Victor Oladipo sat in the first class section of a commercial flight headed from Washington, DC, to Greensboro, NC, on the night of June 23, 2016. The 24-year-old was traveling south for Chris Paul’s summer camp, where every year CP3 and some big-name guests tutor youngsters who have dreams of one day reaching the level of the camp’s namesake. Oladipo took the trip alone, no friends or family accompanying him, and at some point during the flight, his phone began to buzz. One text, then another, then another, over and over again—dozens and dozens of never-ending text messages flooding his notifications. This is how Oladipo learned he was traded from the Orlando Magic to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Amidst the flurry of texts that arrived was one from a number Oladipo didn’t have in his phone.
Oladipo responded to the text the same way all of us do when a message comes in from an unknown set of digits: “Who is this?”
Somewhere in Los Angeles, a five-time NBA All-Star and one of the best basketball players on the planet must have cracked up.
It’s a little over four months later, and Russell Westbrook is standing next to Oladipo and Steven Adams in the Thunder’s old practice facility as the group poses for the photos you see in this story. “We going tucked in?” Vic asks the other two. He and Adams both have their jerseys scrunched into their shorts, while Westbrook’s hangs loose above his.
“Hell no,” Russ responds. “Untucked.”
Oladipo and Adams promptly remove their jerseys from their shorts.
You see, after the events of this past summer, the Thunder are unequivocally Westbrook’s team. The organization’s other big dog has moved on, and now the team has one true leader, a couple of young, suddenly well-paid associates and a collection of role players that will go only as far as their captain takes them.
As this is being written, just a handful of games into the season, the dynamics of the new Thunder are already clear: Russ is going to be doing a lot. His usage percentage—an estimate of the percentage of plays he’s directly involved in while on the floor—is at this moment 41.4 percent, ahead of second place DeMarcus Cousins' 36.7 and DeMar DeRozan’s 34.4. (Cousins led the NBA in the stat last season with 35.4; Russ was sixth at 31.6.) He’s also leading the NBA in Value Over Replacement Player and Box Plus/Minus, two fancy but effective ways of stating that the Thunder are much, much better when he’s on the court than when he is not. (Ya think?)
According to Noah LaRoche, the founder of Integrity Hoops who trained Russ this past summer in L.A., Russ didn’t prep for life after Kevin Durant any differently than he would for any other season. The two spent a lot of time working on “doing more with less and taking what the defense gives you,” LaRoche says. “Just getting to your spots and getting your hands free—and ways to get to your spot and get your hands free, using position or using your dribble.”
LaRoche began training Russ in the summer of 2015—he was previously a video analyst for the Thunder, then met Westbrook again a few years later while consulting for Wasserman, the agency Russ is signed to. LaRoche and Westbrook worked diligently that summer on improving the point guard’s game around the basket, and though LaRoche admits a lot of their training went unused during the ensuing season—not due to Russ ignoring their work so much as the fact that it takes time for the training to seep into an in-game routine—he’s starting to see a lot of what they’ve worked on in Russ’ game now.
Westbrook’s teammate Anthony Morrow played against Russ in college at Georgia Tech and has known him since the two entered the NBA in '08. “When I saw my dog signed back with us in OKC,I [sic] called him Last night and said ‘you the realist since 2pac,’” Morrow tweeted in early August after Westbrook signed a three-year extension with the Thunder.
“Yeah, I call him Pac,” Morrow says. “If anybody talks about Pac they always talk about how persistent he was, how hard-working he was. Russ is the same. When it’s showtime, you get all of him. You get the great times. You get the crazy stuff. You get the facial expressions. It’s just his attitude. Everybody either loves him or hates him—and if you don’t like him, you really do love him, you know what I’m saying? It’s not like comparing their lifestyles—it’s nothing to do with that. It’s from a standpoint of working hard and being unapologetic, being yourself. Just, ‘You embrace me for whatever you embrace me for.’ That passion.
