The Oklahoma City Thunder are Sneakily Staying Relevant Into the Future

The common belief out there is that Russell Westbrook is carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder all by his lonesome. Averaging a triple-double for the season, he bosses everything that they do and that’s no lie. But teams don’t make the playoffs on the back of a single superstar player or else how do you explain Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins ending up on the same team as their own personal mastery on the court collided with repeated bloody franchise mediocrity?

Those three players - Russ, Boogie and AD - are all in the top five for scoring this season, along with Isaiah Thomas and James Harden. Russ, Boogie and AD also average double figures in rebounds, Harden and Westbrook average double figure assists as well. Until the Pelicans made that blockbuster trade the other day, those five players all had something in common: they were each the only All Stars picked from their respective teams. Not a unique thing, there are only so many ASG spots to go around and there were plenty other lone wolf reps, but it shows that individual exceptionalism doesn’t mean team success.

But why are Westbrook, Thomas and Harden all destined for the playoffs while the Pelicans are still in a battle even after getting Cousins’ contract and the Kings are diving headfirst into the lottery? Because the supporting cast matters. That Celtics roster is carefully assembled from NBA gunners, guys like Avery Bradley, Jay Crowder and Al Horford, who all play strong defence and shoot above average. They have five guys averaging double figure scoring this season (Marcus Smart the fifth). If anything their weakness is that they have everything except a star player. Hence why a lot of clover fans were upset they didn’t offer more for Paul George or Jimmy Butler at the deadline, though the risks of those were enough to warrant sitting tight – they’ve got some free agency sacrifices to make soon and they’re gonna need to cash in some of those draft picks to keep the roster at this level.

As for the Rockets with James Harden, they’ve had a few years with their star to figure things out and this current incarnation is nothing if not exciting. Mike D’Antoni’s first year as head coach has seen a near complete stacking of the chips on the side of their offence. They give up 108.2 points per game which only the Nets, Knicks, Suns, Nuggets, Lakers and Trail Blazers can better (worsen?), defensively they’re quite trash and they just traded away Corey Brewer and K.J. McDaniels who offer some rare wing guardability. Instead they’ve acquired Lou Williams from the Lakers, the dude who was closest to overtaking Eric Gordon in the Sixth Man of the Year scrap. In fact Williams has better looking numbers, he just played for a much worse team. But who cares? The Rockets have both of them now. Some sketchy defence there, say a prayer for Trevor Ariza’s health if you’re a Houstonite, but sooo much scoring off the bench. The Rockets’ average points scored each game? 115.2 – only the Warriors are better, and the Rockets might have now closed the gap.

Depth matters hugely and this is where we shine the spotlight on Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder GM. Of course, he was the guy who traded away James Harden but he does have Steven Adams to show for that, a guy averaging 12p & 8r each night in a shade over half an hour of work (and with a point guard who picks up 10 rebounds every night as well). Alex Abrines as well, who has made some strides this season.

There was a big ol’ trade at the start of this campaign too with Presti flipping Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis (via the draft) and Ersan Ilyasova. At the time it was spoken about as a reinforcing of the team in the hope that it’d convince Kevin Durant to re-sign but in reality KD had probably already made his decision by then, which is why that trade worked so well because it also retooled the team with another scorer and plenty of youth.

There was another OKC trade made on deadline day, acquiring Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (plus a 2018 second round pick) from the Chicago Bulls for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne. Earlier in the season Presti flipped Ersan Ilyasova for Jerami Grant in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers – Ilyasova was eventually traded to the Atlanta Hawks for Tiago Splitter and picks.

So in effect, the Thunder took Serge Ibaka, Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow – one starter and three bench players – and turned them into Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Jerami Grant, Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. Four of those five players are aged 25 or younger and every one of them has something to offer in the short term as well. With Enes Kanter (another deadline day trade of old, who was picked up for a grumpy Reggie Jackson and an old Kendrick Perkins) back to playing health, Lauvergne wasn’t so necessary and Gibson’s addition brings some proper defence (and more than a little offence as well) to the power forward position that allows Enes Kanter more freedom and given Steven Adams played around 35 minutes a game while Kanter was out (excluding an 18 minute stint in a blowout loss vs Washington) and he didn’t drop a notch in production either, well they’re in a good place with their bigs. Lauvergne was about to become a 5-10 minute player.

Similarly Anthony Morrow is one of those dudes who shoots well off the bench and does nothing else. Except he hasn’t been shooting well this season: 38.7% from the field, 29.4% from three. Doug McDermott is probably less of a pure shooter but he’s more consistent and less of a liability going the other way. He’s a direct improvement, while Lauvergne wasn’t needed. That brings Cameron Payne into focus and Payne might be a dude the Thunder have spent a lot of time on as a young prospect off the bench but with Russell Westbrook in town, ‘off the bench’ was all Payne could ever be. His value to the Bulls is greater than his value to the Thunder and having played without him most of the season because of injury, they know what’s up in terms of what they’re losing.

Payne is better than Semaj Christon as a backup PG… but Westbrook plays 35 minutes every night anyway. If Russ gets hurt, they’re buggered, but the same is true if Harden or LeBron or [insert All-NBA talent here] gets injured as well. And clearly the Thunder figure they’re better off with the extra backcourt depth, Sabonis has started every game this season but as a rookie he runs hot and cold, while Gibson is a known quantity. Gibson could come in and take that starting role down the stretch or they can use him as the defensive lynchpin off the bench, he’s an expiring contract but he’s also the best player in this trade (McDermott has another season on his current contract).

Hence why the second round pick probably levels things out but this was still a powerful move from the Thunder. They strengthen in the short term, something that’s bound to please Russell Westbrook, giving themselves a better chance at a playoff run and they did so without giving up their best trade chips. Cam Payne is a good player who could be a starter but he probably needs to be playing more to make the next step. As a Thunder player, this is about as high as his trade stocks would have gotten. Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson though, they’re worthwhile for any team and the belief was that OKC might have to give up one of those two if they were gonna bring in something decent. They didn’t go over the top in finding anyone special but they improved on the low-key and will now have a bench that looks kinda solid. Considering this team’s offensive rating drops by 13.7 points when Westbrook is off the court compared to when he’s on it, you can argue the Thunder just went a long way towards fixing their biggest weakness.

And the shadow hanging over it all is that Kevin Durant walked for nothing in the offseason and the Thunder are still competitive with only three returning starters from the team that lost in the Conference Finals to Golden State last playoffs and only six total rotation players from that unit left at all (which includes Nick Collison and Kyle Singler). The Dallas Mavericks are trying desperately to find a way to stay relevant beyond the career of MVP Dirk Nowitzki without having to bottom out (shout out Nerlens Noel). The Los Angeles Lakers have not even had the luxury of that struggle in the post Kobe Bryant days. The Oklahoma City Thunder still have Russell Westbrook and that’s the start of everything but what they’ve done around him, considering how ugly it could have gotten, is pretty magical.