The departure of Kevin Durant was a moment in history which changed the Thunder’s future irreversibly. Oklahoma City lost an MVP-calibre player who could drive winning and get the Thunder into a position where OKC could contend for an NBA Championship. That date, July 4, left the Thunder scrabbling around to build a roster around Russell that could still continue to contend. Ultimately, Oklahoma City never achieved that goal. The Thunder were bounced in three consecutive first-round losses to the Rockets, Jazz and Trailblazers. Those star-laden under-achieved in the play-offs and meant that the Russell Westbrook Era ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
The alternate reality needs to be considered, what if Durant re-signed in Oklahoma City? Durant re-signing would keep the Thunder as title contenders while weakening the Warriors, it would make the battle at the top of the Western Conference much more balanced. Al Horford likely signs with the Thunder as well, he had expressed an interest in Oklahoma City providing that Westbrook and Durant were around for the short-term. My interest was piqued the more I read about the potential ramifications of Durant staying, I had previously stayed away from writing this piece because it was much too painful but this time I felt like it had to be written.
Kevin Durant obviously re-signs but he does not take the four year maximum deal like many expect. Durant is still cautious when it comes to Oklahoma City and fulfilling promises, he is also not keen on the idea of working with Russell in the long-term. Durant takes a 1+1 maximum deal that allows him the financial flexibility to control his future in 2017 and 2018. Durant’s decision to stay brings Al Horford from the Atlanta Hawks to town. Horford had made the decision to leave Atlanta after the disappointing end to the play-offs, he did not feel like his Hawks could contend for an NBA Championship. Horford had courted interest from Boston and Oklahoma City but the Thunder’s star power was the deciding factor in his decision. He wanted to win and Westbrook/Durant presented the best opportunity to do so.
Once Horford had signed, Sam Presti made the difficult decision to trade Serge Ibaka. Ibaka had been a Thunder player since the franchise’s inception but the acquisition of Horford made him available in trade talks. OKC did not need two starting calibre power forwards, the team needed quality reserves to fill out the bench. There was also the question of money, Ibaka intended to test free agency in 2017 and Oklahoma City were not willing to commit significant money to a player with declining production. Ibaka was traded to the Magic for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis before the league moratorium period ended. Those two players would aid the reserves massively but Presti was not done. Oklahoma City had lacked veteran players who were able contributors over the years, a key flaw in the team’s construction. Vets were needed for when the game became tight and players needed to deliver. Joe Johnson had been available in the free agency market and was wanted by a number of teams to fill out the rotation. Oklahoma City won the race, they signed Joe to a mid-level exception deal for two years.
Durant - re-signs with the Thunder in 2016 on a 1+1 Max Deal
Horford - signs with the Thunder on 3yr/81
Ibaka - traded for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis
Joe Johnson - signed in free agency for MLE
Russ, Robes, KD, Horford, Adams
Vic, Dion, Joe Johnson, Kanter, Domas, Morrow, Singler, Collison, Augustin, Cam Payne
There is no certainty about the long-term future of the Thunder, contract talks with Russell Westbrook have stalled out without a firm commitment to extend from Westbrook. Westbrook is not averse to the idea of testing the market in 2017 and seeing what is out there. Kevin Durant’s 1+1 does nothing to alleviate tension, there is a fear in the back of the mind for all Thunder staffers that Durant could leave in 2017, the end of an era would occur and OKC would have no future road-map.
Presti pushes his chips to the centre of the table, Billy Donovan is fired in favour of appointing Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud left the Hawks by mutual consent after his Conference Finals team had been dismantled and the Thunder flopped out a huge offer for Bud to coach the Thunder. Donovan had struggled coaching Durant and Westbrook, Presti believed that Coach Bud would be able to get these players in line due to his status as a respected coach in the league.
