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How the ‘Big Four’ revolutionized the Oklahoma City Thunder

The 2011-12 team was defined by four stars: Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Harden

Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The history of the Thunder is well-documented.

Oklahoma City achieved success with a core that was assembled by drafting, not significant free agency additions.

It is relatively unusual for a team to build a championship-level core without adding players from other organizations.

The Celtics of the 1980s traded to acquire Robert Parish from the Warriors.

Parish’s defensive impact helped to elevate the Celtics into being a dynasty.

Some members of the 1990s Chicago Bulls were homegrown.

Still, there were notable additions from other teams.

Dennis Rodman was recruited after a chequered spell for the San Antonio Spurs where he played well but was a disruptive influence on the team.

Even the Golden State Warriors, a team praised for their draft acumen, needed a player of Andre Iguodala’s quality to win a title.

The Thunder got to the finals, with Kendrick Perkins being the most notable addition from another team.

Oklahoma City was powered by the big four - Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden - the four draftees who had grown alongside the franchise.

These four players have gone on to define the NBA over the last decade.

This statement is not a hyperbole. It is a reasonable statement to make.

Russell Westbrook achieved the honor of MVP for the Thunder, but his triple-doubles and all-consuming style has made him one of the best players to watch on a nightly basis.

James Harden has also won an MVP, but his impact goes more in-depth than stats, Harden’s has revolutionized the usage of the step-back three-pointer.

A shot that some have considered gimmicky has become a necessary tool for many scorers in the league.

Kevin Durant won an MVP for the Thunder, but again, his legacy is more profound than just basketball.

Durant’s decision in 2016 was the ultimate symbol of the player empowerment era, while LeBron’s decision in 2010 to form the Heat’s ‘Big Three’ was a game-changer.

Durant took the empowerment to another level.

Serge Ibaka has won the least individual honors, but he has consistently been a brilliant player on championship level teams bar one strange season in Orlando.

Ibaka’s re-invention of his skillset has been impressive, and he went from an athletic defensive anchor into being a complete center.

SERGE IBAKA

Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Serge Ibaka’s path to the league was winding and stopped in multiple countries before eventually ending in Oklahoma City.

Ibaka was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo to parents who played basketball.

Serge did not play organized basketball until he was a teenager; the majority of his early interactions with basketball were on the street courts of Brazzaville.

The courts of Brazzaville were speckled with dust and divots, but Serge honed his craft despite the chaos surrounding the DRC.

The Second Congolese War raged during Ibaka’s upbringing.

He did not have his father for stretches during his childhood as his father was held as a political prisoner.

Basketball was a refuge for Ibaka and a ticket away from the issues that plagued his homeland.

Club level basketball was nothing like the AAU structure in the United States. There was no extended coaching staff dedicated to improving players.

It was usually one coach and intermittent training sessions, but Ibaka made the best of the situation.

Serge’s talent as a youngster meant that the Congo National Team called Ibaka to represent the country at a juniors competition in South Africa.

Ibaka did not know that scouts were attending the event.

One of these scouts was a man by the name of Pere Gallego.

Gallego was an agent from YouFirst Sports, an agency that represents players across Europe and the USA.

Gallego had come to South Africa to identify talented young players who could make the jump to playing in one of the European leagues.

For many scouts, Africa was an untapped market that was brimming with talented prospects.

It was a logical decision for scouts and agents to make their rounds at youth competitions held across Africa.

There was the possibility that the scout would stumble across a diamond in the rough who could elevate a team.

Ibaka performed excellently at the African Junior Championships in Durban, and he was named MVP of the tournament.

His play attracted interest from agents, but Serge chose to sign with Pere Gallego of YouFirst Sports.

Ibaka left the Congo and headed for Spain to further his career.

Ibaka landed in Spain and fell among a brand new culture.

He didn’t speak any Spanish, and the approach to the game was different.

It was difficult for Ibaka to adapt to Spanish culture without knowing the language or habits; he was not used to having skill and strength coaches manage every aspect of his development.

