The Oklahoma City Thunder will be heading in a rather different direction after losing Kevin Durant, one that will see them fall down the Western Conference playoff picture and rely far more heavily on Russell Westbrook’s terrifying pace and talent.
OKC’s previous deadly duo of Westbrook and Durant is no more. Russ says they haven’t even talked. The new duo is Westbrook and Victor Oladipo, who are responsible for leading a new hyper-athletic backcourt into unknown territory. The Thunder don’t know what life is like without Durant after having him for each of the eight years of their existence.
What they won’t have without Durant is their best scorer. By far their best perimeter shooter. Their ultimate floor spacing, long, defensive combo forward. One of the best scorers in NBA history. And, of course, championship aspirations.
However, the Thunder certainly aren’t left with nothing.
Westbrook signed his three-year extension, and they still have a host of young talent, headlined after Russ by Steven Adams, whose progression has been faster than we all expected. Without Durant, the team will be learning how to adapt as best as they can, relying on a new technical and personal dynamic to carry them forward.
The “Stache Bros” are no Russ-KD tandem, but they’re still an awful lot of fun. And not just because of Adams’ amazing New Zealand wit or Enes Kanter’s Twitter feed. As we saw in the playoffs, they’re a formidable frontcourt pair, possessing Adams’ agile defensive versatility and rim rolling, with Kanter’s exceptional rebounding rate and offensive production. Both will have a bigger role and more responsibility without Durant.
It gives them a chance to showcase their talent and their bond on the court a little more often, and let us appreciate the Stache Bros without worrying about Russ and KD’s relationship or the constant debate of, “who should take the lost shot?”
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a Steven Adams career year — on and off the court.
Steven Adams said Kevin Garnett stopped trash talking him because Adams convinced him he couldn't speak English. pic.twitter.com/ZIWmzAWkMx
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) September 25, 2016
With the Thunder likely coming in no higher than the 6th seed in the West (as I’m predicting, at least), finding the entertainment value in this team is what we need to look for. No matter how much it feels like it at times when he goes on a triple-double rampage, Westbrook can’t do it alone.
Even if you aren’t a fan of Kanter for his weak defense, it’s impossible to not be a fan of Adams. From the fact that he’s highly talented to the way he can keep playing regardless of kicks straight to the groin. And then there’s his personality; jokes, accent, long hair and all.
How could you not be a fan, mate?
Getting ready for the Media Day ???????????????? pic.twitter.com/wnb13zeJsW
— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) September 23, 2016
The Thunder are giving their fans some promise in the team they’ll be watching next season. They’re becoming a unit that aren’t feeling down on themselves, lost or hopeless without their superstar Durant. They’re a close-knit team ready to accept their new identity. Who are, most importantly, becoming closer to one another. Not falling victim to the frustration of losing Durant.
It’s why Kanter said at the Thunder’s media day that, “the most important thing is not just basketball, but this group becoming really good friends.”
While chemistry and friendships can’t determine a team’s success over the obvious need for talent and depth, they still help an awful lot. That could be more noticeable as other Thunder players come further into the KD-less spotlight, and its importance to the team and the fans is what we can all enjoy. Especially, those in Oklahoma City.
Oladipo on Russ: "Last year I was thinking I've got to find a way to get in the gym with that dude. Now I'm in the gym with him every day."
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) September 23, 2016
The new backcourt of Westbrook and Victor Oladipo is the next tandem alongside Kanter and Adams to look forward to. They have more athleticism than any other backcourt and the potential to simply run opponents off the floor and hound them defensively with Oladipo, even if perimeter shooting is going to waver in efficiency.
Oladipo and Westbrook have been bonding already in more intimate ways than you might expect for two new teammates yet to play a game together. Already, Oladipo has said that if he needs advice, he calls Russ.
“Some days at night I can’t sleep, and I just call [Westbrook], and he sings me to sleep,” Oladipo added on media day.
If Westbrook is already the man Oladipo trusts to set him at ease for a good night’s sleep, it’s safe to say they’re buying into the friendship element of this new team that Kanter has stressed. Thunder fans can look forward to more unexpected yet entertaining stories off the court, and the pure entertainment of their combined explosiveness on it. And if there’s a new way that Westbrook’s frantic energy can benefit the team, it’s by some of that energy rubbing off on Oladipo to help him maximize his potential on defense and in transition.
When addressing the matter of the team’s leadership on media day and whether Russ will take charge, Kanter said, “he was our leader last year, too.” It’s safe to say they haven’t waited around to move on.
Yeah, there’ll be some jabs at Durant. There’ll be some shady press conferences. There’ll be some difficult nights of limited offense, and there’ll be some thrilling ones as the Thunder play fast and Westbrook drops 40, 15 and 15.
Championship chances aside, there’s fun to be had with next year’s Thunder as they adopt a new identity and begin a journey to return to contention some day. Let’s just enjoy it when we get bored of watching the Warriors make a million threes each night.