The storm of uncertainty threatened to destroy the season and Durant knew this. He reached out to Russell Westbrook before the start of training camp. He wanted to talk at his house about the upcoming season and free agency after that. At that late night meeting over chicken chilli burritos, the two men talked openly for the first time in a long time. Durant expressed that he did not know what he would do after the end of the season but he wanted to make this season count, it was time to bring a championship to Oklahoma City. Westbrook readily agreed that they needed to set a tone for the season and lead the Thunder to a championship. The two superstars came to an agreement, free agent talk would happen after the season end. The focus would be on winning a title during the season, all talk of free agency during the season would be shut down.
Oklahoma City entered training camp focused and ready to win, the whole organisation played down talk about free agency. At media day, Durant was emphatic, he would not talk about free agency until the season was done. Until that date, his aim was to win a championship.
Oklahoma City did not play exceptionally during the season, the team was impressive against good teams but abject against lottery teams. The run-up to Christmas was a perfect example of the Thunder’s inconsistency, OKC dominated the Warriors and ground out a tough victory against the San Antonio Spurs but the Thunder lost to the 76ers. Coach Budenholzer was not happy with that and he called the players into the training facility on December 23rd to talk about the mistakes.
Coach Bud was impassioned in his desire to see consistent play on both ends of the floor, he challenged Westbrook and Durant to play hard defensively regardless of the match-up. He would not allow players to disregard his coaching, every man needed to be on the same page to win a chip, it was what worked in San Antonio for Pop.
From January onwards, Oklahoma City played better. The defence was more locked in and the hierarchy of the offence eventually worked itself out. Durant was the lead scoring option but the surprising number two option was Al Horford who received plenty of shots. Westbrook attempted the least shots of the trio for good reason, Russell recognised that he had talent around him and deferred to the other scoring options, he did not need to carry that burden.
The atmosphere in the locker-room is also much improved, it is jovial before games and there is not a pre-existing tension between the two leaders. While Durant and Westbrook are still distant and cannot claim to be friends, the atmosphere is still pretty light despite the various cliques in the locker-room. The only thing which is the same is the wall of silence presented to the media, all unfavourable questions are shut down with little regard.
Oklahoma City end the season with a 56-26 record, Westbrook and Durant both make All-NBA teams while Horford and Roberson make All-Defensive First Team. James Harden wins MVP for his otherworldly play for the Houston Rockets.
The Thunder handle the Grizzlies in six in the first-round before moving onto the next round to play the San Antonio Spurs. It is a back and forth game as Kawhi Leonard re-iterates his case for MVP. Leonard is disruptive on defence while also carrying a heavy scoring load, it does not bother Kawhi at all. Leonard embraces the responsibility of being the two-way monster on the team as he gets crucial stops before grinding out good scoring opportunities on the other end of the floor. Oklahoma City are rocked in the series by the Spurs as they lose the first two games on the road in Texas. It seems possible that the dream will finish abruptly again.
Westbrook had deferred all season but now it was time to step up, he had a match-up which he could exploit against Tony Parker. Russell went into Game 3 with that mind-set and he changed the series as he roasted Parker, Pop was forced to use Danny Green as the primary defender on Russell. The switch made a difference to some degree but the momentum from a huge Game 3 had Westbrook rolling and he got the Thunder through a potential bear trap against San Antonio. OKC advanced to the WCF in six to face their nemesis, the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors had designs on Durant last season and that was still the case, Golden State had preserved their cap space by opting not to re-sign Harrison Barnes. Dallas had offered Barnes too much money for the proposition to be worthwhile. The Warriors had invested the cap space in a few more quality reserves to complete their strength in numbers approach, Pau Gasol and Boris Diaw were both added to the roster in place of Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli. The short-term deals still left many with the belief that the Warriors were priming themselves for another run at Durant, that belief was only strengthened when Rich Kleiman was seen looking for houses in the Bay Area.
