DA's Morning Tip
Thunder and Warriors are linked, yet embark on vastly different paths
In the wake of the teams' first showdown, new eras are afoot in both Oklahoma City and Golden State
They are forever tied together now, bound by a single decision: the franchise whose new identity came from the work ethic and talent of the7-foot kid from suburban Washington, D.C., and the franchise that found basketball joy and financial success after a generation in the wilderness, but poached the 7-foot kid to find more.
The aggrieved and the aggressive, Oklahoma City and Golden State, met last Thursday for the first time this season, with the 7-foot kid, now a man — and that was part of the reason he was now in Golden State — at the center of the drama. It was the last place Kevin Durant wanted to be, but he put himself there by going from OKC to Oakland in July, and letting Russell Westbrook know via text.
That seismic reshuffling of the landscape had made owners go weak in the knees contemplating the power of a fully operational Warriors Death Star, and the impact that would have shredding the notion of competitive balance in the league — while also salivating at the road receipts and TV ratings the Warriors would produce this season.
But if 28 other teams had mixed feelings about Golden State, Oklahoma City’s remained clear.
“The Warriors, apparently, they talk a lot of trash now. We’ll see how that goes,” Westbrook said after Durant dropped a season-high 39 on the Thunder in the Warriors’ 122-96 romp, during which Durant had verbally beefed with Enes Kanter, sitting on the Thunder bench at the time, and woofed at Jerami Grant after the latter had dunked on him. Durant responded by raining points on OKC from all over – 3-pointers, post-ups, putback dunks.
In short, everything he used to do for the Thunder.
But OKC’s exasperation goes back well before Durant went to The Players’ Tribune to announce his decision.
The Thunder has been excoriated since trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012 — a decision that was viewed by the outside world through only one prism, that of a small-market team not wanting to pay luxury tax at the time to keep its core group together. Which was true. Unsaid by the critics was that OKC was also the first team strangled by the new rules owners put in during the 2011 lockout — rules that specifically worked against creating and maintaining the very kind of superteam that had just beaten the Thunder in The 2012 Finals, the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh-led Miami Heat.
The league and most owners didn’t want teams to be able to aggregate multiple star players in one city through player recruitment, as the Heat had done in 2010, or through overwhelming financial advantage, as the Los Angeles Lakers had done for a generation. So harsher luxury taxes and enhanced revenue sharing were put into place — rules whose first victim was OKC. With Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all already under long-term deals, the Thunder’s ownership balked at maxing out Harden, even though its offer was within $5 million of the max.
So, Harden went to the Rockets. The Thunder hunkered down behind Durant and Westbrook, flipping piece after piece trying to find affordable yet talented supporting players. (And, paying luxury tax anyway in 2014 and ‘15.) OKC was very successful with that formula, reaching two Western Conference finals and one semifinals in the next four seasons. With Steven Adams — a player acquired with one of the Draft picks the Thunder got from Houston in the Harden deal — emerging as one of the league’s best centers, OKC was poised for a breakthrough this year.
Yet, circumstance flipped on the Thunder yet again.
The injection of $24 billion in new TV money into the system, combined with an unprecedented spike in the salary cap because of that money — created one-time options for Durant that he would have never had in a normal offseason. And one of those was Golden State, which had the ability to create space for a max offer to Durant with minimal financial duress despite having Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all under contract. (Though it did create some roster duress. More on that below.)
Durant saw not only how all those guys came with coach Steve Kerr and GM Bob Myers to the Hamptons to meet with him, but how they really seemed to like one another. (Which they do.) He already had seen how the ball moved in Kerr’s offense, and that appealed to him greatly. But he wanted, needed to know more. How did people behind the scenes — equipment managers and secretaries and caterers and such — feel about the stars? Did it all work well together?
And here, OKC was clubbed by fate one last time. Green’s contact with LeBron James’s groin in the waning moments of Game 4 of The Finals, won by the Warriors — but leading to Green’s suspension for Game 5 — gave Cleveland an opening that James roared through, leading the Cavaliers to a come-from-behind Finals win.
It was a devastating loss for the Warriors. But without it, Durant would have never come to the west coast. He had, and still gets, heat from all over for joining the team that vanquished his in the playoffs. But that team was not the defending champion anymore; Cleveland was. And that made coming to Golden State a much easier call.
The Thunder are a proud bunch. They did their hurting out of public view. Coach Billy Donovan insists when he saw Westbrook in late July in Las Vegas, when both visited newly acquired guard Victor Oladipo at USA Basketball workouts, that Westbrook was already looking ahead. Besides, Donovan isn’t that far removed from his days in college.
“You get on the phone with recruits, and you hear no a lot more than you hear yes,” he said last week. (Which is much more true for low majors like my beloved American University than it is for, say, a Power 5 team like the University of Florida, where Donovan coached. I’ll take myself out of the rest of the story now.)
