It's fitting that the star-crossed Oklahoma City Thunder, in their year of reckoning, have the misfortune of playing championship-level basketball during the season in which two super teams are testing the limits of greatness.
Oklahoma City is 34-9 with Kevin Durant, the most important free agent since LeBron James in 2010, and they are blistering opponents by about 10 points per 100 possessions in those games. In most seasons, they would be championship favorites. They are overflowing with young, improving players who could stick together to chase titles for 15-plus seasons -- a multi-generational contender unseen in the modern NBA outside San Antonio. No superstar would ever leave. The Thunder are awesome, and they should just stay awesome.
Alas, outside factors and tricky internal dynamics always seem to agitate what should be a happy situation. Oklahoma City hoarded perhaps the best collection of young star talent in NBA history at the exact moment the league instituted a harsh tax that accelerated the breakup of that core. Now, four years later, an unprecedented spike in the salary cap will give almost every team -- including dumb-dumbs who did zero planning -- money to poach the Thunder's foundational star. Oklahoma City could have warded off suitors by lavishing Durant with a contract extension, but post-lockout limits vaporized extensions from the superstar landscape.
Winning, though -- winning would solve everything. No one abandons a champion. The Thunder entered this season healthy after three years of ill-timed injury trauma, with a new coach who would simplify the defense and unclog the offense. And then Golden State and San Antonio scorched the earth, leaving the Thunder looking like second-rate wannabes.
"We'll deal with those teams when we have to," power forward Nick Collison, the resident Thunder sage, told ESPN.com. "As a team, you just focus on getting your own level of play as high as possible, so when you play them in a series, you have a shot. We can still get better."
We're about to find out. The Thunder play the Warriors and Cavs four times combined over the next month. For a contender, Oklahoma City has an unusual amount of questions to answer about itself. Coach Billy Donovan doesn't know who should play around the central Durant/Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka trio. Kyle Singler was dead for a while, but he's back and playing a hybrid forward position that could make him the Shane Battier of these Thunder -- the wing player who slides up to power forward so that Oklahoma City can play small without exposing Durant to abuse. Singler just has to resemble an NBA player again after looking like a fan who had wobbled onto the court during most of his Thunder stint.
Enes Kanter has closed some games, and Donovan has been toying with a new Kanter-Steven Adams two-headed center look, with Kanter spotting up for corner 3s as Adams bashes down the lane. Kanter is destroying everyone on the offensive glass, and he has improved his defense from laughable to playable -- at least against opposing backups.
Cameron Payne has displaced D.J. Augustin at backup point guard, a potential mover at the trade deadline, and his two-way play alongside Westbrook has been promising. Maybe Payne can win one of those crunch-time spots. Dion Waiters, of Waiters Island, is starting in place of Andre Roberson, and cruel as it sounds, Roberson's injury might be a blessing. Roberson can't shoot, and teams in the playoffs will treat him like Tony Allen. Waiters is shooting 37 percent from deep, and he'll get a chance to prove he has cleansed all those barfy, step-back 20-footers from his system. He has busted his butt doing Roberson's work defending elite wings, including James Harden, since his promotion.
The Thunder need to figure out who among Payne, Waiters, Singler and Anthony Morrow might fill those minutes and if it's worth flipping Mitch McGary at the deadline for a slight upgrade such as Courtney Lee or P.J. Tucker. They've been sniffing around for available wings but haven't gotten serious yet, per several league sources.
It seems troubling that we've reached February and a would-be contender has no clue who should play down the stretch. It reflects the difficulty Oklahoma City has had in finding reliable, two-way players while churning the salary slots once earmarked for ball-dominant stars -- Harden and Reggie Jackson -- in search of cheaper options. We've pored over the Harden deal enough, and there were human dynamics that made the situation more complicated than money, even if the Thunder underestimated the cap mega-leap that might have allowed them to keep Harden while dipping into the tax just once. After years rotting on the bench, Jeremy Lamb might have needed a change of scenery to find himself.
