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The rise and fall of OKC, the miracle of the small NBA market



It's Russell Westbrook's day.

It's Russell Westbrook Day every day in Oklahoma City, for a Mayor's decree signed in 2017 by the then Mayor Mick Cornett, after Westbrook was renewed with a five-year extension and $ 205 million.

It was Russell Westbrook Day on July 6, when the Oklahoma City Thunder surprisingly changed Paul George for the Los Angeles Clippers. And it's Russell Westbrook Day on July 11, the day the Thunder changed him to the Houston Rockets to meet former teammate James Harden.

Westbrook had been the fabric of Thunder for more than a decade, connecting with the city through his confidence, courage and understated charm. Despite his grunt and sullen intensity on the court, Oklahomans rose a little higher because Westbrook's unwavering confidence soaked the heart of the state.

He had been the last man standing since the little miracle of the league, but things change quickly. And with little warning.

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For the first time in their 11-year history since moving from Seattle, the Thunder are turning upside down on a restart. He leaves big doubts about how OKC might react when he sees a team without superstars, or if he can continue filling the arena on Tuesday nights in February.

The fall may seem abrupt, but in reality, the pillars of its foundations have been chipped for years. Fresh out of their only place in the NBA Finals in 2012, they exchanged a sixth man of the year for 23 years at Harden, but they kept winning. In the summer of 2016, they lost Kevin Durant, the Thunder's first MVP and the face of the franchise, but they kept winning.

In fact, the exchanges of Westbrook and George are discordant, but there is some optimism for an update, something that many in the organization believe is necessary, if not that they are defeated. It is not that the Thunder wanted this, however, in any way.

When they re-signed George a year ago, it was an achievement for a franchise that bet on itself to overcome the immense gravity of the larger markets. Not only was there enthusiasm for extending his window, but for the possibility of finally exhaling.

Every summer of Thunder since 2014 focused on free-agent stars, first with Durant, then with the future of Westbrook, then with the recruitment of George. With Westbrook and George under contract for at least the next three years, the fan base could finally experience some stability and security for the first time in more than five years.

But behind the scenes, the OKC basketball axis was already leaning towards change.


The Thunder are the first franchise in the history of the NBA to develop eventual MVPs in three consecutive years (2007-09). Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE through Getty Images

The exit strategy was being prepared After a 10-year period in which the Thunder reached the playoffs nine times and accumulated a winning percentage of 64%, OKC, according to league sources, saw the 2019-2020 season as their last and best chance to win a title.

The Thunder spent $ 60 million on luxury taxes last season for its 49 victories. But they did it because the alternative was not to have two superstars in Oklahoma City.

And they were prepared to spend big again this season: with the trio of Westbrook ($ 38.5 million), George ($ 33 ​​million) and Steven Adams ($ 25 million) under contract, OKC was heading to repeat tax in 2019-20.

But the Thunder believed that they would be healthier, better and ready to compete in a reorganized Western Conference that has finally escaped the rule of the Golden State Warriors.

The hard truth for the Thunder, however: the Westbrook-George pairing was not working. There was a context, of course, like George's shoulder injuries last season, but a team that expensive with that A lot of star power should not have only three playoff victories in the last two seasons.

Then, when George's agent, Aaron Mintz, informed Thunder's general manager, Sam Presti, about his client's wishes, plus a request rather than a lawsuit, it was a surprise, but it was also seen in some way as a gift.

"Westbrook is the franchise player, the one who stayed, the purified representation of the first chapter of Thunder in Oklahoma City, the highs, the lows, the drama, the tragedy, the beauty, the success, the failure, been there for all that. "

The Thunder's best bet for the season was a progression of chemistry among its stars, the inner development of its youth and some additional additions to help stabilize the team's inconsistency. But if George was not completely on board, combined with the fact that his shoulder surgeries in the offseason could force him to miss the first two weeks of next season, the request could have become a demand if the Thunder started slowly.

The leverage of the franchise, in that case, would decrease, and the circus of a superstar invited to continue.

There was no real way to ask George to reconsider. One could try to blame George, Westbrook, Presti, head coach Billy Donovan, but if he wants to blame anything, it's geography.

The Thunder have fought against him since its inception, and with George's ties to the Los Angeles area, there was nothing stopping him for the second time. The Thunder avoided the draw of L.A. once before, but after an already successful one-year recruitment effort, there was simply nothing left to sell. The partnership with Westbrook was a big part of it, and Westbrook did his part, as the two forged a strong relationship both on and off the field.

But even when George's business request shook the walls of the organization, Westbrook did not try to change his mind, according to multiple sources.

Westbrook's and George's relationship was probably the most consistent and stable thing about the Thunder over the past two seasons, and there was no split between the two that led to George's trade request.

