Kevin Durant looks like he's back to his pre-injury form. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant looks like he's 25 again at times, even dunking! Still, when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers meet Wednesday night, there remain plenty of issues for both teams.
ESPN.com beat writers Baxter Holmes and Royce Young bring their locker room and reporting knowledge and discuss some of those issues facing both of the teams they cover.
Change is afoot
Holmes: It feels like after a shaky start, the Thunder are starting to hit their stride a bit and Billy Donovan is starting to get the hang of things. What has changed? And is this team any better off now than it was under Scott Brooks?
Young: Here's the big change: Kevin Durant has played for a month straight. And not only that, he's completely healthy again, and playing at maybe his highest efficiency level ever. Since Durant returned from his hamstring injury, the Thunder are 11-3, with the three losses all coming on the road to top Eastern Conference teams by a combined 10 points. Their margin of victory is +11.3 points, and they're outscoring teams by 12.2 points per 100 possessions. (The Warriors in that same span: +12.1 margin of victory, +15.4 net rating.)
Some stats suggest the Thunder are improved under Donovan. They're isolating less, or at least being more judicious in how they do it. Per NBA Stats, the Thunder are in isolation 8.4 percent of the time, down from 14 percent a season ago. They're getting more efficient shots for their best players, in better places on the floor, and while there are certainly rough spots to work through, there are positive signs of growth. The foundation laid in training camp appears to be taking shape over the last couple of weeks,
The question is, are these changes actually going to manifest in the postseason? A lot of that depends on how much of them become habitual over the next three months. That's Donovan's challenge ahead. It's one thing to get inspirational one-off performances that are easy on the eye; it's another to have it become second nature, to be the identity of the team.
But regardless: With Durant, and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are potent no matter what they're doing. It's kind of that simple with them.
OK, enough actual basketball. Let's get to what the people care about: As you chronicled in your four-part series, the Lakers haven't just fallen on hard times on the floor, but they aren't even the destination franchise they once were. So as Durant visits tonight, is there even any buzz in Lakers nation about it?
Holmes: Yes, there is buzz, and there always will be buzz, because the Lakers are the Lakers and they believe that they can nab anyone -- and Lakers fans believe the same. Remember: this is the NBA's glamour franchise, one that has always found a way to be good again even after taking a slight dip. Their longest playoff drought ever is just two seasons, which is simply remarkable. When times are tough, they just always seem to find a way to acquire a huge, game-changing star that alters everything and they're back on top just like that.
If the Lakers and their fans believe everything will work out, you can't blame them, because it pretty much always has. Does that mean that Durant is feasible? I don't really think so at this point. The Lakers just aren't competitive enough, and the fact that they got waxed by 40 points against the Thunder the other day probably doesn't help things. Still, Lakers fans -- and management -- will dream of Durant suiting up in purple and gold, and no doubt the team will make a hard run at him this summer.
Young: How much weight does the Lakers brand still carry? Because what Durant wants is his best shot at winning championships, and the Lakers aren't likely to provide that, at least in the immediate future, unless something drastic changes.
So if they were going to pitch him, the sell would have to be on picking up the Kobe torch and leading the Lakers into the next era as the new face of one of the greatest organizations in sports. Is that good enough anymore?
Holmes: The brand still is very powerful, one of the very best in sports, but I don't know how much team brands matter to individual players anymore when they know that they can build their own brands anywhere through social media and NBA League Pass and things like that. If big-market teams could at one point sell visibility and marketing and star power, that's no longer the case. People can be stars anywhere -- just look at Durant and Westbrook. That used to be one of the biggest selling points for the Lakers, and in some cases, it still is, though it obviously didn't work out so well with LaMarcus Aldridge.
I've written several pieces about how the modern NBA is just so different, thanks to technology and the new CBA. Those changes impact teams such as the Lakers in a very real way -- and they've acknowledged this at times. But it's still hard to transition to a new way of doing things when the old way worked so well for so long. At the moment, the Lakers can sell the idea of taking over for Kobe and playing alongside some young players who might be pretty good in two or three years. However, I don't know how great of a selling point that is for a player such as Durant, who is used to making deep playoff runs. As many agents and others have told me, what seems to resonate most with players these days is the idea of coming home. Aldridge did it by going back to Texas, LeBron did it by going back to Cleveland, etc. In that sense, I think it's in the Lakers' best interest to target Los Angeles natives, such as Westbrook, for instance.
