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The rise and fall of OKC, the miracle of the NBA on small markets



That's Russell Westbrook Day.

Every day in Oklahoma City, it's the Russell Westbrook Day, by a Mayor's decree signed in 2017 Mayor Mick Cornett, after Westbrook resumed work for an extension of $ 205 million over five years.

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

Westbrook had been the backbone of history for more than a decade and remained in touch with the city thanks to its confidence, courage and underestimated charm. Despite its harsh and rude intensity on the court, the Oklahomans rose a little higher because Westbrook's unwavering self-confidence permeated the heart of the state.

He was the last man to resist the miracle of the small league markets, but things are changing fast. And with little warning.

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For the first time in 11 years since their move from Seattle, the Thunder is embarking on a reboot again. This leaves big questions about OKC's potential reaction to watching a team without superstars or continuing to fill the arena on Tuesday night in February.

The fall may seem abrupt, but in reality, the pillars of their foundation have been burning for years. Fresh out of their only place in the NBA finals in 2012, they traded a 23-year-old man of the year at Harden – but they continued to win. In the summer of 2016, they lost Kevin Durant, the Thunder Group's first MVP and face of the franchise, but they continued to win.

Indeed, Westbrook's and George's trades are discordant, but there is some optimism about the actualization – an idea that many members of the organization consider necessary, if not late. It's not that thunder wants it, of course.

When they renewed their contract with George a year ago, it was a success for a franchise that bets on itself to overcome the immense gravity of larger markets. The extension of the window not only sparked enthusiasm, but the opportunity to finally expire.

Every Thunder summers since 2014 were centered on star stand-alone players, first with Durant, then on Westbrook's future, and then on George's hiring. With Westbrook and George under contract for the next three years at least, the fan base could finally experience some stability and some insurance for the first time in more than five years.

But behind the scenes, the focus of OKC basketball was already geared towards change.


The Thunder is the first franchise in NBA history to draft potential MVPs three years in a row (2007-09). Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images

THE OUTPUT STRATEGY was being prepared. After a series of ten years in which thunder has played nine times in the playoffs and earned a 64% victory percentage, OKC said, according to sources close to the league, that the 2019-2020 season was his last chance as the best chance of winning a title.

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

And they were ready to spend again this season: with the Westbrook trio ($ 38.5 million), George ($ 33 ​​million) and Steven Adams ($ 25 million) under contract, OKC was heading to the Repeater Tax in 2019-2020.

But Thunder thought that they would be healthier, better prepared and ready to compete in a reworked Western conference that eventually escaped the grip of the Golden State Warriors.

The hard truth for the Thunder, though: the Westbrook-George couple was not working. There was a context, of course, like George's shoulder injuries last season, but a team this expensive with this a lot of star power should not have just three playoff wins over the past two seasons.

So, when George's agent, Aaron Mintz, informed Thunder's general manager, Sam Presti, of his client's wishes – more of a demand than one request – this was a shock, but it was also considered in some ways as a gift.

"Westbrook is the franchise player, the one who stayed, the sleek representation of the Thunder's first chapter in Oklahoma City.The ups and downs, the drama, the tragedy, the beauty, the success, the failure – it had been there for all that. "

The Thunder's best bet for the season was a chemistry progression between their stars, the internal development of their youth and some marginal additions to help stabilize the team's inconsistency. But if George was not completely on board, combined with the fact that his shoulder surgeries during the off-season might force him to miss the first two weeks of the upcoming season, demand could have become a demand if the Thunder started slowly. .

In this case, the weight of the franchise would be reduced and the circus of a superstar asking to go out would follow.

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

The Thunder have fought against him since their creation and, with George's ties to the Los Angeles area, it was not possible to stop a second time. The thunder had already escaped L.A.'s draw, but after a year of successful recruitment, there was simply nothing left to sell. The partnership with Westbrook was an important part of this partnership, and Westbrook did its part, with both parties building a strong relationship, both on and off the field.

But even as George's trade demand shook the walls of the organization, Westbrook was not trying to change his mind, according to several sources.

The relationship between Westbrook and George was probably the most consistent and stable thing about the Thunder in the past two seasons, and there was no break between them for George's exchange request.

