Something's Different About the Thunder
Since Kevin Durant departed for Golden State in the summer of 2016, people have known what to expect of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook would dominate the ball and rack up video-game stats, his teammates would inevitably shrink in comparison with their force-of-nature teammate, and individual accolades would supersede the team's.
In Year 3, A.D. (After Durant, for our purposes) the script has started to change. Westbrook's usage rate is 30.4, his lowest since he was a 21-year-old second year player, so he's loosened his grip on the offense. He's still stuffing the stat sheet while averaging a triple-double for his third consecutive year -- an obscene accomplishment -- but his points per game average is just 20.6: again his fewest since that 2009-10 sophomore campaign. He's letting his teammates' stars shine a little brighter, and shine they have.
Paul George, a four-time All-NBA honoree with a long list of awards and recognitions, is authoring what is undoubtedly the best season of his career. If the season ended today, his 25.5ppg-7.9rpg-4.4apg statline would all represent career highs, as would his PER of 23.3. When he decided to return to the Thunder in free agency this year, his decision was met with no shortage of raised eyebrows, and just a bit of derision, but from a 'basketball decision' standpoint, George has been vindicated for sure.
Steven Adams, famously selected with the pick acquired in the James Harden trade, is doing his damnedest to balance that deal out in the long term. The brawny New Zealander sets a rugged, defensive tone for the team, even as his offensive game has taken a leap. He, too, is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game if the season ended today, sporting a 16.2-10.2-1.6.
Jerami Grant has justified the Thunder's decision to bring him back on a three-year $27 million contract by putting up career high (are you sensing a theme here?) 11.8ppg-4.7rpg numbers. Instead of eating Carmelo Anthony's contract, the Thunder was able to turn him into Dennis Schroder, who has real 6th-Man-of-the-Year potential with his 16.6-4.0-4.7 year. The Thunder offseason was deemed a success when Paul George came back, but all of their moves are coming up aces.
After struggling through an 0-4 start with Westbrook coming back from injury, the Thunder are 20-6 over their past 26 games -- the best record in the NBA over that span. They've done it on both ends, with Westbrook and George swapping the mantle of league steals leader game to game, and looking for all the world like the franchise has taken a leap.
In Year 1 AD, the organizational philosophy was to funnel everything through Westbrook, find him unparalleled success individually, and convince him that Oklahoma City was his long-term home, a conclusion Durant did not reach. He won the MVP that year, but OKC was battered in the first round by the Rockets, ending their season on the wrong end of a 4-1 series.
In Year 2 AD, they worked hard to find the pieces to surround Westbrook, moving Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis for George, a trade that has worked out well for both teams. Carmelo Anthony didn't end up being a long-term piece, but still taught the team a valuable lesson about merits of embracing the modern NBA style instead of a big name of yesteryear.
Now that OKC has built a roster that can properly support their superstar, the future of the Thunder looks as bright as it has since their unexpected run to the 2012 NBA Finals. George is the perfect '1B' to Westbrook's '1A' - a superstar who is more comfortable alongside a star than leading his own show. The league is on notice: the Thunder is shaking the league's foundations to their core.