When Steven Adams got the text from a friend alerting him to the news of Kevin Durant signing in Golden State, Adams thought of his favorite Thunder credo: "We don't flinch." It predates Adams, but senior teammates resurrected it in Adams' honor during the 2016 playoffs, when he barely reacted to Draymond Green's groin karate.
"'We don't flinch,'" Adams repeats now in the Thunder practice facility. "Oh, I love that one." (For the record: he does not love agitating opposing players. "People don't like me," Adams said. "And it really upsets me! I want them to come to New Zealand. We have a lot of beer down there, mate.")
The Durant news, which landed in the wee hours in New Zealand, didn't faze him. "I was like, 'OK, whatever.'" Adams said. "And then I read it in the Players Tribune, or whatever it's called." (Adams pronounces it "Try-bune," which is delightful, by the way).
Billy Donovan, the team's head coach, had braced for the bombshell, and was likewise ready to move on. "For me it was, 'OK, onto the next thing.'" Donovan told ESPN.com. "It was his decision. He earned the right to make it. People can have an opinion on his decision, but it was his."
Donovan also understood the enormity of his new challenge. "We had a system where 95 percent of the playbook was wrapped around a few guys," he said. "This is square one."
Well, not quite. The Thunder are not the post-LeBron Cavaliers -- a shattered cast of aging veterans that had no collective NBA future without their centerpiece. Some of that is the result of careful planning. Sam Presti, the Thunder's longtime GM, restocked the cupboard with young players in almost every deal -- including the mega-trades involving James Harden and Serge Ibaka. (We've dissected the Harden trade and its tax implications enough; the Ibaka deal looks more like a heist every day, and this is coming from someone who at least tried to defend the Magic's gambit).
The Thunder always got younger, a fascinating resolution to a complex cost-benefit problem. Staying young would leave them better positioned to weather a doomsday event, and guaranteed they'd be the freshest, bounciest team every playoff series. They would never look old. They would make other teams look old.
But it also ticked their timetable back as Durant and Russell Westbrook entered their primes; their stars were ready to win big, but much of the supporting cast wasn't.
That remains true today, as Westbrook, the last remaining star from the greatest NBA "what-if?" of the last 20 years, drags a young roster bereft of outside shooting into the post-Durant unknown. Westbrook was the product of a painful, years-long tank job, and he is the reason -- much more so than the gaggle of interesting young guys around him -- the Thunder sit over .500 after a wrenching summer.
Oklahoma City has outscored opponents by seven points per 100 possessions -- usually a borderline top-five number at the team level -- with Westbrook on the floor and plunged into a sinkhole when he rests. (Donovan could mitigate this a bit by scrapping any time Westbrook and Victor Oladipo sit together.)
Westbrook has just one season after this one locked into his contract. He will be approaching 30 then, with knee surgeries in the rearview. The Thunder face a deadline: can they vault back into contention during Westbrook's prime, and before he starts looking elsewhere for his best shot at a ring?
The Thunder tuned out incoming calls checking on Westbrook's availability once he indicated he would sign an extension, but if things go sour, they'd have to hold their noses and test the market. They cannot afford to lose another superstar for nothing. Remember: Oklahoma City led the fight two years ago against lottery reforms that would have made tanking less profitable.
This version of the Thunder has no certain path back to 55 wins barring an unlikely star turn for Adams or Oladipo. But rosters are fluid. The Thunder had no means to refashion themselves after Durant bolted. Sure, they'd like more shooting now that Durant and Ibaka are gone; they couldn't afford anyone better than Alex Abrines and his permanent Euro-style three-day pseudo-beard.
They acquired Oladipo with the idea of making him a sixth man -- the new Harden -- instead of jamming him alongside Westbrook into a starting five with zero proven above-average NBA 3-point shooters.
They remain interested in bigger wings, including Rudy Gay, sources say, in part because such a player would slide everyone down to their intended spots: Oladipo to the bench, and Andre Roberson back to defending shooting guards.
But you can't just conjure trades or better shooting. The Thunder have to make do.
Adams misses the lob dunks -- those plays where he looked like Tyson Chandler, when the lane cleared on a pick-and-roll as Westbrook drove and enemy defenders stayed close to Durant and Ibaka:
Teams are walling off the paint against Westbrook, inviting Oklahoma City's new cast of non-shooters to fire away:
To find the rim, Adams would have to knock over two or three dudes. "They took away the lobs," he said.
