The Oklahoma City Thunder are nearly eight months removed from Kevin Durant walking away from the franchise in free agency, and Thursday the franchise made what will likely be the first of many moves to reconfigure the roster.
At the first trade deadline since Durant left, Thunder general manager Sam Presti moved Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and an unprotected 2018 second-round pick.
Part of the Thunder's first season without Durant has been pure evaluation in trying to assess and understand what kind of roster fits around and complements Russell Westbrook. Before Durant's decision on July 4, Presti had a roster specifically designed around two of the five best offensive players in the league, which quickly became flawed when that number was reduced to one.
Not only that, but the Thunder are still pretty good. At 32-25, they're firmly in playoff position, just 3½ games out of fourth place entering Thursday. The path back from a loss like Durant is typically to bottom out and walk the long road of rebuilding. With Westbrook committed -- and putting up historic stat lines -- the Thunder are in the middle and trying to go even higher.
What's become obvious in Year 1 post-Durant is that Westbrook needs help. That's a vague way to classify it, but Westbrook has been the entire Thunder offense. It's not just that the Thunder get outscored by 10.9 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor, it's even the way they play with him on it.
Westbrook generates everything for OKC's offense, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. His 42.4 usage rate -- the highest the league has seen since Kobe Bryant in 2005-06 -- doesn't worry the Thunder. It's about who's around Westbrook when he's using all those possessions that they care about.
The Thunder have intently studied the way they play with Westbrook as the lone focal point, trying to understand what will complement him best: what kind of shots Westbrook creates most, what kind of players excel alongside him, what kind of offense is successful and what kind is not. Westbrook has a distinct style, and before they could find pieces, they wanted to try to understand how those pieces could fit in.
In adding McDermott, the Thunder see a high-level, young shooter who can play multiple positions. He's shooting 37.3 percent from 3-point range this season after hitting 42.5 percent from deep last season. The third-year player moves well without the ball, can post a little and runs the floor. McDermott might not defend well, but the Thunder already have players who can, and OKC needs some offense to spread around Westbrook. Sharpshooter Ryan Anderson has been an ideal complement to James Harden in Houston as a spacer; the Thunder feel McDermott can do the same for Westbrook.
Gibson will likely step in as the Thunder's new starting power forward, taking over for rookie Domantas Sabonis. Sabonis is seen as a long-term, building-block piece for the Thunder, but as his play has sagged in the past couple months, along with the stretch run and postseason approaching, the Thunder wanted a more veteran presence in that role. Gibson is a bruiser, a rugged, physical power forward who will make the Thunder's front line pretty imposing as he pairs with Steven Adams.
What the Thunder gave away is Payne, a player they selected 14th overall in the 2015 draft. Payne rocketed up draft boards with impressive workouts, with some chatter he could squeeze into the top five. He's played 77 career games for the Thunder and has been mostly disappointing.
Payne has dealt with a broken foot that kept him sidelined for 37 games this season and hasn't found much rhythm since returning. The organization remained extremely high on him, and the internal belief is he's still going to be a very good player. But with Westbrook-Payne lineups yielding average returns, it became clear Payne wasn't going to be much more than an All-Star's backup. So the Thunder decided to try to sell high while Payne's draft profile is still fresh on minds around the league, rather than see their return diminish over the next year or two.
The Thunder also lose Lauvergne, who has been an adequate bench big, but Gibson is a clear upgrade. Gibson, 31, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and unlikely to re-sign with the Thunder, with Lauvergne, 25, slated to become a restricted free agent.
That swap is pretty un-Presti-like, but the Thunder see it this way: Lauvergne was probably going to get an offer sheet this summer that OKC wasn't likely to match. So would you rather have a two-month rental of Gibson, or Lauvergne? Plus, with Enes Kanter due back soon from a broken hand, Lauvergne's playing time was about to dip.
The Thunder have an open roster spot now. They've always been aggressive on the post-deadline buyout market, adding players such as Derek Fisher and Caron Butler in the past. They'll be looking for additional help as the dust settles in the next few days.
Westbrook has lifted and carried a fairly flawed roster to an unexpected place, but Presti has begun the process of reshaping it. "Westbrook needs help," has been the common refrain all season, but what Westbrook has really needed is help that fits.
There's more to be done, but Thursday was the first step in the new Thunder road map.