The loss last year stung badly, the Thunder had the Finals in their grasp and it cruelly slipped away from them. Westbrook and Durant had that emotional motivation burning within them, a desire to put the embarrassment behind them. That emotion carried into Game 1 at Oracle, The Thunder are swarming defensively and they do not allow the Warriors’ motion offence to get into gear. Westbrook harries Curry into turnovers while Roberson’s defensive intelligence waits in the lane to intercept poor passes. OKC are relentlessly disruptive as they build a twelve point lead in the first quarter and never look back. A rare win at Oracle is obtained and the Thunder now control their own destiny as they take the series lead 1-0.
A loss in Game 2 was expected, the emotional hangover and comedown meant that the Thunder came out flat. The defence was not quite good enough which does not work against Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Both players were able to beat the defence to their spot and knock down threes. Curry in particular hits a roll in the third quarter which effectively puts the game to bed, he scores fifteen points on five threes to build an insurmountable deficit.
Coach Bud was angry at the team for the pathetic performance in Game 2, he challenged the star players to lead by example and raise their level. He reminded them that the team had come all this way, they had not come to fail. The home stand went extremely well for the Thunder, the team was enveloping on defence. Every stop raised the noise level of the crowd and every decibel louder fed directly into the players’ bodies. The energy from the crowd brought the whole team to a level where they were unplayable in the play-offs, Al Horford repeatedly had luck down low as he posted Draymond and made the game physical.
In Game 5, with the series in the balance, Steve Kerr played his ace in the hole. The Warriors went small with Draymond at the 5, Iggy at the 4 and Klay at the 3. He hoped to use pace and movement to break the Thunder’s stingy defence in the same way that the Warriors had beat Cleveland two years ago. The ace worked in Game 5, the Warriors built a lead using this group that meant they were up twenty at the half. Coach Bud was too slow to respond, his decision to stick with the starting lineup went badly wrong. The only time the Thunder had any luck was with a small lineup with Horford at 5, Bud made the decision to run this lineup in Game 6.
The series shifted back to Oklahoma City and the Thunder had responded. Adams was out of the starting lineup with Victor Oladipo sliding in at the shooting guard spot. The roar from the crowd was immense as they willed their guys on, Oklahoma City suffered heartbreak at home last year, they prayed that lightning would not strike twice. For much of the first half, it looked as if the Thunder’s worst nightmares would come true. The Warriors could not be stopped offensively and Draymond Green had a brilliant game. He was disruptive defensively and was able to knock four back-breaking threes in the first half. The Thunder entered the half down by fourteen. The crowd had been quietened into quiet despair.
Bud was unhappy with his team and pleaded with the players to raise the game. He criticised Al Horford for letting the smaller Green beat him, Coach Bud knew that Horford was capable of changing the series and he needed to know that. Oklahoma City came out into the third quarter, typically the Warriors’ high scoring quarter with renewed resolve. Horford’s post scores brought the game into single digits and the balance of the tie had changed again, suddenly the Warriors were making mistakes under pressure. The crowd had got back into the game and Westbrook fed on that energy. He stole the ball out of Curry’s hands before racing up the floor for a vicious dunk, the deficit was only four. He let out a primal scream and readied himself for victory, he would not let the Thunder lose.
Oklahoma City were down by four with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and scoring was incredibly difficult, the length of Iguodala and Thompson was stifling. The Thunder needed offence and they got it from their sixth man. Victor Oladipo had been inconsistent all season long as he adapted to a bench role but he knocked two quick threes and converted two free throws to give the Thunder a small lead. The sixth man had delivered the goods and put the pressure on the Warriors.
The game slowed and became ugly as each team exchanged a series of isolation plays. Kevin Durant was outraged at the Thunder’s play, he knew that the offence needed to keep executing to win the game, playing tight cost them last time and it would not cost them again. He called on his team-mates to remain calm and trust him, Westbrook knew what to do. He ran a pick and roll with KD that led to a huge dunk before chucking a cheeky lob pass that Durant converted. KD then knocked a huge seventeen foot mid-range jumper to stretch the lead to ten with just two minutes to go. The game was almost secure, OKC needed one more stop to kill the Warriors off. Golden State ran a split play with Curry relocating to the corner, it was a killer play to defend but Andre Roberson knifed his way through the bodies effectively. Curry fired and the ball seemed to hang in the air for a while. Roberson flew towards the ball and rejected the shot into the fourth row. That stop was like a buzzer-beater, it brought noticeable relief to the Thunder players. It was onto the Finals to play Cleveland, glory awaited.