Building around three expensive players while (usually) ducking the tax is hard; ask the Clippers. The Thunder have at least drafted well and stayed young. Still, it's disappointing to end all that roiling with Lamb finding himself in Charlotte; Waiters shooting 40 percent ahead of a pay raise that might come elsewhere; with the Thunder netting only a small trade exception in return; Kanter earning more than Harden, Roberson bricking away; Morrow riding the bench, Iman Shumpert and Brook Lopez, trade targets who got away, playing at expected levels for other teams, and question marks across the roster.
But the Thunder are spinning all this uncertainty the other way: If things break right for them, they could be a more dangerous team in May than they are now.
"We have upside," Collison said.
They might even have options. Maybe Kanter eviscerates San Antonio on the offensive glass in the second round and, if the Thunder squeak through, plays fewer minutes against the Warriors -- and only when one of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli is on the floor. Waiters might be able to punish Tony Parker and Stephen Curry if the super teams hide their point guards on him and slip into a more limited role otherwise. Singler is promising as a 3-and-D guy, though he struggles to track quicker players.
"We would be concerned if, at this stage of the season, we felt we had discovered all there is to know about ourselves," general manager Sam Presti told ESPN.com. "We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season."
One such journey of self-discovery could both improve the Thunder now and nudge Durant toward the exit doors: Donovan has tilted control of the offense more toward Westbrook, a process that started the past season under former coach Scott Brooks. Two years ago, Durant averaged 58 touches per game in the frontcourt, compared to 67 for Westbrook, and ran enough pick-and-rolls that he almost functioned as a co-point guard.
This is Westbrook's offense now. He snags 76 frontcourt touches per game, compared to just 50 for Durant, and he has run nearly three times as many pick-and-rolls, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That's the largest such split since those fancy SportVU cameras started tracking such things. Westbrook leads the league in usage rate; Durant is "only" 14th.
For all the talk show screeching about Westbrook's alleged ball-hoggery, this is probably helpful for Oklahoma City's offense. The unknown is whether it is harmful to the team's chances of keeping Durant.
No one knows what Durant is going to do. Most of the "buzz" is the nonsense, fourth-hand product of a front-office telephone game. I sure as hell don't know, though I'm on record predicting Durant signs a one-year deal with a one-year player option to return to Oklahoma City in 2016-17 and hits free agency in tandem with Westbrook and Ibaka, right when the cap spikes to almost $110 million. Durant's team at Roc Nation has done well to vault everything within Durant's tight circle.
Sources close to the situation insist Durant and Westbrook get along fine and suggest we ignore any burblings that they might dislike each other. There is the occasional, normal tension over who has the ball, and Westbrook has it more. That is intentional. Durant is an all-time great shooter, and spreading Durant, Ibaka and one other wing around a Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll has proved unguardable.
The Thunder slot Durant onto the weak side of that two-man game, thereby trapping Durant's defender between two bad choices: help off Durant to bump Adams, which leaves Kevin Freaking Durant open, or stick to Durant, which leaves the lane clear. There are nights when Adams looks like Tyson Chandler:
Adams has gotten really good. "He's a big-time roller now," Westbrook said.
This setup is deadly, even if it renders Durant the most potent second option in league history. Durant pick-and-rolls are dangerous, but Westbrook-centric plays have spit out a slightly higher points per possession over a much larger volume, per SportVU data. Westbrook is only a so-so shooter. When Durant has the ball, Westbrook's defender creeps into the lane to muck up the paint:
Westbrook might be the most explosive rim-attacker in league history, and he has mastered every drive-and-kick look.
"That's what we want," Collison said of the Durant-Westbrook workload split. "Russell's decision-making has gotten really good. We want Kevin catching the ball and attacking closeouts. He's getting easier shots now."
Transforming Adams into an offensive threat allows Oklahoma City to play the Ibaka-Adams front line -- their best shot at an elite defense -- while at least mimicking the spacing they get from playing Durant at power forward. Finding the fifth guy alongside the Westbrook/Durant/Ibaka/Adams foursome will be a season-long challenge, but being four-fifths of the way to a reliable go-to is a nice start -- even if it's unclear whether that double-big group could survive against Golden State's Death Lineup.
Durant still gets his touches. The Thunder run him off pin-downs and hand him the keys in crunch time, with hope that he is fresher after watching the Westbrook show.
