En Memoriam: The Death of a Dream in OKC

Kevin Durant going to Golden State kills me. The rich in the Bay get richer while Oklahomans pick up the pieces and move on. It hurts that the league gets worse from this move (cue the “Jordan’s Bulls grew the NBA globally” argument), that Durant changed and got tired of being The Guy, and that Oklahoma City – a franchise that did everything right in terms of drafting, making trades, and consistently keeping a competitive core around its stars (and had to, simply to get as far as it ever did) – ends up suffering through little fault of its own.


And hey, this isn’t a sob story about the poor Thunder. They had a chance to take down the almighty Warriors, even withstanding Klay Thompson’s otherworldly shooting performance in Game 6, but just couldn’t manage to do so. Durant’s shooting woes aside, if Andre Roberson had not been in foul trouble, maybe Thompson doesn’t get off one or two of his miracle treys down the stretch to send the series to Game 7. If someone else was able to step up, maybe Durant wouldn’t have needed to assume the hero role once again (and thus hears the echoes of his shortcomings one less time). But that wasn’t how things went down, so here we are.

The Thunder franchise had nine years of enjoying and appreciating a transcendental player who matched his uniqueness on the court with his off-court identity as an adopted Oklahoman. That’s pretty cool. Durant seemed to genuinely relish the small market ethos and repeatedly expressed defiance to the contrary, most famously signing his extension when LeBron James first went south to Miami.

And then, as Royce Young eloquently and intuitively narrated in his ESPN piece, Durant changed. Why? Maybe it had to do with that same defiant streak. He seethed when MVP discussions drifted from him so soon after he won the damn thing in 2014 and when the Thunder drifted from the perceived Western Conference hierarchy with the emergence of Steve Kerr’s Warriors.

Being forgotten seemed to resonate more with Durant as time went on, even when he claimed it was only about basketball.  After his tough journey to get back to where he was after multiple foot surgeries during the 2014-15 season and after another failed attempt to return to the Finals after losing to LeBron’s Heat four years ago in his only trip, maybe he just got tired of fighting the same fights: fading relevance in the public eye with Stephen Curry and LeBron dominating, enduring cycles of young talent in exchange of stars like James Harden and Serge Ibaka (even if both moves were good for the franchise, which Durant has acknowledged), always having one other team in the way of Finals prominence, and being The Guy who dutifully leads the perennial second/third horse in the race.

Duty played a part. For those who thought Durant had a responsibility to go back to Oklahoma City and lead with Westbrook once again, he probably scorned the premise. As for his image of the superstar who would never turn his back on his surrogate home, perhaps watching other stars who were never before on his level – such as Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala – steal the spotlight over the past several Junes gave him a new sense of determination to change the script.

But speculating about the rationale of a man whom I do not know, as engaging as it might be, does not impact the outcome: Kevin Durant has joined the Golden State Warriors. This team will probably be the best team in league history, and the only hope that opposing teams will have on a nightly basis is poor shooting from multiple Warrior stars and a dual effort of great perimeter defending and stellar rebounding.

What the Warriors and Durant joined together to do was totally fair, well-executed (using the crazy jump in the salary cap and the foolish cap on max contract amounts in their favor), and terrifying for the rest of the league. It’s a whole different ballgame than LeBron going to Miami, where he had a young coach, unfamiliar new teammates, and imperfect fits in Wade and Bosh (who eventually evolved around LeBron). Durant, one of the best players in the NBA, is joining what was already one of the best teams in history. His crazy wingspan and shooting stroke will probably fit right into the Warriors’ style of play with little effort, sealing up the few cracks that they had.

A question for Durant down the line will be whether it was all worth alienating the only professional fan base he has ever had (as well as many other neutral fans) in the pursuit of title glory. The Warriors will likely become the ultimate team for the casual fan, who primarily watches to be entertained and rarely feels strong emotional investment. Their style of basketball will be beautiful and – simply put – it will be the biggest surprise in league history if they don’t come away with at least two titles in the next few seasons.

If individual legacy was Durant’s main objective, he will never realize it with Golden State in the way he would have with Oklahoma City. Being part of the greatest team ever has its own esteemed place in the history books, but letting go of the reins will diminish his personal place within the fraternity, whether he admits it or not. But again, I do not know the guy. Team success seems to be his main objective, so signing with the team already favored to win next year’s title certainly makes sense by that measure.

But for now, Durant’s choice to stop leading (he certainly did NOT choose the hardest road) interests me less than a point to which I want to return: the Thunder franchise, fan base, and city were fortunate to host the simultaneously flawed and wonderful Durant, Westbrook, and Co. iteration for as long as they did. The sheer amount of success that they experienced during their brief spell in the Panhandle State is far more than other franchises have enjoyed in their entire respective histories.

*camera pans out to me in my tear-stained Michael Beasley Timberwolves jersey*

We can mourn them for never getting as far as we may think they should have gotten (I’m of the opinion that the requisite bit of luck needed in a title chase never resided with them), but we should do so with an acknowledgement to what they accomplished and provided to the NBA: an organically fostered, well-run, young, athletic team that made its own of whatever luck it had in a small market and sparked the fan’s imagination of what could be (not including Kendrick Perkins) as often as any other team since its relocation from Seattle.

The fans knew what they had and cherished the franchise. The area around the arena is called Loud City and the home crowd has been reliably among the league’s best. There was even a movie starring Durant called…any guesses? They will be among the many who rue the failures that led to the team’s several postseason exits that betrayed its talent and tantalizing potential. With one or two fewer injuries along the way (or even one or two fewer unlucky bounces for Durant this past spring), it’s likely that his decision may have been different.

But to extensively retrace and ruminate over the steps that paved his exit would stymie the fun and celebration of the NBA that was this Thunder team. Again, it kills me to watch the dream in Oklahoma City die just like that, but they still have wiz GM Sam Presti, a young group of complementary pieces, and Westbrook, should he choose to stay (unlikely, based on reports).

There are certainly other teams that started, developed, and blossomed like this Thunder team. The Warriors, for one, simply did it better. What made the Durant\Westbrook Thunder so compelling was in part the context: how the team grew up in a new NBA city that embraced it so passionately and how players like Durant seemed to appreciate and reciprocate that love. Their draw was also in part what also held them back: the lack of perfect fit that has made the Warriors such a deadly force. You just hoped that they would figure things out while the opportunity existed.

And they almost did. It felt like this was finally Oklahoma City’s time when they had seemingly delivered a knockout blow to Golden State in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. As we know, however, it was not. Little to our knowledge at the time, it was set to be the final scene for Durant in a Thunder jersey.

It was while growing up through my teen years and beyond with the Thunder that I grew to love the NBA. Just like the Durant move sets forth a new chapter in the NBA’s history – one which will certainly impact the next collective bargaining agreement – it has me looking ahead as a fan to the next team that manages to excite like this Thunder team did (Please God let it be the Wolves! I don’t ask for much!).

May the next incarnation of this now gone Thunder team find some of that elusive luck and enjoy the dream ending that Durant searches for as he heads West. But for now, pour one out for this Thunder team and appreciate what we were all fortunate to witness for the time it was there.