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

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Updated: July 11, 2019

10:59 PM ET

It’s Russell Westbrook Day.

It’s Russell Westbrook Day every day in Oklahoma City, by a mayoral decree signed in 2017 by then-Mayor Mick Cornett after Westbrook re-upped with a five-year, $205 million extension.

It was Russell Westbrook Day on July 6, when the Oklahoma City Thunder shockingly traded Paul George to the LA Clippers. And it’s Russell Westbrook Day on July 11, the day the Thunder traded him to the Houston Rockets to reunite with former teammate James Harden.

Westbrook had been the fabric of the Thunder for more than a decade, connecting with the city through his confidence, bravado and underrated charm. Despite his snarling, foul-mouthed intensity on the court, Oklahomans stood up a little taller because Westbrook’s unwavering self-belief soaked into the core of the state.

He’d been the last man standing from the league’s small-market miracle, but things change quickly. And with little warning.

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  • For the first time in their 11-year history since relocating from Seattle, the Thunder are tumbling headfirst into a reboot. It leaves big questions about how OKC might react to watching a team without superstars, or if it can continue to fill the arena on Tuesday nights in February.

    The fall might seem abrupt, but really, the pillars of their foundation have been splintering for years. Fresh off their only NBA Finals berth in 2012, they traded a 23-year-old Sixth Man of the Year in Harden — but they kept winning. In the summer of 2016, they lost Kevin Durant, the Thunder’s first MVP and face of the franchise — but they kept winning.

    Indeed, the Westbrook and George trades are jarring, but there’s some optimism for a refresh — something many in the organization think is necessary, if not overdue. Not that the Thunder wanted this, though, by any means.

    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. There wasn’t just excitement about extending their window, but about the chance to finally exhale.

    Every Thunder summer since 2014 centered around star free agents, first with Durant, then Westbrook’s future, then George’s recruitment. With Westbrook and George under contract for at least the next three years, the fan base could finally experience some stability and assurance for the first time in more than five years.

    But behind the scenes, OKC’s basketball axis was already tilting toward change.


    THE EXIT STRATEGY was being prepared. After a 10-year stretch in which the Thunder made the playoffs nine times and amassed a winning percentage of 64%, OKC, according to league sources, viewed the 2019-2020 season as its last, best chance at winning a title.

    The Thunder spent $60 million in luxury tax last season for their 49 wins. But they did so because the alternative was not having 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 headed for the repeater tax in 2019-20.

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

    The hard truth for the Thunder, though: The Westbrook-George pairing wasn’t working. There was context, sure, like George’s shoulder injuries last season, but a team that pricey with that much star power shouldn’t have just three playoff wins over the past two seasons.

    So when George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, informed Thunder general manager Sam Presti of his client’s wishes — more a request than a demand — it came as a shock, but it also was seen in some ways as a gift.

    “Westbrook is the franchise player, the one who stayed, the purified representation of the Thunder’s first chapter in Oklahoma City. The highs, the lows, the drama, the tragedy, the beauty, the success, the failure — he’d been there for all of it.”

    The Thunder’s best bet for the season was a progression of the chemistry between their stars, internal development of their youth and some fringe additions to help steady the team’s inconsistency. But if George wasn’t completely on board, combined with the fact his offseason shoulder surgeries could force him to miss the first couple weeks of the upcoming season, the request might have become a demand if the Thunder started slowly.

    The franchise’s leverage, in that case, would be diminished, and the circus of a superstar asking out would follow.

    There was no real way to ask George to reconsider. One could try to assign blame — to George, to Westbrook, to Presti, to head coach Billy Donovan — but if you want to blame anything, it’s geography.

    The Thunder have battled against it since their inception, and with George’s ties to the Los Angeles area, there was no stopping it a second time around. The Thunder staved off the draw of L.A. once before, but after a yearlong, already successful recruiting effort, there was simply nothing left to sell. The partnership with Westbrook was a big part of it, and Westbrook did his part, with the two building a strong relationship both on and off the court.

    But even as George’s trade request shook the walls of the organization, Westbrook didn’t try to change his mind, according to multiple sources.

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

    But Westbrook demands control, and even things like the party the Thunder threw with Westbrook’s name on it last year come with conditions and complications (he made sure to personally approve every invite on the 500-person guest list). He is a creature of habit who functions within routine — post-practice shooting at the same basket, the same arrival time at the arena, the same pregame routine, the same parking spot, the same everything.

    So as Kawhi Leonard put the full-court press on George, and with Westbrook not breaking character to re-recruit his star teammate, the Thunder had little to counter it. Presti wasn’t as heartbroken by George’s request as some might believe, having experienced plenty of star departures before. If anything, there was pragmatic relief.

    The disappointment stemmed more from the timing, because the Thunder were already in the middle of trying to execute their free-agency plan (re-signing Nerlens Noel, adding Mike Muscala and Alec Burks, who was allowed to reconsider his deal and sign with the Warriors instead).

    The Thunder lost Durant for nothing, but with George, they were going to restock the cupboard and take what would be a three-year rebuilding plan and reduce it to one night. Not only was the haul of assets from the Clippers unprecedented — and plenty more picks are coming from Houston via the Westbrook trade — the underrated aspect of the deal was that, suddenly, the Thunder’s own draft assets became valuable again.

    Those would make the recovery easier to swallow. The Thunder have an ample number of pathways to take, from draft and development to accessing the accumulated assets to acquire the league’s next available star. That’s the pragmatic view.

    But there’s also the romantic one, the one that sees the end of an era, the one that puts Westbrook in a different jersey for the second half of his prime, the one that leaves the team that drafted Durant, Harden, Serge Ibaka and Westbrook as the dynasty that never was.


    Neither George nor Durant left because of Westbrook, but they didn’t stay because of him, either. Eighty-two games can feel like a lot more than that with Westbrook. Each game is The Most Important Game Ever, and an unremarkable win in February can still yield a stressful postgame environment.

    Since he was drafted in 2008, Westbrook remained resolute, and the Thunder steadfast in their support of him. But as the team’s rebuilding path became clear, and the options straightforward, both sides saw the likely conclusion.

    There was a chance to spark another run, using some of the acquired assets from the Clippers trade to jump-start the engine once more, but the Thunder wanted to do right by Westbrook.

    The Thunder spent the past 11 seasons being a poster child for small-market success, paving the path to contention through savvy drafting and calculated risk-taking. Now they’re the latest example of the futility of fighting the forces that rule the NBA.

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

    Westbrook was the last man standing. He couldn’t be again.

    It was Durant who was always thought to be the superstar next door, the one who would never leave, the player made for a small market like OKC. That connection was real, but it wasn’t rooted to the red dirt. After Durant left and Westbrook pledged his loyalty, it was obvious to everyone: It was Russell all along.

    “There’s nowhere else I would rather be than Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said after agreeing to his extension in 2017.

    “You guys have basically raised me. I’ve been here since I was 18, 19 years old. You guys did nothing but great things for me. Through the good and the bad, you guys supported me through it all, and I appreciate it. Definitely when I had the opportunity to be able to be loyal to you guys, that’s the No. 1 option.

    “Loyalty is something that I stand by.”

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

    It will be Russell Westbrook Day tomorrow, and all the days after, but it’s also a new day for the Thunder, and the chance to finally start again.

    Article source: http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/27141139/the-rise-fall-okc-nba-small-market-miracle