Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder Are the NBA's Greatest Roller Coaster

Four years ago, the Okkahoma City Thunder were in the NBA Finals and looked like the model franchise. Today, they're something different, more defiant, and still pretty great.

by John Wilmes
May 20 2016, 2:25pm

Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a willful, proud anachronism. In their Western Conference Finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors, they're defiantly battling broadband basketball with two empty soup cans connected by string, because they believe that those two cans—which are, admittedly, very sturdy cans—and frayed stretch of string can convey something that the ultramodern Warriors can't. Whether the Thunder are right about this is up for debate. That they've bought all the way into this belief is not.

It's a gamble. While the Warriors fulfill every desire of forward-looking basketball aesthetes and analysts, maximizing every square inch of the hardwood with their combination of deep shooting and smart passing, the Thunder respond by embracing the role of John Wayne. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant take turns owning possessions, creating outrageously athletic shots for themselves against tough coverage and letting big boys Steven Adams and Enes Kanter clean up the plentiful mess on the offensive boards. It's hero ball either way.

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So far, it's working a lot better than it sounds, with the Thunder stealing one of the first two games in the series. They head back to Oklahoma City with a 1-1 tie and home-court advantage. That the Thunder can be so effective using a strategy so simple—two of our guys are better than yours, and two more of our guys are bigger and meaner than yours—is perhaps what makes them the most complicated and polarizing team in the NBA today. The Thunder are one of the best teams to ever be this unpredictable, with each performance seemingly hanging on simply whether they've "got the good stuff" or not. They are the best kind of mess—or, if you don't like messes, they are a fucking mess.

It was not always this way. Just four years ago, the baby Thunder rode Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden's hot hands into a surprisingly early appearance in the Finals. It seemed likely to be the first of many, and they were the darlings of the league. They played with house money as they fell to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, 4-1.

The Thunder were similarly old-fashioned in their style back then, insisting that they could win by merely going harder, and having hotter aces, than your team. That wasn't any more reliable a philosophy in 2012 than it is now, but it sure as shit had moxie, and the general basketball public found it pretty charming. It seemed understandably naive at the time, given how young all the central players were—sort of innocent, mostly admirable, and admirably defiant.

When it is going better than expected, tbh. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

What has changed since then largely mirrors how the NBA has changed—from Rucker Park to Silicon Valley, the simplified version goes—but is also the result of a series of franchise developments that generally occur when something is too good to be true. That an extremely small-market franchise with several young superstars could blaze its way to premature title contention was even less sustainable in the NBA than the ridiculous, irrational scoring runs OKC often rode to wins.

The salary cap incentivizes building a team in precisely the way the Thunder did, but it also cuts against a team like that being built to last—players will need to get paid, and there is only so much money to go around. And so Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets a few months after the Finals loss in 2012, owing to both salary cap issues and Harden's desire for a bigger role; his absence, plus a string of unfortunate injuries and oft-criticized roster moves around the core have made the Thunder the most maligned team in the league in the years since then. They have not yet returned to the Finals. With Durant and Westbrook's respective free agency summers looming, this season and next are slated as make-or-break campaigns in the eyes of many. As the pressure builds, so does the rhetorical fury. What was very recently the NBA's model franchise is now an example of dysfunction and magical-thinking revanchism. That's not fair, but neither was the Team of the Future stuff.

As the Thunder have become arguably more Westbrook's team than Durant's over the past two seasons, skeptics have fired even more critiques than usual at the mercurial point guard. His (many) loudest haters proclaim that, for one thing, he isn't really a point guard—a remark that in many regards is true. A deeper look, however, reveals that this truth is the highest compliment one can pay him.

Westbrook is not a point guard insofar that he is not any position. This is because no one in the league plays like him, and it's worth wondering if anyone ever has. His relentless presence on every play, on the ball and off, defies conventional basketball order and metrics; as for the new metrics, the ones that give the Warriors glittery report cards, well, they might not be advanced enough to measure Westbrook's impact yet.

When there are no bad shot attempts. Just, like, broadly. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When Westbrook racks up eight turnovers, as he did in a pivotal second-round win against the San Antonio Spurs, those turnovers seemed to count less than those of other players, because of all the extra possessions he created while hounding loose balls that weren't really loose balls, skying over trees of men for improbable rebounds, and pushing the pace of the game with his frontiering 90-foot drives to the rim. At his best, Westbrook warps the game in ways that stats cannot, and by definition do not, measure.

The cooler Durant provides a less turbulent form of excellence when he's on, essentially gliding his way to 40-point performances. He was always the chill one, but in the past few years he's taken on more of Westbrook's snarling attitude than vice versa. While Durant has largely remained the cream to Westbrook's canyon of high-test coffee, they have both become testier on the floor and off as OKC's clock keeps ticking. Durant's play scans as more conventionally in control than Westbrook's, but both vibrate with the same intensity, and seem to seethe over the same sublimated grievances.

The symbiosis between these two always has defined the Thunder, and their mutual pact to keep playing in such a beautifully arrogant fashion is what has made this team so simultaneously irksome and intoxicating. When they were underachieving, this seemed like a fatal flaw. When they dismantled the Spurs and blitzed the Warriors in the first game of the Western Conference Finals, it once again looked like a defiant answer to basketball's purported future.

Whether they can beat the Warriors or not, whether they are the league's best team or not, the Thunder will undoubtedly remain its greatest roller coaster. There may not be a future in that, and what future there is almost certainly isn't the one people imagined just four years ago, but there's honor in it all the same.