"It's about balance," Donovan said. "When Russell has the ball, he does draw a little more help. But when you have a player like Kevin, who is dominant on isolations, you don't want to abandon that."
This hasn't resulted in some wholesale reconstruction of Oklahoma City's sticky offense. The Thunder will never be the Spurs. They rank dead last in passes per game, and they are launching fewer catch-and-shoot jumpers than they were under Brooks. But there is some evidence that those looks might be cleaner. Oklahoma City is generating more corner 3s, hitting them at a higher rate and slashing for more shots in the restricted area -- all without sacrificing free throws.
Westbrook is taking fewer midrange jumpers than ever, though he said last week in New York that he might start jacking more.
"It's just bad judgment on my part," Westbrook said. "I need to go back to doing it."
Westbrook is relentless, and the Thunder, when they are rolling, just wash over you with athleticism. They are overwhelming and huge, and that has always troubled San Antonio. There is nothing in the NBA like the rumbling ferocity of a Thunder run.
Lately, they've been coughing up ugly runs on the other end. They're down to 11th in points allowed per possession, and there are too many blips of inattention to trust that Oklahoma City can reel off eight wins against Golden State and San Antonio. The Thunder will caution you here too: We're in the dog days of the NBA, and they are still grasping a new, conservative system in which their big men lay back in the paint against the pick-and-roll. Scrapping the old trapping system should help the Thunder keep the ball in front of them and stay out of scramble mode.
"It has been up and down," Collison said. "But we're talking more now about how we load off the ball. We didn't used to talk about that stuff."
Ibaka remains one of the league's most fearsome rim protectors. Thunder opponents have hit just 56.6 percent of shots in the restricted area, one of the stingiest marks in the league.
It just doesn't feel airtight enough to beat Golden State and San Antonio eight times. Dialing back the frenzy has helped the slow-footed Kanter, who is bothering to try on defense this season, but he would be like a dog tracking a laser pointer against the Warriors. The Thunder are going against the grain by chasing offensive boards, especially when Kanter is beasting it, but they've slacked off while getting back on defense in the past month. Waiters cannot afford to admire his bricks in the corner against the Spurs and Warriors:
They still get turned around when they double post scorers or start rotating in a crisis:
Westbrook's fidgety freelancing can backfire horribly:
Move the ball around, and a Thunder player might eventually bite on a pump or veer off course. Only five teams have allowed more drives, per SportVU data, and the Thunder yield the most opponent shots in the restricted area.
Off-ball switches can go haywire:
The Thunder are a good defensive team, and when they buckle down, they can be great. Donovan has done a better job than Brooks of holding stars accountable in film sessions, sources say, and young players get better on defense every day. Rotations get shorter in the playoffs, and when Oklahoma City has its best players on the floor, they are as good as anyone. Those dreaded minutes without Durant and Westbrook should almost vanish in May. But the Warriors and the Spurs only need a few cracks to decimate you. The Warriors especially demand seamless defensive integrity across a whirlwind of cuts, screens and transition attacks. The Thunder might snuff the first couple of actions, but they haven't shown the cohesion to withstand the full Golden State ballet, possession after possession, over 48 minutes. If the Warriors play Adams off the floor, the Thunder don't yet have the wing depth for an extended small-ball battle.
The Thunder aren't quite refined, and that is part of the cost of surrounding their stars with younger players. Oklahoma City has upside, but it might not realize it this season -- or with these supporting players. The churn on the back end of the roster will never stop, even if Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka stay.
Kanter and Waiters will almost certainly be financial casualties down the road if Oklahoma coaxes all three stars back. Even figuring conservatively, the core four of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Adams could earn $110 million combined in 2017-18 -- higher than the cap, and enough that Kanter's salary alone could have the Thunder in the luxury tax with only a third of the roster filled. In handing Kanter a long-term max contract, the Thunder essentially chose him over cap room this summer. That is a huge bet.
All the post-Harden roster gymnastics probably haven't produced a roster good enough to win the title this season, provided all the top teams are relatively healthy. That shouldn't spell doom. The three studs can go wherever they want in search of happiness, but they need to be very careful, assuming any new situation short of joining the Warriors will give them a better chance of winning. They shouldn't take what they've made together for granted. The Lakers have nothing but the lure of L.A. and cap space to land theoretical players. The Wizards have John Wall, a stud shooting guard who can't stay healthy and an uncertain roster.