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But Westbrook demands control, and even things like the party that Thunder organized under the name of Westbrook last year are accompanied by complications and complications (he made sure to personally approve each invitation on the 500-person guest list). It is a creature of habit that works within the routine: throw after the practice in the same basket, the same time of arrival in the arena, the same routine before the game, the same place of parking, The same everything.

So when Kawhi Leonard put the press on the full court to George, and with Westbrook without breaking the character to re-recruit his star teammate, the Thunder had little to counter it. Presti was not as disconsolate about George's request as some might believe, since she had experienced many star exits before. In any case, there was pragmatic relief.

The disappointment was due more at the moment, as the Thunder were already trying to execute their free agency plan (they re-signed Nerlens Noel, adding Mike Muscala and Alec Burks, who were allowed to reconsider their agreement and sign with the Warriors in place).

The Thunder lost Durant for nothing, but with George, they were going to replenish the closet and take what would be a three-year reconstruction plan and reduce it to one night. Not only was the clippers' asset transport unprecedented, and many more elections came from Houston through the Westbrook trade, the understated aspect of the agreement was that, suddenly, the Thunder own The asset project was again valuable.

That would make recovery easier to swallow. The Thunder have a large number of paths to follow, from the draft and development to the access to accumulated assets to acquire the next available star in the league. That is the pragmatic vision.

But there is also the romantic, who sees the end of an era, which puts Westbrook in a different shirt for the second half of his best, which leaves the team that recruited Durant, Harden, Serge Ibaka and Westbrook. Like the dynasty that never was.


The Russell Westbrook-Paul George partnership collapsed in the blink of an eye for OKC. Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

BY RUSSELL WESTBROOK, The narrative had been written, nobody wants to play with it, but, despite all the odds and assumptions, George decided to stay. Westbrook made the decision, feeling that he was rewriting the book about him as a teammate. In some way, he placed himself in the same position by winning the MVP as the best moment of his career.

For much of last season, the Thunder thrived when they took on George's identity, with him rising as his best player and MVP candidate. But when George stepped back a little, and took care of the injuries on both shoulders, Westbrook filled the void and the identity of the Thunder adjusted.

Everyone played to the limit, with the joy and nature that flowed freely dissolving in a lot of anger "Shoot the ball of sand!" cries coming from Westbrook. Last season was uncomfortable for Westbrook. His game was inconsistent and the tension arose between him and the coaches, the team staff and the media.

Part of Westbrook's leadership style is making it look like a "hole," as George admitted before the two became teammates, but if you're inside the walls of the locker room, you see how it really is … Affable, funny, reflective, relatable. He loved to interrupt the interviews of teammates to shout: "Tell them I'm a bad partner!" because he liked the idea that they knew otherwise.

Neither George nor Durant left why of Westbrook, but they did not stay for him either. Eighty-two games may seem much more than that with Westbrook. Each game is the most important game of all time, and an uncomplicated victory in February can still generate a stressful environment after the game.

Since being recruited in 2008, Westbrook remained resolute and the Thunder stood firm in his support for him. But as the team's reconstruction route became clear, and the options were simple, both sides saw the probable conclusion.

There was an opportunity to start another race, using some of the assets acquired in the Clippers' operation to start the engine once again, but the Thunder wanted to do the right thing for Westbrook.

The Thunder spent the past 11 seasons being a poster for success in the small market, paving the way for contention through smart writing and calculated risk taking. Now they are the last example of the futility of fighting against the forces that govern the NBA.

Those forces led LeBron James to Los Angeles. They pulled Kevin Durant to Brooklyn. And abruptly ripped off Paul George from Oklahoma City.

Westbrook was the last man standing. He could not be again.

It was Durant who always thought he was the superstar next door, the one who would never leave, the player created for a small market like OKC. That connection was real, but it was not rooted in the red earth. After Durant left and Westbrook promised his loyalty, it was obvious to everyone: it was Russell all the time.

"There is no other place I would prefer to be than in Oklahoma City," Westbrook said after accepting its extension in 2017.

"You basically raised me, I've been here since I was 18, 19. They did nothing but great things for me, through the good and the bad, they supported me in all this, and I definitely appreciate it, when I had the opportunity to To be able to be loyal to you, that is the number one option.

"Loyalty is something that I hold."

Westbrook will not be the first retired number, that honor went to Nick Collison, but it will be the first statue. He is the franchise player, the one who stayed, the purified representation of the first chapter of Thunder in Oklahoma City. The heights, the lows, the drama, the tragedy, the beauty, the success, the failure, he had been there for all that.

It will be Russell Westbrook's day tomorrow, and every day thereafter, but it's also a new day for the Thunder, and the opportunity to start over.


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