Serge breathed basketball during his time in Spain, and he practiced three times a day on his fundamentals and shooting.

Ibaka’s game rapidly improved and he won plaudits for his play across Europe.

Ibaka’s overall play started to attract NBA scouts who were trawling Europe for draft steals.

Oklahoma City was one of the franchises that were looking through the international circuit for talented young players.

Rob Hennigan led the international scouting division for the Thunder, and it was his job to find these players.

Hennigan had started his career with the Spurs before joining the Thunder in 2008 in the same way that General Manager Sam Presti did.

There were a few parallels between the general manager and the Director of College and International Player Personnel.

Both men were incredibly young compared to other executives around the league, and both players had attended Emerson College in Massachusetts.

Emerson would later become a finishing school for front-office executives and Hennigan was one of the first graduates.

He had learned his trade under Coach Hank Smith.

Smith was a disciplinarian, and he demanded mental resiliency from his players and willingness to fight through adversity.

For both Hennigan and Presti, it was a formative stage in their life.

They adopted many of Coach Smith’s traits into their front office careers.

Hennigan spotted Ibaka at a basketball camp in New Orleans.

Hennigan was impressed by Ibaka’s maturity and physical upside.

Oklahoma City endeavored to take Ibaka with the 24th pick in the Draft.

The Sonics acquired the pick in a trade with the Phoenix Suns in which the team absorbed the contract of Kurt Thomas.

Seattle took Ibaka, but Serge did not instantly come over to the United States.

Ibaka remained in Spain to continue his development.

The Thunder organization and Ricoh Manfresa worked out a development plan for Serge in which his fundamentals would strengthen, and his skills grow.

Oklahoma City decided to bring him over for the start of the 2009-10 season, and Ibaka rarely played as he adapted to another new culture.

By the time that the 2012 Finals rolled around, Serge was a defensive monster for the Thunder.

During the lock-out shortened season, Ibaka averaged 3.7 blocks per game and was one of the best rim protectors in the league.

Ibaka’s interior defense was such an essential factor in shoring up the Thunder’s defense on route to the finals.

RUSSELL WESTBROOK

Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Russell Westbrook is a vital part of the Thunder’s history.

For 11 years with the organization, he went from being a teenage kid to the Thunder’s leader, a committed father, and a fashion icon.

On a personal note, he occupies a particular spot in the heart of most Thunder fans. He chose to stay when Durant left for the Bay Area.

In terms of his career, Westbrook achieved almost everything in Oklahoma City.

He was an MVP, an All-NBA caliber player over the decade, and he made the Finals for the Thunder in 2012.

Russell was necessary for the Thunder in 2012, his play-making and sheer aggression from the point guard spot challenged the Heat defense.

Westbrook was a legitimate All-Star and was one of the most exciting young point guards in the league; in many ways, he represented a new mold of a point guard.

Over three years, three hyper-athletes at the one guard were drafted highly in the Draft.

Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose were both taken in 2008, whereas John Wall was drafted in the 2010 NBA Draft.

It did seem like a seismic shift in the type of player drafted. The point guard would no longer look to set up others; first, they would get their shot by simply blasting past defenders.

Although Stephen Curry was taken in 2009 and he represented another variant of the point guard, his impact came later in the decade.

The hyper-athletic point guard defined the first few years of the decade.

Westbrook’s growth into the player he would eventually become was unexpected even by Russell himself.

Russell Westbrook grew up as a son of Los Angeles.

The sun-drenched city has produced a good number of All-Stars over the last ten years, or so, it is a generation of players that can be credited to the success of the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s.

The championships won by Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal inspired young basketball players across Los Angeles to dedicate themselves to the craft.

When there have been successful professional basketball teams in an area of the country, a sound generation of young players develops within that city.

Chicago is a brilliant example of this phenomenon, players like Dwyane Wade, Quentin Richardson, and Patrick Beverley grew up watching Michael Jordan, and they all wanted to be like Mike.

The success of the Lakers was an essential factor in bringing along the next generation of Los Angeles ballers, and Westbrook grew up in this environment.