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But Westbrook requires control and even events like the holiday that the Thunder organized with the Westbrook name last year come with conditions and complications (it's guaranteed to personally endorse every invitation on the list of 500 guests). It's an usual being that runs in the routine – shoot after the same basket, the same time of arrival at the arena, the same pre-game routine, the same parking space, the same everything.

So while Kawhi Leonard was putting pressure on George and Westbrook was not separating to recruit his star teammate again, the Thunder did not have much to do against it. Presti was not as sorry for George 's request as some might think, after experiencing many star departures before. If anything, there was pragmatic relief.

The disappointment came more from the timing, as the Thunder were already trying to execute their free agency plan (reworking Nerlens Noel, adding Mike Muscala and Alec Burks, who were allowed to reconsider his contract and sign with the Warriors instead).

The Thunder lost Durant for nothing, but with George, they would replenish the closet and take what would be a three-year rebuilding plan and reduce it to one night. Not only was the transportation of the Clippers' assets unprecedented – and many other choices came from Houston via the Westbrook Trade – but the underrated aspect of the deal was that, all of a sudden, the Thunder own project assets have become valuable again

These would make recovery easier to swallow. The Thunder has a lot of routes to take, from drafting and development to accessing accumulated assets to acquire the next available star in the league. It's the pragmatic view.

But there is also the romantic, the one who sees the end of an era, the one who puts Westbrook under a different jersey for the second half of his heyday, the one that leaves the team that fished Durant, Harden , Serge Ibaka and Westbrook. like the dynasty that has never been.


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

FOR RUSSELL WESTBROOK, the story was written – nobody wants to play with him – but against all odds and assumptions, George chooses to stay. Westbrook took his decision in hand, feeling like he had rewritten the book on him as a teammate. In some ways, he's ranked among the best with his victory at the MVP as the best moment of his career.

For much of last season, the Thunder thrived as George, who became his best player and MVP. But as George regressed slightly and injured his shoulders, Westbrook filled the void and the identity of the Thunder was adjusted.

Everyone has played to the limit, with the joy and fluid nature that dissolve into a lot of anger "pull the leaking balloon!" shouts from Westbrook. Last season was tough for Westbrook. His playing was inconsistent and the tension between him and the coaches, the team staff and the media.

Part of Westbrook's leadership style is that it feels like a "hole", as George admitted before the two became teammates, but if you're inside the locker room, you'll see what it really looks like – affable, funny, thoughtful, relatable. He loved interrupting interviews with his teammates to shout, "Tell them what a bad teammate I am!" because he savored the idea that they knew the opposite.

Neither George nor Durant left because from Westbrook, but they did not stay because of him either. Eighty-two games may seem much more than that with Westbrook. Every game is the most important game of all time, and a trivial victory in February can still generate a stressful post-match environment.

Since it's been drafted in 2008, Westbrook has remained steadfast and Thunder has backed it unreservedly. But as the team's rebuilding path became clear and the options were simple, both sides saw the likely conclusion.

There was a chance to run another round, using some of the Clippers' trading assets to restart the engine once again, but the Thunder wanted to face Westbrook.

Over the last eleven seasons, the Thunder has been a successful model for small markets, paving the way for controversy through savvy drafting and calculated risk-taking. Now they are the latest example of the futility of fighting the forces that run the NBA.

These forces have led LeBron James in Los Angeles. They shot Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. And they brutally ripped Paul George out of Oklahoma City.

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

Durant has always been considered the superstar next door, the one who would never leave, the player went to a small market like OKC. This connection was real, but it was not anchored in the red earth. When Durant left and Westbrook promised his loyalty, everyone understood: it was always Russell.

"I would rather be in Oklahoma City," said Westbrook after accepting its extension in 2017.

"You've basically raised me .I've been here since the age of 18 or 19. You've only done great things for me, whether it's the best or the worst, you'll have You have supported throughout this project When I had the opportunity to be loyal, this is option # 1.

"Loyalty is something I care about."

Westbrook will not be the first number to retire – this honor goes to Nick Collison – but it will be the first statue. He is the franchise player, the one who stayed, the sleek representation of the first chapter of the Thunder in Oklahoma City. Highs, lows, drama, tragedy, beauty, success, failure – he had been there for all that.

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


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