"Steven got so many dunks because teams were trying to take Kevin away," Donovan said. "Now, they're building a wall."
All those bodies in the paint chip away at one method of compensating for blah shooting: crashing the absolute hell out of the offensive glass. After leading the league in offensive rebounding rate by a record margin last season, the Thunder are down to a mortal No. 10 this time around, per NBA.com.
They're running like bandits to nab fast-break buckets before opposing defenses form that wall. Only three teams have scored more fast-break points, and a full 17 percent of Oklahoma City's possessions have come in transition -- the highest share in the league, per Synergy Sports. Westbrook is a threat to rampage 1-on-5 at any moment, and he's fast and ferocious enough to pull it off. Westbrook in full flight is the best show in the NBA.
Good thing, because only two teams -- the Magic and Heat -- score at a worse rate in the half-court, per Synergy.
The Thunder are aware. They are in the very early stages of developing a side-to-side attack that empowers Westbrook's teammates. If opponents build a wall, the Thunder will at least make them shift the bricks around until an alleyway to the rim cracks open.
In lieu of real NBA spacing, "you can create floor movement," Donovan said. Shift the defense enough, and you'll find corridors. "If we swing it and swing it, it gives the defense more chances to make a mistake," Adams said.
The Thunder are finding pathways, even in the half-court; only three teams have attempted more shots from within the restricted area. The Thunder are a battering ram, because they have to be.
"We just have to keep attacking the paint, over and over," Adams said.
The whole thing is, predictably, a little clunky. Having at least one more competent 3-point shooter would make those pathways a little wider. New teammates are learning each other, and all the playbook wrinkles that replaced pindowns and pick-and-pops for Durant and Ibaka.
The goal is to be fluid, but a lot of possessions look jagged. They like to have Oladipo run off one pick, catch the ball on the move, and zoom right into a second pick-and-roll -- only that second screener often arrives late, forcing Oladipo to stand and wait.
Hesitation is death in the NBA.
"The timing on those things can be a little off," Donovan said, "but we're working."
In the meantime, Westbrook is so singularly relentless, he transcends systemic limitations on a lot of possessions. He literally flies through and around packs of defenders. Drop back too far, daring Westbrook to launch midrange jumpers, and he might plow right at you -- and deep enough into the paint to draw emergency help:
An underrated craftiness buttresses his blazing speed -- the in-and-out dribble, hesitation moves, little fakes that send defenders smashing into screens. Adams is a nasty screener who has learned to flip the direction of his pick at the last second.
This is taxing work, and Westbrook is carrying an unsustainable load -- even for a top-five player. He has taken 21 of the Thunder's 30 shots in the last three minutes of games within three points, per NBA.com.
Westbrook is on pace to set the record for usage rate, and he wears down on defense late in games; he'll smack into a pick and linger in no-man's land, mentally and physically exhausted, as a play unfolds around him.
"We are always evaluating his minutes," Donovan said.
It is not entirely a coincidence that the Thunder are lacking marksmanship. Presti cut his teeth in San Antonio, and his track record suggests he prioritizes wingspan, defense, and character in picking players. As the league trended smaller, Presti doubled down on an old-school twin-towers look. In Roberson, Jerami Grant -- recently acquired from the Sixers in exchange for highly-protected first-round pick -- and Josh Huestis, Presti has nabbed three versions of the same guy: the long athlete who can't shoot.
The Thunder want two-way players (duh), but they have defaulted toward guys who can defend elite offenses in the postseason -- guys who don't get played off the floor because of their shaky defense. "In the playoffs, you have to have two-way players," Donovan said. "The hard part of that is finding guys who can match up defensively."
The Thunder are tied for fifth in points allowed per possession, and they have the building blocks for a hyper-aggressive, attacking defense -- a swarm of guys long and fast enough to switch across multiple positions, and run shooter after shooter off the arc. They will probably regress a bit -- opponents are shooting just 32 percent from deep, and the early schedule was soft -- but this is frenetic fun:
Coaches can always teach guys how to shoot, though it hasn't clicked yet for Roberson and Huestis. It may with Oladipo, a stud worker with a decent stroke already shooting 41 percent from deep this season.