The Cavaliers had walked through the Eastern Conference, the offence constructed by Tyronn Lue was operating at a historic level. The LeBron and shooters had been maximised to its fullest extent with Kyle Korver and Deron Williams both joining the corp of marksman. As a result, Cleveland was exceptional as they beat the Pacers in 5, the Celtics in 6 and then the Raptors in 4. James’ brilliance was expected but Kyrie Irving’s emergence was hugely impressive. Kyrie had bristled as the secondary scoring option for Cleveland during the first Championship run, he felt stifled creatively and was seriously considering requesting a trade. Irving wanted a chance to run a team on his own and lead them to success, he did not believe that he needed LeBron to win a title.
Irving made his displeasure known to David Griffin who was alarmed at the tension. He knew that the team had been assembled quickly and inorganically but he had felt that the potential to build a dynasty in Cleveland would be enough motivation to keep Kyrie in Ohio. The Cavs needed Irving to win a second title and they needed him to be happy, Griff made the decision to have a difficult discussion with LeBron and Coach Lue. Griff brought up the possibility of making Kyrie the primary scoring option with James’ role changing into being the primary facilitator for the team’s offence.
Coach Lue thought that the idea could work but it needed buy-in from LeBron, it would not work if James was not fully committed to the idea. James initially scoffed at the idea, he was the best player in the league, why should he defer to a player who wasn’t as good? However, he thought about the changes late at night in his Akron Mansion and came to conclusion that it would be best for the team. James was already the primary play-maker for the team and Irving was more shot-happy anyway, he called Ty Lue the next morning and was ready to get to work in the New Year.
From January onwards, the offensive scheme changed in terms of structure. Irving took more shots than LeBron for the first time in his tenure in Cleveland while James’ scoring was reduced. LeBron focused more on creating for others instead of scoring for himself, the change in responsibilities was difficult for James to deal with. It was the first time since his first year in Miami where he was not the main scorer for the team, it took time for James to re-calibrate mentally into playing the creator role to the maximum extent.
By the play-offs, all of the issues had been ironed out and the Cavaliers were steam-rolling teams. Irving was averaging over twenty eight points per night on really efficient shooting, his off-ball work had become better as he embraced the lead option role. There was a nice rapport established with Irving finishing plays that LeBron had made for him. The Cavaliers had expected to play the Warriors in the Finals for a third consecutive year and were a little disappointed when the Oakland team did not make it. A second victory over the Warriors would settle the debate about the best team during the time period and it would have proved that the loss in 2014-15 only occurred due to injuries to key contributors. Cleveland entered the series against Oklahoma City feeling confident that a second championship would come back to Northeast Ohio.
A fire burned inside Kevin Durant, he had heard for years that LeBron was the best player in the world and nobody could challenge him. Durant felt that he was on LeBron’s level but he desperately needed a victory against LeBron to balance the narrative. The loss to the Heat in 2012 was still held against Durant as an example of why LeBron was better than him. KD realised that four wins could change his life and legacy, he came into the series with the bit between his teeth.
The Finals started in Cleveland on a warm spring evening, thousands of fans ambled towards the arena while the city’s streets were drenched in sun. A small but vocal contingent of Thunder fans had flown into the city to support their team and were making a lot of noise before tip-off. The nervous energy on both sides was palpable before the game started. The game tipped off and the Thunder stole the early advantage, Durant came out firing as he scored twenty points in the first quarter. Oklahoma City had a six point advantage at the half due to Durant’s hot hand.
The Cavaliers were undeterred as they slowly chipped away at the deficit in the third quarter, Lebron James was huge in finding his team-mates for the basket. He displayed inventive, tricky passing that created shooting opportunities when it was difficult, one example was a quarterback toss to JR Smith in the corner as the Cavs faked a high pick and roll. The balance of the tie shifted again, this time Cleveland were in the ascendancy as the fourth quarter started.
