(Editor’s note: Michael Kimball is an occasional Daily Thunder contributor and Thunder season ticket member whose archive can be seen here. Regular readers will recognize it as the work of Patrick James, a name he used at DT when working full-time for his then-employer, The Oklahoman. He graduated in 2007 from the University of Oklahoma with a journalism degree and was a student media colleague of Royce Young’s, including a brief stint as Royce’s cruel and unfairly demanding supervisor. You can follow him on Twitter here.)
Roughly halfway through the season, Kevin Durant is an All-Star starter, Russell Westbrook is on the verge of being named as a backup, a third Oklahoma City player is on the bubble and the Thunder are sitting pretty in the playoff race.
What else is new?
The answer for most close Thunder watchers is, well, sort of a lot, but sort of not much at the same time. It’s kinda complicated. Let’s go ahead and get the words “James Harden” out of the way right here, because that’s obvious. Some things have changed.
The NBA soap opera certainly includes a lot of narrative. Especially because of the personalities (remember that NBA superstars are, by and large, the most marketable and recognizable athletes in America), the NBA seems to be as much of a narrative-driven league as there is in professional sports. The Thunder, as a team, are no exception. Just ask Westbrook.
Now’s a good time to check in on the Thunder narrative and how true it may or may not be so far this season. Let’s look at some of the storylines one by one.
— “KD is not nice.”
This is actually a new national narrative this season brought to you by Nike. The marketing objective of making sure everyone knows Oklahoma’s most eligible and mass-marketable bachelor, the young man who kisses his mom when she’s courtside, is ruthlessly competitive in addition to being a destructive basketball force has certainly been accomplished.
The need for a reminder might come as a surprise to Thunder fans. Even though, yes, all Oklahomans want him to take our daughters to prom, so to speak. Because anyone who has watched a lot of Thunder basketball over the years knows Durant snarling with intensity is nothing new. Those stock images for the ad campaign came from somewhere. B.D. doesn’t froth about the Junkyard Dog every now and then for nothing.
There have been some profane and excitable outbursts in big moments before. Plenty of times. Even off the court. KD is competitive and wants to win and regularly gets a little not nice, and happens to be equipped to be a primary contributor to winning on any given night. It’s true. We already knew that. He even leads the team — a team with Kendrick Perkins — in technical fouls this season.
But the ads are cool anyway.
Speaking of Perkins, we could just let the comment section handle this, but apparently Perk’s playing time is controversial among the masses. Again.
But that was before we knew Perk could do THIS.
Clearly, the new debate is whether Perk should get more minutes on the perimeter in the big lineups.
— Scott Brooks and his adjustments.
Brooks is occasionally still too stubborn with substitutions and tactically for some people’s tastes. But it’s increasingly hard to argue against what he’s doing.
Exhibit A, of course, is the near-record performance of OKC’s league-leading — league-dominating, actually — offense. It all starts with Durant, of course, and Brooks looks pretty smart any time No. 35 has the ball in his hands. But did anyone really expect the Thunder to be dominating the NBA offensively to this extent after the offseason trauma? I didn’t. Brooks deserves credit for keeping the offense humming, pulling the trigger on moves like replacing Eric Maynor with Reggie Jackson, and continuing to develop and usefully deploy Serge Ibaka on the offensive end.
And the team’s defense is worthy of attention, too. The Thunder have struggled, relatively speaking, on the defensive end after the departure of Ron Adams following the 2009-10 season. Personally, I still have nightmares about over-rotations and failures to close out from the Finals last summer — nightmares that admittedly resurfaced after the deja-vu-all-over-again Christmas Day loss to the Heat. So the constant quotes coming from players and coaches about this being “a defensive team” usually elicits an eye roll from me. But so far, the Thunder’s defense has been more than solid, as one of only six NBA teams with a defensive efficiency rating below 100. Right below Adams’ Bulls, coincidentally.
Ultimately, Brooks and the entire team will be judged by postseason performance. But Brooks has been more experimental this season, starting with lineup flexibility and extending to better late-game looks and certainly a willingness to go small for longer stretches. It bodes well for the stretch run.
— In Sam We Trust.
Whoa, boy, did this fan motto and narrative go through a test early this season. But, so far, it looks like the motto will live on.
The longer Sam Presti’s tenure as a general manager goes on, the longer the list of draft mistakes like Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich will get. It happens, especially with big guys. No one is going to bat 1.000 when it comes to draft picks, and Presti is no exception.
But through one half of the first season following the toughest decision Presti has ever had to make as a GM, it certainly appears that you doubt him at your peril. The man can build a roster, and he’s built a coaching staff that has done a truly incredible job of developing young talent physically and mentally. Is there a more stable NBA locker room than the one in Oklahoma City? How many examples are there of young players that have developed as quickly and forcefully as Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka in the last few years? How many of the elite teams out there have truly intriguing talents like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III sitting at the end of their bench?
Presti remains the only GM Thunder fans ever want to have.
— Russell Westbrook hurts the Thunder.
Westbrook’s shooting percentages are way down, but he shoots less. He still loafs on defense every now and then. He’s still a little moody.
But have you noticed that this narrative has taken a holiday, at least so far through this regular season? Close Thunder watchers already knew the idea that Westbrook hurts the team was ridiculous, but it has been part of the national narrative for a while, especially after the infamous Game 2 benching in the 2011 Western Conference finals. Maybe it was Wesbtrook’s tour de force in Game 4 of the Finals last year that finally quieted some of the doubters, but there don’t seem to be as many, even as Westbrook continues to shoot poorly for the most part.
Westbrook was set up to be criticized after the trade because a lot of people preferred the departed Sixth Man of the Year over him. I was expecting any sign of weakness to be feasted upon — and the shooting percentage is one of the things I would have guessed could cause that to happen. That hasn’t been the case yet.
Continued winning is probably the reason, along with the fact Westbrook’s shots are down and his assists are up. But I suspect he’s also just finally starting to win over a lot of the haters. The more the Thunder win, the harder it is to criticize Westbrook for being a reason why the Thunder can’t continue to win. As with all these other narratives, we won’t find the final answer to how it develops this season until the playoffs are over. But Westbrook is as key as he’s ever been, and he’s motivated and hungry. Watch out.
— The best fans in the NBA!
The atmosphere in the Peake has simply not been the same this year. Period. And it’s the fans’ fault, because the level of play, in-game entertainment and everything else has remained the same.
The Thunder’s fans still might be the best in the NBA at creating a true home court advantage during a big game, but what made the team’s fans special was that they brought the energy even to Wednesday night games in February against a crappy Eastern Conference team. And the fans stayed most of the way through the game, even if it’s late. That is just no longer the case. Thunder fans no longer bring it every night, and they leave earlier than they used to.
Are we snobs now? Maybe. It should be noted that OU football crowds are not exactly known as the rowdiest ones in the region, and so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Thunder fans have settled into their success and become more of a wine-and-cheese crowd. Thunder games have replaced college football games as the place for Oklahoma’s luminaries to see and be seen, so maybe they’ve become more of a social event, when the early crowds were the kind of crazy people (like me) who would commit to going to 41 games a year to see a team that had no guarantee of being any good at all. It could just be different people in the stands than it used to be as opposed to a complacent fan base.
But whatever it is that has dampened the atmosphere a bit during home games, let’s hope it ends by the time the playoffs arrive. The Western Conference looks as tough as it ever was, especially if a team like the Lakers gets hot and makes the playoffs as a low seed, peaking at the right time. The Heat will be there with their championship experience to meet the Thunder in the Finals if OKC can get there. The fans are going to have to step up and do their part, sooner or later.
I bet they will.