The Dynasty that Never Was: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Beginning

In 2009, the Oklahoma City Thunder assembled the best drafted team of (arguably) all time. Sam Presti started this three-year run of stellar drafting by taking Kevin Durant at #2 in the 2007 NBA draft. Durant was a couple pounds of muscle from being a sure thing in the league, as he would go on to win Rookie of the Year that season. The team, then the Seattle Supersonics, would move to Oklahoma City after Durant’s first season. The next year, Presti took Russell Westbrook at #4 and Serge Ibaka at #24 in the 2008 draft. Westbrook would make the rookie first team while Ibaka would stay overseas for another year. The Thunder had selected two franchise stars in back-to-back drafts. Presti wasn’t done. He selected James Harden at #3 in the 2009 draft. Harden made the rookie second team that season. If you were to ask experts whose future they would take for the next five years, every single person would have said the Thunder.

Thunder Rising

In the three years during those drafts, the Thunder would not finish higher than 13th in the Western Conference. The year they drafted Harden; however, things began to change. The Thunder made the playoffs for the first time in Oklahoma City. While they were just an eight seed, they pushed the #1 seed Lakers (who would go on to win the title that season) to six games. With winning on the rise, accolades soon came as well. Kevin Durant made his first All-Star game, was the NBA scoring leader for the first time, and made first team All-NBA also for the first time. He was a rising superstar. At the same time, James Harden made the all-rookie second team, and OKC coach Scott Brooks won Coach of the Year. After the season, the Thunder inked Durant to a five-year extension. There was no question about where their franchise player would be playing for the near future. Their ascent did not stop here.

The 2010-11 season would see Russell Westbrook join Durant in the ranks of NBA elite. He would make his first All-Star game (as a reserve) and make an All-NBA (2nd) team for the first time. Durant was a starter for the first time in the All-Star game, would secure his second straight scoring title, and again make first team All-NBA. OKC now had budding stars on their roster. Westbrook’s breaking out led to more winning. The Thunder finished fourth in the West that season. They won their first playoff series in Oklahoma’s history, beating the Nuggets in five games. They would advance to their first conference finals after beating the Grizzlies in seven games. Their playoff run would end at the hands of the Mavericks, who beat them in five games. The Mavericks would go on to win the title. The Thunder were improving every season and their championship-caliber squad was on the cusp of a dynasty.

The Peak

The 2011-12 season was the peak for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s incredibly drafted team. Every player we mentioned before made their mark on the league. Kevin Durant started in his second straight All-Star game, making the roster three years in a row. He would also be named the All-Star game MVP. Westbrook was a reserve in the All-Star game for the second straight season. Durant made his third straight All-NBA First Team appearance. Westbrook made his second straight All-NBA Second Team appearance. James Harden won the Sixth Man of the Year award. Serge Ibaka made his first All-NBA Defensive first team appearance. Kevin Durant secured his third straight scoring title, becoming the first player since MJ to accomplish that. Ibaka led the league in blocks per game for the first time. The Thunder had more accolades than any other NBA team.

This would be the team’s peak in playoff success as well. They ended the regular season as the #2 seed in the West. They would exact revenge on the Mavericks, sweeping them in the first round. They would get some more revenge in the second round, beating the Lakers in five games. The Thunder secured their first Finals berth in Oklahoma history. However, they would lose to the Miami Heat in five games.

The Beginning of the End

In the offseason after losing in the NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and two first round draft picks. The Thunder and Harden couldn’t agree on a contract extension that suited the Thunder’s desire to remain under the luxury tax. Harden was a rising player but the return OKC got for him was more than fair… for who he was at the time. Houston signed Harden to a big extension the second he touched down in the city; they were betting he wasn’t finished developing. They were right. Harden would debut in his first All-Star game that season and make his first All-NBA team (3rd).

However, the accolades continued to pile up for OKC. Durant again started in the All-Star game, with Westbrook again joining him as a reserve. Durant was again first team All-NBA. Westbrook again third second team All-NBA. Ibaka paced the league in blocks per game again and made the first team All-Defensive roster for the second straight year.

The Thunder kept winning games as well. They would finish first in the Western Conference for the first time. They met the Houston Rockets, lead by their former Sixth Man of the Year, in the first round. The Thunder took care of them in six games, making everyone in Oklahoma feel a little bit better about that trade. But they lost embarrassingly in five games to the Grizzlies. This was their worst playoff run since first making the playoffs with Durant and Westbrook. Reports of Durant’s unhappiness began to circulate.

MVP Season and The Lost Season

The 2013-14 was a special year for OKC fans. Kevin Durant finally won an NBA MVP award. After securing his fourth scoring title in five years, starting in his fifth straight All-Star game, and making his fifth straight first team All-NBA, he was a shoo-in. The Thunder had the best player in the league. However, their other star was ailing. Westbrook had surgery on his knee before this season. He missed a big chunk of the season and subsequently did not qualify for any accolades. Nevertheless, Durant put them on his back. The Thunder still finished 2nd in the West and dominated the playoffs. Avenging the previous season’s loss to the Grizzlies, the Thunder won in 7. They then beat the Clippers in six. But they fell once again in Conference Finals to the Spurs. (Guess what the Spurs were? The eventual champions. A bit of a theme here, no?).