Russell’s love of the game came from his father, Russell Westbrook Sr was a pick-up basketball player who played all across LA.

The game passed from father to son, Russell Westbrook started playing organized youth basketball at Challengers Boys and Girls Club in South Central Los Angeles.

At Challengers, he met James Harden, another kid from South Central Los Angeles.

Westbrook played for a local travel ball team, and he attended Leuzinger High in Lawndale, California.

Leuzinger was not a basketball powerhouse in Los Angeles. It was not like Dominguez or Westchester, which had sent players to the NBA during the early 2000s.

The only player who attended Leuzinger High before becoming an NBA player was Dorrell Wright.

However, Leuzinger had an NBA prospect during the time that Westbrook attended the school.

Khelcey Barrs was a blue-chip talent at the time. He was a long, rangy athlete with legitimate ball-handling skills.

At the time, college scouts felt his game could develop in a similar way to Kevin Garnett.

Barrs was expected to lead Leuzinger to high school success before heading off to college.

There were very few people who expected Russell Westbrook to become the player that he did.

Westbrook was an athletic marvel, but he was still a small guard, and there were flaws in his game that were difficult to ignore.

Westbrook worked at his game a lot alongside his good friend, Khelcey Barrs.

Both players fed off each other when it came to leading the team and turning Leuzinger into a winning school.

Barrs was the outgoing, gregarious personality who team-mates rallied around, whereas Russell said little and led by example.

It was the right combination, and Leuzinger started to become a force in Los Angeles hoops.

It was easy for the two players to become a formidable duo, Khelcey’s grandmother lived across the street from the Westbrook Family home, which meant that the two boys spent a lot of time together.

Moreover, Russell spent early mornings with his father developing his game.

Russell’s father figured that his son would not grow tall and focused on refining Russell’s shot.

Westbrook poured time into perfecting a pull-up jumper from the elbow that was later called the ‘Cotton Shot.’

By design, the ‘Cotton Shot’ was a way for Westbrook to beat defenders by stopping fast and pulling up before defenders could recover to contest the shot.

Leuzinger planned to have a brilliant basketball team going into 2004, but then tragedy struck.

Barrs passed away in May of that year due to heart issues.

His friends, family, and team-mates were stunned; it was much too soon for such a talented young man.

The loss of Barrs affected Russell greatly. Not only did he lose a friend, but also a brother.

He resolved to honor Barrs with his play, to lead Leuzinger to success regardless of all extenuating factors.

Westbrook made ‘Why Not?’ a principle to live by rather than just a saying.

Russell embodied the spirit of his fallen friend and pushed himself; he made an ill-fitting Leuzinger team competitive and eventually earned a scholarship to UCLA.

The UCLA scholarship was a dream for both Westbrook and Barrs. It was a chance to play college ball in front of their city.

Westbrook strolled onto campus as a player who was not highly regarded by those within the city.

A lot of people believed that Russell had only got a UCLA scholarship because Jordan Farmar left UCLA before many expected. Ben Howland was desperate to have a reserve guard on the team.

Westbrook took the challenge on, and he came off the bench during his first season at UCLA.

Darren Collison was the starting point guard for Ben Howland’s team, Russell’s role was to be a pest on defense and to use his energy to bother the opponent into turnovers.

His adaptation to college ball did not go smoothly. He was turnover-prone and reckless.

It seemed that the game was not slowing down for Russell; he could not stop playing at full speed, which often led to mistakes.

The second-year went much better for Westbrook, he settled comfortably in a starting role, and his draft stock started to rise.

The flaws in his game started to fade, Westbrook’s play-making started to improve, and he established good chemistry with another 2008 Draftee.

Kevin Love had committed to UCLA in 2006, and his inside scoring provided an excellent option for Westbrook’s passes.

By the end of Russell’s tenure at UCLA, he was considered to be a lottery pick in the 2008 Draft.

A lot of scouts were sold on Westbrook’s athleticism and intensity on the defensive end of the floor.

