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Kevin Durant's Subtle Shots at OKC Thunder Ignore Franchise's Sustained Success

John Rohde @@RohdeOKSpecial ContributorOctober 17, 2016

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 14:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors looks on against the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on October 14, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bart Young/Getty Images

Months after the fireworks he lit with his Fourth of July relocation declaration, Kevin Durant continues to explain why he bailed on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

He continues to explain despite one simple truth: The explaining of such things is a no-win proposition.

Perhaps it's an effort to ingratiate himself with Golden State Warriors fans and teammates. It's the same kind of gesture he employed with the Thunder in 2008, and with the Seattle SuperSonics the year before that, and with Texas Longhorns fans the year before that, when he chose a college 1,527 miles away from Montrose Christian outside Washington, D.C.

But whenever Durant compliments the Warriors, it's different. The skeptics immediately twist anything—seemingly everything—as a dig against the Thunder.

The latest example came Oct. 10 when Durant spoke at Stanford University, per CSN Bay Area:

You hear 'family' a lot. That's just a word sometimes, but this is really a lifestyle here (Golden State). You can feel it when you walk in the door, in the practice facility, everybody is just together. That's something that I can appreciate as a basketball player and someone who values relationships.

You can tell that that's what they stand on, that's what we stand on. I feel really grateful to play for a team like that and play with a bunch of players who are selfless and enjoy the game in its purest form. They make it about the players, they make it about the environment, so it was really an easy choice.

The implication, of course, was "family" is just a word with the Thunder and that the OKC organization doesn't value relationships. Golden State players are selfless; therefore, Thunder players are selfish.

When the aforementioned quote was repeated three days later to Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's All-Star point guard responded to reporters: "That's cute, man. That's cute. My job is to be able to worry about what's going on here. We're gonna worry about all the 'selfish' guys we got over here, apparently. So we're gonna figure that out."

Durant is too media savvy to not know these responses are pouring salt into a gaping wound in a state that somehow respected his privacy while simultaneously embracing him. He played for a franchise that did nothing but support him for nine seasons and still wishes him well both publicly and privately.

He also played for a franchise that's gone to great lengths to build a sustainable winner. Somehow, despite losing a top-three player, OKC is still considered a playoff contender. OKC won't threaten last season's 55-win total, but a seventh playoff appearance in the last eight years remains a reasonable expectation if key players are able to remain healthy.

Forty years after NBA free agency was implemented, it can be argued that no better player has gone to a better team. The 2013-14 NBA Most Valuable Player and four-time scoring champ is now the property of a team that finished with the league's best-ever record at 73-9 last season.

The Thunder are now missing one of the league's ultimate scorers in Durant, a premier shot-blocker in forward Serge Ibaka and have a roster with at least five new players.

Therein lies the most impressive aspect: Even with such a massive defection, the Thunder are still competitively healthy. 

General manager Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook
General manager Sam Presti and Russell WestbrookLayne Murdoch/Getty Images

"I think we've always shown that we're not going to be deterred," Presti said when Durant announced his departure. "We're going to continue to advance, and we've always taken the approach of things are more new beginnings than endings, and there's a new beginning here for the Thunder. We have to embrace that, and we have to lean into that…

"Those of you who have been around us and been with us for the eight years we've been here [OKC], we've never been impulsive. We've never been reactionary. We've never been careless with putting this franchise in the best possible position to be strong and be healthy and be competitive, and I feel like we've been able to do that."

Saying it and doing it are two different things, even if Presti's track record offers hope.

When the 29-year-old arrived in Seattle during June 2007 (as the league's youngest GM), he stressed there would be no shortcuts while trying to rebuild (and soon relocate) a once-proud franchise that went a combined 66-98 (.402) the two seasons prior.

Sustaining success was just as important as achieving success—perhaps more so—and it didn't happen overnight.

Presti's first two teams went 20-62 in Seattle and 23-59 in OKC. But since then (2009-10), the Thunder have made it to an NBA Final, advanced to four of the last six Western Conference Finals, owned the NBA's second-best record (.665) behind the San Antonio Spurs (.722) and ranked third in postseason victories (50) behind the Heat (67) and Spurs (56).

OKC also has the fourth-highest winning percentage of any national pro sports franchise since 2010, trailing the New England Patriots (.782), Spurs (.722) and Green Bay Packers (.690).

