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The Oklahoma City Thunder Were Wild, Loud, And Still Echoing

Bad luck, historically tough competition, and some stubborn personality kinks kept the Durant/Westbrook Thunder from being great, but they were always memorable.

by Robert O'Connell
Jul 6 2016, 3:52pm

Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In all likelihood, Kevin Durant will play better basketball in Golden State than he did in Oklahoma City. This is not so much an argument for one team's superiority than a recognition of fact. It's easier to run on concrete than it is on sand; it's easier to make shots on the Warriors than on any other team, Durant's former club included. Golden State's offense is all clockwork and counterweights and preposterous distances and angles that usually end in layups or open 25-footers. The 2014 MVP, given a spot in this mechanism, will enjoy more open looks than he's had since his AAU days. This is difficult to imagine, and a little bit frightening, but not really controversial. This is just how it will go.

As such, it's obvious why Durant would jump at this chance. At no point in history has the instant-by-instant minutiae that makes up a basketball game been more cataloged than it is at this moment; most of that cataloging, as it pertains to Durant, suggests that he's been working quite a bit harder than he needs to in order to get his shots. During his eight seasons with the Thunder, the team was all kinds of imperfect. They played too slow or too fast, they turned the ball over too often, their defense lagged, and their offense fell into ruts. They needed the heroics of their two stars, Durant and Russell Westbrook, more or less nightly, and even those two seemed occasionally mismatched, with each preferring the ball in his own hands, each a little wary in terms of trusting the other to get it there, and sometimes unsure of what to do with themselves without it.

Read More: How Kevin Durant Makes The Golden State Warriors That Much More Unstoppable

So Durant's move makes the simplest sense; it is no less noble than opting to put on sunglasses instead of squinting. The Thunder had problems, some fundamental and some recurring but fixable, that the Warriors just don't have. It will provide a certain kind of charge to see Durant floating around the Golden State ecosystem, tossing in threes and running breezy pick-and-rolls and generally functioning as a virtuosic component in this state-of-the-art basketball machine.

Still, that might not wholly make up for the loss of the old thrill that the Thunder delivered more reliably than any other NBA team. That was the thrill that came from watching a team that was both bonkers-grade talented and always a little broken try to just outrun all its flaws. In a league in pursuit of efficiency, Oklahoma City was a rare combination. The Thunder were messy and very good, and it might be long time before we see another team like them.

Remember the good times. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Try to settle on a lasting image of the Durant-Westbrook/Westbrook-Durant Thunder, and the mind reels. In a few decades, something from the 2012 Finals, the team's sole trip to that round, will seem like the obvious pick, but it won't be the right one. That two-week stretch suggested an upstart dynasty, but the Thunder would instead become the NBA's primary agents of frustration. The version that lost to the Spurs in 2014's Western Conference Finals might work better if we're still hunting for a representative highlight, just for the raw futility of their otherworldly talent snared in the razorwire of San Antonio's tactics, but that seems too dour. Maybe the truest Thunder were the 2015 model, when Westbrook cannonballed all over the league in Durant's absence. Or maybe it's last season's, when a recovered Durant steered them to within a minute or two of unseating the greatest regular-season team in history.

The difficulty is the point. The Thunder were never as easy to summarize as Golden State (Curry-Green pick-and-roll, snipers fanned around) or Cleveland (LeBron shouldering through, Kyrie crossing over). The team played in contradictions, and in head-spinning fits and starts. Durant danced around the elbow and scored 15 points one quarter, and then he didn't touch the ball for five minutes in the next one; Westbrook shot flames out of his heels and either rammed the ball through the rim or chucked it into the third row.

Surrounding these two were assorted dudes of varying usefulness. Serge Ibaka went, over the years, from a shot-blocking and rim-rolling terror to something like Ryan Anderson-lite; Steven Adams transitioned from a common lug to a catch-and-finish center every bit as handy as present-day Dwight Howard. Andre Roberson, a shooting guard who can't shoot, suddenly could shoot during the Thunder's playoff run last year. It was as fitting an example as any of how Oklahoma City's stars could rev up the team's ancillary pieces.

At the ends of fourth quarters, the team's rough hinges showed. Sometimes the Thunder might be brilliant, moving in streaks and strobes, tossing lobs to one another, ballooning four-point leads to 15. Others, they could be dismal, unable even to initiate a set with more than 12 seconds on the shot clock. They left you slackjawed or yawning, but never just mildly interested. This was adult entertainment, but never exactly easy. That was the fun of it.

Spooky floating Durant head in the background really makes the photo. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The crack in the foundation was that Durant and Westbrook weren't a perfect match. The latter is a hard blur, a basketball bullet who can change direction and throw laser-guided kickout passes and who seems somehow capable of actually gaining speed midair. He also can't shoot from the outside, but that doesn't really matter when he's turning the defense into a heap of limbs with cartoon birdies circling over it.

Westbrook needs the ball to do all that, though, and Durant also needs the ball to do what he does. He's a fine knockdown shooter, but he's also an artist inside the arc; with a quick step and nifty handle and a seven-foot frame he can manufacture any kind of shot in any span of time. Whether he pulls up or drives seems a matter of choice; he can do either, whenever, easily. At his best, Durant makes you wonder why his team would ever play through anyone else. He is great enough that he sometimes just seems to scale back the game's difficulty, making possessions into formalities and whole games into drills.

Even after eight years together, the skill sets of Oklahoma City's twin stars had no obvious points of intersection. Durant could spot up while Westbrook drove, but that would reduce an offensive genius to a role player. Westbrook could cut while Durant slid around screens, but he more often stepped out and launched statistically unsound three-pointers. The pair, and the team, were always most comfortable and most spectacular on the break, where they zoomed past and around and over defenders in every fashion, as if—bored with merely getting easy buckets—they were trying to perform all the latent variety in the word fast. For a team that never won anything, they often looked unbeatable.

Admittedly this would be easier if all the people in yellow were cheering for you. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

No other great team from recent years could get on your nerves like the Thunder, and no other team could win your forgiveness so quickly. They'd fumble and skitter around and then explode through the damn TV screen, Durant lifting off from the free-throw line for a layup or Westbrook stop-and-popping his defender so hard that he left his matchup slipping in a pool of his own lost dignity on the way back upcourt. You'd roll your eyes every time you watched them, and then, seconds later, you'd be sure they had just figured it all out.

That they never did figure it all out isn't some great sin; most teams don't. The Thunder just had the hard luck of playing in a time when the best teams do crack the code. The Warriors, late struggles aside, are one of those, and if they can't guarantee Durant a title, they can promise that the pursuit of one will be neat and orderly, all open office doors and complementary approaches and balanced box scores. He'll probably get an app or something in the bargain.

It all figures to be great to watch, in its anticlimactic way—a total symmetry of ability and system, an approach scrubbed of risk that maximizes reward. Numerically, it should be mind-boggling, with the Warriors setting all sorts of marks across all sorts of categories. There's nothing all that contrived about how this Golden State team came about—all narratives aside, hiring the best available player isn't any more absurd, really, than plucking him from greater Washington, D.C. via the University of Texas and expecting total devotion to Oklahoma City for a decade. But there could be a bloodless character to the basketball that results from this rational process. Compare it to the headlong bloodymindedness and giddy irrationality of Durant's old team, and it will barely be recognizable.

The Warriors are built to cruise. The Thunder stopped and started, looked clumsy and brilliant, seemed to hate and love each other intensely in neighboring moments. They had trouble every day, and even with a pair of geniuses they couldn't always solve it. The purpose of sports isn't to look like life, with all its problems and quick-passing victories. But maybe they shouldn't look too different from life, either.

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