Doctor MJ wrote:
76ciology wrote:We all know the story.
Westbrook, KD and Harden once played for the Thunders at the same time.
One by one they left the team. First Harden was traded, then KD walk then RW was traded.
Did OKC made the wrong bet in RW?
Or was everything just a stroke of bad luck with the players pretty much dictating the fate of the franchise?
I've put a lot into this, so I'll give my take. The big thing to understand here is that this is a story of subtle mistakes and bad luck derailing a smart organization. We have to look at the mistakes, but also be aware that this wasn't a story of incompetence.
The story begins in '07-08 where the soon-to-be-renamed SuperSonics go with what I call the "LeBron approach" to superstar training. Basically: We want you to be the superstar on this team, so we're not going to train you for a lesser role and wait until you "deserve" more primacy. We're going to put you in the role we're envisioning you and let you figure things out (with some pointers along the way surely).
That wasn't remotely weird. Frankly it's pretty normal, and for the most part worked out well with Durant. It wasn't until his 3rd year where he turned the corner and actually played that role like a capable star, but he did figure it out, and he figured it out before the team even had to think about the next contract. Win.
What was less usual was the fact that they doubled down on this approach the next year with Russell Westbrook. They said "You two are our stars, figure out how to play together." This was odd for 2 main reasons: 1) Westbrook was not remotely seen as a prospect on Durant's level, and so it was tying the future of your alpha prospect with another guy seen as much less of a sure thing, 2) they had Westbrook play a role not remotely similar to the one he played at UCLA - UCLA Russ was a "take nothing off the table guy" who helped in all sorts of little ways, wasn't an ultra-ball dominant point, and was known specifically for his defense, but OKC Russ would become known for an ultra-ball dominant style.
Leaving aside momentarily that Westbrook proved to be an NBA superstar level guy, this was a very risky proposition that chanced the team getting stuck as a "team without a system" with all sorts of sub-optimalities keeping them from hitting their ceiling. If you're reading that and saying "which is exactly what happened", I agree, but I'll also acknowledge that it turned out very well nonetheless, and I don't know if it would make sense to see as a mistake if not for Harden.
Harden came in as a 3rd banana guy, and came willingly - iirc he wrote a letter to Presti explaining how he saw himself fitting in with Durant and Westbrook. And of course, he played this role pretty much to perfection once he got his groove (especially after the trading of Jeff Green). I do think that if the Thunder had just made clear to Harden how appreciative they were of him continuing to sacrifice for the other two stars, and paid him the max with a smile on his face, that this is a team that wins championships together.
Now of course we know that's not how it played out and the Thunder ended up feeling like they needed to make a hard choice (that they seemed bizarrely eager to make a year ahead of time) during a year where they were title contenders. While I'll certainly say they should have kept the trio together, and I think it would have been simplest to have Harden keep being the 3rd banana, there's a really damning thing about OKC's handling of Harden that relates to their treatment of Westbrook:
James Harden is a much, much smarter player than Westbrook who was already getting raved about as the best passer on OKC BEFORE his breakout year. It's one thing if you say "We're keeping them all and we're going to keep roughly the same roles until we see a glaring problem", but if you were (foolishly) not impressed by Harden enough to keep him on your roster as that 3rd banana guy, don't you owe it to yourself to see what he could do when given more control?
Egos are tricky of course, but it seems clear that after 3 years in OKC, the Thunder were completely blindsided by the fact that Harden instantly pivoted to highly effective offensive fulcrum. That's not something that should have been possible. The Thunder should have been able to identify in that time what Harden was capable of.
When was the time to do that given the trickiness of switching roles after Westbrook was already established as the floor general s a rookie before Harden got there? As soon as possible, and if you're realizing Harden is taking a little time to hit the ground running, keep re-evaluating.
Why was this hard? Because OKC was winning Harden's rookie year with the Durant-Westbrook focus. It would be hard for any franchise to pull back from that...but when you don't, you risk missing out on something even better.
What would even better look like? Harden at the point which we know he can do with masterful IQ, Westbrook as the off-ball juggarnaut building further upon what made him so noteworthy at UCLA, and Durant as Durant. Merely keeping Harden probably yields titles, but a core with a different backcourt focus would have lifted their ceiling higher and made them stop looking like a pair of super-talented players without a coach.
All this is to say, the team very much chose Westbrook over Harden multiple times. They first chose Westbrook over Harden before they even had Harden, and then continued to do so until the trade they decided they had to make. And while it's hard to say precisely what the biggest mistake was in that whole run, the roots of the problem come from premature optimization. They were so desperate to say "We have our 2 stars of the future and we know exactly how we're going to play them" that they skipped time they could have used to figure out a better way to play the MVP trio together.
What about Westbrook over Durant? Not the same, but I do think it's quite clear that OKC let Westbrook keep developing as they did because they didn't realize Durant's frustration was building to the degree it was. They had to know the frustration was there, but I would imagine that every time they asked Durant about it he said the right things. Durant went alone with Westbrook's rise like everyone else in the organization did...until he started fantasizing about what it would be like to play for Golden State, and then when the opportunity came, the Thunder didn't get the opportunity to trade Westbrook to make Durant happy, because it was too late.
This is why I say that this is the sort of mistake that's just not possible to make with a guy like LeBron. LeBron takes control of every team he's on, and if he doesn't want a teammate playing a certain way, he tells him to change (or gets him traded). Durant was a "nice superstar" who was saying the right things based on trying not to be too selfish and it led the Thunder to wrongly conclude that the smartest action was to just keep letting the duo keep growing together.
Wrapping it all up: The Thunder ended up in effect choosing the least valuable of 3 superstar talents over the other two because they gave that least valuable superstar the floor general's primacy early on in his career, and while he was flawed in that role, he was too good within that role for the Thunder to ever feel comfortable charting a different path.
One lesson to be learned here is that if you're going to give a guy primacy from Day 1, you best have a clear sense of how you can pivot if this approach seems good but maybe not the best approach you can come up with.
Another lesson is that it's particularly dangerous to hand primacy to a secondary prospect. Had the Thunder looked to build an offensive scheme entirely around Kevin Durant, rather than letting Westbrook & Durant try to feel things out together, it's entirely possible they're spared a great deal of heart ache.