Westbrook, of course, would rather drink lye than express any kind of reflection with the media. He certainly will not speak at length about his true feelings at present about Durant. But he continues to troll at an epic, historic pace, as when he entered Oracle Arena with a photographer’s vest on. Of course he wasn’t throwing shade at Durant, who has detailed his love of amateur photography (he took pictures on the sidelines at the Super Bowl last year) in recent months.
But Westbrook made his intentions clear by agreeing to an $85 million extension with the Thunder in the summer that will keep him in OKC at least two more years instead of him getting to unrestricted free agency — when he would have been the No. 1 guy on everyone’s board — next summer.
The changes OKC made after the playoffs — trading Ibaka to Orlando for Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova (who was flipped to Philly last week for Grant), drafting Domantas Sabonis with the first-round pick acquired from the Magic — were designed for a team that still had Durant. The Thunder thought Oladipo could be a devastating third option when the offense stagnated or defenses committed their resources to trying to stay in front of Durant and Westbrook. Sabonis was a low-cost replacement for Ibaka, who had chafed at being a little-used fourth banana offensively and is in line for a huge free agent payday in 2017.
Now, it’s just Westbrook. Make no mistake — there isn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t love to start its franchise with a superstar of his talent and drive. But Westbrook has so much on his plate now. He’s the guy, but he has to do so much — not just score, but do so efficiently (never a staple of his game) while getting teammates involved.
He’s started off the season putting up monster numbers, but one wonders if he can keep it up all year. Everyone has a breaking point.
“It’s different,” Westbrook allowed. “You’ve got different defensive schemes that teams are doing. You’ve just got to read and react and do what’s best.”
He is likely to obliterate his 18 triple-doubles of last season. And after scoring 28 Saturday in a 20-point win against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Westbrook is averaging 33.2 points per game and the Thunder are 5-1. Adams looks well worth the $100 million extension OKC gave him last week.
Boy, if the Thunder had, say, an athletic three who could shoot and take some of the perimeter pressure off of Westbrook, they’d have something!
Oladipo was not a great shooter in his three seasons in Orlando, but he never played with a point guard like Westbrook before, either.
“Unrealistic,” Oladipo said of Westbrook. “It’s a pleasure to be able to sit by him, grow a relationship with him and learn a lot from him and apply it to my game as well. He’s just a great human being. When it’s time to play, it’s time to play. But away from all this, he’s a great dude, man. Great person.”
The Warriors’ struggles, such as they are, are more First World. Klay Thompson started, impossibly, 3-for-28 on 3-pointers in the season’s first four games – that’s 11 percent for one of the league’s top two or three perimeter shooters. He went 4-for-8 on 3s against OKC, after having professed little concern that Durant’s arrival had impacted where he was getting the ball.
“I’ve done too much in this league to worry about a bad shooting slump,” Thompson said. “It’s not just me. If it was anybody on the team, they realize that, too.”
But Durant produces real differences. You don’t sign a guy like that to be a decoy. Suddenly, there’s 15-20 shots a night that aren’t going to Curry or Thompson — and, the floor spacing is completely different. Harrison Barnes was content spotting up in the corner and waiting. Durant is obviously a completely different offensive force. You have to get him the ball all over the floor, where his size and shooting create so many mismatches.
“It’s not that big an adjustment,” Thompson said. “We’re still putting up great points. We’re still pretty efficient. I mean, there’s going to be adjustments. We’re playing with one of the best scorers in the world now. We try to get him the ball in places he can be successful in, and with the rest of us, we have to pick our spots and be ready when the ball is in our hands. It’s not that different from last year.”
James also trolled the Warriors last week, posting pictures from his Halloween party on Instagram that displayed cookies with tombstones for Curry and Thompson, including a Splash emoji.
It was the latest “Warriors blew a 3-1 lead” meme. But Thompson is salting all of it in his memory bank.
“We don’t really care,” Thompson said. “I’m not going to get offended by some Halloween cookies, to be honest. We’ll see them again. It just adds fuel to the fire. We’ll be ready. Last year was a difficult ending, but it was also a great year, and it won’t be the last time we’re competing for a championship. If you think we’re going to get upset over some cookies, we don’t really care. If that makes their Halloween that much better, good for them. But we’ll see them again.”
Green had said before the season opener against the Spurs that, if the Warriors and Cavs got back to The Finals for a third installment, he wanted to “annihilate” Cleveland. Thompson said he understood that sentiment completely.
“We felt like we were the better team,” Thompson said. “But it doesn’t matter if you don’t come away with the hardware at the end of the day.”
The Warriors displayed their capabilities Thursday, but saw their vulnerabilities exposed on Friday, when the young Lakers blew their doors off in Staples. L.A. outrebounded Golden State 51-40, with Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. — athletic bigs, always athletic bigs — having their way with the Warriors underneath. (Nance was especially rude to one of his elders, David West.)
No one in central Oklahoma was one mite empathetic.
“We’re good,” Westbrook said after Thursday’s loss, and then the Thunder were off, going back home, while the Warriors were off to the road.
Two teams, early in a season, forever linked by a single act of faith and rejection, trying to figure out how to deal with that sudden, seismic change, never to be the same again.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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