Short-term championship contention is in the rearview mirror through the franchise’s first 30 games without Kevin Durant on its roster, with day-to-day, big-picture improvement from their overhauled, inexperienced group now the primary focus.
Expectations are significantly lower than they were seven months ago, and everyone knows why: Durant now plays for the Golden State Warriors. But that decision was out of Oklahoma City’s control. The other foundation-changing shakeup, however, was not.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti always has his eyes on the future, and a couple of weeks before Durant left to team up with three other All-Stars, one of the NBA’s shrewdest tastemakers shipped Serge Ibaka’s expiring contract to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Domas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova (who was eventually flipped to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerami Grant).
Given the Thunder’s current cap situation—it’ll be difficult to create max room before Westbrook's 30th birthday—this trade can be viewed as a valiant attempt to restock the cupboards. It allows a crack of sunlight to shine in on their long-term outlook.
Ibaka will go down as one of the most important players in franchise history, a reliable third wheel who shot threes and protected the rim. He was Oklahoma City’s starting power forward for about five seasons, ever since they moved Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics for Kendrick Perkins back at the 2011 trade deadline.
He’s a helpful player who's doing OK in Orlando, with a career-high usage rate and three-point percentage. But Ibaka’s rebound and block rates are trending in the wrong direction; his athleticism wanes on both ends while opponents shoot a tick under 50 percent against an ostensibly intimidating wingspan at the rim—a worrisome number that’s up from the stout 43.6 percent it was last season.
Still, Oklahoma City entered the season knowing any one player couldn’t fill Ibaka’s shoes. He’s a unique talent whose combined strengths are difficult to find in one body.
“It’s not so much necessarily that we feel like we’ve got to replace Serge,” Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan said after his team’s Friday shootaround. “But how do we utilize the guys that we have now? Help them play to their strengths.”
This is where things get interesting: Ibaka’s technical replacement is Sabonis, a wide-bodied rookie who entered the league with advanced post moves and a respectable inside presence. In two seasons at Gonzaga, he attempted 300 more free throws than three-pointers (314 to 14).
But with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams already on board, the Thunder don’t need another option around the basket. They need shooting (and still do!), which helps explain Sabonis’ migration from the paint to the perimeter. He’s already attempted 72 threes and only six free throws.
It was unexpected by just about everyone (including Sabonis), but he was still smart enough to work on his outside shot during the offseason and is making 44.4 percent of them.
It’s an operational shift the Thunder coaching staff never told Sabonis to be ready for at any point during Oklahoma City’s training camp. The rookie just organically figured it out as they went through the preseason, and he took note of the lineups he was in and the style they were playing.
“I’m lucky to be part of this organization because they’re trusting me to play these minutes,” Sabonis told Bleacher Report. “I’m just trying to help them out as much as I can.”
On his way to a career-high 20-point performance against the Boston Celtics on Friday night, Sabonis went 4-of-6 from downtown. The 2016 11th overall pick later revealed how he became so confident in his extended range: “Everyone on the team wants me to shoot it when I’m open, so I think that’s helped me a lot,” he said, smiling. “If I don’t shoot it, they get mad, so I shoot it.”
Unfortunately, turning him into a stretch 4 has yet to help the team’s offense or provide actual spacing for Westbrook. After Friday night's game, Oklahoma City’s offense was never worse than with Sabonis on the floor and never better than when he sat. He’s still only 20 years old, though, on a team that isn’t competing for a championship right now.
Development is far more important than results.
“Domas is a guy that, although he’s a rookie, I think he continues to get better and improve,” Donovan said. “I think he’s got great upside. He’s a great, great worker.”
It’s unfair to compare an established commodity like Ibaka with someone who’s only played 30 NBA games, and Sabonis said he “maybe, a bit” feels some pressure as the team’s first post-Ibaka starting power forward, but the outlines of a quality role player are there. Sabonis is only averaging 21 minutes a game, but few rookies can start for a playoff team without looking completely lost.
“He’s been progressing well on the defensive end, which is huge because it’s exactly what we want him to do,” Thunder center Steven Adams said.
Sabonis also isn’t the primary reason Thunder fans were pretty content when they first heard about Ibaka’s departure. Even though the 27-year-old was headed for free agency this summer—which would’ve reduced Presti’s leverage in trade calls—it makes no sense to trade him unless an immediate contributor with upside was coming back. Cue up clip of Oladipo decapitating Dwight Howard.
The former second overall pick has missed the last six games with a sprained right wrist but is only 24 years old and closely resembles the hyper-athletic Robin that Westbrook’s Batman sorely needs.
“I really feel like with Victor, he’s a guy that can help Russell with the load of the ball being in his hands,” Donovan said. “We can play Victor at the point, we can play him off the ball. We can do the same thing for Russell, so I think both those guys complement each other very well.”
Oladipo has struggled to finish around the basket when Westbrook isn’t on the floor, but he’s done a decent enough job picking up some playmaking responsibilities whenever Donovan staggers his two most potent shot creators.
He’s shooting a career-high 40.2 percent on catch-and-shoot threes (38.1 percent overall from downtown), numbers the Thunder have to grin at. If he keeps them up, there’s a very good chance defenders will question whether they should pinch in and force Westbrook to kick it out on those hellacious drives to the rim.
That moment of hesitation is everything.
The Thunder wasted no time locking Oladipo up with a four-year, $84 million contract on Halloween. And while he’s far more accomplished than Sabonis or even Grant, Oladipo can be plopped into a similar category: the intriguing athlete the Thunder hope can trim Westbrook’s responsibilities over the next few years.
Westbrook’s cinematic 45-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist outing against the Celtics only affirms that Sabonis, Kanter, Oladipo, Adams and just about everybody else are basic-to-essential characters in Oklahoma City’s story. But Westbrook is the plot.
To a franchise that doesn’t have much flexibility outside of the trade market, Oklahoma City’s youth movement is critical.
Would Westbrook be better off (or happier) in an alternate universe where the Thunder employ a risk-averse general manager who maintains the status quo and rolled it back with every other primary contributor from last year’s Western Conference Finals squad besides Durant? That’d be fine on a structural level, and it’s easy to see how Ibaka would lift the Thunder offense and even provide an extra win or two.
But orbiting Westbrook—a billion-degree inferno who’s managed to normalize triple-doubles—with growing competitors and crystallizing his status as an indispensable leader was the right choice.
Oklahoma City’s culture and the Tao of Westbrook may be indecipherable at this point, but either one provides the ideal atmosphere to incubate a sudden collection of developing, young prospects whose goal isn’t to be their best self—it’s to be their best self for the Thunder, through the prism of a roster that’s piloted by a once-in-a-lifetime superduperstar.
“We’ve got a lot of new players, and those guys have come in and done an amazing job of adjusting to how we play, and our culture in Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said. “And they’ve been great, not just for myself, but great for the staff, the city, the town, and those guys are doing an amazing job.”
It’s a complicated, promising dynamic, but the clay Presti acquired for Ibaka remains wet, which makes their path worth tracking. It’s far from perfect but provides more optimism than the more conventional alternative ever could.