The 2017 Oklahoma City Thunder don’t care about the future of the game. They don’t care about pace and space, nor do they care for silly things like efficiency or advanced statistics. They certainly don’t give a shit about the template that the Golden State Warriors have created.
No, the Thunder aren’t looking forward in the construction of their team. They’re just hoping that lightning will strike that clocktower in Hill Valley yet again.
Comparing Russell Westbrook and Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson isn’t exactly some revolutionary idea. People have seen the similarities for years, from the high volume numbers (and yes, low efficiency) to their bipolar attitudes on and off the court. Hell, Iverson even supports the juxtaposition himself, calling Westbrook his favorite player in the game today. But, up to this point, the Thunder front office has ignored those parallels.
I mean, they had a pretty good reason for it. Where Westbrook might be closest thing we’ll see to Iverson in a very long time, Durant couldn’t be any more different. A team built around Westbrook wouldn’t fit Durant, and vice versa. Hence the hodgepodge rosters that we’ve seen the past few years.
But that’s changing. Durant is gone, as is Ibaka. This is very clearly Brodie’s team now, and the Thunder are looking back to find the mold for this new-look squad. Pretty far back actually, to a team just as unconventional to the game back then as it would be now. The 2001 Philadelphia 76ers.
At the turn of the century, big men ruled the game. Centers dominated, huge wings did their best Jordan impressions from the high post, and point guards were forced to reside in the corners where they wouldn’t accidentally bring a double to the post man. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ lone offensive option was a 6’ combo guard. They had zero talent on the wing, an aging defensive specialist at the 5, and a stacked armory of versatile defenders.
Russell Westbrook is not a conventional player, so the Thunder aren’t following any conventional methods in building a contender around him.
With Victor Oladipo, they found a near carbon copy of Aaron McKie. Steven Adams is a decent defensive big man, vaguely in the vein of Deke, and Enes Kanter is a much better Matt Geiger. Andre Roberson could easily be mistaken for just about any of Philly’s barrage of faceless wings. With Cameron Payne, they have the modern adaptation of a role player point guard. Instead of defense and steals, like Eric Snow, he’s more of a penetrate and iso guy. It’s a necessary modification to the aging template. They have a couple more shooters, too, but the final product will nonetheless be very familiar.
It’ll be ugly. It’ll grind where other teams glide. Like Jeremy Clarkson, it will respond to every problem with a hammer, whether it be a loose nail or a leaky condom. They’ll score just enough, and they’ll make the other team work their asses off on both ends of the floor.
It all starts with Westbrook himself. I’m not going to go into a massive scouting report here. We all know how Westbrook plays. We know what he can and cannot do, and we love or hate him for it. He’s a ballistic animal on both ends of the floor, an undeniable net positive who makes everyone on both sides want to bash their head into a wall.
That mindset plays into the team prototype perfectly. Russell Westbrook is exhausting. He’s exhausting to guard, and he’s exhausting to be guarded by. If you know one thing about him, you know that he won’t get tired.
When the opposing bigs get tired from helping, they’ll dump the ball down to Enes Kanter to grind out some buckets in the post. Oladipo’s offensive skills leave much to be desired, but his abilities as a secondary ball handler should be just enough to give Westbrook a break on the rare occasion when he needs to catch his breath. Absurdly physical lineups will infuriate opposing players on both ends.
It’ll be like a more optimized version of the team that gave the Warriors a run for their money in the WCF this year. A simpler (and admittedly less potent) offense, more emphasis on the bigs, and unpredictable chaos on both ends.
Some will hate it. Coaches will complain, refs will lose their tempers, and fans from both sides will vent their frustrations on internet forums year round. Like the AC/DC song, the Thunder(struck) will be loud, proud, and a bit screechy, but no less great. Mark my words, this will work.
The team might not win 60 games, and they might not even be considered a contender. But they will win games, and they will make the playoffs. There’s a reason why the Grizzlies seem to make the playoffs every single year. Grinding works. It doesn’t sell tickets, and it doesn’t garner national attention, but it does rack up those Ws. And for a team with an Uchiha-esque obsession with vengeance, that’ll be more than enough.