Kevin Durant Image: Getty Images
The NBA’s greatest epics were built around a meteor star crash-landing in a small market that electrified the city for its greatness in hopes of 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 this 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 lucky they were. When they were gifted the Supersonics franchise and Seattle-based Durant in 2008, they immediately recognized their greatness. The following year, under the elite acumen of GM Sam Presti, they designed Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Next year James Harden. These four players formed one of the greatest young cores in NBA history. The Oklahoma City Thunder were predicted to be a dynasty, with the only thing standing in their way was the maturity of their young superstars.
Then the dominoes began to fall, first in the summer of 2011 when Presti refused to re-sign Harden, instead sending him to the Houston Rockets. From that point on, Presti did his best to make up for his slite draft history with a series of terrible trades, free agent signings, and coaching hiring. It culminated in Durant’s eighth season at OKC, mentally and physically tired of sharing the ball with Westbrook and bearing the burden on offense. Durant left the franchise with his ego in hand as he set out to form one of the greatest teams of all time in the Golden State.
Durant faces a similar situation in Brooklyn with an erratic point guard and a revolving door of coaching ineptitude. Durant plays the second-highest usage rate of his career at 32.5, but with a win-share percentage of .213. Durant is back averaging 30 ppg for the first time in eight seasons. Still, it hasn’t translated into wins as the Nets went 8-9 in their first 17 games after firing former head coach Steve Nash and suspended Irving for sharing anti-Semitic propaganda on his social media.
Durant was so fed up with the circus that the Nets have become that he made a trade request last summer. He withdrew it after lengthy discussions with the Brooklyn leadership, but the specter of his returning to it has haunted this season’s poor start. If he does, there is narrative that could mend the villain turn that Durant has fended off and at times adopted since leaving OKC. When Durant told the team he wanted a trade a few months ago, Brooklyn found the trade market parched with the kind of blockbuster deal they were looking for. Trading Durant would require a nuclear roster rebuild, making picks the most valuable return.
Only a team can match that, and in more ways than one, it feels like Oklahoma’s hoarding of draft capital over the past several years has led to such a moment. If Durant decides to leave Brooklyn, he should return to Oklahoma City and mend his relationship with the basketball-mad fan base and his image as a player who can’t win everything on his own. The Thunder’s roster as it’s currently built could sacrifice two or three of their young core, say, Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey, Darius Bazley and filler, while Durant continues to have considerable talent. If Durant could join a Thunder roster composed of current MVP contender Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, defensive ace Lu Dort, bench sparker Tre Mann, improving two-way freak Aleksej Pokusevski, solid bench -Boys Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Mike Muscala, Jalen Williams, and Jaylen Williams could put the Thunder back where they were in the summer of 2011, brimming 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 past few seasons. Presti has clutched his pearls on those picks, refusing to pick them up in a bid to improve the roster in the short term. An SGA/Durant duo is the kind of two-man combo that can win a championship. SGA is Westbrook’s opposite, and everything about his play and demeanor shows that he would leave Durant as the alpha on a team that would be almost unstoppable with him as a second option. There are still questions about whether development coach Mark Daigneault is the right man to coach a Durant-led team. But this is where Presti needs to show he’s evolved and be ready to replace Coach D with a respectable name if Durant demands it.
Durant would get a chance to prove to the haters he could win a championship in a roster largely led by his brilliance. The Warriors teams he won two rings with were already champions before he joined him. Many have criticized him for quitting winning one the hard way and taking the easy route at the Golden State. Returning to OKC would be akin to James returning to Cleveland in 2016 after leaving to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat. Durant would also be able to mend his relationship with the Thunder fanbase and front office, whom he’s gone back and forth with since leaving to blacken what was an example of small-town fame.
Most NBA watchers outside of Oklahoma City, those who don’t wear water as Presti apologists, can concede that the Thunder royally screwed on one of the most incredible young cores in NBA history. But they have a unique opportunity to get a second chance. Through the second phase of Elite Player Rating, Presti has once again amassed one of the best young cores in the NBA. He can continue down the path of slow rebuilding, eventually redeeming his picks for another star and working towards an eventual return to competition. Or he can shift 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 choose their own destiny. And as Presti himself said, “fear money doesn’t make money.” We agree, Presti. Now take Durant home.