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Blog #10: The Enigma Wrapped in a Riddle That is Kevin Durant (Part 1)

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The 2007 NBA draft was judged to be a two-man draft by most basketball experts. The Portland Trailblazers had the top pick and the choice was stark: Ohio State’s 7-foot Center Greg Oden or Texas’s 6’10” Forward Kevin Durant. Oden, a powerful post player, led the Buckeyes to the NCAA Championship Game along with Mike Conley Jr. in his only season where they lost to Florida; Durant, a long and lanky pure scorer with unlimited range, was the consensus National Player of the Year in his lone season. Oden’s strength was obvious, while Durant has trouble doing even a few bench presses (he did make the salient point that he never had trouble lifting a basketball because it wasn’t very heavy at all). It seemed that the draft gurus were essentially split down the middle on who should be selected first.

For Portland, it was déjà vu all over again, for back in 1984 they were faced with fundamentally the same choice: Kentucky’s 7’1” Center Sam Bowie or North Carolina’s 6’6” Guard Michael Jordan. Bowie was skilled and versatile in the post, and Jordan was an elite Swingman whose athleticism and talent would have (and should have) made him the first choice in any draft ever. But he wasn’t. He was actually the THIRD pick!

Aside: The Houston Rockets selected Houston’s 6’10” Center Hakeem (nee Akeem) Olajuwon with the first pick to pair him with 7’4” Ralph Sampson in the first of too many Twin Towers concepts, and this one was only moderately successful with no championships won. I can see why the Rockets selected the Hometown Hero Olajuwon, but how could they pass on such a can’t-miss prospect that Jordan clearly was? Olajuwon did bring them two NBA Titles and is deservedly in the Hall of Fame, but Jordan won six, and is widely considered the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in NBA annals. I never understood instead of the Rockets committing to this very flawed Twin Towers idea; why not think outside the box? Everyone knew that Portland already had Olajuwon’s college teammate Guard Clyde Drexler, whose athleticism and skillsets were eerily similar to Jordan’s but not nearly as potent in any facet, so they were more inclined to fill a gaping hole at Center; why not trade Sampson to the Blazers for the second pick (and probably more) and then select Olajuwon AND Jordan with the first TWO picks? Imagine how many NBA Championships the Houston Rockets would have won with that combination? Oh, the road less traveled…

That’s right. The Rockets were clearly committed to Hakeem “The Dream” no matter what, so when Portland took the chance on an injury-prone Bowie, the Chicago Bulls were waiting in the wings at the number three pick, and General Manager Rod Thorn became the luckiest man in the history of sports, as Jordan spearheaded the Bulls to the most successful run in the Modern Era of the Association with six championships in eight years, with a three-peat at the beginning and the end; the two years in the middle were the only years that Jordan did not play a full season due to his father’s death and his experiment into baseball. Portland bet on an oft-injured big man to stay healthy; predictably, they lost big time after Bowie underwent many surgeries for various injuries before he was traded to the New Jersey Nets after five disappointing season.

With just about the same set of circumstances staring them directly in the face exactly twenty-three years later, would they make the same mistake twice? Of course they did, and it was like lightning striking in the same place twice, only with more collateral damage. Having to watch the GOAT do his thing with another team while you had a future Hall of Famer at the same position is one thing; to watch maybe the most prolific and effortless scorer in his generation go do his thing with another team while having no one at his position that wasn’t anywhere close to memorable AND drafting ANOTHER injury-prone Center AFTER the first clear object lesson occurred had to be devastating. No one but the fans in the State of Oregon know for sure.

The city that was the real beneficiary of Portland’s second folly was not Seattle, for Durant’s first season in Pacific Northwest was destined to be his last. Sonics Owner and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was looking to sell the team to a local buyer in 2006; when one did not emerge, Schultz sold the team to an Oklahoma City ownership group led by Chairman Clayton Bennett, Bennett gave the City of Seattle one year to commit to building a new arena to replace the aging and non-revenue-generating Key Arena, but since the City had already built new stadiums for the Seahawks Football Team and Mariners Baseball Team, they refused to pay for building a third sports structure so soon. It was the justification that the Oklahoma City group needed, so the 2007 season was the last of 41 years of NBA Basketball in Seattle, and Howard Schultz more than anyone bore the brunt of the blame from indignant Sonics fans, while at the same time, Oklahoma’s Capital City reaped the benefits of a brand new NBA Franchise with a Franchise Player who had just won NBA Rookie of the Year already in place.