So let me ask you, Royce: Is there any concern among Thunder fans -- or the organization -- about Durant leaving to join the Lakers? Or are the Lakers not much of a concern considering where the franchise is now?
Young: This isn't going to sound as profound as it does in my head but they still [i]are[/i] the Lakers. And despite the last few seasons, that keeps them as a wildcard. The fact they're the Lakers is the reason we're even having this discussion, and keeps it from being entirely preposterous. Imagine the Denver Nuggets were 5-23 and had the same present outlook of the Lakers. You're not asking that question.
It's no big secret what Durant is after in free agency, though. And sure, you can pitch a lot of things -- market, brand, whatever -- but in the end, it's going to be about the 14 players you can put around him. At least in the immediate future, that puts the Lakers on the fringe of any free agent conversation.
Because it's not just current roster, it's also direction. The Lakers are clearly adrift, searching for a path to follow that either lands them a big fish, or pulls them out of their current rut. Like you pointed it out, Durant got a glimpse of what the roster he'd be joining would look like just four days ago -- and his current one was 40 points better and it felt like it could've been 70.
Here's what I do if I'm the Lakers: Tell Durant to go back and sign a one-year deal with the Thunder. Get your 10 years of service, get your 35 percent max. And then in 2017, like you mentioned, when teammate and Los Angeles native Westbrook is a free agent as well, put the full court press on for both of them and cross your fingers. Still, probably a long-shot, but at least it sort of makes sense.
Because right now, what [i]is[/i] the plan? A zip code isn't a plan. After just saying, "We're the Lakers, come play for us because of that!" what's the outlook like? What's the vision look like that they could show a free agent, like say, Kevin Durant?
Holmes: The notion of taking over for Kobe Bryant matters, I think. That's worth something, especially to players who revere him, as Durant does. And being in Los Angeles matters too, though probably not as much as it used to because tons of players -- Durant included -- have offseason homes here. I don't think playing alongside some promising young players matters too much to Durant considering the talent he has often had around him.
"The Lakers are the Lakers, so they'll try to hit home runs and, hey, that strategy has worked out pretty well for them in the past. But, of course, so much has changed. I don't envision Durant wearing purple and gold next year." Baxter Holmes
If the Lakers' players were really good right now, then that would be enticing, but that isn't the case. I think they can point to all the star power they've had before and say that they're all about championships and point out detailed plans of how they plan to get back on top and, really, that's probably as much as they can do.
The Lakers are the Lakers, so they'll try to hit home runs and, hey, that strategy has worked out pretty well for them in the past. But, of course, so much has changed. I don't envision Durant wearing purple and gold next year. At this point, the most the Lakers can probably do -- as many around the league have stressed to me -- is develop their young players, hope you land Ben Simmons and build a better culture/environment. Once you do that, players will take notice. It might seem like baby steps for a team that only takes giant leaps, but that's how far the Lakers are from being good again.
What do you think are Durant's top options this summer? And why?
Young: It's boring, but really it's the Thunder and then everybody else. As Brian Windhorst wrote last week, the Thunder have been meticulously planning for this going on five years. They've worked to be ready, both on the court and off, to present the best possible pitch to Durant -- re-sign here, and not only are you on a contender for 2016-17, but you're probably on one for the five years following, too.
Take out a list of all 30 teams and start going through them with a red marker. It's really a process of elimination and you're only going to have a handful that you can even try to talk yourself into. There's no Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for someone to add alongside Durant in free agency, so a Miami Heat 2010 scenario is off the table. It's going to have to be a team that is ready-made without having to gut itself to get him. There aren't many of those out there.
Now, any team that adds Durant can quickly turn a mediocre roster into a contender because he's that kind of player. But are there any better than the one he already has, outside of doing the unlikely and joining Stephen Curry in Golden State or LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio? Both those teams would have to work a sign-and-trade to make it happen anyway, so realistic options isn't a deep list.
Durant's decision in 2016 is going to going to shape the rest of his career, and it's not a coincidence the players he often talks about in the highest regard are one-franchise guys, like Kobe, like Tim Duncan, like Dirk Nowitzki. Legacy matters, and engraining yourself into the fabric of a single organization is one of the best ways to build one. Like Bird. Like Magic. Like Russell. Like Reggie Miller or John Stockton or Isiah Thomas or Dr. J. Like MJ (come on, we all pretend the Wizards years never happened).
But like Durant said last week, it's a lot easier to do that when you're winning titles with that team.