Don’t Count Out the Thunder: Life Without Westbrook and Durant

Garett Fisbeck/AP

Russell Westbrook, usually all steel and confidence, gets nostalgic recalling the young Thunder gunners who blitzed what had been an unbeatable Spurs team to clinch an ahead-of-schedule appearance in the 2012 Finals.

“When we had James [Harden] and all those other guys we drafted, man, we had a nice, nice team,” Westbrook says. “It was a great team beyond just three or four good players.”

Harden never played another game for Oklahoma City, and the team hasn’t been back to the Finals. The Thunder weighed dozens of competing variables before trading Harden,1 but the deal in the end was a big-picture bet that the Thunder could duck the luxury tax while at the same time better positioning themselves for a decade-plus of title contention — to become the next San Antonio.

Harden would in effect become four players: Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Mitch McGary, and Reggie Jackson — or at least, in Jackson’s case, the now-available eight-figure salary slot next summer that was created by Harden’s absence. Four would be better than one. The Thunder could nurture eight or nine guys over several seasons, banking on continuity in a league of shorter contracts and high-paced free agency. They wouldn’t have to churn the back end of the roster, searching each summer for minimum-salaried veterans and waving good-bye to any holdover who wanted more than that. They wouldn’t have to fret about letting one of their four stars walk in 2017 or 2018, when they’d all be up for veteran-level max contracts that could send the payroll into unsustainable places.

It was a risky bet. Harden is 25 now, about the same age as Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and less than one year younger than Kevin Durant. The Thunder exchanged him for players in their early twenties. It often takes years, plural, for guys that age to become reliable NBA contributors.

The Thunder had the star power to carry those youngsters along and remain title contenders in the meantime, but the margin for error was slimmer. The bad luck of playoff injuries, to Westbrook in 2013 and Ibaka last season, hammered that home. “Shit, a lot of stuff has happened,” Westbrook says. “When I went down and then Serge went down, both times, we had a chance to win it.”

Teams usually don’t win championships until their best players are in their mid- to late twenties. The Thunder are there, now. Harden was 23 when Oklahoma City traded him for unknowns who might be ready for the big stage when Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka were at that championship age. Harden would surely have been. He exploded in Houston, and the league’s financial landscape has evolved in ways that make the trade look worse and imperil Oklahoma City’s ability to retain the stars that are still there — a killer double whammy.

This NBA season should be their year — the season in which Oklahoma City would finally reach the summit and validate the Harden trade forever. The shouting about the Harden deal, the Thunder’s penny-pinching, and Scott Brooks’s coaching has overshadowed how awesome these guys are — how close the post-Harden Thunder have already come to winning a title, despite the youth of the roster.

“There’s no guarantee we would have won it,” Nick Collison says. “But things have gone sideways on us in the playoffs, with all the injuries. We just want another crack at it.”

Everything seemed ready to fall into place this season. Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are in their primes, with room still to grow. Adams, the key piece in the Harden trade, has usurped the starting spot of Kendrick Perkins, a walking illegal screen so inept on offense that no one bothers to guard him. Jackson is now the bench scorer with an uncertain contract status, only it was clear months ago that the Thunder would keep him at least through the season instead of preemptively trading him.

Grizzlies vs ThunderRichard Rowe/NBAE/Getty Images

Anthony Morrow, their midlevel consolation prize, would provide some much-needed spacing. Perry Jones III, Andre Roberson, and Lamb gained valuable experience last season. Each has stark limitations, but surely one would emerge as a reliable rotation piece by the playoffs. The time is now, and the stars are ready.

“As players get more experience, the only thing that matters is to win the title,” Collison says. “The truth is, younger guys are trying to establish their own careers. Our guys, Russell and Kevin, are over that now. It’s such a difference with them, in terms of concern for how well everyone else is playing. Each year for us, there is more urgency to win it.”

