I read a public statement today that has forced me to put the previous eight seasons of the Oklahoma City Thunder in an entirely new light. After the US Men's Olympic basketball team trounced Argentina, Kevin Durant said:
"I was telling myself before I left my room that I'm at my best when I don't care if we win or lose," Durant said, "It might be different for other players, but for me I'm more free and more aggressive in games and it's more fun for me if I don't care about the outcome."
Hmmm.... well... that's very participation trophy-ish of him to say and I'm not quite sure how to respond... perhaps "oh goodie" is the way to go here?
Durant is right about one thing however, and I don't think I am missing the mark too far when I say this; it IS different for other players, for most players, including his new BFF Draymond Green.....
and is absolutely the polar opposite of former Thunder running mate Russell Westbrook. A man that hates losing more than I detest coleslaw, who said in his recent press conference after extending his tenure in Oklahoma City that...
The most important part for me is winning. If I'm the go-to guy or not, my job is to find ways to win..... I love being around my teammates, I love hanging around these guys, I love going to war with them....
A man that won the coveted NBA scoring title in 2015 and basically threw it in the trash like yesterday's garbage:
During their time together, much was made out of the occasional tiff between the Thunder's two All-Stars. Both players downplayed any rift, but after Durant's recent comment, I'm surprised he and Westbrook were able to co-exist at all, much less achieve the success they enjoyed together. The team's leadership dynamic must have been unique to say the least. At times it must have felt like George Patton and Mary Poppins were leading the troops into the Battle of the Bulge or Axl Rose and Mr. Rogers fronting for Guns N'Roses.
I would have dearly loved seeing these two take one more shot. I felt they could have won their first title together if they had, but maybe, like the late John Lennon said in his first solo album after he and Paul McCartney split up the Beatles, it was time to move on, the dream was over....or in this case, the illusion was over.
Of the two, I prefer the "second place sucks" drive of Westbrook over the youth soccer league approach that apparently Durant embraces. I may be mistaken, but I don't believe I ever heard the words "I don't care if we win or lose" come out of Michael Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird's mouth in any way, form, or fashion...... ever.
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
- Sun Tzu
I'm not certain how a coach should deal with such diverse mindsets. One leader that refers to the game as going into battle while the other wants to take a what.... less intense posture...schedule two huddles in the closing seconds of a game?
The first a traditional "damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" approach?
And then switch to the more Zen like approach?
Is Bobby Finstock available to join the coaching staff?
As I said, I prefer Westbrook's "take it" style over Durant's "just go out there and do your best" methodology, and I have a strong sense that the players on the current Thunder roster will gravitate toward my preference as well. In fact, they may find it a decided relief not being torn between one leader saying "let's go" in one ear and the other saying, "Have a Nice Day" in the other.
Case in point, Anthony Morrow. To be effective, he has to be the steely-eyed assassin we saw in 2015 with Westbrook at the helm.....
and not the lowest free throw percentage of his career, second lowest two point percentage, and didn't break the 40% barrier from distance for the first time in three years player we saw last year.
I think Presti touched on this point in Westbrook's press conference on August 4th:
From a roster standpoint, my conversations with Russell, one thing I think you look at the team, there's a certain element of toughness. I think there's a certain edge to the team.
Believe it or not, this is not an attempt to deride Durant's approach to the game. His talent speaks for itself, so whatever trips his trigger or floats his boat is okay, I just know it wouldn't work for me and I think it speaks volumes about Westbrook as a person that he was able to achieve so much with someone he probably struggled to relate with at such a fundamental level. The question is, how much will he accomplish with an entire team that is on the same page...his page?
I'm excited to find out. Westbrook once said:
I've always had to prove myself to people growing up. I had to show them that I could do this and I could do that and paying no mind to what the critics said.
Now he has to prove himself as the undisputed leader of a contending team. Growing up Russell had Khelcey Barr, in college he had Darren Collison and Kevin Love, and for the last eight seasons he has shared the limelight with Durant. For the first time Westbrook is without question.... the man. Even in 2015 when he led the team to within a tiebreaker of the playoffs, Durant was lurking in the shadows. Today he stands alone and I say he is ready.
I like it when experts doubt Westbrook's ability. That is when he shines brightest. Prior to last season I posted a video of Westbrook's end of season interview after the 2015 season. I think it is worth watching again:
I have watched Westbrook interviews from his first season with the Thunder to the present. He is a very private individual and rarely lets his guard down but this interview, as well as the one on August 4th, are a few of those times. It was raw, insightful, and even humble. The lessons learned from that season coupled with the events that have occurred this year, some good, some tragic should serve Westbrook well in the challenge ahead.
How far he will lead his team is yet to be determined, but there is one thing we now know, no matter what, Russell will not ask was it fun, he will ask, just as he asked Presti after Durant took his "boys just want to have fun" game to the west coast, what's next.