We’ve seen many chapter close in the eleven seasons that the Thunder have been in Oklahoma City, but yesterday saw the official closing of the first book.
As you know by now, Russell Westbrook has been traded to the Houston Rockets for another declining point guard – Chris Paul – and a couple more draft picks and swaps.
This has been one of the most wild, blockbuster NBA summers in recent memory. The Toronto Raptors winning their first ever championship was unpredictable enough, and since then, we’ve seen the entire league splinter apart. The lack of parity is an issue that has been maligned for probably as long as the league has existed, but for the first time since the Warriors put every other team into a chokehold, the field is wide open.
Paul George’s trade request to move back home and join Kawhi Leonard to create the new superteam shocked everybody, and his void begged the question: when, not if, will Russell Westbrook be traded?
Presti fleeced a record number of first-round picks from the Clippers, which made it clear that Oklahoma City’s window has closed. We as fans have felt it for a while now, even if we couldn’t admit it to ourselves. Since Kevin Durant left to get his rings, the Thunder has struggled to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, or even pretend to be convincing during the regular season.
After George’s trade, we could feel the wind changing, and it was the first time I’ve ever thought, “You know, we should really trade Russell Westbrook.” He was always my favorite Thunder player, even if he wasn’t the most reliable or consistent. Can you win a championship with the Brodie? Who cares, he’s fun to watch. Win by the sword, die by the sword. Westbrook is the most chaotic-neutral player since Allen Iverson. AI never won a title, but his larger-than-life persona and playing style has already cemented him as a legendary player, and by this point that almost means more than a trophy.
Even though I wanted to see Westbrook spend his whole career fighting and scrapping away for the unlikely team on the prairie, the George trade made things clear that it was time for him to move on. With his aggressively athletic playing style, one can’t help but wonder how many more years of his prime are left before his body starts to break down and rust. He wants nothing more than to win, and how many games can he win with a team that is jettisoning any usable part for future assets?
It’s like that really hot and cool and fun girlfriend/boyfriend you had back in college that was amazing, but after a few months they needed to go backpack in South America, and you realize that even though you love them very much, you’re kinda boring and have nothing to offer and if you love them set them free, man.
If Westbrook stuck around to fulfill his contract, it would have been a few more seasons of triple-double chasing and thrilling ISO performances, and not much else to get excited about. The Western Conference is more loaded than it has been in years, with at least 10 teams that all seem like they could be locks for the play-offs. Even if OKC had retained its stars, it would have been a bloody challenge to scrape into the 8-seed, then get blasted out by the Clippers or the Jazz or the Warriors or the Blazers or the Rockets or whoever ends up taking the top spot.
The Thunder is now stockpiling first-round picks, which are great assets even if the team doesn’t even use them to select rookies on draft night. Presti has proved that they can be used to swap for players already in the league, like smelting down ore for something more useful.
Fans need to prepare themselves for a rebuild, but it probably won’t be as painful as teams like the 76ers, the Nets, or any of the other dozen or so squads who spent a decade languishing in the lottery and still not being championship contenders. And even if Sam Presti isn’t capable of rapidly transforming a star-less Thunder back into the juggernaut that they were in 2011-12, we had a better run than cities like Sacramento, Orlando, and the accursed New York Knickerbockers, who haven’t been able to assemble anything functional or satisfying to watch for years.
Over eleven years, the Oklahoma City Thunder has only missed the playoffs twice, which is a feat that fans of all of the aforementioned teams would not take for granted, and neither should we. Even if the ending is unsatisfying, every book must have a final page, and yesterday was the ~fin for Volume I of the Thunder’s history.
Russell was the One Who Got Away, who now gets to play with the Bearded One Who Got Away, and they’ll be teaming up to go head-to-head against the two small forwards who Also Got Away. Houston, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, three MVP’s and one who nearly won another one in OKC… Bill Simmons will probably be writing another article about Oklahoma City blowing it, and maybe he’s right, but we got to enjoy more incredible talent and exciting basketball over the last decade than several other fanbases combined.
Russell Westbrook, I salute your service, wish you the best in the rest of your career, and I’ll root for you every night of the year (when you’re not trying to dunk on Thunder youngblood).
Sam Presti, do what you need to do. Just don’t trade Steven Adams.