2014-15 was the lost season. Durant missed the first 17 games of the season. He would only play in 27 games all season. The Thunder missed the playoffs for the first time since their run of playoff success. Westbrook was named the All-Star MVP and made 2nd team All-NBA. James Harden made his second straight first team All-NBA for the Houston Rockets. The Thunder’s longtime coach Scott Brooks was fired a week after the season concluded. Tensions began to build.

Legend of the 3-1 Lead

This was the year. Kevin Durant was a free agent after the 2015-16 season. The Thunder had to convince him to stay. New coach Bill Donovan had to make a connection with him. The Thunder finished 3rd in the conference. They easily beat the Mavericks in five games in the first round. They ran past the Spurs in six games (retiring Tim Duncan in the process). They would meet the hardest team they had played in their careers next; the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. MVP Steph Curry. First team All-Defense Draymond Green. All-NBA Klay Thompson. Perhaps the only team in history with an argument for ‘Best Drafted Team’. The Thunder built a 3-1 lead against the Goliath. Then the collapse. They became only the 10th team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 lead in the playoffs. The ramifications of this comeback affect the league even today. The Warriors would go on to the Finals…and become themselves the first team in league history to blow a 3-1 lead in the Finals.

An Unmerciful End

The playoffs may have ended but the competition was far from over in Oklahoma. An all-out pursuit of Kevin Durant began. Big market teams and top-tier basketball organizations began their pitches. The Boston Celtics, hometown Wizards, and Spurs were in the thick of things. The Golden State Warriors were rumored to be involved but at the time no one thought he would dare join the best team in the league. If the Thunder were going to go down, however, they were going to go down fighting. Sam Presti sent Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis. He had turned one of the ‘core four’ into three rotation players, two of which could have star power. Considering Ibaka was on an expiring contract, this was an incredible move. Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter. On July 4th, 2016, Kevin Durant announced that he was leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. One of the top three talents in basketball decided to join the team that had broken the record for wins in a season. This hurt OKC fans and basketball fans alike. The Thunder lost their franchise player for nothing. Ibaka was gone as well; only Westbrook remained.

Life Without KD

Westbrook was on a mission in the 2016-17 season. Determined to overcome the loss of Kevin Durant, Russell took it out on his opponents. He became only the second player in NBA history to average a triple double over a full season. He finished first team All-NBA. He became the second Oklahoma City Thunder player to win the Regular Season MVP award. The Thunder would finish 6th in the West and lose in five to James Harden and the Houston Rockets. The Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship and Kevin Durant won the Finals MVP award. Westbrook signed a five-year Supermax extension after this season, making sure he was the one who ‘stayed’.

Long Rest of Story Short

– After the 2016-17 season, Sam Presti traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George. He traded what he got for Serge Ibaka to get Westbrook a second superstar. Masterful.
– Westbrook followed up his historic season by being the first player to average a triple double for two straight seasons, making it three straight the following season.
– The Thunder would lose in the first round the next two years, making it three straight first round exits after Durant’s departure.
– James Harden won the MVP award with Houston in the 2017-18 season.
– After the 2018-19 season, Sam Presti traded Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers for the biggest haul ever in a trade for a superstar.
– A few weeks after the PG trade, Presti trade Russell “Mr. OKC” Westbrook to the Houston Rockets. This concluded the ‘core four’ story once and for all. Westbrook is now reunited with his old teammate, James Harden, in Houston.
– Kevin Durant won two titles in GS, winning Finals MVP both times. He joined the Brooklyn Nets via free agency after the 2018-19 season.
– Serge Ibaka won a title with the Toronto Raptors during the 2018-19 season, becoming only the second ‘core four’ player to win a title. He came off the bench.

Bonus Facts

– The Thunder made the playoffs six times with Kevin Durant. Four times out of six, the team that the Thunder lost to in the playoffs went on to win the NBA title. Only one of the six teams failed to make the Finals.
– At least one of Durant, Harden, and Westbrook has been first team All-NBA each season for the past ten years.
– KD, Harden, and Westbrook have won three of the past six MVP awards.
– Sam Presti did not win Executive of the Year in any of the seasons following historic drafts.
– Harden, Durant, and RW have broken and currently hold 33 NBA records combined.

Agu is a Junior at Marquette University pursuing a Business Management Major with a Spanish Business Minor. He is a Milwaukee native and somehow survived 10 years of mediocrity from his hometown team, the Milwaukee Bucks, and is now writing about them in the midst of their best season. He is new on the scene with no credentials but hopes to have a light Wikipedia page in the future.

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