"It all ended before it really started. Orlando’s Shaq-and-Penny era felt longer than their three years and one Finals appearance. O’Neal’s decision to leave Orlando for Los Angeles helped convince the NBA to institute a luxury tax for teams that exceed the salary cap. The reign of two of the generation’s finest talents playing together was cut short, Hardaway’s health gradually deteriorated, and the question of how good the Magic could have been lingers on."
The quote above is from Jonathan Abrams’ masterfully written oral history of the mid-1990’s Orlando Magic. Through expert drafting (and incredible lottery fortune), the Magic ascended from expansion franchise to Finals contender seemingly overnight. They had the league’s marquee duo, two athletic freaks who doubled as gregarious ambassadors for an entire generation of NBA players.
During an era of plodding offenses, Orlando moved the ball with alacrity, threw down spectacular dunks, and nailed bullseyes from deep. In three short years they became league favorites, and presumed successors to Jordan’s Bulls. The question was not merely “Will they win a title?” but rather, “How many will they take home?” Even after being swept in the 1996 Eastern Finals, optimism still abounded. Shaq and Penny were both 24, and had just made All-NBA First Team together. Orlando’s window seemed eternal. Then Jerry West called about their best player. And then the window evaporated.
When Kevin Durant signed with Golden State, he ensured the Oklahoma City Thunder's legacy. They will now forever be linked to those Magic teams, along with the early-00’s Kings, the late-70’s and early-90’s Blazers, the 1986 Rockets, and every other powerhouse that saw their hopes for a title suddenly disappear. He guaranteed that people will view KD-and-Russ as they do Shaq-and-Penny, not MJ-and-Pippen. It was a cruel reminder that basketball is a zero sum game. In a decision so perfect for his individual legacy, he sent Oklahoma City’s to the gallows.
Perhaps this is a fitting end for the Thunder’s KD era, which is now bookended by heart-wrenching departures. Nearly a decade has passed since Clay Bennett shuttered NBA basketball in Seattle, bringing Sonics fans to tears in the process. OKC fans vilifying Durant as a traitor and liar this weekend echoed the cries of Seattle loyalists eight years earlier.
Once they got their footing in Oklahoma, the Thunder hopped on the fast track to contention. GM Sam Presti nailed the draft, snagging Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden in three consecutive years. Durant matured quickly, ditching incremental progress for quantum leaps forward.
He was miscast as a shooting guard his rookie year, and struggled to find consistency in a cramped offense. Durant shiny counting stats helped him win Rookie of the Year, but it was far from a perfect fit. Lack of spacing on offense hiked his turnover totals above his assists. His gargantuan wingspan was squandered at the two as he rebounded a mere 7% of his team’s misses. Durant's shot selection was particularly DeRozian, abstaining from threes in favor of long twos. Compared to his current self, his shot chart is unrecognizable.
Durant’s leap forward in 2010 drove the Thunder to their first playoff appearance. They nearly pushed the future champs to seven, and looked like a young upstart contender. While the other youngsters continued to mold their games on the fly, a 21-year old Durant looked like an NBA veteran. He threw up a 30-8-3 line on 61% true shooting, and finished third in VORP, behind future teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. KD busted through every conceivable ceiling scouts gave him, and emerged as the NBA’s second-best player.
Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka soon followed Durant’s lead, all exceeding even the most optimistic of expectations. After another loss to the future champs in 2011, the foursome came into their own in 2012. When Scott Brooks played them all together, OKC eviscerated opponents by nearly 12 points/100 possessions. Despite their core’s average age (22.5 years old) Thunder were no longer upstarts -- OKC was favored by Vegas to win the West.
Seldom are youthful, athletic teams able to fully deliver on their potential when the games matter. That’s what made the 2012 Thunder so much fun -- just like the 1995 Magic before them. Casual fans oohed and aahed at Durant’s lithe scoring, Ibaka’s absurd blocks, and Westbrook’s fearless hustle. Hardcore types let themselves wonder how high this group could soar. For a five game stretch in the playoffs, Oklahoma City was the epicenter of perfect basketball.
They bludgeoned the Spurs to reach the Finals, incinerating San Antonio’s 20 game winning streak as KD rained fire. After winning Game 1 against Miami, OKC was 9-0 at home in the playoffs, galvanized by a raucous home crowd. The din of Chesapeake Energy Arena would have impressed even the most diehard Sonics fan.
“In general, it’s a fan experience unlike any other. You know that sea of goofy blue T-shirts that stand out in HD so splendidly? Everyone wears them. Everyone.”
– Bill Simmons following Game 1
Generational talent had finally put Oklahoma City on the map, and the locals never wanted it to end. Fans yelled like it was life and death, the NBA’s answer to Seattle’s 12th man. Anyone who watched this year’s war with Golden State can attest -- there’s something special about that crowd. All it takes is one steal, one fast break basket to ignite the torch, and the Thunder are suddenly rolling downhill, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
Their loss in 2012 almost seemed like a rite of passage, a necessary wart for OKC’s growth. As the seconds ticked down in a blowout loss, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden watched every moment of it. They stood together and soaked it in, ready to use it as fuel for the next title run. Just as it had for so many greats had before them -- Jordan, Moses, Nowitzki, LeBron -- Finals losses would pave the way to triumphs.