That first season for the newly christened Oklahoma City Thunder was the only season that was a losing one, for Durant was joined by 2008 4th Pick Russell Westbrook of UCLA and 2009 3rd Pick James Harden to go with Jeff Green and Serge Ibaka. Under General Manger Sam Presti and Coach Scott Brooks, the upward trajectory of playoff success was consistent, with a Playoff appearance in 2010 (lost to Lakers 4-2 in the First Round), a Conference Finals appearance in 2011 (lost to Mavericks 4-1), and an NBA Finals appearance in 2012 (lost to Heat 4-1). The undisputed leader was the 2014 NBA MVP Durant, and while he became a worldwide celebrity, he more importantly became without a shadow of a doubt the most popular and beloved figure in the history of the State of Oklahoma. Durant could do no wrong in his adopted state, and even if he did, he would be forgiven without ever having to even ask. In return, he showed total loyalty to Oklahoma City by re-signing twice, which only made the love the City and State showered on him grow even more. To most Thunder fans, the belief that Kevin Durant would eventually bring home an NBA Championship was a foregone conclusion; as an additional bonus, whether he did or not would not change the popularity of their favorite son one iota.

Few, if any, athletes have ever known this type of fan devotion that was magnified by being the leader of the only professional sports franchise in the entire state during this modern era, for most instances have either multiple cities with franchises or multiple franchises within a single city. Such slavish devotion could be too pressurized for some athletes, but not only was Durant comfortable with it, he seemed to thrive in it; he wore the reciprocal love between him and the community as a badge of honor, and he used it to stake his claim that no matter what, Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City was in this struggle together, and it would always be thus. In return, the State of Oklahoma pledged to have his back no matter what may come.

Back in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Durant was a co-Headliner along with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James on the Men’s Senior National Basketball Team, but the Oklahoma City Thunder actually had three members make the squad; Russell Westbrook saw extensive minutes backing up Chris Paul, and James Harden (along with Anthony Davis) was the young talented emergency player. It was an indication of the Thunder’s talent, but when salaries begin to rise, decisions on who to keep have to be made. After United States Basketball predictably brought home the Gold, Presti had a decision to make between Harden and Ibaka on who to sign, for both Durant and Westbrook received large contract extensions the previous two seasons, and there is only so much room under the salary cap. To go over the cap would necessitate paying the Luxury Tax, a dollar-for-dollar penalty; a small-market franchise does not have the luxury (pun intended) of doing that on a consistent basis. Presti chose to keep Ibaka, a young 6’10” defender with three-point range, the theory that he would mesh better with Durant and Westbrook than an ever-improving, ball-dominant Harden, so Harden was traded to Houston, with the knowledge that the Thunder would have to live with the fallout.

So with the decisions on personnel made and a trip to the Finals under their belt, the Thunder set upon the path to the elusive NBA Title. But to earn the Ring, the Injury Gods have to cooperate, and in the next few years after 2012, they did not. In 2013, a 60-22 regular season went down the drain when Russell Westbrook was injured in the playoffs; in 2014, a very good Thunder team was defeated by the eventual champion Spurs in the Conference Finals (4-2), and then in 2015, Durant was lost to a season-ending injury in March and Westbrook missed many games to injury as well as the Thunder did not make the Playoffs for the first time since their inaugural season in Oklahoma City. One big casualty was Coach Brooks, who was replaced by Billy Donovan, the University of Florida Coach who won two NCAA Championships. 2016 was shaping up to be a critical season for the Franchise since Durant was in the last year of his contract, so Presti and company were putting together all of the finishing personnel touches on perhaps their last best shot at NBA Immorality for the foreseeable future...

Continued on Part 2


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