Coach Bud called a timeout with nine minutes left in the game to stop the bleeding. Bud did not start trying to change things tactically, he just asked his players to remember the pain from last year and use that as motivation. Westbrook was ready for his time to step up, on the first possession out of the timeout, he called his own number. Westbrook blew by Kyrie for a layup and then another layup on the next consecutive possession. His energy raised the team and Oklahoma City ratcheted up the defence, a long miss from a JR Smith corner three was quickly rebounded by Westbrook and tossed to a streaking Durant for an easy dunk. A LeBron drive inside was blocked by Al Horford and Oklahoma City went running in transition again. Westbrook dished to Roberson as they faced the final defender, the Colorado forward dunked the ball hard. The Cavs called a timeout but game was done, the Thunder was on fire and would not be stopped. Russell dribbled the ball up court as the game clock expired, OKC had won 106-98 in Cleveland to steal Game 1.
The pressure was on Cleveland to deliver in Game 2, losing both games at home would be disastrous. The Cavs needed to win one at home and an unexpected, under appreciated player came to fore. Kevin Love, a much maligned figure, was often criticised for his porous defence and small contributions offensively. In Game 2, Love knocked down seven threes and found his way to the line for free throws consistently. Love’s production sustained a bench unit which had struggled to generate scoring consistently despite having quality veterans like D-Will and Kyle Korver. Kevin Love was the game’s deciding figure, his scoring outburst could not be matched by the Thunder as Cleveland won Game 2. Oklahoma City would have loved to win both games on the road but the team took some comfort that they had got one win to steal home-court.
While Oklahoma City had seen Finals games in 2012, this game felt way more important. In 2012, the trio of Harden, Westbrook and Durant seemed like it would go on forever, the team would surely make more Finals in the coming years. The atmosphere was different in 2017, the fans realised that this could be the last defining chapter in Thunder basketball, the last chance to win the ultimate honour. The pressure of the occasion and the love that Thunder fans had for their team melded to form an unbeatable, almost mythical atmosphere at the start of the game. There was not need for prompters, the crowd chanted ‘OKC’ in unison. Each letter thundered around the arena and the volume was deafening.
Westbrook departed from his usual warm up routine, he waved his arms impassioned like a conductor leading the orchestra. He whipped up the atmosphere to a cacophony of noise. The Thunder fed off the energy early and were aggressive defensively, the ball was stolen countless times in the first quarter as Kyrie Irving had a horrid quarter. He had lost the ball four times and looked thrown off by the atmosphere, he did not have a moment to breathe let alone survive. The Thunder’s early defensive barrage gave the boys in sunset orange a seventeen point lead at the end of the first quarter. That lead could not be cut down by the Cavs, the Thunder won Game 3 to take the series lead 2-1. Durant had another big scoring night as did Victor Oladipo off the bench. Westbrook did not the shoot well at all but he was disruptive defensively as he accumulated four steals and a chase down block on Irving.
That energy carried into Game 4 and it felt like the Thunder were going to repeat the exact same game. The Thunder were up big at the half and it seemed like OKC would cruise to another victory. LeBron was furious at the half, he did not feel like his team was executing well enough. He had entrusted responsibility to Kyrie Irving but Irving had wilted against Westbrook, Westbrook’s defence had taken away Kyrie’s aggressiveness. The Cavs could not lose this game, 3-1 comebacks do not grow on trees. He needed to take over.
James was so aggressive in the third quarter, he repeatedly attacked the rim and drew fouls. The points flowed in for the ‘King’, his offence sustained the Cavaliers’ comeback. He was truly unstoppable when he played like this, no defender had a chance at stopping the freight train when James got going downhill. His eighteen points in the third quarter had closed the game up but at a cost, the Cavaliers’ offence had become one-dimensional and everybody else was cold.
