Oklahoma City’s pieces never fit together. Though there is this intoxicating legend of Thunder U, a place where young men bond as people and team, the latter never really happened. The young Thunder, by all accounts, were more cheerily united in purpose than a hippie pickling commune. It just did not translate to tangible, cohesive basketball play.
Brian Windhorst wrote a fascinating post after the James Harden trade, in which he explained that Harden’s refusal to “sacrifice” money was as much at odds with Thunder management as the money he might cost.
Daryl Morey might have his “foundational player” in James Harden but Thunder U is a project built on foundational principles. Sacrifice was a core belief, or so Thunder management is said to believe, when they asked their most unselfish on-court star to give of his wallet. The player must be subsumed into the collective.
On the face of it, 2010-2012 OKC had congealed into a collective hive mind, because how else do you win, really? In theory, victory occurs from parts complementing one another, from individuals working together.
But the Thunder I knew operated more as a stacked baseball batting order, with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka hitting for power, speed, or average, in compartmentalized chunks.
The Oklahoma City I knew didn’t pass Oklahoma City the ball. The Thunder finished league last in assist rate last season. They were 24th the year before and 25th the year before that. Red Holzman’s Knicks, this wasn’t.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being something other than Holzman’s Knicks. Ends justified actions for Oklahoma City and its second-ranked offense. Pass-happy basketball is not morally purer than what the Thunder did. It’s just that, what Oklahoma City did, was not in on-court accordance to their operational ethos. This was a wildly successful team, all while flouting the stereotype of what a successful team does.
The Thunder did not weave passes around and around until their opponents were lassoed into paralysis. No, the Thunder destroyed defenses by letting Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden take individual stabs, like Roman senators killing Julius Caesar over the course of an evening.
Sure, plays were run, screens were set. James Harden had a predilection for running occasional offense. But the OKC 2010-2012 era was largely defined by the individual foray to the basket. The “big three” perimeter stars could all feed themselves, getting to the free throw line or hoop with uncommon ease. Russell Westbrook was their leader in shots taken and usage rate, often playing one-on-five because whoa, he could actually play one-on-five.
So when I look back at this Thunder era, at this incubator, this college, this farm, I question: Was this just all about developing talent? As I watched OKC battle the San Antonio team they’re modeled after, I wondered if the two operations really had all that much in common. The Spurs are about complementary pieces unleashing a holy hell of smart basketball upon opposing teams. The Thunder about about ill-fitting pieces, growing into that which still crushes your complementary pieces by blunt force.
Kevin Durant may have been a superstar anywhere, but Russell Westbrook was a draft night “reach.” Russ got playing time and became a force soon enough. James Harden struggled in his first season, before rounding into a Team USA talent. Serge Ibaka was the 24th pick. He’s one of the league’s best young big men today.
The Thunder concurrently developed these young guys, which makes it seem as though the youth came together as a team around that time. I would argue that the kids just were coming into their own. This collection of three perimeter scorers did not complement one another incredibly well, but the aforementioned three were so good that they transcended that issue.
So now, by jettisoning James Harden, Oklahoma City has recommitted to development more so than recommitting to shared sacrifice. Harden played with a modicum of selflessness, and he’s been replaced by the more shooting-focused Kevin Martin. Meanwhile, question has become, “Can Presti recapture the magic with Jeremy Lamb and Toronto’s eventual draft pick?”
Oklahoma City isn’t about the individual being subsumed into the collective–at least not on the court. Oklahoma City is about the individual becoming so good that little such subsuming need take place. Thunder U is about growing talent, not growing together. It’s actually a commuter school.