ORLANDO — The barbecues stood no chance last July 4. The fireworks, too.
The Oklahoma heat stifled, as it always does in the middle of the summer. It’s just too humid to stand close by anyone cooking burgers and dogs. And the discomfort built even more than usual exactly a year ago today.
Some of it is tradition: The heat, the fireworks, the conversations with relatives you're not all that excited to see but you have to. And last year added a new element for the antsy Oklahoma City Thunder fans who didn’t yet know that a decision from the Players’ Tribune’s deputy publisher was looming in the late morning, spearing social media and a fan base’s morale.
It’s been one year since now NBA champion Kevin Durant left the Thunder to sign with the Golden State Warriors, one year since a day that had to be the most hopeless (on the sports spectrum, of course) for any Oklahoman who had followed the NBA since it came to OKC in 2008.
It’s jarring how different the feeling is today.
Hope doesn’t emerge from hopelessness. That would conflict with the actual definition of the word. But that’s how fans react: In the extremes.
Durant leaving took away the Thunder’s chances for a title, something they approached over and over again, but never actually reached with their original core. They were just coming off a seven-game conference final against the Warriors. They had a 3-1 lead. It was their fourth Western Conference Finals appearance in six years. Icarian traits took over.
Durant’s departure shook the organization’s foundation, too.
It’s jarring how quickly it reconstructed.
Of all the triple-doubles, of all the game-winners, of all the points, rebounds and assists, maybe the most impressive part of Russell Westbrook’s eventual MVP season was the way he was able to make fans — and even the rest of the NBA — forget that the ghost of Durant should have been in every room of every building the Thunder operated. Heading into this past season, it seemed obvious that each talking point about the Thunder, even if they played well, would end with, “But imagine if they had Durant” or something like it.
A month after Durant left, Westbrook extended his contract an extra year. Only a month into the regular season, talk turned to Westbrook’s historic performance. Even the negative discussion, the stuff about contested rebounds or stat padding or ball hogging, was devoid of Durant’s name.
It’s jarring how quickly the ghost left the building.
The remnants of Durant’s presence remained, of course. The Thunder roster this season was built around two stars. And with one of them gone, a team of specialists left Westbrook either having to do too much or feeling like he had to do too much. But this season wasn't as much about the historic accomplishments Westbrook would pull off as it was about how he did it and the circumstances under which he was operating. It was part of the majesty of one of the NBA’s greatest individual campaigns. It’s part of what endeared him to the Thunder fan base further.
He eased the pain. He helped them forget. He turned grieving into celebration. And he brought the organization to the place it is in this July 4, one that couldn’t be more different than the one a year ago.
Westbrook is yet to accept the extension the Thunder offered him three days ago, and there’s always a chance he never actually signs it. But now, he represents another MVP in town amidst progressing role players. And after a season of fireworks, general manager Sam Presti brought dynamite to the NBA offseason, finding a Durant replacement, even if he’s just around for one season.
Westbrook wanted — nay, requested help. And Presti did what he could in trading for former Indiana Pacers star Paul George late Friday night, pulling off a deal no one in the NBA thought possible.
Thunder forward Josh Huestis described Presti as someone who “works in silence.” One of the most private men inside one of the NBA’s most private organizations has turned shock into habit.
It’s part of the Thunder culture. The best organizations shield in-house information from the public, but when they keep everything so quiet, so secretive, it can push their fans to the extremes.
Durant leaving caught most by surprise, even those with the Thunder. Of course, there’s more public information today than there was this time last year, but many in and around the organization thought Durant would be sticking in OKC up until a week or two before he actually signed with Golden State. Some were hopeful even closer to the actual announcement.
The Thunder went the opposite way this year.
Few saw a Westbrook season of this magnitude happening. No one saw another star coming to Oklahoma City so soon after Durant left. The Western Conference continues to improve, but after a different sort of season, the Thunder are right near the top of it.
And Oklahomans can enjoy their barbecues again — even if it is too darn hot.