Failing that, Donovan is confident he can unearth ways make non-shooters useful on offense in the playoffs. "It's like with Andre against Golden State," Donovan said. "OK, the Warriors weren't guarding him. Well, how can we take advantage of that and put him in position where he's a threat? It takes creativity."
Donovan had Roberson set picks, cut backdoor, and slice inside for offensive rebounds. He leveraged Golden State's inattention against them. It worked, until it didn't, and until Roberson started bricking 3s again in Game 7.
There might also be some arbitrage going on here. Oklahoma City isn't a free agent destination, and the Thunder typically pick at the bottom of the draft; they can't sign whoever they'd like. If you can't win the auction for 3-and-D guys or build the league's deadliest spread pick-and-roll attack, maybe you should search out different sorts of players who thrive in a different sort of style -- a unique thing you can master.
The Thunder did that to a degree over the last two seasons, and it worked. It made sense to surround two gravitational stars with ravenous defenders and rebounders who could mooch scraps, and do the dirty work. It doesn't make as much sense with Westbrook alone. It also won't be this way forever. The Thunder will adapt.
Sabonis represents the possibility of a player the Thunder have searched years for: a playmaking power forward who can throw smart passes, pivot right into a killer dribble hand-off, nail 3s, post up smaller guys after switches, and drive to the rim when defenders rush to close out on him. Basically: a better Mitch McGary, without the weed.
Beyond Nick Collison, a bit player now, the Thunder bigs have been mechanical. Perhaps Sabonis can change that. He feels the game. He tells teammates where to cut before he even catches a pass. He knows where to be on defense, and he tries hard. He watches so much film, Collison had to suggest he stop before the season opener against Philly; Collison was afraid Sabonis would overwhelm himself with information, he said.
"He's an absolute sponge," Adams said of Sabonis.
He's hit 47 percent from deep on a healthy number of attempts, and he caught the Clippers -- the league's best defense so far -- by surprise with his shooting last week. Having him outside the arc helps their floor balance in transition defense, a nice side benefit with Westbrook spilling to the floor so often on drives.
The Thunder are already trying Sabonis as a stretch center in smaller lineups that open the floor for slashers like Grant:
If he turns into an above-average starter, the Thunder have a very nice Sabonis-Adams frontline locked in for at least the next half-decade. That changes their franchise trajectory. If Sabonis settles in as an above-average 3-point shooter, he would also unclog the floor on offense.
As they wait for the youngsters, the Thunder will hunt incremental moves. They targeted Grant, and when Cameron Payne gets healthy, they might have enough to make a run at a Gay-level player; they can still trade the protected portion of the 2020 pick they flipped in the Grant deal, and they have about $7 million in cap room.
The Thunder sacrificed a pick for Waiters, and were prepared to do so in 2014 for Iman Shumpert -- two guys with tarnished reputations who might have grown into 3-and-D specialists within the Thunder culture.
The Thunder will kick the tires on similar guys over the next couple of years. The makeover won't happen fast. Hell, Sabonis is just 20, no sure bet to develop into a plus starter on a contender. Scouts are divided on whether he has enough oomph to attack off the bounce. He can't dislodge big guys on the block yet, and opponents with post games will bully him on the other end.
He will struggle chasing speedier power forwards and small-ball lineups on defense. In other words: What if Sabonis is actually a center who doesn't offer much rim protection?
Those questions take time to answer. Sabonis has shown encouraging flashes -- I'm bullish -- but flashes are momentary. Being consistently really good in the NBA is beyond most of the player population.
Westbrook is happy for now as the alpha dog among teammates who don't mind when he yells and scowls. It's unclear how long that will last; the Thunder are barely keeping their heads above .500, after starting the season 6-1 and then losing four straight.
Either way, the team is too young to win big over the remaining years of Westbrook's current deal. Even if every young guy eventually approaches his ceiling, Westbrook would be leading a one-star team against two- and three-star clusters. Lone superstars can win when everything aligns -- see the 2011 Mavs -- but that is rare to the point of irrelevance. One-star outfits don't get all that far when that centerpiece isn't the very best player in the league.