Brooks says he has noticed Durant and Westbrook taking on more of a leadership role — piping up in film sessions, and guiding their teammates. “Experience is on our side now,” Brooks says. “There’s no question. [Durant and Westbrook] will be back soon. We will be whole again. We just don’t know when.”

The Western Conference is a bloodbath, but the Thunder and Spurs have stood above everyone, and no one has played San Antonio more fiercely than Oklahoma City has. Cleveland may need a year of seasoning, and Derrick Rose must prove that his knees can handle a full season.

Even the maligned Brooks has made strides. He had a quicker trigger scrapping his starting lineup during the Memphis and San Antonio series last season, and he was more aggressive in using Durant at power forward. In camp this season, Brooks pushed a motion-based offense on his hero-ball stars and coaxed Perkins to the bench.

Oklahoma City before this spate of injuries — Durant’s broken foot and Westbrook’s broken hand, likely keeping both out until December — was a sure bet to win 55 games2 for the fifth straight season. Only two franchises since the NBA-ABA merger have pulled that off and not won a title in the stretch of 55-win seasons: the Jazz and Sonics of the 1990s. Teams this good either win or break up. This was set to be Oklahoma City’s best chance to win it all.3

And then, doom. No one is quite sure when Westbrook and Durant will be back. The Thunder have played spirited ball without them, and Jackson’s return is a boon. But this team is going to struggle badly for points. It’s 1-3 now, and even with a friendly early-season schedule by Western Conference standards, it’s not hard to imagine it at something like 8-17 when the stars come back. The math from there is daunting. Oklahoma City would have to go 41-16 just to reach the 49 wins it took to snag the no. 8 spot last season. And that 8-17 record, as bad as it looks, might be optimistic.

2014 Oklahoma City Thunder Media DayLayne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

The Thunder at full health are capable of smashing that. Hell, something like 49-8 or 50-7 wouldn’t surprise with this team. They are basketball killers. But this scenario assumes an on-time return for both Westbrook and Durant, minimal rust, and good injury luck across the rest of the season. Getting to the Finals from any seed in the West is the equivalent of facing three straight video-game bosses. Coming from no. 7 or no. 8 is like starting that journey with half your health.

Windows in the NBA can close just like that. Ask the Pacers. The Thunder have to claw like hell, even amid this ridiculous run of injuries, to keep that window open. They cannot afford a lost season, even if a 1997 Spurs-style lottery pick would bring in another promising 20-year-old. Durant’s free agency in 2016 is bearing down on them, and every external circumstance seems to be hurting Oklahoma City’s cause in convincing him to stay. Winning a title would be a game-changer, and the Thunder have two chances left on Durant’s current contract — and just one, this season, before he becomes an expiring time bomb.

They will have a hard time even engaging Durant in contract-extension talks. The collective bargaining agreement damn near wrote star extensions out of existence by placing strict limits on the number of years an incumbent team can offer in such a deal.4

The cap has skyrocketed faster than most teams were anticipating in October 2012, when the Thunder moved Harden. It’s at $63 million this season after hovering around $58 million for a half-decade. The league is projecting a $66.5 million cap for 2015-16, and after that, the massive new national TV contracts will vault the cap into uncharted territory.

There will be a massive jump for the 2016-17 season, kicking in right when Durant enters free agency. No one knows how high the cap will go that summer. If left unchecked, it could blow past $90 million. The league and players’ union are discussing plans that would artificially deflate the 2016-17 cap and introduce new TV money into the system more smoothly.

The league has pitched several versions of such a plan, including some that set the 2016-17 cap anywhere from $78 million to $82 million, per multiple league sources.

Regardless: The summer of 2016 is going to be a bonanza. Teams set up for cap space that summer, even by accident, will have more than initially expected. Big-market behemoths like Brooklyn5 and the Lakers could lure two max free agents, plus a third significant piece, in one summer. Teams with multiple stars that would normally have no shot at Durant might have a one-summer window in which to fit him; the Warriors, with Stephen Curry on an absurd below-market deal through 2017, stand as the most obvious such “Hey, look what we found!” candidate.

