OKLAHOMA CITY — The hand was raised for the first question on OKC’s first media day without Russell Westbrook.
At the podium on Sept. 30 was Chris Paul, and as the microphone landed in a reporter’s hand and he began to identify himself, Paul interrupted.
“Berry Tramel,” Paul said with a smile. “What’s going on? You didn’t have to say your name. Long time no see.”
Tramel, The Oklahoman columnist and long-standing presumed adversary of Westbrook who was routinely on the other end of the “next question” shtick, replied sharply: “You’re going to get a bad reputation treating me like that.”
It wasn’t an audible gasp from the assembled media, but the narrative of the moment was overflowing as reporters hammered away at their keyboards making note.
If you were looking for a sign that this season was going to be something different for the Oklahoma City Thunder, here it was.
Paul flashed the charm in full during his session, detailing expectations for the season, sharing how excited he was in a fresh start, while also playing up the nostalgia element.
“It’s different being back,” said Paul, who played his first two seasons in Oklahoma City when the then-New Orleans Hornets temporarily relocated because of Hurricane Katrina. “I had the opportunity to start my career here in 2005, so [I am] blessed and fortunate to be back.”
Paul shouted out an arena employee he remembered. He plugged Charleston’s, a long-standing OKC restaurant chain he used to eat at “every day pregame,” and he remembered practices at nearby Southern Nazarene University.
As he exited the podium, Steven Adams entered, and Paul gave him a fist bump. Paul and Adams already have a connection building, with Paul frequently expressing how excited he is to play with the Big Kiwi, but there is still an obvious getting-to-know-you period going on.
“You’ve gotta teach me that,” Paul said to Adams as they crossed on the steps, mimicking a squat.
“What, the Haka?” Adams said, referencing the ceremonial dance in Maori culture.
“Yeah, that,” Paul said.
Chapter 2 for the Thunder was officially underway. And for the first time, no original members remain from the team that relocated from Seattle 11 years ago.
One franchise pillar’s absence more noticeable than all the rest.
OKC’S LOCKER ROOM was always a few degrees warmer than the rest of the building — that was the way Westbrook liked it. Newer teammates would sometimes remark how hot it was, but the general response was always the same.
If you’ve got a problem with it, take it up with Russ.
The thermostat has since returned to normal levels, and there have been other tangible differences to these Thunder that are easy to identify: Sam Presti has a beard, Billy Donovan has a new haircut. New assistant coaches, and a lot of new players.
But as they move on from Paul George and from Westbrook, a player intrinsically connected to the fabric of the franchise, it’s the abstract differences that are felt most. Media day lacked the traditional buzz, with fewer stations and fewer reporters. Gone were questions about championship expectations or pressure to contend.
Inside the locker room, Westbrook’s spot is now shared by training camp invitees and will likely be empty on opening night. Once upon a time, James Harden was at the locker to the right of Westbrook’s, and Kevin Durant to the right of Harden’s. Harden was traded, Durant left, and for the past few years, the lockers next to Westbrook’s stayed empty.
He’d use the chair placed in front of Harden’s as a footstool before every game, sitting alone with earbuds in, shooting side-eyes to anyone new who entered the room.
“Someone was there, and now they’re not,” Adams said of Westbrook’s departure. “As morbid as this may sound, [it is] similar to someone passing away. But not like that. But you get the gist.
“You carry on, because life goes on, but little things come up, like a parking spot.”
Adams said he now parks in Westbrook’s traditional spot sometimes. A year ago, that would’ve been akin to walking into a lion’s den and pulling on its tail.
The Thunder have orbited in Westbrook’s universe the past few years, and his gravity was felt in every room of every building he occupied. For some, it was exhausting to deal with on a day-in, day-out basis. Every decision, every policy, whether minor or major, flowed through Westbrook.
Small things were debated and decided, meticulously planned and plotted. Routine was religion.
“We’re still the Thunder, at the end of the day. The team name didn’t change just because he left.”
Thunder SG Terrance Ferguson
The Thunder rode that wave with Westbrook to the bitter end, loyally defending his flaws and quirks, and often taking criticism for it.
But with Westbrook vacating his spot in the locker room, and in the parking lot, there is a vacuum in leadership and personality around the team. Paul will organically fill some of it, Adams has already picked up the culture torch and the gaggle of young players will add an energetic dynamic.
Still, there are gaps to fill, and no one really knows what this team’s identity will look like.
“Russell obviously had an unbelievable career here, and I think that’s been well-documented,” Presti said. “And now there’s opportunity for us to chart a new path.”
THE BALL BOUNCED twice and hung on the side of the rim for just a moment. Paul and Danilo Gallinari camped underneath the basket, waiting.
It was mid-third quarter of the annual Blue/White scrimmage — held at the Thunder’s original practice facility, in Edmond, Oklahoma, on Sunday — and as the ball finally spilled over the side of the basket, Paul pulled his arms back and the 6-foot-8 Gallinari snagged the rebound.
