We live in a day and age where everything is judged by final product, and the journey is disregarded. The 2015-16′ Golden State Warriors won’t go down in history as the greatest regular-season team of all time, or the squad that shattered the record books. They’ll be remembered as that team that choked away a 3-1 lead in Finals when victory seemed inevitable.
And so naturally, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be looked at as underachievers with the Oklahoma City Thunder. But should they?
When Westbrook was drafted in 2008, Durant had already established himself as a lethal scorer, and had put the league on notice that he’d be a force for years to come.
Within two years, it became clear that Westbrook would follow a similar path to superstardom, and by 2011, they found themselves playing together for the Western Conference All-Stars, at only 22 years of age.
After making the postseason for the first time as teammates in 2010, and qualifying for the Conference Finals the following season, OKC took the next step on what seemed like the inevitable road towards basketball immortality in 2012 when the young Thunder defeated the experienced, decorated San Antonio Spurs.
Oklahoma City’s two superstars were only 23, and surrounded by a young, talented supporting cast which included Serge Ibaka and 6th man James Harden.
They already looked like the team to beat out West, and with a core that was still years away from their prime, the questions weren’t “will they be able to win a ring?” but rather “how many rings will they win?”
A loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 Finals hardly put a dent in people’s lofty hopes for the future of the team, as Miami was an experienced roster top to bottom, and this was the first time that the Thunder had been on this stage as a unit.
Little did they know that it would also be their last.
That offseason, when the front office was unable to work out an extension with free-agent to be James Harden, they dealt him to Houston, much to the dismay of Kevin Durant.
But the Thunder didn’t miss a beat that regular season, as its two young superstars continued to manufacture highlight-reel plays on a nightly basis, and Oklahoma City finished the season with a Western Conference best 60 wins.
But after sneaking by Harden and Rockets in the first round, the Thunder were infamously ousted by the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, a significant and somewhat concerning step back from the previous season.
But not all hope was lost, as a Westbrook injury in the first round knocked him out for the rest of the postseason. Add that to the fact that Westbrook and Durant were in the dawn of their primes, and were still trying to figure out how to play off each other most effectively, and you’ll see why the lofty expectations of 2012 were still in place.
And it soon became clear that they still hadn’t figured each other out, as multiple injuries that cost Westbrook 36 games in the 2014 season resulted in KD having the best season of his career, capturing the Most Valuable Player award in the process.
The real concerns began to arise in the 2014 postseason. In the Conference Finals series loss to the Spurs, both Durant and Westbrook averaged over 25 points, but no other teammate scored over 12, an eye-opening stat.
Despite the recent trends in Oklahoma City, Westbrook and Durant were still young, and had until at least 2016 before one of the two could jump ship, and that seemed very unlikely.
But those championship plans were put on hold once again after Durant went through season-ending foot surgery, and the Westbrook-led Thunder missed the playoffs.
KD leaving in the 2016 off-season was looking more and more like a possibility. At one point it looked as though Westbrook and Durant would rule the NBA together, winning title after title. They had all the looks of the next Jordan/Pippen or Shaq/Kobe. Now they only had one season to get to the promise land, as the threat of the Durant leaving was certainly in the cards.
And it looked like this might be their year after they took a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals.
After they dismantled the 67-win Spurs, they had the 73-win Warriors looking like a shell of themselves, on the ropes, and on the cusp of elimination.
Durant and Westbrook finally looked like they figured each other out, combined with an improved supporting cast, and the results were mouth-watering basketball being played in the first four games.
But a historic collapse ruled out any rematch with LeBron in the NBA Finals, and all that seemed to be going good in Oklahoma City was derailed. The offseason was bound to be a long and strenuous one, but a Durant departure seemed extremely unlikely at this point, especially after a trade for Victor Oladipo.
But Durant went against what everybody thought to be true and darted for the Bay Area, for team that he had just choked a 3-1 lead to.
Which means arguably the most talented, and certainly most entertaining duo between two dissimilar players is over. Without a championship ring.
A team that started out as a budding dynasty with one of the youngest, most talented cores we’ve ever seen is now in ruins a mere four years later, with nothing to show for it.
It’s hard to call the Durant-Westbrook a disappointment, simply because of the entertainment value they provided, and how they tried to make two top-five NBA players not only coexist, but thrive off of one another.
But if you ask me, I believe that the Thunder would’ve won at least won championship in the next 3-4 years had Durant stayed.
They’re both only 27 years old, after all. Jordan and Pippen didn’t win their first championship until Jordan was 28. The LeBron and Wade duo didn’t win their first championship until LeBron was 27, and they were still competing for titles when the latter was well into his thirties.
Therefore I don’t consider the Durant/Westbrook era a disappointment for what they didn’t accomplish while they were together. I consider it a disappointment because of what they could’ve accomplished had they stayed together.