It’s rare that a team is able to build itself through the draft and find a bonafide superstar to anchor the franchise. The Seattle Supersonics turned Oklahoma City Thunder were able to find three in as many consecutive drafts from 2007-2009 with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. The Thunder had the makings of being perennial championship contenders for years to come. They achieved great team success during their time together, including an NBA Finals appearance; the only one in OKC’s franchise history. After their successful 2012 season, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets after being unable to reach a contract agreement. This was the end for them as a trio, who at one point was walking down the same path of greatness together are now playing on opposing sides, going after the same goal.
The Unexpected Path
With Harden, he had no choice and was thrown from the path he was originally traveling and had to establish himself as the cornerstone of a franchise who had seen better days. Harden was constantly questioned on his heart and if he had the skill set to lead a franchise. There was a lot of doubt coming into the 2012-2013 season on if Harden could be that player for the Rockets. The Rockets had a slew of missed playoff appearances and embarrassing first round exits over the years before Harden’s arrival. They haven’t had real success since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon, so the expectations were high. Despite him being in a supporting role behind Durant and Westbrook, Rockets GM Daryl Morey still had all the faith in the world that Harden could lead them back into the playoffs and beyond, calling him a “foundational player.” He backed this by signing Harden for 5 years/$80 million to start the season. On his team debut, he posted 37 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists to a 105-96 win over the Detroit Pistons. All doubt went out the window as Harden quickly went from “The Sixth Man” to “The Leading Man,” taking the Rockets to their first playoff appearance in three years. There, the former Thunder player met his friends and ex-teammates, Durant and Westbrook. With Westbrook out due to an injury, Durant led the way with an onslaught of buckets that drowned the Rockets in a 4-2 defeat. Despite the first round loss, the Rockets have been in playoff contention ever since Harden has arrived and some say are the team to beat this year with their addition of Chris Paul. Not only that, Harden is a big favorite to win his first MVP award. If he wins, it would be another connection to have to his former teammates.
The Path Less Travelled
Meanwhile, there was a single path that was slowly splitting into two between Durant and Westbrook. In the case of Durant, traveling for 9 years down his path with OKC made him restless. Losing to the single-season record-breaking 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals was apparently the last straw and it was time for a change. Durant would become a free agent the following year and took his destiny in his own hands by signing with the team that just beat them, the Warriors. This sparked even more scorn for Durant, especially for Thunder fans who felt betrayed by their superstar by “signing with the enemy.” Before Durant’s departure, in the 2013-2014 season, he received his first MVP award, finishing the season averaging a career-high 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3. After missing time with injury and returning the following year, Durant returned and this is where they made it to the Western Conference Finals and lost 4-3 vs the Golden State Warriors. A year later and now playing for the Warriors, Durant claims his first championship by defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 and becoming the Finals MVP. The path may have been easier for Durant by joining the likes of two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, but the path still required Durant to stand up in the face of constant ridicule from sports media talking heads, rowdy fans, and vulgar Twitter accounts. Over time, that can wear a man down but when you’re winning like Durant has been, all of that becomes white noise as he continues to walk down his path straight towards the Hall of Fame.
Path of the Tried and True
In the 2014-2015 season, Durant missed significant time due to injuries and it was Westbrook’s time to shine. Averaging 28 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds for the year, Russell Westbrook was virtually unstoppable as he kept the Thunder in contention all year long. He was even mentioned as a possible MVP, but the Thunder barely missed the playoffs and that was the end of those talks. It was a great indicator of what it would be like having a Westbrook-led team and the beginning of debates on who is the real head honcho of OKC. It was no surprise that Westbrook decided to stay and started the 2016-2017 season by signing a three-year/$85 million contract and is now the main guy of OKC, with hopes to bring home their first championship as the Thunder. He’s tasted the finals before and would want nothing more than to be the man who leads the franchise to their first championship, especially without Durant or Harden. Westbrook is often challenged on his ability to be a true leader and not just a “stat sheet filler and human highlight reel.” He had this opportunity to get past one of his former teammates, Harden, in the 1st round of the Western Conference playoffs last year but was bounced 4-1. Even though he had a first-round exit, Westbrook won the NBA’s MVP award by being the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double in one season. At the end of the 2017-2018 season, he has done it again and is in the running for another MVP award. Westbrook choosing the path of the loyal warrior has gained him a lot of respect from media and fans, but respect doesn’t win rings. Westbrook is fully aware of this and his motor won’t quit until it takes him back to the finals, but this time being on the winning side.
Now here we are. Three different paths that are intertwined by destiny and fate. All paths lead to the same destination: The NBA Finals. Each path has its challenges that each player must face. At some point, these paths may cross again and they will have to play for keeps to move on. They stand in each other’s way when at one point they stood together. It’s in the air as to who will make it to the Finals. One thing is certain; the road not taken will be the one that makes it in the end.