The Harden trade knocked OKC off the trajectory. It fostered mistrust between Durant and management for the first time in his career. Ownership bristled at the idea of amnestying Kendrick Perkins to unclog the cap sheet, refusing to pay a player who was off the team. They balked at paying Harden his full max -- something every other team would have done -- expecting him to take a hometown discount on his first NBA extension. When contract talks stalled at the deadline, Presti opted to trade him for 20 cents on the dollar, rather than waiting for restricted free agency. In a rare blend of hubris and impatience, OKC gave away a team-controlled star, as Harden was jettisoned to Houston.
Oklahoma City failed Durant in that moment with their incompetence, and hurt his NBA legacy with their cupidity. Despite profiting over $25 million from the 2011-2012 season, ownership felt it was untenable to eat $7.8 million by amnestying Perkins just to pay Harden more. Instead management parted with their star reserve a year ahead of his expiration date, sacrificing valuable depth come playoff time. They gave away Durant’s teammate, someone he had endured searing losses with, before the pair could revel in victory together.
Of course, the trade came back to haunt them almost immediately. Kevin Martin was tasked to recoup Harden's value as a bench scorer, and thrived as an offense-only sniper. But a torn meniscus forced Westbrook to leave the court in the first round, and the Thunder’s championship hopes died with it. OKC needed another ball-dominant scorer who could facilitate offense in a larger role -- exactly what Harden had done all season with Houston. Devoid of ball-handlers, the Thunder bowed out to Memphis. The coronation would be put on hold, again.
Three years later, and the city is now left waiting for a parade that will never come. OKC’s title hopes were felled in 2014, 2015 and 2016, all in excruciating fashion. In a cruel symmetry with their 2012 skirmish, the Spurs won four straight to crush the Thunder in 2014 after Ibaka got hurt. Injuries to Durant and Westbrook kept them out of the playoffs in 2015. They were reminded in 2016 that 73 win teams are pretty good after all. And this summer, Durant's exit taught OKC about the frailty of NBA championship windows.
“What we thought was going to be a 10-year run turned out to be three or four. As it turns out, the Bulls were still good. The next year, ’96, they killed us in the playoffs. I’m not sure we would have gotten past the Bulls for a few years. But at some point, it was going to be our turn if we could have kept that whole ship afloat.”
– Pat Williams (Orlando GM 1989-1996)
For many teams with superstar talent, the breaks go eventually your way. Keep the band together, and luck will even out. The Magic just couldn't retain their star. Orlando management lowballed Shaq to save money for Penny’s impending deal, when they should have been moving mountains to keep their freakish center. O'Neal hit the open market, and Jerry West’s pitch won his ear.
NBA windows are shorter than expected. Shit happens. Star duos let their egos run amok. 70 win juggernauts block the path to the Finals. Rookie-scale bargains suddenly need max contracts, and owners have to swallow the pill of luxury tax payments. More than anything, playoff injuries make teams rise and fall (just ask the Warriors).
Bad luck played a part in the Thunder’s demise, but that shouldn’t absolve Presti or OKC management. Keeping Harden is a hedge against a Westbrook injury. Drafting high-upside players near the end of the first round are swings cap-strapped teams have to take, and they definitely should not be stockpiling guys for their D-league team. Spending is good, but recklessly maxing out the NBA’s foremost defensive liability is not.
Oklahoma City should have pampered KD whenever possible. Eat Perkins’ contract, because it will keep Durant around. Max out Harden, because it will keep Durant around. Pay your freaking first round picks, because it will keep Durant around.
Bennett jeopardized Durant to save himself a few million here and there. When Durant left, the Thunder’s value probably dropped by $400 million. If nothing else, Thunder fans can at least revel in that Ramsay-level comeuppance.
Oklahoma City's mid-2010's teams will always have a place in history. They were nearly perfect as a foil for Kawhi's Spurs and Curry's Warriors. When everything was clicking with KD-and-Russ, we got to witness a perfect symphony on the court. OKC was the best team to never win a championship, and their duo should go down as the greatest pair of teammates ever. Durant will get his title with Golden State, and I hope Russ gets his too, wherever that may be.
Now, return to the first quote. It's shockingly poignant for Oklahoma City, the team everyone expected to rule the decade.
It all ended before it really started. Oklahoma City's KD-and-Russ run felt longer than seven years and one Finals appearance. Durant's decision to leave OKC for Golden State will affect the new CBA (possibly serving as the impetus for a more restrictive hard cap.) The reign of two of the generation's greatest talents playing together was cut short, and the question of how good the Thunder could have been lingers on.