He was still raw for a point guard, his shot needed work and Westbrook needed to learn how to curb his turnovers.

A few teams were interested in Westbrook, the Miami Heat were known for liking Westbrook’s work ethic and intensity, but it was the Thunder who chose to take the guard out of UCLA.

The Sonics drafted Westbrook, but six days later, the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City.

Westbrook did not even know where Oklahoma City was, and he had nobody here.

Russell came in at ground zero of the franchise and was a building block of an organization, not just a basketball team.

Westbrook was a late bloomer who was still finding his ideal role as a basketball player. He was playing point guard despite being a non-traditional point guard.

He was the starting point guard for Oklahoma City, and his impact on the team was undeniable.

Westbrook’s energy and passing helped to build a highly efficient offense, his vicious inside scoring made him an excellent complement to Kevin Durant.

In the 2011-12 NBA season, Westbrook came to fore as a secondary star on a contending team.

JAMES HARDEN

Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden was another member of ‘The Big Four’ who grew up in Los Angeles.

Like Westbrook, Harden idolized Kobe Bryant, and from the age of ten, Harden loved the game.

Sports were encouraged in his family. His mother, Monja Willis, had her kids playing all sports.

Harden’s older brother played youth football while James had a love for basketball and baseball.

The love for basketball led to Harden spending mornings in the gym or the park building a smooth stroke.

The game was an escape for James Harden; sports kept away from the unsavory parts of Compton.

Harden lived in Compton as a kid, in a time where gun violence and gang rivalries were at a high point.

It would have been easy for Harden to slip into those groups and gang violence, but basketball was his dedication.

He embraced sports rather than street life.

James Harden became a well-known name in the Los Angeles hoop scene, and he had the pick of high schools.

Harden opted to play for Artesia, a local powerhouse, and became one of the best known high schoolers across the nation.

Artesia won state championships during Harden’s time at the school, and the school dominated the local scene.

Harden’s polished game meant that he had suitors calling for his talents, but his decision was relatively simple.

Harden’s high school coach, Scott Pera, had chosen to join Herb Sendek’s staff at Arizona.

Harden chose to join his high school coach in Tempe, and he decided to become a Sun Devil.

Arizona State was a learning curve for Harden in more ways than one.

In Los Angeles, Harden was the star player, but in Tempe, he was another player fighting to earn respect.

The college game was more physically taxing than high school, and it took time for Harden to get used to the physicality.

The program instituted by Herb Sendek focused on building Harden’s body for the NBA, James spent a lot of time in the gym, adding muscle to his frame rather than just chubbiness.

The fundamentals of his game were already sound, but the coaching staff in Arizona focused on ensuring that Harden performed consistently.

There were times during Harden’s tenure at Arizona State where he played exceptionally before hitting a cold streak, that streakiness is the difference between a player being an All-Star or a merely a role player.

The other aspect of Harden’s game, which grew in Arizona, was his willingness to experiment with his game, to be the mad professor who innovates rather than merely following convention.

The college game was not the place to test out his new tricks and fakes, but the Rec Center was the ideal place to try things out.

Harden could afford to make mistakes on his blank canvas because there was no judgment or pressure; he could learn what worked and what did not work without anybody to criticize.

It was at the Rec Center where Harden grew his game and gained confidence in his unique skillset.

In Harden’s sophomore season, he attracted a lot of interest from scouts, including the Thunder.

There were real concerns about whether Harden could excel at the NBA.

Harden is not a brilliant athlete, and there was a feeling that he could struggle to score around the rim at the NBA level, he would not have the quickness to beat defenders off the drive.

While Harden had a deep bag of tricks to beat defenders and survive in isolation basketball, a lot of teams did not believe that the lack of athleticism would eventually catch up with him.

Despite the potential issues, Presti liked the shooting and play-making which Harden provided.

The Thunder front office felt that Harden would be a good fit for the roster, his ability to space the floor would balance out Westbrook’s inability to knock down deep shots.

