To say that tonight is the most anticipated game of the NBA season would be an understatement.
Kevin Durant, the man who made the biggest heel turn in the NBA this summer when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder to take his talents to Golden State, returns to the fan base who he spurned this summer.
Now this isn’t the first meeting between the two teams. Golden State has hammered the Thunder in the first two meetings of the season – beating them 122-96 in their first match-up on November 4th (a match-up that saw Durant put a game high 39 on his old team) and 121-100 on January 18th (Durant scored a game 40 points) – but this one is the first one on Duran’s old turf. It’s the first one with all the drama and pathos that we live for when we watch sports. The ultimate escapism.
The 24/7 sports media cycle is having a field day with this one and why wouldn’t they? Durant leaving for Golden State was the biggest story of the off-season and remains the biggest story of the season. Here was a team that won a record 73 games last season and had the man who won the last two MVP awards in Steph Curry. Now in adding KD they had the two men who won the last three – creating a virtual all-star time.
Or really, a literal one given the fact that the Warriors are fielding four all-stars this season: Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – who by the way just set an NBA record by becoming the first player ever to record a triple double that didn’t involve any points last night: 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals (when he isn’t kicking dudes in the balls he’s a great basketball player). The Warriors are a stacked team that really set the standard for the current NBA arms race. I don’t think any team will be able to top boasting the two guys who won the last three MVPs.
It’s easy to understand why people hate that KD went to Golden State. In a way it’s even an easier decision to malign than the most famous Decision in 2010.
Where LeBron left a Cleveland team who never really gave him anything to play with beyond Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and had to watch the Boston Celtics bring in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play with Paul Pierce and win the championship – just one year after he dragged a mediocre Cavs team to the NBA Finals (they got swept by the Spurs) in one of the most Herculean individual playoff performances you will ever see, Durant and the Thunder had just lost to the Warriors team that he was now going to play for the Conference finals after blowing a 3-1 lead (see the Warriors didn’t do it first).
Where LeBron and Chris Bosh decided to leave their respective teams to join their friend, Dwyane Wade in Miami to play for a Heat team that was bounced out of the first round in five games by the powerhouse Celtics (who would go on to the NBA Finals), Durant was leaving for a team that set the record for single season wins. A team that the Thunder had on the ropes last year until they – especially Durant to be honest – took their collective boot off the Warriors throat. It shouldn’t have been surprising as the Thunder were one of the worst close-out teams through the regular season last year, but this had been the playoffs and things were supposed to be different.
I think that’s what made Durant’s choice so shocking. It was the literal embodiment of “if you can’t beat them, join them” and it just seemed unnecessary. The Thunder had them on the ropes. They had almost beaten them. Doing some retooling in the off-season and coming back at them would have been ideal. It wasn’t like Durant was leaving a bad team either.
If he was number one in OKC, Russell Westbrook was number 2, he was 1A. Durant had a partner who could everything he couldn’t and even most of what he could. Where Durant was quiet and reserved, Westbrook was outspoken (just look at all those technicals!) and flashy (look at those outfits). Where Durant’s game could seem methodical and thoughtful, Westbrook was an explosive dynamo. Where Durant was one of the game’s best pure scorers, Westbrook was a triple double machine. It was a match made in basketball heaven and was supposed to be the foundation on which a championship team could be built. Now it won’t be.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that the Thunder were the team of the future. They had just made the 2012 NBA Finals, and although they lost to the powerhouse Miami Heat in five, we were all sure there would be more. They were a star studded young team with a core of future superstars. Their coronation was inevitable.
And then it wasn’t.
The Thunder shipped James Harden to the Houston Rockets just before the 2012-13 season after they couldn’t agree on a contract extension. Harden would become one of the best players in the league and a perennial MVP candidate with the Rockets.
Westbrook injured his knee in the 2013 playoffs and a series of setbacks would cause him to miss most of the 2013-14 season.
Kevin Durant only played 27 games of the 2014-15 season due to a foot injury and the Thunder missed the playoffs despite Russell Westbrook’s heroics down the stretch.
Now Durant is gone too.
Never take anything for granted.
It’s easy to understand the frustration of the Oklahoma City Thunder fan base. They went from having a talent loaded young team of future superstars with the promise of many championships to come. Now they had nothing to show for it and their biggest star just bolted for the most stacked team in the league.
Of course the ritual jersey burnings make it a little bit harder to sympathize with the Thunder faithful.
So does the fact that Oklahoma City only has the Thunder because their scumbag ownership group chaired by Clay Bennett lied their way into ownership of the Seattle Supersonics and immediately went back on promises to keep the team in Seattle when they tried to hold the city hostage for $500 million in public funds to build a new arena. When the city scoffed, the Oklahoma City-based businessmen took the team to their hometown. Leaked e-mails would later reveal that was their plan all along.
Never forget that Kevin Durant was the last ever first round pick of the Seattle Supersonics when he was selected 2nd overall in 2007.
Thunder fans really don’t have much to stand on when you realize their team only exists because it was stolen from another fan base.
Also, the play of Russell Westbrook should make the sting a little bit easier.
Remember when Michael Jordan retired (the first of three times) in 1993 and missed most of two seasons to try and be a baseball player and everyone counted the Bulls out? Scottie Pippen put the team on his back and although they didn’t hit championship form in those years, they were still very competitive and for his part Scottie did something that only three other players have ever done (Pippen was the second after Dave Cowens in 1977-78, Kevin Garnett followed in 2002-03 and LeBron James did it in 2008-09).
Well Russell Westbrook is going off in a similar way and also at a record setting pace. He’s currently averaging a triple double for the season with 30.9 points, 10.2 assists and 10.5 rebounds per game. If he finishes the season at this pace he will become the first player since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season. Given how much the game has changed since then, we could be watching the greatest individual season ever unfold.