In his first three drafts, it appears Presti selected a potential Hall of Famer each year with Durant (99.4 percent HOF probability, according to Basketball-Reference.com), UCLA guard Westbrook (83.7 percent) and Arizona State guard James Harden (73.8 percent). By their third season together, this trending trio led the Thunder to the NBA Finals, all at age 23 and younger.

From left to right: Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant
From left to right: Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin DurantLayne Murdoch/Getty Images

With Harden traded to Houston in 2012 and both Durant and Serge Ibaka now gone, Westbrook's already passionate fanbase holds onto him more tightly than ever. Calling it "an easy decision," Westbrook agreed to a three-year, $85 million contract extension Aug. 4.

"There is nowhere else I'd rather be than Oklahoma City," said Westbrook, who made his way through a mob of supporters as he entered Chesapeake Energy Arena for his news conference that day.

"You guys have basically kind of raised me. I've been here since I was 18, 19 years old. You did nothing but great things for me. Through the good and the bad, you supported me through it all. I appreciate it. Definitely want the opportunity to be loyal to you guys. Thank you, guys. I appreciate everything."

Of course, Durant will undoubtedly be missed, and Presti has been quick to admit as much.

"I'm not trying to lead you down the path that losing a player of Kevin's magnitudeyou can't replace himbut I think given the circumstances, we're also very fortunate because we've prepared ourselves in the event that this was something that did take place," Presti said.

"We'll be careful and thoughtful and hopefully intelligent about how we go forward. I don't think we'd be in the position that we are right now in terms of the accomplishments over the last eight years if we hadn't taken that approach."

It appeared this dynamic duo would remain intact when the free-agent process began.

Behind the scenes, Durant let it be known he was longing for the Thunder to add a shooting guard and power forward. Presti did so on draft night and traded Ibaka to Orlando in exchange for 2-guard Victor Oladipo, veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova and hustling forward Domantas Sabonis, the No. 11 overall pick who could end up starting this season.

Victor Oladipo
Victor OladipoShane Bevel/Getty Images

Another potential acquisition was free-agent power forward and four-time All-Star Al Horford, who reportedly was excited to become the Thunder's missing link. Asked about wooing Horford, the clandestine and tight-lipped Presti shockingly confirmed this was no rumor and even uttered out loud, "Well, I think Al was really, really interested."

Presti set the stage and got Durant what he was looking for, but Durant still balked, and Horford quickly agreed to terms with the Boston Celtics.

All that work, and yet Durant's departure would have been less devastating had he known of his free-agent decision just five days earlier when OKC and Golden State could have worked some sort of trade before the July 1 moratorium began.

Instead, a franchise, city and state Durant insisted he held so dear was compensated with nothing but heartache.

Not only had Durant bolted from a consistent title contender, he did so after Presti lined up key pieces that might have finally solved the championship puzzle.

And yet, thanks to Presti's draft-day trade and all his work past and present, the Thunder possess playoff potential. An obvious adjustment period awaits with the departures of Durant (35.8 minutes per game last season), Ibaka (32.1), guard Dion Waiters (27.6) and guard Randy Foye (21.2), but this year's starting lineup appears solid with Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Sabonis (possibly Ilyasova) and Steven Adams.

OKC coach Billy Donovan finished strong during his first NBA season last year and again will have to integrate several moving parts into his system with newcomers Oladipo, Ilyasova, Sabonis, shooting guard Alex Abrines (the Thunder's 2013 second-round pick finally arriving from Spain) and veteran guard Ronnie Price (signed to a two-year deal Aug. 15).

"With those new players, that kind of chemistry playing together, some of those things will take time," Donovan said, "but we've got a great group of guys that I really have enjoyed being around."

Westbrook is now the face of the franchise. 

Westbrook and Nick Collison
Westbrook and Nick CollisonDavid Sherman/Getty Images

Asked his thoughts on Westbrook's assuming the leadership role in Durant's absence, forward Enes Kanter countered with, "He was our leader last year, too."

Westbrook proved in 2014-15 he could carry the Thunder without Durant, who missed 55 games that season with a foot injury. Impressive as Westbrook was in winning that year's scoring title (28.1), OKC lost a tiebreaker to the New Orleans Pelicans (both 45-37) for the No. 8 seed, missing the playoffs for the only time in the last seven seasons.

That same fate potentially awaits again, especially if Westbrook is lost for an extended period of time.

"I don't think it's necessarily been about Russell and his role," Donovan said of adjusting to life without Durant. "Russell is going to do what Russell does, and he does it at a very high level, but it's really more about our team and how we're going to progress moving forward as a group. I just really believe it's always been about us a team.”

      

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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