The Texas teams will take their shot if they hear the right intel, and Durant’s hometown Wizards are biding their time in the easier conference. That intel is all over the place, by the way. Some teams are optimistic it will be open season, and others have heard rumblings that Durant has already made it known it will come down to the Thunder and Wizards. Nobody really knows.

There is also the wild-card possibility that Durant signs a one-year deal so he can enter free agency again in the summer of 2017 — when he’ll have 10 years of experience, and thus be eligible for a larger max contract.6

The rising cap could enable a new kind of superteam, and when worried executives talk of such a potential cap-enabled star cluster, they focus on the biggest and most glamorous markets. But the Thunder themselves might benefit. The contracts for Westbrook and Ibaka run one season longer than Durant’s, meaning the Thunder could have the same one-summer window in July 2016 to re-sign Durant and ink another big name before Westbrook and Ibaka come up for new megadeals.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Brooklyn NetsAlex Goodlett/Getty Images

Jackson is the swing piece there, just as Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson could torpedo theoretical superteam flexibility in Cleveland. Bringing back Jackson on an eight-figure contract would nudge Oklahoma City close enough to the projected 2016-17 cap that signing another star-level player would be borderline impossible.7 But the Thunder letting Jackson walk this summer for salary-cap reasons could alienate Durant.

This stuff is not easy. The Thunder are brilliant, but their projections for the league’s financial future might have been off when they dealt Harden. The cap and tax have jumped so fast since then that the Thunder could have kept Harden at the max, used the amnesty provision on Perkins, and paid the luxury tax in only a single season.

The math would have been tight, and the payouts on Perkins’s contract — plus the (minimal) cost of a replacement — might have had the Thunder barely breaking even. But that is what you do when you have a championship window. The Spurs, Kings, and Wolves, teams in non-glamour cities with strict budgets, spent into the tax when they could sniff the ring. The Thunder have kept the tax bullet in reserve for the Durant/Westbrook prime years, but the tax line will rise so fast and so far, they may end up having chambered it for nothing.

The Thunder over the last three seasons were clearly in the championship contenders inner circle, with or without Harden. In trading him for unproven youth, they sacrificed a bit of their short-term championship equity in exchange for cost certainty and, they hoped, stronger long-term championship equity. But they may have misdiagnosed just how close they were, even when their stars were just 22 and 23, and now they have to hope the run doesn’t end much earlier than expected.

The Thunder will use the absence of Durant and Westbrook as an opportunity to build a motion offense that is less predictable and less prone to stagnancy. The Thunder have been a scoring powerhouse at full health, but in one-possession games against elite playoff defenses geared up for the Durant and Westbrook show, having an extra counter or two every trip can be the difference between winning and losing.

“We can still get better in that area,” Collison says. “Everyone asks: ‘Why don’t they move the ball?’ But it takes time. We have two 25-year-olds that can just take their man and score. But now it’s about balance and having faith in what is the correct way to play.”

It’s harder than people might think to play like the Spurs. Today’s Heat without LeBron are better at aping the pass-happy LeBron-era Heat than today’s Cavaliers are with LeBron.8 The Spurs are so good because every cut and screen comes at full speed, with perfect precision. It’s exhausting. The Spurs prize depth and reduced minute loads in part because they understand the physical demands of their offense.

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game FiveAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

“Every team can take something from what [the Spurs] do well,” Collison says. “We’ve seen now that in the playoffs, we have to move the ball more and rely less on one-on-one.”

The Thunder aren’t doing anything fancy. They’re mostly using flex-style sets you see everywhere. The spacing is predictably awful given the lack of firepower, and the cuts and screens are sometimes tentative or late. Jones is scoring off a couple of set plays the Thunder normally run for Durant. The whole thing is mechanical. You can see the players working out the steps in their heads.