On Draft Night, James Harden held a party in Hollywood to celebrate the first day of a career in the NBA.

Russell Westbrook attended that party, and the two team-mates celebrated long into the night, the two kids from Los Angeles were going to play on the same team.

The 2011-12 season was a massive success for Harden. He was named NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, and Harden started to look like a real star.

There were stretches during the season where James looked like an All-Star level player, and yet he was still coming off the bench for the Thunder.

The easy comparison was Manu Ginobili, and that is a fairly apt comparison.

Ginobili was not a brilliant athlete, but his ball-handling and unorthodox play-making made him one of the league’s best two guards.

The only aspect of the comparison which does not fit neatly is that Ginobili was willing to sacrifice minutes for the team.

Manu was at the stage of his career where he had enough awareness to realize that team success would define his legacy more than individual success.

In the 2011-12 season, Harden was still on his first contract and had the ambition of running his team.

Playing alongside Westbrook and Durant was a fun time for Harden, but the aim of winning as the main star was still a goal for James.

The critical difference between Harden in 2012 and Manu Ginobili during the 2000s is that Ginobili had the life experience to realize that self-sacrifice would equal more championships.

2011-12 was Harden’s most exceptional season in Oklahoma City, but it was the last season, the trade to Houston happened in October, and a future dynasty was broken.

KEVIN DURANT

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Kevin Durant is the final member of the Big Four, and he is arguably the best player to come through Oklahoma City.

His skill level has been elite for almost a decade, and Durant has consistently been one of the top ten players in the league.

As an isolation scorer, Kevin Durant is almost unstoppable. He can score from all three levels efficiently, and his size means that his shot is difficult to contest.

It is one of the reasons why the ball defaulted to Kevin Durant during the Warriors’ battles against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In the 2012 NBA Finals, Durant was the primary scoring option for the Thunder and the franchise’s leading man.

Durant’s rise as a star in the league was dramatic, and he was seen to be a prodigious young talent who would do what James could not do.

Durant was expected to win a championship with the Thunder. Those expectations came as soon as he led the league in scoring.

It seemed pre-ordained in a sense, Durant had achieved success at every stop before Oklahoma City and would do the same in a Thunder jersey.

That reality never manifested, but for years, Durant was a standard-bearer for the Thunder.

His history and achievement in OKC need to be respected.

Durant’s road to the league starts in his home state, Maryland. Durant grew up in Mount Pleasant, Prince George’s County.

Despite the idyllic sounding name, Mount Pleasant was an impoverished town where violence was readily available.

The game became Durant’s obsession when he started playing AAU basketball under Coach Taras Brown.

Brown ran a successful AAU team that won across Maryland, and he was intrigued by the gangly, skinny Durant.

Durant’s desire to learn about the game and his frame provided clay for Brown to mold into a future star. Coach Brown believed that Durant’s physical build could produce a unique player with careful, considered development. Durant’s slender frame and quickness meant that he could become an unstoppable scorer and play-maker for his team.

The dedication to the game as a youngster meant that Durant missed out on a ‘normal childhood.’

All of his attention focused on growing his game and becoming a brilliant basketball player.

Durant became a dedicated hooper who traveled miles to play the game. There are stories about Durant taking the metro out to the suburbs and playing pick-up basketball all day.

The constant focus on basketball meant that Durant’s jumper was wet, and he was quickly becoming one of the best players in the state.

On Durant’s part, there was a rival in the form of Michael Beasley, who acted as a motivator.

Beasley was another high school phenom who was highly regarded.

Beasley was a voracious rebounder and had a smooth scoring game; a lot of people believed that he was a better player than Durant.

For Durant, his close friend’s acclaim was something to chase and challenge.

As a child, Durant lived a solitary existence. He did not have friends outside of basketball.

He spent a lot of time moving around and did not get the chance to settle into a group of friends.

He had the game and his family until he met Beasley. Beasley played on the same AAU team, and the two boys became fast friends due to a love of the game.

Their friendship blossomed from their teenage years as they played with each other in high school.