The Thunder aren't naive about this. Finding that second star will be hard, especially in a teensy market. There is no sign Blake Griffin wants to come home, per several sources. Extensions for Adams and Oladipo have Oklahoma City capped out this summer even if they slough off Kanter's deal; depending on what happens with Roberson in free agency, they might have to cut money from next season's payroll just to duck the luxury tax. It's unclear if they'll even have meaningful room in the summer of 2018.
Lots will change between now and then, in Oklahoma City and elsewhere. Unexpected opportunities will come up. Someone on the roster will make a leap, and someone else will bust.
For now, the Thunder are just figuring out what they are. Once they do that, they can truly redesign themselves.
"It's day by day," Adams said. "We don't get ahead of ourselves. We don't have the luxury for that anymore."
10 Things I Like And Don't Like
1. Vince Carter's twilight
We are in year six -- with an injury-plagued two-year hiccup in Memphis, admittedly -- of Carter working perhaps the greatest superstar-to-role player transition in league history. With Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Metta World Peace in varying stages of benchdom, Carter has been holding it down for the 1990s draftees on a punchless Memphis team desperate for offense.
He's canning bailout jumpers late on the shot clock, slinging no-look passes, and playing whip-smart off-ball defense. He can still run a pick-and-roll in a pinch, and he's tussled with elite wing scorers -- including Giannis Antetokounmpo -- in recent games. If you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of his coiled, silky athleticism. Carter can still rise high, and if he's feeling giddy, he'll rev the motorcycle engines for old time's sake.
What a remarkable career. Stop asking if Carter is a Hall of Famer. He's in.
2. The craft of Kemba Walker
Holy Kemba! Walker has been the best point guard in the Eastern Conference so far. Raves about Walker usually focus on his improved shooting, and with good reason. Two seasons ago, teams ducked under screens against him: Go ahead and jack it up, buddy! Do that now, and you're toast.
Walker has drilled 48 percent from deep on more than seven attempts per game, career highs by a mile, and he's carrying Charlotte during a tepid start from Nicolas Batum.
But Walker has honed every point guard skill during his rise to stardom. He's shooting better from almost everywhere, getting to the line more, keeping those turnovers low and scuttling around screens on defense. He might be the league's most creative jitterbug dribbler, and he subtly brilliant searching out the best bang-for-the-buck passing lanes:
That is a Ricky Rubio-level pocket pass -- a tick earlier than the defense expects it, and so in rhythm with the pitter-pat of Walker's dribble, they almost don't realize it's happening. Wait longer, and Cody Zeller's path to paydirt might fill up with bodies. Go early, and the pass isn't there.
Ian Eagle's catchphrases spring forth so organically, you barely notice them -- or register that they are catchphrases at all. You imagine them as the accidental epiphanies of a brain hardwired to produce them.
His go-to for an emphatic block might be favorite Eagleism: "DEE-NIED!" -- a stretched-out two-syllable whoop that rises to an exclamation point. He keeps it fresh by saving it for only the most violent, humiliating rejections. Ian Eagle is a legend.
4. The state of Brandon Knight
It just isn't working out, notwithstanding a breakout against Denver on Wednesday. Knight is shooting 38 percent, and heaving the usual dose of infuriating foot-on-the-line long 2s. Teams are obliterating the Suns whenever Knight is on the floor, and the damage is even worse when he shares the court with Eric Bledsoe in what was once Phoenix's dream backcourt. He has the third-worst raw plus-minus in the league, ahead of only Evan Turner and Jeff Green -- now annoying his fifth fan base!
The evidence is piling up that Knight doesn't quite have the feel to be a lead guard -- the wayward lobs to a moping Tyson Chandler, bounce passes that miss their target or hit people in the feet, and barfy pull-up jumpers early in the shot clock. Knight isn't big enough to start on the wing, which means he's probably living out his destiny as a score-first sixth man in the Jamal Crawford lineage. He just has to you, you know, score.
5. Milwaukee, fronting the post
The Bucks have faced a cupcake schedule, but they may have stabilized a defense that plunged to 22nd in points allowed per possession last season. They've done it without extinguishing the frenzy that defined their stout second-ranked defense from two seasons ago.
The Bucks know they have the longest collective wingspan in the league, and they leverage every inch of it. They'll flood the strong side with extra defenders, smothering your first option and daring you to fling a pass across the court to the guy Milwaukee has -- temporarily -- left wide open. The Bucks wager they can outrun the ball while it's in the air, and appear in that player's grill when he catches it. Meanwhile, the shot clock ticks.