It’s early. The Thunder are building for later. They’re tossing about 300 passes per game, around the league average, after ranking in the bottom five at 270.6 passes per game last season, per SportVU tracking data.

Jones and Roberson have shown how they can attack for baskets and dimes when they catch the ball against a scrambling defense. “You gotta catch it and go,” Roberson says. “If you hold it for just a split second, the defense takes your lane away.”

And guess what? This whole having-the-ball thing is kind of fun. “Not just a little bit fun,” Roberson says. “It’s fun — sharing the ball, playing for each other. I’m loving it.”

Maybe Adams can develop a back-to-the-basket game. Ibaka is experimenting with 3-pointers outside the corners, and with more dribble drives. Jones’s emergence will open up more small-ball lineups when Durant returns. The Thunder’s defense is toying with a zone, and it’s still finding the right balance between aggressive help and a chaotic five-man convergence on the paint that leaves too many players open. This is a time for relearning the basics and discovering new stuff.

This can still be the Thunder’s year if they get healthy in time. All the tools are here, and the returns from the Harden trade might finally pay dividends. The odds are just a little longer, the stakes are enormous, and the clock is ticking.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Chris Bosh, Appreciated

Stars in the spotlight become polarizing figures. Every misstep draws outsize criticism. But even the loudest critics at least concede that their star targets are on some fundamental level valuable basketball players.

On the flip side, stars who go underappreciated tend to be quiet sorts who labor for so-so teams in non-glamour markets — the Al Horford types.

Bosh over the last four seasons was the rare star in the limelight to find his basic basketball value — and his manhood, in some nutty quarters — in question. He was the third wheel. He was “soft” because he didn’t post up anymore. He didn’t look like a good defensive big man or gobble up rebounds, and so a very loud subset of critics branded him a useless defensive player — even with visual evidence right in front of their faces of Bosh blowing up pick-and-rolls 35 feet from the hoop.

It has been wonderful to see Bosh, at this early stage of post-LeBron life, emphatically reclaim his stardom. You didn’t think this dude was a two-way beast? What are you saying now?

And Bosh has done it his way, without resorting to the bullying post-up game for which critics clamored. He’s posting up a bit more, but these are mostly face-up chances in which Bosh catches near the block, turns to the basket, and blows by slower bigs off the dribble.

He’s still pick-and-popping and spotting up for 3s, just like he did with LeBron, only he’s doing both more often — and mixing in more one-on-one stuff from the outside in.

A great start for a great player.

2. The Struggles of KCP

It is really hard for a second-year role player to shoot 11-of-42 in three games — to shoot so poorly, and so often. This is why Detroit overspent on Jodie Meeks. It urgently needs shooting around Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls and whatever it is Josh Smith is doing.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot just 39.6 percent last season, including 32 percent on 3s, and he’s missing everything now — open 3s, contested 3s, driving floaters, and probably the team bus. The Pistons need him to start hitting — now.

3. Being Reminded of James Harden’s Greatness

Harden isn’t always easy to watch, and he has become perhaps the NBA’s most mocked star. He doesn’t really sleepwalk on defense, since “sleepwalk” implies motion; Harden sleepstands. (He has looked better this season.) He snaps his head back like Kramer illustrating the Magic Loogie, and he’s among the league leaders in stringing together flashy dribble moves that net zero inches of forward progress.

Amid all the joking, we’ve almost forgotten how great this guy is on offense — and how entertaining he can be. Just look at this:

Poor Evan Turner is wandering around the outskirts of Houston somewhere. And that cross-court bounce pass to the corner! Look at that thing! It whizzes low to the ground, and the actual bounce doesn’t come until the ball reaches that big “R” logo — about 85 percent of the way through its journey to Kostas Papanikolaou. Even LeBron will occasionally double-bounce passes like this, so that the ball is almost rolling by the time it reaches its destination.

