson, Andre Iguodala and sometimes Shaun Livingston or Harrison Barnes defending Durant and Westbrook. It would be tough enough to play 2-on-2 against Curry and Green straight-up, but it becomes an exhausting impossibility when the Warriors are basically substituting principals on offense for defense on every possession.
If LeBron James was in Durant’s position in free agency, he would sign a one-plus-one contract at worst and go sign with the Warriors or Spurs at best. LeBron has been one of the smartest players in any sport when it comes to his contract decisions, beginning in his pioneering opt-out signing a rookie extension leading up to his current one-plus-ones with the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers had the best record in 2010 and LeBron justifiably left. The Heat made the Finals in 2014 and he wanted to go home to play with a younger supporting cast and an owner that wouldn't cut any corners financially. It wasn’t just the fact that LeBron’s teams didn’t win a championship in 2010 and 2014, but it was the way they were overwhelmingly defeated by the Celtics and Spurs that surely accelerated the departures. The most intelligent way to predict Durant’s decision will be to discount the noise and simply study the exit of the Thunder, or their title.
If Durant decides it is all a sunken dream and leaves, we know from the 14-15 season that the Thunder are only a fringe playoff team built around Westbrook and Ibaka. The Thunder blocked lottery reform perhaps anticipating a prolonged rebuild bracing for the worst-case scenarios in 2016 and 2017. Unlike the Cavaliers and Raptors in 2010, Presti has additional highly coveted assets in Westbrook and Ibaka they can trade off to accelerate their rebuild as quickly as mid-July of this offseason. If those two players were to also walk in free agency without any assets coming back in return, Oklahoma City will have a long winter after their unprecedented success.
The winning footprint of the Thunder is mammoth and they will be viewed with historical importance on the NBA either way. But they will be a high achieving team that chronically disappointed if they don’t win that title. There was perhaps a sliver of entitlement when the Thunder watched the Heat celebrate their 2012 championship. Westbrook wanted to remember the feeling of losing, Harden learned the value of every possession and Durant was in tears. Even LeBron said he expected his Finals path would continue to run indefinitely through the Thunder.
Teams are as good as the aggregate of hundreds of details and the Thunder simply haven’t yet won enough of these details to earn themselves a title. If it all ends this season, this is the statue in Oklahoma City. What was supposed to be just the beginning was the cruel apex in disguise.