How quickly things change. The Seattle Supersonics, a longstanding beloved NBA franchise, had suffered through a near decade-long streak of futility and average play. But on draft night of 2007, the Sonics looked to change their luck, selecting forward Kevin Durant from the University of Texas.
The spry 6’11” forward could do it all: defense, shooting, and distributing. The rookie promised to do great things, and the Sonics looked to finally have the young blue-chip star to build a promising future.
But behind the scenes, things were not as rosy. A month later, the Sonics traded star Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics, and dumped other pieces en route to worst record in team history. It would prove to be the last in Seattle. The team, under new ownership, took a move to Oklahoma City.
But from there, the hope returned. The Thunder drafted raw guard Russell Westbrook from UCLA; Serge Ibaka, a strong forward from the Congo; and James Harden, a scrappy shooting guard from Arizona State. The young nucleus gelled quickly, and in their first season together, forced the defending champion Lakers to seven games before being eliminated.
The following season, the Thunder roared through the season and the playoffs, reaching the Western Conference Finals, before losing to the eventual NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks. The following season saw more improvement, with the Thunder winning the West and facing the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. While losing, the team’s future looked bright. Packed with young stars and a core that was only getting better. the Thunder looked intent on creating an NBA dynasty, with four players that were quickly rising up the NBA ladder.
But things change.
Following the NBA Finals run, the Thunder traded Harden to avoid luxury tax penalties. The next few years would see increased debate over whether Durant and Westbrook could share the floor together, and chemistry issues on the team. The Thunder became lightning rods for criticism and inexperience.
But the Thunder silenced those critiques in the Western Conference Finals. Facing a team vying to go down as the best of all time, the Thunder pushed the Warriors to the brink, forcing them into a 3-1 hole. The Thunder simply needed one more win in three games to go back to the Finals. All roads pointed to the Thunder being the favorites, and a lock to get the young roster their first NBA title, with OKC supplanting the Warriors and Spurs as the preeminent Western threats.
But things change.
The Warriors roared back, and the Thunder were sent into disarray. Criticism soared back, with calls for changes and moves to free up Durant or Westbrook. And Kevin Durant, long thought to be on his way back to OKC in the offseason, now had a cloudy future. The Thunder had slipped on their chance to give a title to the city and superstar tandem of Westbrook and Durant. And now, Durant faced a decision.
And then, we all know what happens next.
Evolution of the Oklahoma City Thunder ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/pWuJKiN4Ms
— Hooper’s Heaven (@HoopingHeaven) July 4, 2016
Durant announced he was leaving the Thunder, and a once promising future came to a screeching impasse. In just five seasons, three of the original four for the Thunder are gone, leaving just Westbrook. The team now has just one true star, a change of pace for a franchise looking up at superteams like the Spurs and Warriors.
In one fell swoop, the Warriors beheaded their biggest threat for the West for the next four to five years, and all of a sudden a promising budding dynasty is left in the rubble, wondering where to go.
So what happens next?
The Thunder are in a weird spot. They traded for Oladipo to provide wing support for Durant and Westbrook, and with Durant gone, they are left with a sizeable hole in the offense. And I’m not saying sizeable because they lost a superstar, I’m saying it because they don’t have anyone but Kyle Singler. Life hits you fast, with the Thunder now resembling a team heading toward the six to eight seed range, as opposed to the upper echelon of the West.
The 2016-2017 Oklahoma City Thunder team photo. pic.twitter.com/i2GwrDv8i2
— NBA SKITS (@NBA_Skits) July 4, 2016
Sure, the Thunder have talent, with Oladipo and Westbrook anchoring a back court that will defend at a high clip. The defense in the front court will also be good, with Kanter and Adams. But this team goes as far as Westbrook takes them, but even that looks to be in question.
The Thunder have interesting young pieces in Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, Oladipo, Cameron Payne and Kanter. Westbrook has made his feelings known, telling his agent that he will not sign an extension with OKC at least until the next offseason. And with that on the table, the Thunder have to consider trading Westbrook.
I know it’s not the plan of action Thunder fans want, but Durant just walked away without the Thunder getting anything. If there’s a market for Westbrook, you have to do something now before he does the same thing. They can’t let another Durant situation happen with Westbrook.
Five years ago, the young Thunder centerpieces stood at a podium and told the world that they’d be back. And while they may be right, it won’t be as teammates, and it will be in different jerseys.
How quickly things change.