When James eventually sat in the fourth quarter after a long fifteen minute stretch, the Cavs’ offence fell apart. JR Smith missed two open three-point shots on consecutive possessions while Richard Jefferson carelessly turned the ball over on offence. The Thunder came back into the tie and would not relent, the game was poised down the stretch. Each team exchanged isolations with the game becoming increasingly ugly, the free flowing scoring had gone. It was a matter of grinding out possessions.
The Cavaliers held a narrow one point lead with just twelve seconds to go, LeBron had went to the free throw line and knocked down one from the stripe. He had missed the first free throw long, it took away the possibility for Cleveland to have a one possession lead. Coach Bud called a timeout and drew up a play for Durant, it was designed to get a shot at the rim.
The final possession did not go to plan, James clamped Durant off the inbound and wasted time off the clock. Durant was calm, he did not panic, he dribbled into the mid-range before launching a contested fadeaway as time expired. The ball seemed to hang in the air for a long time before dropping through the nets, the Thunder had won and were now just one away from history. The final score was 112-111 and the Thunder had a 3-1 series lead.
With their backs against the wall, the Cavaliers looked to achieve the impossible for the second season in a row. On the wall of the home locker-room of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Coach Lue had taped a piece of paper with a simple slogan written on it. ‘Why Not?’. He challenged his players to make history and beat the odds again.
The Cavs’ players took that challenge to heart and dominated Game 5 at home in front of their home crowd. James dropped one of his marquee performances in which he influenced every aspect of the game. LeBron’s statline of 42/8/14 was otherworldly in an elimination where Cleveland needed the best player in the world to step up. James’ led the Cavaliers in a blow-out victory that put the pressure back onto the Thunder. Game 6 was must win for the Thunder, a Game 7 in Cleveland would be tough to win.
In the hours before the fateful Game 6, Coach Budenholzer called the players into a meeting room at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Coach Bud could visibly see the tension on his players’ faces and it was worrying to him, Oklahoma City played much better when the players were unburdened. The message of his team talk changed, there was no grand speeches from Coach Bud. He reminded his players what they are capable of and that he had full confidence in his roster to win an NBA Championship.
The game was a game which would decide legacies, LeBron winning a second ring in Cleveland would move him closer to Michael Jordan and reduce the imbalance in his Finals record. A ring for Kevin Durant would finally vindicate his abilities and prove that he could win as the leader on a championship team. The game tipped off and Oklahoma City raced out to the early advantage due to the bench unit finding the rhythm offensively. Victor Oladipo knocked down two jumpers at the end of the first quarter and worked himself into the groove as he found Dion Waiters and Joe Johnson on back to back possessions for easy deep looks. Oladipo looked to feed his team-mates and the man called ‘Iso Joe’ started to heat up.
Joe Johnson’s old-school scoring game resurfaced as he used his size to bully his way to the rim for easy looks. He was the Thunder’s old wily vet but his scoring and defence was turning back the clock to the days when he was the highest paid player in the league. Johnson’s ten precious points gave the Thunder a six point lead when the starters checked back in with eight minutes left in the second quarter. The Thunder maintained that cushion to the half and went to the locker-room feeling in good spirits. Coach Bud did not relent, he told his players to expect the Cavaliers to push the pace offensively in the third quarter.
The words spoken by Budenholzer were eerily prophetic. James went to work as he set up his corp of marksman for good looks from deep. Korver down knocked two looks from deep as did Kevin Love. The game was even and it was a dogfight. From that point onwards, the game was tight with neither team gaining a significant advantage. The ball reverted to the natural scoring options during the clutch and each team threw hay-makers as they tried to drop their opponent. Westbrook had struggled with his shot throughout Game 6 but with four minutes left, Russell seemed to hit a hot streak. He got past Irving for a layup before drawing a foul on Tristan Thompson, a three-point play was completed. Cleveland gambled, they went early with the Love quarterback pass, Westbrook picked off the pass like a cornerback before jetting in transition. He dunked hard over his former team-mate and let out a visceral scream, his energy raised the crowd again. A seven point swing within thirty seconds, Westbrook’s quick work put the Thunder in position to win the game.
