That’s a common question tossed around about the Thunder’s first eleven years in Oklahoma City. What if Portland drafted Kevin Durant? What if the trade of James Harden never happened? What if an injury to Russell Westbrook’s knee hadn’t interrupted Oklahoma City’s 2013 playoffs? Or Serge Ibaka’s strained calf hadn’t thrown off their 2014 playoffs? Or Kevin Durant’s broken foot hadn’t blown up their entire 2014-15 season? What if there were no cap spike in the summer of 2016? Or no Klay Thompson explosion weeks before?
You probably have your pet what-ifs of the smaller, more controllable variety. What if Sam Presti had picked up a better two-guard any of the years after Harden’s departure? What if he made a different coaching hiring or firing decision any point along the way? Speaking of which, what if Scott Brooks hadn’t insisted on playing Kendrick Perkins while the modernizing Heat were small-balling the Thunder to death all the way back in the 2012 Finals–which would shockingly end up being OKC’s first and last Finals appearance of this era.
It’s an entrancing question–what if?–but a punishing one. When you follow a team so close to glory, every woulda coulda shoulda ensnares you in the moment and won’t let go, even years later. There will no doubt be grizzled Thunder fans telling their grandchildren about the Game 2 missed foul call against LeBron James.
There are positive refrains of this question, though, in Oklahoma City. What if Russell Westbrook had not committed to stay with the Thunder in the wake of Kevin Durant’s exit? What if he hadn’t burgeoned into a triple-double machine and captivated MVP voters and OKC fans with a miraculous 2016-17 season? Would the team have survived in its notoriously small market? Would the front office have been able to pivot to a more promising rebuild in 2019, or would the relatively spoiled fanbase be able to stomach such a teardown had they not been eased into it with three star-filled seasons after the Durant gut punch?
An amicable split
This is why, despite the string of disappointing postseason exits, it’s all smiles between Thunder fans and Russell Westbrook. There wasn’t a prenup, but it worked out as if there was. Westbrook became a less extreme version of Durant before him: a Thunder player coming up short before moving to a more legitimate title contender who happened to be a longstanding Thunder rival. The team was left with more than nothing this time around: picks, players, and a more earnest goodbye campaign from Russ. An amicable win-win.
It’s worth noting that this time, asset recouping aside, the main difference in the tenor of the goodbyes has been from #0 himself. Regardless of which trade-demand timeline you believe, Paul George left for greener pastures and Westbrook didn’t channel the anger of a scorned franchise like he had post-KD. Russ was cool with it. He was cool with leaving himself, too. So were the fans. Apparently no one needed a sequel of the defiant, OKC-versus-everyone, “I’m coming!” Westbrook movie. I think we know why: it would’ve been a lot worse than the original.
What went wrong, this time?
Westbrook would likely attest to the fact that while he helped put and keep Oklahoma City on the basketball globe, he is a richer man and a brighter star thanks to their unabashed embrace of him. Durant’s departure not only allowed for him to receive a handsome, renegotiated raise two years ahead of his supermax extension, it gave him the reins to “do what I want”, as he put it. He wanted team success, certainly, but he also wanted every last shot, every penny available within a cap-strapped salary sheet, every dime from home arena scorekeepers, and every free rebound on his way to individual accolades that far outpaced the Thunder’s collective triumphs.
On the whole, the Westbrook Years were a fun failure. Fans forgave Bad Russ and celebrated Good Russ. The team maintained national intrigue and gave the OKC crowd hundreds of exhilarating moments to cheer.
But the Thunder never sniffed the Conference Finals again, let alone title contention, after their near-upset of the 73-win Warriors. As the fulcrum of every roster/coaching/parking space decision, Westbrook led them to four combined playoff wins in the post-KD era. He played two more seasons for the Thunder than he had already signed for before Kevin Durant left–hardly the next-Dirk-up we expected to play out his career in Oklahoma City. The Thunder needed Westbrook those years, and he gave them what they needed. But they could’ve used more.
Some of the team’s limitations and shaky regular season play can be laid at the feet of coaching and management. But the failures in the postseason are what precipitated this summer’s shakeup, and those sit at the sneakers of Westbrook (38% from the floor and 31% from three, on 26.5 shots per game the last three playoffs) and the optimal runningmate they pulled for him, Paul George (42%/34%/20.1, the last two).
More what ifs
As a rebound year, the 2016-17 season was an unambiguous success. Westbrook was flames, and the Thunder had a puncher’s chance in a playoff series despite losing a prime Hall of Famer. And Westbrook’s fire became infectious, convincing not one but two stars to spend time in Oklahoma City, a possibility that seemed extinguished on July 4, 2016.
But on-court fire wasn’t enough. One kind of competitiveness drives you to post your midrange summer workouts on Instagram, another drives you to disregard, then faceguard, your assignment in the playoffs, both at the expense of team defense.
What if Russ were 2% more self conscious about his three point volume and efficiency, or had just that much more shame with the ball in his hands 30’ from the hoop? What if he combined his willingness to defer more on offense the last two seasons with a willingness to expend that saved energy on the other side of the court? What if he had mellowed his demeanor enough to empower rather than merely tolerate young role players around him?
Maybe those are losing exchanges. Maybe tamping down the zeal unique to Westbrook in one area would stifle his effectiveness in another. But remember, we’re wondering if things could’ve gone differently enough for the Thunder to win a first round series in the Westbrook Years, not a championship. It’s fair to wonder.
And what if he trims up his game in those areas for the Rockets? You could forgive Thunder fans–who have excused his 70% (and dropping) free throw percentage the last two seasons by pinning it on a rule change–for wondering why he would suddenly adjust his efficiency worldview for the city of Houston.
We’ll never know
As much as sports media relies on them, we don’t live in hypotheticals. The last three years–the entire first Thunder chapter, for that matter–could’ve been a lot better. Could’ve been a whole lot worse. But the Thunder run happened. Russ happened.
It wasn’t Plan A for the era, but it was a thrilling Plan B. And it may have come sooner than expected, but it was time to move on to the next one.