When the Oklahoma City Thunder built a three-games-to-one lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals last May, it looked as if Thunder General Manager Sam Presti’s meticulous, multiyear plan was about to pay off in the biggest way.
The Thunder had built a roster full of long, athletic players who complemented its high-scoring superstar duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. More importantly, most of those players were young, allowing them to grow with Westbrook and Durant over the next several seasons to maximize their championship window. The theory was that this was the best way to have sustained success, particularly in a small market.
That was before Oklahoma City dropped the final three games of that series, once again falling short of reaching the NBA Finals. A few weeks later, Durant chose to leave the Thunder in free agency to sign with the Warriors, shattering the franchise’s hopes of competing for a championship any time soon. It appeared Presti’s plan had failed.
The way the Thunder have played this season, however, shows there was merit in what it was doing.
Even after losing Durant for nothing as a free agent, the Thunder entered the all-star break at 32-25, good for seventh place in the Western Conference. With an eight-game lead over the ninth-place Sacramento Kings, only a massive wave of injuries would prevent Oklahoma City from making the postseason.
The team’s success has been due in large part to the unbelievable season Westbrook is having, as he remains on pace to become the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season. But it also reflects well on some of the young players around him who are stepping into roles and producing in new and bigger ways.
“Things happen in life, man,” Westbrook said before the Thunder lost to the Warriors in Durant’s return to Oklahoma City last weekend. “As a man, you’ve got to move forward. I have a great group of guys here that I love like my brothers.”
The group is flawed but has potential. Westbrook, at 28, is one of only four Thunder players — and the only starter — older than 25. The team’s two building blocks alongside him — DeMatha High product Victor Oladipo and center Steven Adams — are 24 and 23, respectively. The rest of the roster is stocked with young players who the Thunder hope can be developed into pieces to either help the team compete on the court, or be used as trade chips.
Such youth means Coach Billy Donovan and his staff have work to do in forging a cohesive unit.
“With half our roster changing over, and even with the half that stayed, roles changed, this team is totally different” from last season, Donovan said. “For me, player development has always been very, very important to me. I went through it as a player. When you have young guys like this, they are going to learn and grow through their experiences, and the coaching aspect of trying to push them to keep continually getting better to improve.
“You’re constantly working to get these guys better. The biggest thing with young teams to me, always, is always going to be inconsistencies. You’re trying to build more consistency with what you do on an everyday basis is try to get those guys, whether it’s inconsistency game to game or in the course of the game, just get them to be more consistent.”
None of this is to say the Thunder is a finished product. Despite Westbrook’s dominance this season, Oklahoma City ranks 20th in offense, largely because of its lack of perimeter shooting; no one on the roster is shooting 40 percent from three-point range. And the team remains in the early stages of figuring out exactly what kind of players it needs to put around Westbrook to maximize his solo act, given the plan for the past eight years had been to find pieces to complement the two-man game between Westbrook and Durant.
Still, despite Durant’s departure, the Thunder is surviving, and appears destined to make it back to the playoffs once again. It may not be the level of success the franchise envisioned having this year and beyond behind a Durant-Westbrook combo at the top of the roster, but it’s proof that the plan the franchise had in place was a sound one.