It came to the final possession, Cleveland needed a three to tie and send the game to overtime. The Thunder needed a stop to win. Love inbounded the ball to LeBron with ten on the clock. Roberson stayed tight to LeBron but tucked his hands inside away from the rip through move. LeBron tried to drive left but Roberson’s frame cut off the drive. James became more frantic and cut back right, Roberson stayed attached to his man, four seconds remained. LeBron got the shot off but Roberson got a hand to it, he deflected the flight of the ball high into the air. The seconds expired and his team-mates mobbed Andre, OKC had won a title at home. The goal for years had finally happened, the Thunder had gone through heartbreak to achieve the title and it tasted so sweet. The nectar of victory was intoxicating and totally satisfying as Westbrook screamed his joy to the rafters. Sam Presti had a tear in his eye as he inspects ten years of hard work, it had all paid off. Durant and Westbrook embraced, they may not been particularly close but neither man could have done it alone.
Despite the success of last season, Westbrook and Durant both knew that it would be difficult for them to continue as team-mates. There was much too distance between them and the distance was tolerated this season due a potential end date being known. Both players hit free agency in 2017 and test the market. In the lead up towards free agency, Westbrook draws a ton of interest from the Lakers and Knicks, they promise the opportunity to live in a metropolis where his passion for fashion could be indulged to the maximum degree. However, neither team was particularly competitive and Russell wanted to add another ring to his collection before even thinking about leading a rebuilding project. He was comfortable in OKC, his whole family was settled in Oklahoma City and he believed that the team could continue to contend for a championship with him leading the charge. Westbrook had also found out that Durant did not intend to stay in Oklahoma City at a meeting in Westbrook’s LA home.
In the days leading up to the free agency before Durant went to the Hamptons for a second summer in a row, he had flown to LA to talk with Westbrook about the free agency. Durant felt it right that his long-standing teammate deserved to know what would happen, he also trusted that Westbrook could keep a secret. After all, Westbrook did not like talking to the media. In that meeting, Kevin talked about a need to find a new challenge, he had outgrown OKC and it was time for change. He also wanted to build a brotherhood in the league, a crew of players who could roll deep on and off the court. Russell understood that, he had the same thing with his guys from Leuzinger, that deep brother connection.
Westbrook re-signed in OKC on July 1 on a maximum deal, he would remain a Thunder player until 2021. Presti was overjoyed with Russell’s decision, him staying gave OKC a chance to win a title providing that he did his job correctly, he had an interesting iron in the fire anyway. Durant’s free agency took longer, he had courted offers from Golden State, Boston, Houston and Oklahoma City. He had been in love with Golden State the previous summer but now he was not as sure, the case put together by Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge was compelling. It was a roster with plenty of young talent and a treasure trove of assets. Durant also liked the idea of moving back East, closer to home, he would be able to see his friends and family way more. A meeting with Larry Bird sealed the deal, Durant would join the Boston Celtics on a four year max contract. His good friend Kyrie Irving arrived via trade in August after his dissatisfaction in Cleveland came to a head, he wanted out and Boston was the place for him.
The Thunder organisation took out a full page ad in The Oklahoman thanking Durant for his service and wishing him luck in Boston. Presti reasoned that Boston would need some luck, Oklahoma City had a deal done to bring in Jimmy Butler which would make the Thunder contenders to go back to back. Russ, Jimmy and Horford would be a deadly trio and it only cost a single first-round draft pick, Dion Waiters and Kyle Singler. A title was won but the business of the league moved on, it was a fantastic accomplishment but the new aim was to win a second championship.
The next time that Durant came to Oklahoma City was with the Boston Celtics on opening night of the NBA Season. Only a few months had passed since that fateful day in July but a lot had changed. Even still, Durant received a rousing reception from the Thunder fans who still had a lot of love for Durant. It was a fitting end to an era for Oklahoma City.