“He loves [the nickname], 'cause it’s Pac,” Morrow continues. “We all love Pac. I also call him Maniac Russ. I call him Killer. But I give everybody a nickname. I’m a nickname guy.”
The night after our photo shoot in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have a home game against the Phoenix Suns. The arrival of the Suns also means the arrival of their head coach, Earl Watson.
Watson and Westbrook go way back, and if you believe Watson, he knew Westbrook would be every bit as good as he currently is from the start.
Like Westbrook, Watson attended UCLA, and he spends his summers in Los Angeles, mostly hanging around the school’s gym. The summer before his freshman year in 2006, Russ would play pick-up with some L.A.-based pros during their recurring game at UCLA, which took place four days per week, Monday to Thursday. “Russ didn’t miss one day,” Watson says. “He was the only player that never missed one day.”
The following summer, after one of those pick-up games in between Russ’ freshman and sophomore years, Watson walked out of the gym and ran into then-UCLA head coach Ben Howland. Howland asked Watson whom he liked of the guys who had been playing. “I said, ‘Man, Russell Westbrook,’” Watson recalls. “[Howland] said, ‘No, no, no. Kevin Love was there, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Kevin’s there.’ He said, ‘Darren Collison?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but Russ is your best player.’ He was like, ‘No, no.’ And I said, ‘Coach, trust me, he’s gone after this year.’”
Watson ran into another important figure in Westbrook’s life that summer, too: the GM for the NBA franchise Watson was playing for at the time, Sam Presti, of the Seattle SuperSonics (who would soon become the OKC Thunder). Presti asked Watson which young guys he had been playing with around L.A. that he thought could develop into someone special, and Watson told Presti the same thing he told Howland. Watson says now that Presti laughed him off, but a year later, after Westbrook showed out during his sophomore year at UCLA, there was Presti selecting the hard-nosed PG from Long Beach with the fourth pick of the 2008 NBA Draft.
You know the story from there: five All-Star selections, one All-NBA First Team and four Second Team appearances, a postseason run of some sort in every season since 2010 with the exception of ’15, and an evolution into a true, all-around superstar alongside a friend and counterpart who experienced a similar progression simultaneously.
Fast forward to late October 2016, and now, for literally the first time in Oklahoma City Thunder history, things look way different. Oladipo is in tow, with a steady responsibility to be the team’s second-leading scorer, and Adams has developed into the group’s enforcer, there to grab a difficult rebound or toss an elbow at an irritating opponent at a moment’s notice.
On October 31, the Thunder committed fully to the 23-year-old Adams, gifting him a four-year, $100 million contract extension. “Steven’s a little bit of a unique guy,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan says, “and what I mean by that—and I really admire this—is it’s not about Steven in terms of his growth. It’s not about that. He wants to grow because he knows if he grows, it helps the team. He’s a total and consummate team guy—everything’s about the team. So it’s not like, I want to touch the ball more, I want to score more. Some guys want to expand their games for personal reasons—he wants to expand his game to help our team.”
Adams came to America in late 2011 from New Zealand, where he still spends every summer. He learned of KD’s defection while there this past July. “I was like six hours behind the news,” he says. “I woke up in the morning and everyone already did their spiel or whatever. My mate texted and was like, ‘KD left!’ I was like, ‘Oh. Sweetness.’”
Adams has a tendency to reduce seemingly important, or at least eye-opening, events into triviality—he referred to Westbrook’s 51-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist outburst in OKC’s home opener as “standard”—and as such the media relies on him as a light-hearted complement to Westbrook’s occasional standoffishness with the press.
Adams says he likes living in Oklahoma City, if only because it reminds him a lot of Christchurch, a city on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island where the residents are similarly kind. Asked how he spends his time with his teammates around OKC, he responds, “We do dinners. It’s whatever, bro. Usually we’re just tired from practice, so we’ll want to step back. We do different activities, golfing and whatnot. Go to the zoo.”
But as cunningly hilarious as Adams is off the court, to opponents, he’s equally annoying and maddening on it.
Just ask his new teammate. “A year ago I wanted to fight him,” Oladipo says. “I literally wanted to smack him.”
Vic remembers a time when the Magic were visiting Oklahoma City, and a chase for the ball resulted in Adams laying on top of Oladipo, who was struggling to get up on his feet. “So when I stood up, I pushed him,” Oladipo says with a smirk. “‘I was like, if you touch me again, I’m gonna smack you.
“Now I’ve got his back more than anybody else,” he adds. “If anybody tries to mess with him, I‘m right there. He’s just a good person. People might have a misconception of him, but it’s a good misconception, because we don’t want them to know what he’s really like. He’s a great person to be around.”
Oladipo, meanwhile, also has a little history with another member of the franchise—Donovan. When Vic was a high schooler at DC-area powerhouse DeMatha Catholic, Donovan started to recruit him—but didn’t finish, choosing not to give Oladipo an offer to come play for him at the University of Florida. “He was a post player at 6-3,” Donovan says. “I never saw him shoot. So I’m sitting there, like—it’s hard to see it. I just wasn’t sure if, at his size, he could play power forward in college.”
Donovan called Oladipo the week he moved to OKC. “When he was traded here, I told him, ‘That was a huge recruiting mistake by me,’” Donovan says. “Victor’s always been a great guy. I was very honest with him back in high school, but I really admired the career he had at Indiana and I’m really happy I’m getting to coach him now.”
Through 24 games, Oladipo’s numbers are almost exactly where they were during his previous couple of seasons in Orlando, with upticks in his field goal and three-point percentage. “Getting traded and being on a new team, all the spots where I get my shots are different from where they were before, so I’ve gotta start over a little bit,” he says. “But I’m happy with where I’m at.”
Oladipo, who, like Adams, was also given a fat contract extension in late October, spent a bunch of time with Westbrook this past summer after he learned of the trade, training with him for a couple months in L.A. The two are close—their lockers reside next to one another both in Oklahoma City and in visiting arenas—and they sit close by each other before games begin, blaring music from their headphones and cracking jokes.
In the aforementioned home opener against the Suns, Westbrook comes out fiery, D-ing up Devin Booker early. He screams “NAH, NAH” after he shuts DBook down one possession in, but any momentum is quickly halted, and the Suns take over, leading almost the entire game. Westbrook is by far the most talented player on the floor, though, and during the fourth quarter he drags the Thunder back into the game, pushes the contest into overtime and then guides OKC to victory, as he will just about every time the team wins this season.
After the Suns game, the mood in the locker room is jovial—Adams cracks jokes, Oladipo looks relaxed, and Westbrook actually smiles and expounds on answers when he responds to questions from the press. It goes without saying that it’ll be quite the uphill battle for this team, as currently constructed, to win an NBA championship, but the group is already starting to form a new, fresh, post-Durant identity. “It is different [than last season], in a good way,” Adams says. “It’s positive. It’s more of a family environment. We’re much more connected. Everyone’s on the same page. There’s no, like—it’s hard to explain. It just feels good. I think it’s just because there’s a lot of young players here, so there’s a lot of energy around. And you have Russ, who’s just the master of energy. The energy guru.”
Before the Energy Guru—aka Pac aka Maniac Russ aka Killer—bolts from the locker room following his huddle with the local beat reporters, I ask him about the difference between this year and last. He answered a similar question earlier in the day with, “One year older,” but the Thunder are fresh off a win, so it seems like a slightly better time to tackle the elephant in the room.
“It is different, for sure,” he says, nodding. “But at the same time, it’s a great challenge. I’ve been blessed to be in the position I’m in, and I’ve been put in this position for a reason. My job is to embrace the challenge and enjoy it.”