Opponents knew what was coming last season, and devised ways to shred it. Milwaukee has refined its scheme, and their core guys have grown more comfortable in it. It is especially fun to watch them sandwich post-up players:
Poor Jarell Martin, tasked with throwing a simple damn entry pass to Marc Gasol. Tony Snell is harassing him, and Miles Plumlee is fronting Gasol. Giannis Antetokounmpo lurks behind Gasol, laying in wait for the classic lob pass over a fronting defender. Good freaking luck.
6. More of that good Frye Love
Tyronn Lue unleashed this all-shooting, defense-challenged frontcourt for 55 minutes over last season's playoffs after using it for just 30 minutes total in the regular season. Bad news for every team outside Oakland: Lue is confident in the Love-Frye combo now, and he's rolled it out already for 60 minutes this season.
Opposing coaches feared this lineup last season, and wondered privately why Lue wouldn't use it. Love and Frye will never be defensive stoppers, and the Cavs probably can't play them together against Golden State's Death Lineup. But they do fine against basically everyone else, including the East's patsies, and the Cavs are unguardable when they surround LeBron with maximum shooting.
The Love-Frye duo forms a powerful antidote to any behemoth center. You think Dwight Howard and Jonas Valanciunas want to chase these dudes 30 feet from the hoop? Those guys might hurt Cleveland in the post, but the math tilts in the Cavs' favor.
Offense gets really simple with five shooters on the floor: station Love and Frye near the elbows, run cutters off of them, and wait for someone to pop open.
7. Dante Cunningham, small forward
Can we all agree that Dante Cunningham should never be allowed to play small forward? Can we write this into the new collective bargaining deal? God, the Pellies' spacing is horrific.
8. The effortlessness of Kristaps Porzingis
Sometimes you wonder how Porzingis ever misses a jumper. He's so tall, contested shots become open when he rises. Few defenders can even reach a hand into his airspace. That inherent edge, plus a buttery quick-trigger release, transforms impossible looking contortions -- turnarounds, fadeaways -- into makeable shots.
His step-back jumper along the baseline looks alarmingly easy.
Porzingis has disappointed a bit on defense this season, and the Knicks are queasy about sliding him to center for extended minutes. New York has been much better with both Porzingis and Joakim Noah on the court, though there is a ton of noise in those numbers.
They have to know slotting Porzingis at center is the long-term play. He has so much more room to operate in the lane, and it's a lot to ask of a 7-3 dude to chase around small-ball power forwards on defense.
Jeff Hornacek benched Noah for the second half of New York's win over Dallas on Monday, and this back-and-forth will be something to watch all season.
9. Toronto, missing a piece
Pascal Siakam has filled Jared Sullinger's starting power forward spot with admirable rookie verve, but he's overmatched. Toronto's patchwork starting five has managed a pathetic 99 points per 100 possessions, and opponents have outscored that group by about 7.5 points per 100 possessions -- a mammoth number. A would-be contender is effectively spotting opponents five points a night.
Siakam is a non-threat on offense. Look how easily Denver bottles up this DeMar DeRozan-Jonas Valanciunas pick-and-roll by ignoring Siakim's looping cut to the perimeter -- and having his man bump Valanciunas:
Here's a version of the same play, with Patrick Patterson in Siakam's place:
Sullinger will help, but his health and conditioning are uncertain, and he's a center, anyway. DeMarre Carroll doesn't look ready to soak up time as a small-ball power forward. The Raptors need a boost to challenge Cleveland.
10. Cole Aldrich's meat hooks
Aldrich has the biggest gap in recorded human history between how coordinated he looks and how coordinated he actually he is. Aldrich is straight-up dexterous. Case in point: He gets his meaty hands on a lot of balls in situations that seem like they're unfolding too fast for him. He'll backpedal to corral an opposing point guard on the pick-and-roll, appear teetering on the verge of a pratfall, and then suddenly reach out and swat the ball right out of the guy's hand.
Aldrich lurches his way to 2.3 deflections per game in just 13 minutes of playing time, per NBA.com. Everyone in his range on the deflection leaderboard plays at least 20 minutes per game, and some log double the playing time.