Harden might be annoying, but he’s also brilliant.

4. The Golden Championship Patch

Fashion mavens can debate whether this is stylish, but it’s unquestionably a cool addition to NBA jerseys. Winning even one championship is so, so hard. A single ring deserves never-ending celebration, and each franchise that has snagged one should be able to gloat in perpetuity.

The void of gold on the jerseys of franchises that have yet to earn it highlights the challenge and the promise of future accomplishments.

5. John Wall’s Rushed Pick-and-Roll Passing

Wall can be a devastating pick-and-roll guy, but there are times when it feels like he’s hot-potatoing the ball out of his hands. This can take the form of a hasty midrange jumper, though Wall has historically been solid from the right elbow, or a quick-hitting pass to a shooter on the weak side:

There’s nothing wrong with that pass to Paul Pierce. The shooter in that position is the guy most defenses leave open in containing a pick-and-roll, and Wall has fed Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal a bundle of 3s this way. Firing the pass this early, before any penetration, can also catch Pierce’s defender still leaning toward the middle on his help assignment — making a change-of-direction close-out on Pierce even harder.

But the rapid-fire approach can have the reverse effect, with Pierce’s defender still nearby, and Wall at times is short-circuiting opportunities for better stuff — drives, drawn fouls, and other spot-up looks.

This is nit-picking; nobody assisted on more corner 3s last season than Wall. But a lot of those came in transition, where Wall is a force of nature, and the half-court stuff can use some polish.

6. The Pass-and-Crash Charge

There are times for this call — like when an out-of-control player smashes into a charge-taker and then throws the pass, or if the two events are almost simultaneous. But the league needs to do away with the version in which the pass precedes the crash by a beat or two — like the awful charging call on Mike Dunleavy Jr. that overturned a Taj Gibson dunk during Friday’s Chicago-Cleveland game.

The charge is already too big a part of the NBA game. Let’s at least erase these.

7. A Smart Cavs Attack

Count this as both a like and dislike, depending on whether you’re from Cleveland. The Cavs have come out defending even more aggressively than most folks expected, often leaping way out to contain pick-and-rolls on both the middle of the floor and the sideline.

Teams have used that aggression against them, and it can be lethal when opponents designate Varejao’s guy as the first screener. That drags Varejao far from the hoop, leaving Kevin Love as the ground-bound last line of defense:

Thompson offers more rim protection, but the Cavs’ spacing gets cramped when Thompson and Varejao share the floor. It’s something to monitor.

8. The Lakers’ Team Speed

They are the league’s worst defensive team by an embarrassing margin. The Lakers are bad in the half court, but they are not helping themselves in transition. Pick a measure — opponent fast-break points, total opponent transition chances, enemy transition efficiency — and the Lakers rank near the bottom.

This is an old, slow team with a collective offense-to-defense first step that speaks to both age and lethargy. It’s going to be a long season.

9. The Pellies’ Red Alternates

These babies are sharp and a nice change from what had been a pretty blah set of jerseys. Any team in New Orleans should bring some pizzazz.

10. A Knicksy Wrinkle to the Triangle

The Knicks have looked a little better in the triangle at this stage than I’d expected, and their perimeter players have found a read early in possessions that can lead to an open jumper. Watch Tim Hardaway Jr. work himself into an open 3 on the weak (two-man) side of this triangle set:

Hardaway starts the possession by nailing Jason Maxiell with a back screen, and that in turn forces Hardaway’s man, Gerald Henderson, to hang back in the paint and patrol Maxiell’s man (Amar’e Stoudemire). Hardaway uses that window to spring out for an open 3.

Here’s Iman Shumpert using the same action to get some space, think about a jumper, and then counter into a post-up for the surprisingly frisky Quincy Acy:

Filed Under: NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbroook, Kevin Durant, Reggie Jackson, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones III, Serge Ibaka, Scott Brooks, James Harden

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA