They were supposed to be the next dynasty. The Oklahoma City Thunder had hit big on four straight first round draft picks—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden—something that is only possible in the 2K universe. It seemed like the Thunder were ready to kick off the Oklahoma City chapter of their franchise with a dynasty. That core developed quickly and made the Finals in 2012, losing to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in five games. It was supposed to be the first glimpse of the team that would run the decade. Instead they have become one of the biggest what ifs in NBA history.
This season is the beginning of a new era. I’m not referring to the losses of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, but something bigger. The three core members of the Thunder—Durant, Westbrook, and Harden— are all leading different teams. Harden and Westbrook are the literal hearts of their teams. Durant may be joining a star-studded cast in Golden State, but don’t play yourself into thinking he isn’t the top option. I don’t care what the Warriors have said about ‘no man is bigger than the next’, when you sign the second best player on the planet he’s your main guy.
When they were all under one roof the question of who was best fit to lead always came up and always brought varying answers. This season we will get a definitive answer or at least begin to. Each will have to the freedom to impose their personality on their team and be free to go after that MVP trophy. History tells us the one most scorned will likely perform the best. Think Kobe in 2007, LeBron in 2011, Durant in 2014—all of them entered that season with a massive chip on their shoulder and used that to have phenomenal seasons.
How exactly did we get to this point? The Thunder struck uranium and sold it for aluminum. They should be trotting out three of the six best players on the planet on opening night, but instead will just be sending out one. The other two left town with only Steven Adams as a consolation. Here are the dominoes.
July 2010: Kevin Durant signs five-year $85 million extension prior to the lockout. After lockout his deal increased from 25-percent of the cap to 30-percent of the cap (The Derrick Rose Rule) thus giving KD extra $15 million over the next five seasons.
January 2012: Russell Westbrook signs five-year extension worth $80 million, eating up 25-percent of the cap. Him and Durant now account for 55-percent of the cap.
June 2012: Thunder lose NBA Finals in five to the Heat. James Harden virtual no show in series and player most scrutinized following the series.
August 2012: Serge Ibaka signs four-year extension worth $48 million. Harden would be forced to take a discount if he is to stay.
October 2012: James Harden gets traded to the Rockets after not signing a four-year $54 million extension. Thunder receive two first-round picks (Steven Adams and Mitch McGary), a second-round pick, Jeremy Lamb, and Kevin Martin.
May 2014: Durant wins first MVP in season. Westbrook misses majority of season recovering from injury.
April 2015: Westbrook goes on triple-double spree—four in a row, first since Michael Jordan— with Durant shelved for season with a foot injury.
May 2016: Thunder blow 3-1 lead to Golden State Warriors in Western Conference Finals.
July 2016: Durant signs two-year deal with Warriors worth $54 million.
August 2016: Westbrook signs three-year extension worth $85 million with player option for 2018-19.
As you can see it didn’t take one single event to bring us here. The one fatal mistake the Thunder made was not thinking ahead. Had they known the league would get considerably smaller in the next year I doubt they choose Ibaka and Perkins over keeping Harden. The fact that their fear of Dwight Howard motivated their move makes this tragedy slightly hysterical, but tragic nonetheless. Harden made the Thunder feel stupid right away, playing at a MVP level throughout his tenure in Houston. In between that greatness was some of the off the court nonsense the Thunder were skeptical of, but nothing should cause a team to trade away a talent like that for virtually nothing.
Moving into this season Harden would seem like the player least likely to carry a chip on his shoulder, but that is not the case. In addition to being called lazy, egotistical and problematic Harden also has an opportunity to have an apex season. Playing point guard under Mike D’Antoni, Harden will feel like Dom Toretto being handed the keys to a Dodge Charger. This fast-paced, high scoring offense is everything he ever wanted in the world and now he’s getting it at the perfect time.
It is true that he already carries a chip on his shoulder from the initial trade. But with all three now separate he can show just how far up the totem pole he deserved to be. He was the initial scapegoat that couldn’t handle the bright lights of the Finals. Now he can prove that the 2012 Finals was a fluke and he is every bit the player Westbrook or Durant are. He’s opening the season with the seventh best odds to win MVP this season behind his two friends turned foes.
That brings us to the hero, Russell Westbrook. He’s the one who chose to stay (although Harden was technically kicked out) when there was nothing to stay for. Once considered the player holding the Thunder back he is now the sole hope for them being competitive. In the aftermath of Durant fleeing for the team that had just beaten them Westbrook could have delayed his long term decision until the summer. Instead he signed a short-term extension to keep the focus on basketball and not impending free agency.
He is the odds on favorite to win the MVP this season and for good reason. He’s taking the brunt of the criticism in OKC his whole career and is still considered the reason Durant left. He should be able to channel that energy into cranking triple-doubles like Future cranks out songs. This Thunder squad is built eerily similar to the 2001 76ers who were led by Allen Iverson (played by Westbrook) and supported by a ferocious rim protector (Steven Adams), a sidekick that can hit a big shot and defend (Victor Oladipo) and a slew of role players that defend. Toss in the added motivation and Westbrook should impose his will on the league and carry the Thunder into the playoffs setting up a possible showdown with Durant.
Which brings us to the hero turned villain, Kevin Durant. He had everything a player could have wanted in OKC. A superstar teammate, great organization and full support from a diehard fan base. Still, he wanted a change of scenery which he is more than entitled to. The big mistake Durant made was not leaving more than it was going to the team that had just beat him in the Western Conference Finals. From a strictly basketball decision he made a ballsy, but wise move. From an ethics standpoint he comes across as an asshole.
Whatever backlash LeBron experienced by leaving Cleveland for Miami you can multiply that by ten to get a sense for what Durant is in store for. He is the sole reason for the league’s first true super team and if he doesn’t perform he could be hated from everyone outside and inside the Bay Area. This was Stephen Curry’s team, but it now belongs to Durant. Yes, everyone will get their shots, but if anyone believes Durant agreed to join the Warriors knowing he wouldn’t be taking the crucial shots is a moron. This is his Death Star and what he does with it during these two seasons will define his legacy. That is true fucking pressure.
That is why I think Durant has the most effective season since 2014. The Olympics allowed him to get a ton of reps playing with Draymond and Klay which made the adjustment period easier. The biggest hurdle the Warriors face is deciding between Curry and Durant on who’s team it really is. Players say it doesn’t matter, but we saw what happened in that first year in Miami with LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Just like Wade did in Miami (after a year struggle) Curry will have to bow out to KD which could be a blessing in disguise.
That sets us up for the new era. The three Thunder brothers will go after each other for the foreseeable future and dominate the Western Conference. Durant may lose the MVP battle to either Harden or Westbrook, but should win the war of capturing the ever elusive first ring. Or maybe LeBron wins both. Either way, the new era is upon us and the Thunder buddies will be in the middle of it all.