Af­ter Du­rant, Thun­der rolls on

De­par­ture changed ex­pec­ta­tions, but West­brook, young team­mates still ap­pear to be play­off-bound

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL - BY TIM BONTEMPS tim.bontemps@wash­post.com

When the Ok­la­homa City Thun­der built a three-games-to-one lead over the Golden State War­riors in the Western Con­fer­ence fi­nals last May, it looked as if Thun­der Gen­eral Man­ager Sam Presti’s metic­u­lous mul­ti­year plan was about to pay off in the big­gest way.

The Thun­der had built a ros­ter full of long, ath­letic play­ers who com­ple­mented their high­scor­ing su­per­star duo of Rus­sell West­brook and Kevin Du­rant. More im­por­tantly, most of those play­ers were young, al­low­ing them to grow with West­brook and Du­rant over the next sev­eral sea­sons to max­i­mize their championship win­dow. The the­ory was that this was the best way to have sus­tained suc­cess, par­tic­u­larly in a small mar­ket.

That was be­fore Ok­la­homa City dropped the fi­nal three games of that se­ries, again fall­ing short of reach­ing the NBA Fi­nals. A few weeks later, Du­rant chose to leave the Thun­der in free agency to sign with the War­riors, shat­ter­ing the fran­chise’s hopes of com­pet­ing for a championship any time soon. It ap­peared Presti’s plan had failed.

The way the Thun­der has played this sea­son, how­ever, shows there was merit in what it was do­ing.

Even af­ter los­ing Du­rant for noth­ing as a free agent, the Thun­der en­tered the all-star break at 32-25, good for seventh place in the Western Con­fer­ence. Given its eight-game lead over the ninth-place Sacra­mento Kings, only a mas­sive wave of in­juries would pre­vent Ok­la­homa City from mak­ing the post­sea­son.

The team’s suc­cess has been due in large part to West­brook’s un­be­liev­able sea­son. He re­mains on pace to be­come just the sec­ond player in NBA his­tory to av­er­age a triple-dou­ble for a sea­son. But it also re­flects well on some of the young play­ers around him who are step­ping into roles and pro­duc­ing in new and big­ger ways.

“Things hap­pen in life, man,” West­brook said be­fore the Thun­der lost to the War­riors in Du­rant’s re­turn to Ok­la­homa City last week­end. “As a man, you’ve got to move for­ward. I have a great group of guys here that I love like my broth­ers.”

The group is flawed but has po­ten­tial. West­brook, at 28, is one of only four play­ers on the team — and the only starter — who is older than 25. The team’s two build­ing blocks along­side West­brook — DeMatha High prod­uct Vic­tor Oladipo and cen­ter Steven Adams — are 24 and 23, re­spec­tively. The rest of the ros­ter is stocked with young play­ers who the Thun­der hope can be de­vel­oped into pieces that can ei­ther help the team com­pete on the court or be used as trade chips.

Such youth means Coach Billy Dono­van and his staff have work to do in forg­ing a co­he­sive unit.

“With half our ros­ter chang­ing over and even with the half that stayed, roles changed. This team is to­tally dif­fer­ent” from last sea­son, Dono­van said. “For me, player de­vel­op­ment has al­ways been very, very im­por­tant to me. I went through it as a player. When you have young guys like this, they are go­ing to learn and grow through their ex­pe­ri­ences and the coach­ing as­pect of try­ing to push them to keep con­tin­u­ally get­ting bet­ter to im­prove.

“You’re con­stantly work­ing to get these guys bet­ter. The big­gest thing with young teams to me, al­ways, is al­ways go­ing to be in­con­sis­ten­cies. You’re try­ing to build more con­sis­tency with what you do on an ev­ery­day ba­sis [and] try to get those guys, whether it’s in­con­sis­tency game-to-game or in the course of the game, just get them to be more con­sis­tent.”

None of this is to say that the Thun­der is a fin­ished prod­uct. De­spite West­brook’s dom­i­nance this sea­son, Ok­la­homa City ranks 21st in of­fen­sive ef­fi­ciency, largely be­cause of its lack of perime­ter shoot­ing; no one on the ros­ter is shoot­ing 40 per­cent from three-point range. And the team re­mains in the early stages of fig­ur­ing out ex­actly what kind of play­ers it needs to put around West­brook to max­i­mize his solo act, given that the plan for the past eight years had been to find pieces to com­ple­ment the two-man game be­tween him and Du­rant.

Still, de­spite Du­rant’s de­par­ture, the Thun­der is sur­viv­ing and, it would seem, headed back to the play­offs. It may not be the level of suc­cess the fran­chise en­vi­sioned hav­ing this year and be­yond be­hind a Du­rant-West­brook combo, but it’s proof that the plan the fran­chise had in place was a sound one.

HARRY HOW/GETTY IM­AGES

Rus­sell West­brook, on pace to be­come the sec­ond player in NBA his­tory to av­er­age a triple-dou­ble, is sud­denly a griz­zled vet­eran for Ok­la­homa City.

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