Westbrook currently has 26 triple doubles tied with two Robertson seasons (1960-61 and 1963-64) for third most in NBA history, he’s five short of Wilt Chamberlain’s second highest mark of 31 set in the 1973-74 season and 15 short of Robertson’s all-time record of 41 set in the 1961-62 season. What we’re witnessing unfold is truly historic. Westbrook is hitting heights that no player in the modern era has even come close to.
I think many of us knew that Westbrook would go off this season without Durant. He put up similarly spectacular numbers when Durant was finally shut down on the stretch run of the 2014-15 season, but this time he’s doing it as the man in OKC. He isn’t sharing the team with Durant anymore, it’s all his show.
Sam Presti and company deserve a lot of credit for that. They wasted no time in moving the team on from Durant and retooling it to suit Russell Westbrook in case of a Durant exit.
The draft day trade, which occurred just a week and a half before Durant’s exit seemed prophetic after he announced his intention to head to Golden State. The Thunder shipped Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for young, dynamic shooting guard Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis.
The trade gave Westbrook a young dynamic player to share the back court with in Oladipo and the subtraction of Ibaka promised a bigger starring role for Stephen Adams on offense and would allow for a quicker and more uptempo pace. Ilyasova would later be used to land key rotation player Jerami Grant
When Durant bolted, the Thunder were as ready to move on as they could be and the draft day blockbuster was a big reason why. Oladipo has been outstanding playing next to Westbrook and has been averaging a career high in points and his shooting percentages from both the field and three-point range have markedly improved. Sabonis is continuing to develop well and should be a nice rotational piece for the Thunder going forward.
The biggest boost of all for the Thunder is that a month after Durant’s departure, Westbrook signed a three year extension to stay in OKC.
That was a tremendous boost to a fan base that saw its biggest star bolt for greener pastures.
When Kevin Durant steps on his old home floor tonight. He should be booed. Not for anything he did wrong, because all he did was exercise his rights as a free agent, but because that’s the nature of the game. When you leave town for a better opportunity, you come back to get booed. It’s a proud tradition in the sporting world and one that I hope continues tonight.
I’ll be rooting for OKC too. Not because I dislike Durant, he’s an amazing player. Golden State is one of the greatest collections of talent that’s ever been put together. That’s exactly why I’ll boo them. I like them and all, but it’s way more gratifying to cheer for the underdog.
I hope that Westbrook goes off an does something insane like a 40 point triple double and the Thunder pull off a victory. Unlikely? Maybe. But it’d be a beautiful story and sports are at their best when they can create narratives like that for us.
The one narrative you shouldn’t buy into is that Durant is somehow weak for doing what he did. Yes it sucks to see one so stacked and we all would have rather seen him come back with the Thunder to try and avenge last year’s conference finals loss, but that’s not what happened and that’s okay. He’s a grown man and made a decision. If we don’t like the decision, while that’s our problem more than it is his. I mean I don’t like it either, but I can understand it.
The people who don’t will say dumb things like “Michael Jordan never did that”. Well free agency didn’t work the same when Michael Jordan played. The league wasn’t generating the billions and billions of dollars in revenue that it is today and Michael didn’t have to go anywhere but free agents like Dennis Rodman were coming to him. Plus if he was the best player of his era, the only guy who was probably a more athletic defender than him was ensconced in Chicago as his sidekick in the form of Scottie Pippen. The Bulls were the Warriors of their day. Jordan wasn’t in the Durant role, he was in the Steph Curry one. That gets lost in those silly comparisons.
The same will hold true if Westbrook decides to opt out in 2018 or ride out his extension until 2019 before bolting for LA – which had been rumoured for as long as Westbrook has been in the league. A reunion with former UCLA teammate Kevin Love in Los Angeles has been a longstanding league rumour that could come true when Love’s contract is up in 2020. The Lakers have a ton of money they currently aren’t spending and aren’t exactly a preferred destination for free agents right now.
Westbrook wouldn’t be a bad guy for going to the Lakers (strictly hypothetical I have no insider knowledge) or anywhere else when his contract is up. He’d just be exercising his rights.
Childish notions of loyalty or “playing for the name on the front of the jersey” need to be put to rest for good. These teams are owned by billionaires who, for the most part, would sell their own mother for a buck. That’s how they got ahead. They’d have no problem cutting loose a former star who fell on hard times due to injuries or simply didn’t have the scoring touch he once did. A basketball player, and any athlete really, has every right to maximize their earnings as much as they can in their prime years. It might piss off a lot of fans when I say it, but that’s the way it is.
I can assure you that the days of Jerry Buss-type owners who want to look after their players for the rest of their lives are long gone. They died with Dr. Buss. Now we’re stuck with the Jimmy Dolans and Clay Bennetts of the world and in the face of those types of unscrupulous liars owning NBA franchises, players would be out of their minds to put team loyalty ahead of personal well-being, earnings or in Durant’s case a desire to win a championship.
The name on the back of that jersey is all you have left once you’ve left the game behind.
Kevin Durant made what he thought was the best decision for Kevin Durant and if you don’t like it, you at least have to respect it and respect the man who made it.
So when you watch the game tonight feel free to pull for the Thunder. If you’re there boo Kevin Durant at the top of your lungs. Cheer against the powerhouse Warriors every step of the way.
Just don’t lose perspective.
Don’t hate Kevin Durant. Don’t the man or the basketball player and don’t hate the game.
Enjoy it for what it is, because it’s the best that it’s ever been, and take full advantage of watching guys like Durant and Westbrook in their primes.