The NBA’s greatest epics have been built around a meteoric star crash landing in a small market, galvanizing the city around their greatness in hopes of delivering glory. Think LeBron James in Cleveland, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Isiah Thomas in Detroit, Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, and Bill Walton in Portland. Kevin Durant deserves to be on that list. But he would be the only one unable to bring a championship to the city that drafted him. Only James can relate to the acrimonious divorce both sides felt when he left in 2016.
Oklahoma City had no idea how good they had it. They immediately knew greatness when they were gifted the Supersonics franchise and Durant from Seattle in 2008. The following year, under the elite acumen of GM Sam Presti, they drafted Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The next year James Harden. Those four players formed one of the greatest young cores in NBA history. The Oklahoma City Thunder were projected to be a dynasty, with the only thing standing in their way being the maturity of their young superstars.
Then the dominos began to fall, first in the summer of 2011 when Presti declined to re-sign Harden, instead shipping him to the Houston Rockets. From that point on, Presti did his best to balance out his slite draft history with a series of terrible trades, free agent signings, and coaching hires. It culminated in Durant’s eighth season in OKC, mentally and physically tired of sharing the ball with Westbrook and brunt out carrying the load on offense. Durant left the franchise holding its ego in its hand as he bolted to form one of the best teams of all time in Golden State.
Durant is facing a similar situation in Brooklyn with a mercurial point guard and a revolving door of coaching ineptitude. Durant is playing at the second-highest usage rate of his career at 32.5 but with a win-share percentage of .213. Durant is back to averaging 30 ppg for the first time in eight seasons. Still, it hasn’t translated to wins, as the Nets went 8-9 in the first 17 games after firing former head coach Steve Nash, as well as suspending Irving for sharing anti-Semitic propaganda on his social media.
Durant was so fed up with the circus the Nets have become that he issued a trade request this past summer. He retracted it after lengthy discussions with Brooklyn leadership, but the specter of him circling back to it has haunted this season’s poor start. If he does, there’s one narrative that could repair the villainous turn Durant has fought off and, at times, embraced since leaving OKC. When Durant told the team he wanted a trade mere months ago, Brooklyn found the trade market dried up with the kind of blockbuster offer they were looking for. To trade Durant would require a nuclear rebuild to the roster, making picks the most valuable return.
Only one team can offer this, and in more than one way, it feels like Oklahoma’s hoarding of draft capital over the last few years has led to such a moment. If Durant decides to leave Brooklyn, he should return to Oklahoma City, repairing his relationship with the basketball-crazy fan base and his image as a player who cannot win it all on his own. The Thunder’s roster, as currently constructed, could sacrifice two or three of their young core, let’s say, Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey, Darius Bazley, and salary filler while maintaining considerable talent around Durant. If Durant could join a Thunder squad consisting of current MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, defensive ace Lu Dort, bench spark plug Tre Mann, improving two-way freak Aleksej Pokusevski, steady bench guys Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Mike Muscala, Jalen Williams, and Jaylen Williams, the Thunder could be right back to where they were in the summer of 2011, stacked with talent and the best offensive player in the game.
The Thunder would also have to part with most of the 15 first-round picks they’ve amassed over the last few seasons. Presti has clutched his pearls regarding these picks, refusing to include them to improve the roster in the short term. An SGA/Durant duo is the kind of two-man combination that can win a championship. SGA is the antithesis of Westbrook, and everything about his game and demeanor shows he would defer to Durant as the alpha on a team that would be nearly unstoppable with him as the second option. There are still questions over whether development coach Mark Daigneault is the right guy to coach a Durant-led team. But that’s where Presti has to show he’s evolved and be willing to replace Coach D with a respected name if Durant demands it.
Durant would get a chance to prove to the haters he can win a championship on a roster led mostly by his brilliance. The Warriors teams he won two rings with were already champs before he joined. Many have criticized him for quitting trying to win one the hard way and taking the easy way out in Golden State. Returning to OKC would be akin to James returning to Cleveland in 2016 after he left to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat. Durant would also get to repair his relationship with the Thunder fan base and front office, who he has gone back and forth since departing, blackening what was an example of small-town glory.
Most NBA observers outside of Oklahoma City, those not carrying water as Presti-apologists, can admit the Thunder royally fucked-up one of the most incredible young cores in the history of the NBA. But they are in the unique opportunity to have a second chance. Through the second phase of elite player evaluation, Presti has again amassed one of the best young cores in the NBA. He can continue on the path of the slow rebuild, eventually cashing in his picks for another star and building toward an eventual return to contention. Or he can throw the process into fifth gear and bring home the greatest player in franchise history, Durant. While the first option is obviously more prudent, NBA lore is built on those who make their own destiny. And as Presti has said himself, “scared money don’t make money.” We agree, Presti. Now bring Durant back home.