Give the Thunder enough cracks at it, and they will find the right all-around wing men to surround their stars. Hell, they could have one such player now in Payne. They might land one at the deadline. Maybe they'll draft one, though as Durant and Westbrook approach 30, they might tire of relying on 20-year-olds.
Given run-of-the-mill injury luck last year, the Thunder would be in the midst of their seventh straight season humming at a 55-win pace. Only the 1990s Jazz and Sonics won that many games even five seasons in a row without winning a title, and both disbanded. Sometimes, teams run their course.
Those teams were old. The Thunder are young. If the stars stay patient, the Thunder will be in the championship conversation every year. If their patience is already running thin, the Warriors and Spurs might deliver the final blow to an NBA dynasty that never quite happened. Just be careful writing the end of the script ahead of time. Even Golden State optimists -- ahem -- never saw that team morphing into the type of historic powerhouse that could tilt the league's entire power structure. Things can change on a dime. If the Thunder make huge in-season strides and catch some breaks, they could be back in the Finals.
The Thunder are underdogs, but they're not dead yet.
10 Things I Like And Don't Like
1. Ish Smith off the high, high, high glass
Sam Hinkie, the Sixers' GM, took some ribbing when he suggested Kendall Marshall could have averted the Sixers' embarrassing 1-30 start to Year 3 of The Process. He didn't mean to paint Marshall as some sort of savior. What he really meant: With a semi-competent point guard, the Sixers would have been a run-of-the-mill awful team, instead of a historically inept comedy troupe flinging away a record-setting number of turnovers.
As it turns out, the Sixers didn't need Marshall, who is currently riding the bench. They needed Ish Smith, the most beloved sub-40 percent shooter since jiggly Antoine Walker. When the Sixers separate Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, spread the floor as much as a rebuilding project bereft of shooting can manage and let Smith run wild, they look like a real NBA team! Smith has unlocked Noel's potential as a lob finisher, and he can create a not-awful shot when a Philly possession sputters.
My favorite Ish-ism: When he drives the lane, encounters a massive help defender and lofts a layup so high off the glass, you assume it has zero chance. Some of those super-floaters go in, even if they hit the tippy-top of the backboard. For a guy who can't shoot jumpers, Smith has a soft touch around the basket. That's some good Ish!
2. Khris Middleton killing it on the left side
Middleton, Milwaukee's best all-around player, has been straight roasting defenses on a bunch of actions clustered around the left sideline. The simplest: This "pistol"-style exchange between Michael Carter-Williams and Middleton that kicks off a ton of Milwaukee possessions:
Cheat under that handoff, and Middleton is gunning from deep. Chase him over it, and Middleton darts right into a pick-and-roll that takes him toward the meaty middle of the floor. Switch a point guard onto him, and Middleton is backing his ass down into the post.
After a slow start, Middleton has played up to the five-year, $70 million deal he signed in the offseason. He deserved All-Star consideration.
3. Orlando still unable to find the right mix
The Magic finally pulled out of the skid with a huge win Sunday against Boston, but this team still looks like a mish-mash of puzzle pieces pulled from a bunch of different puzzles. Scott Skiles can't settle on a lineup that both scores and defends.
Only the Lakers and Suns have scored fewer points per possession since the calendar flipped to 2016, and Orlando's offense has clanked in crunch time all season. Coaches say any shaky shooter becomes harder to play late in close games, when defenses focus in and leverage every edge. The Magic are full of shaky shooters. They compensate by cutting like mad men when defenders ignore them, but that doesn't help when players cut into each other:
In the big picture, things are fine. The Magic were a playoff long shot this season, they're super young and they're hanging on the fringes of the race for the No. 8 spot even after this midseason trough. Skiles should stick with the Aaron Gordon-Tobias Harris tweener forward pairing as long as both guys are in Orlando. The Magic need to see how those two play together ahead of the trade deadline and learn what they have in Gordon.
