The Quiet Thunder

What did we learn during the Thunder's painful month without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? That the future could be very quiet in OKC.
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The Thunder needed a big play. They were losing to the Memphis Grizzlies, and time was running out. If it had been the Playoffs, a miracle would’ve been necessary. But this was the regular season and a mere basket would do. Given the team’s circumstances in this moment, though, with its two best players—each among the best players in the league—out of action, a mere basket would qualify as a near miracle.

Scott Brooks, clipboard in hand, drew up the play, his team huddled close around him; Kevin Durant nodded in approval. He was, in this moment, on the outside of the team’s nucleus; the elliptical orbits and gravity of the franchise inverted. Serge Ibaka would get the call. Coach Brooks wanted him to curl through the lane, catch the ball at the top of the key, and release. Durant and Westbrook—each in his own disparate fashion, neither in uniform—were left to watch and hope.

***

The presence of Durant and Westbrook has always given the Thunder talent and athleticism few teams can match. But the presence of Durant has, in a sense, always freed Westbrook to shoot and glare, drive and leap, combust and conjoin, at will. He’s played point guard for the team, but the team has never belonged to him. In this way, Durant’s broken foot was a chance for Westbrook to experience a first son’s inheritance. This devolution of responsibility might also have provided an opportunity for Coach Brooks to develop the team into something both different and more dangerous than its previous incarnations. If anything, the Durant-free stretch of the season would provide unquestionable proof of Russell Westbrook as a leader.

However, this one thing—this opportunity to defy birth orders—was not to be. Instead, the remodeling split into chaos when, in the second game of the season, Westbrook logged only nine minutes and shot only three shots against the Clippers. He disappeared without a sound, leaving the season’s first month  as a microcosm for what might await the franchise in the not so distant future. This athletic universe could very well be unraveling towards free agency. In the meantime, all Coach Brooks and a batch of healthy, but much less talented players could do was start counting the losses between themselves and the storm that either was or wasn’t gathering on the horizon.  

This time spent waiting has been filled with moments such as the one from the Grizzlies game, in which Brooks was forced into inventing new ways for his team to compete, sending out the likes of Anthony Morrow, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Thomas in crunch time. Most of Brooks’ designs failed; he needed a welder’s torch to keep things together, and was stuck holding a roll of scotch tape. Brooks was either exposed as the dim and replaceable figure his critics have long seen, or was simply and unsurprisingly unequal to an impossible task. It may well have been both.

While belief and confidence can inspire, these characteristics do not necessarily win basketball games. A healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, do win basketball games, which is why the Thunder’s future looks so different now that both players are back in the lineup. After all, since moving from Seattle, the Thunder has won at just about the same rate as the immutable San Antonio Spurs. In that span, Durant has played in 452 regular season games, logging almost 40 minutes on average. He has been the alpha and omega of Thunder basketball, and the team’s rudderlessness without him was anything but surprising.

In correspondence with Durant’s omnipresence, Westbrook, the other star, has always been a white rabbit with a stopwatch; integral to the plot but never quite of it. He has been in the lineup and out. This dichotomy between the two was never more evident than last season when Durant carried the Thunder, minus Westbrook, for 36 games, in what became Durant’s MVP campaign. That time without Westbrook, like those other times without Westbrook in the Playoffs, worked to make the Thunder even more decisively Durant’s team. But that narrative clarity mattered more to columnists to the team; for the Thunder they mattered because Westbrook’s absence allowed Reggie Jackson to blossom into a legitimate replacement for James Harden.

With both Durant and Westbrook out, there were hopes for a similar emergence. Ideally, Jeremy Lamb would have entered into this great plains wormhole and come out a greater player, if perhaps to a lesser extent Ibaka and Jackson would’ve revealed themselves as potential franchise players. Such occurrences have happened before, to varying degrees, in places like Chicago and San Antonio, where past injuries to Derrick Rose and Tony Parker have excavated hidden contributors from the bench. And yet, this hasn’t happened in OKC. Instead, the time without Durant and Westbrook has remained a story about two injured gods and a cupboard almost bare. The hunger of the two stars barking from the bench remained the biggest story of the earlygoing, if only because no other Thunder player succeeded in writing a more interesting one.

But the Thunder has never been a team whose trajectory follows that of any other. The team literally dropped from the sky, superstar in hand, like an inverse Wizard of Oz. Fantastic emergences have defined the franchise’s rise, from Ibaka’s materialization to the first sighting of Harden’s UFO beard. At some point, this would have to stop, and did. Depth, as it was last season, is still an issue. The torrent of youth has lacked direction, and the 2012 NBA Finals now seems light years ago. Brooks, often assailed for his unwillingness to use his younger players, hasn’t changed, and none of the team’s younger players has forced such a change upon him. Nothing new is on the horizon, only the return of what always was: Durant and Westbrook, together and not. In this sense, the only viable playing partner for either has always been the other.

***   

At the 8:52 mark against Memphis, Jackson found Nick Collison for a 24-footer. Then Jackson scored five straight points of his own. On one of these plays, he hit a step back three from the top of the arc, as the buffalo mascot banged its drum and Durant and Westbrook rattled their tambourine fingers in a 3/4 rhythm from the sideline. Steven Adams contributed a couple free throws, followed by Jackson finding Ibaka with a left-handed pass that seemed to surprise even his teammate for a beautiful off-balance dunk. A little bit later Jackson scored again, and then he found Lamb for a 26-footer that tied the game at 81, eliciting some of the most explosive cheering from OKC's two injured stars. 

Despite his broken foot, Kevin Durant never rested during Oklahoma City's early season game against Memphis. He stood on the sideline, dressed like some strange hybrid between a college professor and a music producer, clapping and yelling and jangling Illuminati threes from his wrists. At perhaps his worst physically, he was at his best, which is to say he licked his chops and howled at the circle of an orange-rimmed moon. Beside him was Russell Westbrook, dressed like a supercool bookworm as ever, doing his best, too, although, for once in his life, he was perhaps not nearly the most animated person in the room. Both immersed in the game, both bound to the sidelines, each man’s cheering was an act of devoted anguish.

Here, maybe, was the moment where the Thunder might discover themselves, and realize some new capacity without Durant and Westbrook. If it all had worked out, Scott Brooks might even be heralded for a job well-done. Only one more shot needed to fall. It was plausible. But it didn’t happen.

The final play was a flash of creativity from Scott Brooks, and the players executed it wonderfully. But after Ibaka flicked his wrist the shot clanked left off the rim, and the buzzer rumbled, and that was that.

The rest of the season may eventually deliver some familiar narrative about how this time without Durant and Westbrook taught the team perseverance, and forced upon the rest of the team a new maturity and trust. But, at the belated beginning of the Thunder’s season, it doesn’t feel like that.

It may not have been a failure, but it was not a success. It was also, in its way, scary. After all, time is hunting the Thunder, as it does all teams, and the fear that Durant and Westbrook might soon depart is real. And seeing them both already not on the court was a journey at warp speed into an uncertain future, or into a basketball past that OKC has yet to experience; a fictional time in which they awaited their very own superstars.

In their absence, the only sound to escape each noiseless defeat was the echo of Durant and Westbrook’s own clapping. Even that was frightening.


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This devolution of responsibility might also have provided an opportunity for Coach Brooks to develop the team into something both different and more dangerous than its previous incarnations. If anything, the Durant-free stretch of the season would provide unquestionable proof of Russell Westbrook as a leader.
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