An unremarkable signal of point guard deference known and observed by almost every short player in league — let your big guys get their boards, and let them hand you the ball. That, notoriously, was not the way Westbrook approached rebounding in OKC. His mindset is one of basketball capitalism: If you want it, go get it.
Adams was often caught in the middle of the Westbrook stat-padding debate, with the triple-double truthers claiming Westbrook “stole” rebounds from him. Adams never felt that way about it, always taking the team-rebounding approach and never caring about a single tally mark next to his name in the stat sheet. As long as someone got it and they could stop playing defense, he was all good.
Last season, per Second Spectrum data, Adams ranked third in the league in total boxouts (713) and eighth in defensive boxouts (491), but 58th in defensive rebounds per game (Stephen Curry averaged more). Westbrook had 46 total boxouts last season yet pulled in 47 more total rebounds than Adams. Some of it was by design (it helped the Thunder play faster), some of it was just the nature in which Westbrook plays, some of it probably had at least a little something to do with round numbers and historical significance.
“The aim was to just get the ball down as fast as possible, right? So one of the things that was good with Russ is he could just go get the ball,” Adams said.
“He’d just go get it, and then we’d start right away. We’d just sprint.”
In the intrasquad scrimmage, Adams twice ripped down a defensive rebound and quickly brought it up the floor himself to initiate the offense, Draymond Green-style. He launched two full-court touchdown outlets off defensive boards to leaking teammates.
In 19 minutes, Adams grabbed 21 rebounds.
“Now it’s just a bit more traditional sort of joint: You rebound, try to find the closest guy to outlet,” Adams said. “As opposed to Russ, bro, as soon as [teammates] see he had it, they’re gone.”
There have been a couple of times, Adams admitted, he’s had to remind himself in practices to actually, you know, get the rebound.
“It’s like my guy is over here, and I’m boxing him out so far, and the ball just hits the ground,” Adams said. “Which, for a coach, is not a bad thing.
“But for practicality, obviously, someone needs to go get the f—ing ball.”
AS THE DOORS swung open to the first day of practice last Tuesday, Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander competed in a free throw contest at the basket that used to be reserved for Westbrook to shoot — alone, always alone — after practices.
It all feels different, because it is. Westbrook’s absence is impossible to ignore.
Few players generate the kind of influence and magnetism he does. He set standards, he helped establish culture and identity. He was the constant, the reliable cornerstone. He oversaw a decade of success in OKC that featured the second-best overall record in the league and 107 playoff wins. An MVP award, historic achievements, city- and state-wide impacts ranging far wider than basketball. The Thunder and Westbrook’s brand were synonymous.
But personality is different than identity, and the Thunder’s runs deeper than any one player. Westbrook was no doubt the most iconic, but he didn’t take with him the values that had been established.
“We’re still the Thunder, at the end of the day,” Terrance Ferguson said. “The team name didn’t change just because he left.”
The Thunder are transitioning now, though, and there’s some curiosity about how fans will react to lean years as they reposition the roster. More players will leave, more players will arrive and the turbine will continue to spin.
“You’re just here to help,” Adams said. “And if you can place your brick, whatever you want to call it … then that’s a privilege, you know. That’s just cool.
“So even if they did trade me, it’s obviously just a huge honor. And I know with every player that’s here, it’s been a huge honor to contribute to the history that Oklahoma is making.”
Presti hasn’t been shy about laying out the upcoming plan. There’s a rebuild on the horizon, but it hasn’t arrived yet. You can’t rebuild a house you haven’t yet torn down.
The Thunder have fought off a rebuild for years and are one of only a couple teams that haven’t fully deconstructed in the past 10 years. And while that day is coming, they expect to have a quality team in 2019-20.
“Teams are organisms. Teams are always changing,” Presti said. “You can bring back the same exact people. But the team will be different, and teams change day to day, and the reason why is because they’re made of humans, right?
“So everyone is different, and I think our team will adapt accordingly.”
Paul is the new de facto face of the team, and a natural leader who already has group texts going and has spent time trying to connect with his new teammates and coaches. While there’s an uncertainty around everyone on the roster — especially Paul — there’s also an investment in the season. Paul has plenty to prove, and the Thunder couldn’t be clearer that they have no intention to tank.
“The one thing this organization does really well is you keep consistent with the values,” Adams said. “Doesn’t really matter who the players are, you’ve just got to uphold — we still represent Oklahoma, the people here. We still have a duty to the people that we have to fulfill.”
The expectations have changed. The style of play will be drastically altered. The vibe, the details, the routines, the fashion choices — they, too, will all be different.
There’s yet another future Hall of Fame guard wearing a Thunder uniform. There’s Adams, there’s Gallinari, there’s Dennis Schroder, there’s a collection of interesting young players.
There isn’t, though, a Russell Westbrook.