4. The Lakers' horrific transition defense
There is no reason the Lakers should rank near the bottom of the league in every available measure of the transition defense. They don't turn the ball over at a high rate, play at some turbo pace that spawns chaos or send a ton of extra bodies to the offensive glass. They are just a perfect storm of bad habits: admiring their bricks as opponents leak out, lingering in no-man's-land for no reason, meandering toward loose balls they have no chance to snare and failing to find shooters running the wings:
If you asked Byron Scott, he'd probably blame L.A.'s lazy and entitled young players, AAU basketball and millennials. If you watch the games, you know that isn't accurate.
5. Sponsored keys to the game
The two "Kia Keys to the Game" for the Sixers ahead of their unexpectedly thrilling game against Golden State on Saturday: protect the lane and protect the 3-point arc. That is one step from suggesting Philly attempt to score more points than the other team.
You can go die, sponsored keys to the game.
6. The Warriors' decoy pick-and-roll
This nifty bit of misdirection is one of Golden State's best out of timeout sets:
That's just mean. Every opposing defense is like a cat with its hair standing on end in fear of Curry raining fire, and the Warriors still somehow manufacture open looks for him. That first screen, from Harrison Barnes, is a decoy -- bait to get Barnes's defender lunging at Curry, freeing Barnes for an uncovered jaunt down the lane. DeAndre Jordan hangs back in the lane to ward off a Barnes dunk, and in that moment of well-intentioned delay, Jordan's man, Draymond Green, springs up to set the real McCoy for Curry.
When the play works, the sucker in Jordan's position is so far down, Curry can turn the corner with 10 feet of daylight in which to pull up. It didn't work all that well here, but Curry only needs a sliver.
7. Noah Vonleh's switchability
Vonleh is a token starter, and the surprising Blazers are still learning exactly what he is. He has a decent midrange jumper already, but he's just 4-of-24 from deep. He'll unleash an explosive drive-and-dunk one game that makes you imagine what he might become as a playmaker, and then he'll vanish for the next week.
One encouraging thing Vonleh can do for sure: switch onto smaller players and hold his own. He's quick, with nimble feet and good balance changing directions on a dime. Versatility on defense is an important skill in the modern NBA.
8. "The Wizard of Bazz"
I love ya, Dave Benz, ace play-by-play guy for the Wolves, but I must object to this prospective nickname for Shabazz Muhammad. There is no guile or deviousness to Muhammad's game -- nothing that evokes magic. He has added some pick-and-roll nuance and a soft corner 3, but Muhammad is a brute at heart.
He rams smaller defenders backward for lefty jump hooks and plows through lazy rebounders who box out empty space instead of getting a body on him. Muhammad isn't hitting the offensive glass as hard this season, but when he gets hungry for putbacks, he tosses people around like some wing version of Tristan Thompson.
I'm not convinced someone with such a cool actual name needs a nickname, but if we really feel the need, the NBA collective can do better than this.
9. Andre Drummond making productive passes
Drummond gets a lot of flak, including in this space, for all the parts of his game he hasn't refined yet. Fair or not for a 22-year-old, high expectations arrive when your team offers a wink-wink max deal it can't actually offer until July.
His passing is coming along, though. Drummond will never be an assist machine -- he is averaging about one dime per game -- but he is throwing productive passes that keep Detroit's offense humming and show an understanding of how the geometry of the floor changes as pick-and-rolls unfold:
Drummond couldn't throw that pass last season. Double him in the post, and he'll sling the occasional diagonal pass that flies ahead of rotating defenders. He has a ton of work left, but Drummond is making strides.
10. The Neal-Sessions Project
Ah, the perils of small ball with an injury-riddled roster. Randy Wittman has had to play this duo nearly 500 minutes, and enemies have predictably shredded Washington's defense over that span. The Wiz have allowed nearly 109 points per 100 possessions when Ramon Sessions and Gary Neal share the floor, a mark that would rank dead last at the team level.
Wittman hasn't had many alternatives. Injuries to Alan Anderson, Otto Porter and Bradley Beal have wiped out Washington's best small-ball lineups, and regular bench players such as Neal and Sessions are naturally going to see time together. Against opposing backups, their offensive punch might outweigh their defensive limitations. Wittman has had to stretch them further, and the results have been ugly.