It was a devastating duo that made the National Christian Academy a force.

Durant’s ability as a high schooler meant that all of the major Division I schools highly recruited him.

His commitment to Texas stemmed from coach Russ Springmann, an assistant to Rick Barnes, spotting Kevin at a local basketball event.

Springmann was originally from Maryland and was evaluating young talent back home on behalf of Coach Barnes.

He had been sent to look at Ty Lawson, but Durant had caught his eye.

Springmann started to build strong ties with the Durant family, which eventually resulted in a visit to Texas.

Durant was sold by Coach Barnes’ vision and commitment to Texas basketball.

Texas was a different environment for Durant than Maryland was.

He had stability in his life and a sense of peace. He did not have to walk around worrying if trouble was going to kick off.

It was the perfect setting for Durant to work on his game relentlessly; he had a coach who was willing to challenge him and a gym that was available twenty fours a day.

The first aspect of Durant’s development was turning Kevin into a solid defender.

Coach Barnes made defense a priority for Kevin. He believed that Durant could be a capable defender with practice and plenty of patience.

He challenged Durant to work harder and smarter on the least glamorous end of the floor.

Durant took the criticism to heart and worked on his defense every team practice.

He did not want to be one of the worst defenders on the team and the target of Barnes’ ire.

His impact on Texas was undeniable.

His scoring meant that the team won 25 games and got into the NCAA Tournament as a four seed.

On a personal level, Durant was named National Player of the Year, an honor that very few freshmen achieve.

As a freshmen player, Durant was impressive, and it led to many scouts predicting a successful NBA career for KD.

The 2007 NBA Draft had two outstanding prospects at the top of the lottery.

Kevin and Greg Oden were two of the best freshmen in college basketball.

Oden was a superb athlete and a defensive monster for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

His size and athletic ability translated nicely to the NBA, and his floor was pretty significant.

In the worst-case scenario, Oden would be a 16/10 guy for the rest of his career, which is pretty good.

But the best-case scenario was that Oden could become one of those all-time dominant NBA centers.

Oden had a history of making other players better and winning championships; taking him was not a wrong decision.

It was perfectly rational to take a center that could define an era even when compared next to Durant.

There were doubts about Durant’s longevity due to his thin frame. Teams were worried that KD’s body would not be able to withstand the rigors of an 82-game season.

The two top picks in the Draft were held by the Portland Trailblazers and the Seattle SuperSonics.

Both franchises were in a rebuilding phase.

The Blazers started their rebuild in earnest a year earlier after the ‘Jail Blazers’ era came to an end.

In the 2006 NBA Draft, Portland’s General Manager Kevin Pritchard drafted Brandon Roy and acquired LaMarcus Aldridge from the Chicago Bulls.

It made logical sense to take a big who could patrol the paint and lock down the interior.

The Sonics were also rebuilding, the team had performed poorly in the previous season, and the Draft was the perfect opportunity to acquire a young player who could define the team for years to come.

Durant was a promising start for a franchise looking to rebuild completely. There was no need to think about accommodating other players.

Durant would be the first pick of the Presti era, and Sam nailed the pick.

Durant came to a Seattle team amid a bitter legal battle between the owner and the city.

Durant did not let the off-court turmoil affect his production. His raw stats were pretty impressive as he averaged over twenty points per game, the only two rookies before him to do so was LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Durant’s shooting efficiency was pretty weak, but there were flashes of brilliance throughout the season.

Kevin Durant grew over the next four years, and he became one of the best players in the league at such a young age.

As the 2012 NBA Finals rolled around, Durant led the league in scoring and named to the All-NBA First Team.

After the finals, this marked the last time these four players would ever play with each other. The finals were the premature peak for this group of players.

You cannot claim that these players treated each other like brothers, that statement is simply not true, but this Thunder side was hugely entertaining.

On any given day, the four-person unit of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, and Ibaka would send shivers down the spine of opposing teams.

Today, this Thunder team is one of the high points for a franchise that had enjoyed a lot of success during the twelve years of existence.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Four Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images