With the departure of Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t be considered legitimate title contenders. But the template they developed still exists. Borrowing heavily from the Spurs before them, the Thunder showed that stable leadership, savvy free-agent moves, an institutional knack for developing young players, and some incredible luck at the top of the draft can make any team, no matter the size of the market, a contender. As OKC faces a post-KD future, other franchises will try to follow in its footsteps. This week, we’re looking at who could be the next Thunder.
We regret to inform you that your floor spacing is overrated. It has come to our attention that helping, hedging, sagging, and forming a fucking wall only goes so far. You can run elevator doors; you can install a Thibs defense; you can employ principles of the motion offense in your transition game like the Spurs have — it will amount to a pile of remaindered Anta KT 1s if you don’t have a group of guys that like each other, and that people like. In the era of the superteam, winning is not the only thing; a winning culture matters just as much.
Think about the past six years in the NBA. Starting with the formation of the Heatles in Miami, we became increasingly aware of group social dynamics. Did your team Harlem Shake together? How fun did their ice-bucket challenge look? Have they produced a meme as vital as the Baze Gaze? The Bosh Bomb? Who is hanging out on Snapchat? Who is getting tagged in Instagram posts? Why isn’t Kevin Love in the picture? Is Kevin Love in on the joke? Does anyone like Kevin Love?
We follow Team Banana Boat on vacation, and chart the ups and downs within Team Blake and DeAndre (hold your head, Matias). We note with great amusement how the Cavs try to rival the Warriors’ chemistry on and off the court. The Dubs had the coco, the Cavs had Lil’ Kev.
Why do we care? Sure, there’s the voyeuristic thrill of it all — the little charge that comes with following anything on social media. But there’s something else to it: Chemistry can be its own advanced metric. It can be a predictor of future success. Back in 2012, you could look at the shooting acumen of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and think, “Man, the Warriors are gonna be really good.” But the real tell was the bench celebrations.
If the guys at the end of the rotation enjoyed this team so much, maybe it was worth taking notice. There are different kinds of Public Chemistry (patent pending). What you see above, with the Kent Bazemore celebrations, that’s Startup Chemistry. That’s a young team on the rise, and, to use everyone’s favorite startup term, they are trying to disrupt. Here, you don’t revere Blake Griffin; you mock him:
Every important 3-pointer has players falling out of their seats, every postseason press conference is an opportunity to spend time with their kids. When the team has Startup Chemistry, it’s too young to know its place in the NBA hierarchy.
As we’ve seen with the Warriors, Startup Chemistry can quickly evolve into Establishment Chemistry. One day, you’re the new kids on the block, the next you’re complaining about foul calls in the Finals, or admonishing other teams for celebrating too much. You become what you once rebelled against. It’s the circle of life.
This is what stings about Kevin Durant’s decision to join Golden State (and what’s rumored to have rankled his former teammates on the Thunder): He left for the very team they were poised to upend. Forget the Finals loss, the Warriors are the NBA’s alpha dogs. We need someone to challenge their supremacy, both athletically and socially. This has been pointed out repeatedly, by numerous people, but the problem with Durant’s move to the Warriors isn’t just that he made one of the best teams in the league even better, he also decimated Golden State’s chief Western Conference rivals in the process. Who will stand up to the establishment now? Who will say, “No, sir, I will not be kicked in the balls”? The Thunder are dead. Who will take their place?
Is that Dark Giannis’s music I hear?
All week, you have read about the teams poised to be the next Thunder. Teams with young cores, good coaching, and solid infrastructure — the Jazz, the Nuggets, the T-Wolves, even the Sixers. The Milwaukee Bucks have all that, sure. They also have a 6-foot-11 point guard who can Eurostep from near the half-court line. Most believe that as long as Milwaukee has Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s never going to fail.
But the Bucks have something else — they have vibes. They have Startup Chemistry:
NBA chemists have had their eyes on Milwaukee since the above video dropped in 2014. Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, John Henson — these guys aren’t just good, they’re fun. They have distinct 2010–12 Thunder vibes: young pros full of basketball potential, living in a small city, who seem to be having a social experience that’s very much an extension of college life. They hang out, they goof off, they play video games, and they’ve got each other’s backs.
The Bucks have had their ups and downs over the past two seasons. They weren’t able to capitalize on their 2014–15 playoff berth thanks to a largely forgettable 2015–16 campaign, during which O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless seemed to be Jason Kidd’s two favorite backcourt handlers. Greg Monroe — last summer’s big free-agent signing — was supposed to take them to another tier, but has thus far been a flop in Kidd’s system. But toward the end of the season, after Michael Carter-Williams went down with an injury, Kidd turned the team over to Giannis, and a Lake Michigan monster was born.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at the wins and losses (they went 2–5 in April), but last season ended on a high. Listen to John Henson’s exit interview here:
The wins slipped, but the culture didn’t.
Over the summer, we lost the Thunder as we knew them. We also lost the Funder. We lost KD telling Serge he didn’t know where his water bottle was, we lost the novelty of the Stache Bros, we lost Durant and Westbrook holding press conferences looking like extras from Rugrats. The NBA season is dark and full of Wednesday night games in Utah; it can be a slog. You need to cheer for something beyond the record, the true shooting percentage, and the real plus-minus. The season is a story, and stories need characters. With the Warriors — no matter how sumptuous the basketball — the 2016–17 season has its villains. Who will be the heroes? Why not the Bucks?