It’s the start of a new era in OKC, year 1 AD: After Durant. The loss of their franchise cornerstone, arguably the best scorer in the league and the greatest player in franchise history, will loom over the Thunder like a stormcloud this season, as will the specter of their humiliating loss in last year’s Western Conference Finals. So what can the Oklahoma faithful expect out of their boys over the next 82 games?
Let’s start by managing expectations. This will be the first season in a while where the Thunder will begin play squarely out of championship contention. It’s not so much an indictment of their own talent as it is a recognition of the expected dominance of a few other teams; it will likely take an injury to LeBron or a radioactive spider bite to Isaiah Thomas to stop the Cavs from steamrolling the East, and the Warriors just added Durant to a 73-win roster without losing a single star of their own. Nobody can say for certain, but Cleveland and Golden State are as much sure things to square off in the Finals as any pair has ever been entering the season. That means 28 teams are left out of the shuffle, including Oklahoma City.
But don’t worry, losses of Durant and star power forward Serge Ibaka aside, the playoffs should still be in the future for the Thunder. For that you can thank the team’s one remaining transcendent superstar, Russell Westbrook. Last year, after a career to the point of playing in the shadow of Durant, Westbrook seized control of the Thunder’s offense and averaged career highs in assists, rebounding, and Win Shares.
He once and for all silenced all doubters who questioned whether he could ever play the role of a “true point guard,” proving as effective a facilitator as he had always been a slasher, finishing fourth in MVP voting, and making his first appearance on the All-NBA first team. And Westbrook managed to do all that despite a ball-dominant playing style which clashed more often than not with Durant’s.
Now, without another star to demand the ball and with a whole lot to prove as pundits cast doubt on the Thunder’s season, it feels like just about anything could be in play for Russ. He could lead the league in points and assists! He might average a triple-double! His body might be consumed by a fireball as he leads a break at speeds approaching the speed of light! Of all the storylines surrounding the team, the effectiveness of an unchained, pissed-off Westbrook fascinates me the most.
Let’s be clear though, even if the music created on the court between Durant and Westbrook was more grunge rock than smooth jazz, it was still worthy of a Grammy. As in all team sports, raw talent can go a long way in making up for cohesiveness in basketball, and the Thunder were almost always better when Westbrook and Durant shared the floor. At their peak together, achieved sometime during the Spurs-Thunder series in the Western Conference semifinals when OKC actually looked like the favorites to win the title, the duo actually managed to look complementary to extraordinary effect.
Durant finally seemed content to spot up around the three-point arc and save his drives for overeager closeouts from defenders, using more energy as a multi-positional defensive octopus who could shut down half the court with his length alone. Westbrook, meanwhile, didn’t have to worry so much about standing around in space, attacking the rim with almost reckless abandon while whipping kick-out passes and dump-offs to his big men for easy scores. It was terrifying to see the two work together in such a way, and it will be hard to see the Thunder recreating any such magic this year.
Durant’s departure will be felt most in the spacing of the Thunder’s lineup. They were never an elite shooting team even at their best, and losing one of the greatest shooters of all time isn’t exactly a conducive remedy. Replacing Durant and Ibaka (a highly underrated shooter and the team’s best option in the pick-and-pop) in the starting lineup will be Enes Kanter, bench big extraordinaire, and dynamic shooting guard Victor Oladipo, an arrival from the Ibaka trade with Orlando.
Neither player is an awful shooter, but they play at their best when focusing on other aspects of their games. Kanter, one of the worst defensive big men in the league, is also one of its few remaining elite post scorers. Last year he feasted on limited minutes against opposing teams’ second units, and it’s unclear how effective he will be handling more minutes and a faster-paced role. Oladipo, on the other hand, is no stranger to playing run-and-gun basketball, but he was most effective running the Magic’s offense two years ago as a sort of Westbrook-light. As his former team ceded more control over to point guard Elfrid Payton, Oladipo’s mediocre off-ball movement and shooting were exposed, stunting the development of the former number 2 pick and moving him to the bench. I see chemistry issues and miscommunication in the future for the Thunder’s backcourt.
One pair for whom chemistry should not be an issue at least is Westbrook and center Steven Adams. If there was a single silver lining from the disastrous 2016 playoffs, it’s that Adams emerged as a star, cementing himself as one of the most well-respected and fun to play with centers in the league. Despite a completely unpolished offensive game and propensity to get into foul trouble, the big New Zealander emerged as perhaps the best rim-runner in the league, an excellent rebounder, and a forceful defensive presence in the paint.
He developed a near telepathic connection with Westbrook on the pick and roll, setting well disguised yet bone-crushing picks, then broadjumping into the lane to receive the laser pass with a signature savage intensity. If Adams makes even a minor leap this year and develops a hook shot or workable midrange jumper, he could be the piece that actually makes Oklahoma City dangerous again.
With that said, Adams would have to transform into the second coming of Wilt Chamberlain for the Thunder to have any realistic title shot this year. The Cavaliers and Warriors are just too damn good, and their own roster makeup too uncertain, to survive four rounds of the playoffs. Luckily for fans, this team will still put on an exciting show every night and be competitive relative to most other teams. If nothing else, make sure to tune in to when the Thunder play the Warriors on November 3 (they play three more times subsequently). I promise, it’s going to feel so great when Westbrook posterizes KD.