Thunder turn attention to Westbrook with Durant gone
Oklahoma City — Russell Westbrook is no longer sharing the NBA marquee in Oklahoma City after the Thunder lost much of their identity when free agent Kevin Durant chose to join the Golden State Warriors on Monday.
The Thunder's focus now has to be primarily on one of the most electrifying players in the NBA who they still have on the roster – at least for now. Westbrook's future is unclear. He is heading into the final year of his deal, and he could be traded before that.
"Anything like that with Russell is hypothetical," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said Monday. "Everybody knows how we feel about Russell."
Westbrook won the 2015 scoring title and finished fourth in the MVP balloting last season, ahead of Durant, who finished fifth. Westbrook, the two-time reigning All-Star MVP, has consistently improved throughout his career, and he could take his game to another level without sharing the load with Durant, a four-time scoring champion and former league MVP.
"Russell Westbrook is a force of nature," Presti said. "He is a true leader in the sense that he takes it on. He takes it on, and I think he'll take this on, as well. This is a different situation, and I know that Russell will adjust and adapt to that."
Durant answered the biggest question of this offseason when he announced Monday on the Players' Tribune that he is heading to the Warriors. Durant agreed to a two-year, $54 million contract with a player option the second year, a person with knowledge of the deal told the Associated Press Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because details weren't made public. He can sign with Golden State on Thursday, when free agents can finalize deals.
His departure is huge for OKC, though the Thunder still have a talented roster featuring Westbrook.
Young stars Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are rapidly improving. Adams, a bruising 7-foot center, emerged as consistent double-double threat during the playoffs. Kanter, a crafty 6-foot-11 forward, was third in the race for sixth man of the year.
The Thunder have been making changes to their roster, and now more will undoubtedly come.
Oklahoma City dealt Serge Ibaka to Orlando on draft night in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo, forward Ersan Ilyasova and draft pick Domantas Sabonis, a move that improved their depth and shored up their inconsistent shooting guard position.
The Thunder tried to lure Al Horford, who ended up going to the Boston Celtics.
"I think Al was really, really interested, but obviously the timing of Kevin's situation and his just didn't link up, and that's part of free agency," Presti said. "That's how it goes."
But the focus of the team right now is Westbrook and his future.
Even with Westbrook's presence and the young talent around him, it doesn't ease the sting of losing Durant for the franchise and the city after his nine-year run in Oklahoma City.
Durant has elevated Oklahoma's profile so much that he was inducted into the state's Hall of Fame late last year. And Durant has made a point to have a local presence. He donated $1 million in disaster relief to the Red Cross in 2013 after a tornado ravaged south Oklahoma City and Moore. He also owns a popular restaurant in downtown Oklahoma City.
Presti said the fans should appreciate what Durant accomplished, and the part they played in it.
"They should feel thankful, grateful," he said. "They should not __ I can't tell them not to be disappointed, but the one thing I would also say is the city should be incredibly proud of what they've helped create for the Thunder. It's not possible without that. They need to carry that on."
The NBA had been anticipating Durant's free agency decision for more than a year. The 2014 MVP led the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012, and to the Western Conference Finals in four of the past six years — and he's only 27. He recovered from a broken bone in his right foot that cost him much of last season to post one of the best years of his career.
Not long ago, the Thunder were up 3-1 on the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, easing Thunder fans' minds about the possibility that Durant might seek greener pastures. Even after the Warriors rallied to win the series 4-3, Durant headed into free agency talking as though he would return to Oklahoma City.
"Are we going to work on our game and come back even better, or are we going to be excited about what we did?" Durant said last month. "Be complacent, or are we going to want more? I think that's the next step for us all — thinking of how we can all be better."
A month later, Durant is headed to the Bay Area.
In his article, Durant said, "It really pains me to know that I will disappoint so many people with this choice, but I believe I am doing what I feel is the right thing at this point in my life and my playing career."