With Russell Westbrook now traded, the most important chapter in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s history is officially closed. Westbrook was the last piece standing from the young, upstart team that took the NBA by storm in the early part of the decade. Along with Kevin Durant and James Harden, Westbrook and Oklahoma City looked like they were set to become the NBA’s next dynasty.
Seven years later, they have only one NBA Finals appearance to show for drafting three league MVPs. Now that their three stars are on other teams, they must enter a rebuilding phase without achieving the league’s grandest prize even once.
Let’s take a look at how the Thunder slowly lost a core that was once the envy of the league.
June 20, 2012: A 4-1 defeat in the 2012 NBA Finals
Despite its youth, Oklahoma City had reasons to be confident heading into the 2012 NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. They were favored by Vegas and also had home-court advantage, a plus considering they hadn’t lost a single home game the previous three rounds.
After winning Game 1, the Thunder looked like they ready for the challenge. However, things quickly went south.
Bad coaching decisions were part of the story behind Oklahoma City’s four-game collapse. With Chris Bosh playing as center, Miami was able to space the floor and add an extra dimension to its dangerous offense. Meanwhile, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks stuck to his guns and continued to start traditional center Kendrick Perkins. This led to easy baskets for Miami, as they took advantage of the space Bosh created.
The Heat won Game 2 on the road thanks to 32 points by James and 24 by Wade. Despite brilliant performances from Westbrook in Game 4 (43 points) and Durant in Game 5 (32 points), Miami won the next three to take the title.
End of the 2012 NBA Finals. It was supposed to be a learning experience for the Thunder, en route to a decade of dominance. Didn't quite pan out that way. pic.twitter.com/WtKIn6WnX8— Jake Marotz (@jakemarotz) July 12, 2019
Losing four straight games in the Finals stung the Thunder and they took the loss hard. However, with three young superstars and a good supporting cast, it felt like there were better times ahead.
Oct. 27, 2012: Trading James Harden
As it turns out, that Game 5 would be the last NBA game the trio would play together.
Oklahoma City faced some tough salary-cap decisions in the summer summer. Harden and Serge Ibaka were both extension-eligible, and not agreeing on new deals meant they’d be restricted free agents the next year. With Durant already locked up and Westbrook having signed a maximum contract back in January, the Thunder had to let either Harden or Ibaka walk, or pay a hefty luxury-tax price.
Making matters worse, this dilemma arrived the summer after the NBA installed newer and harsher penalties for exceeding the luxury tax, including an exponential scale for every dollar over and additional penalties for being in the luxury tax repeatedly. The new rules didn’t kick in until the following season, but new contracts for Harden and Ibaka would have pushed Oklahoma City well over the tax line.
Oklahoma City agreed to a four year $48M extension with Ibaka later that August, making Harden’s departure an even greater possibility. That eventually happened with stunning speed when Oklahoma City traded their star sixth man to the Houston Rockets four days before the season began. In return, the Thunder received Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and Houston’s first- and second-round picks in 2013, along with a first rounder in 2014.
In an interview with ESPN’s Hannah Storm, Harden said the Thunder presented him a four year, $55 million offer, $5 million short of a max deal. That did not sit well with him.
“I felt like I already made a sacrifice coming off the bench and doing whatever it takes to help the team, and they weren’t willing to help me,” Harden told Storm.
April 26, 2013: Russell Westbrook tears his meniscus
Despite losing Harden, Oklahoma City rolled to 62 wins and the NBA’s best record, with Durant and Westbrook averaging 28 and 23 points per game, respectively.
Their first playoff series came against a familiar foe in the Rockets and Harden. In the second quarter of Game 2, Westbrook went to call a timeout and slowed down towards the bench, as is custom before a stoppage in play. Houston guard Patrick Beverley lunged for the ball at the same time, colliding with Westbrook’s knee. The incident would end up sparking years of beef between the duo.
Westbrook got up with a significant limp and slammed the scorers table with his right fist. OKC won the game to take a 2-0 lead, but an MRI later confirmed that Westbrook had sustained a torn meniscus that would require surgery and sideline him indefinitely.
Oklahoma City won the series against Houston in six games, but without Westbrook, the Thunder fell in the next round to the “Grit and Grind” Memphis Grizzlies in five games.
2014: Serge Ibaka’s untimely injury
With Westbrook missing 35 games recovering from knee surgery in the 2013-14 season, Durant was once again called upon to be main bucket getter. He had his best individual season, averaging 32 points per game while winning MVP and leading Oklahoma City to the second-best record in the league.
Oklahoma City survived a grueling seven-game first round series against Memphis, then got past the Los Angeles Clippers in six games in the second round. That grind came with a cost. In the series clincher against LA, Ibaka strained his calf, and Presti announced he was unlikely to return for the postseason.
The Thunder badly lost the first two games to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals, but received a boost when Ibaka came back in Game 3. OKC won both games in Chesapeake Arena, and his return left an impression on his teammates. “I gained so much more respect for Serge for sacrificing himself for the team. Regardless of what happened tonight, that’s something you want beside you,” Durant said after Game 3.
But Ibaka’s return proved to be too little, too late. Oklahoma City scored just 34 points in the second half of a blowout Game 5 defeat, then dropped Game 6 in overtime after Kawhi Leonard came up with one of the biggest plays of his career.
2015: Kevin Durant’s turn to get hurt
Weeks before the start of the season, Oklahoma City announced Durant suffered a Jones fracture in his foot, which would sideline him for the first month. But that was only the beginning of KD’s injury woes. Durant sprained his ankle in December, his big toe a month later, and then had another procedure for a foot injury in February. On March 27, Presti announced Durant would miss the rest of the season to undergo a third surgery.
Injuries to Durant and Westbrook, who missed four weeks early in the season due to a broken hand, grounded Oklahoma City’s title hopes. They started off the season 3-12 and ultimately finished ninth in the West, losing a tiebreaker for the final playoff spot.
May 30, 2016: The original blown 3-1 lead
With Durant healthy again and Billy Donovan taking over as head coach from the fired Scott Brooks, the 2015-16 Thunder headed into the postseason as the the No. 3 seed. They quickly got past the Mavericks in five, then won three straight to beat the Spurs after falling behind, 2-1. That set up a matchup against a Warriors team that went 73-9 in the regular season.
With Durant, Ibaka, and Andre Roberson swarming the smaller Warriors, the Thunder went up 3-1 in the series. They won Game 1 by limiting the Warriors to just 14 points in the final quarter, then crushed Golden State by a combined 52 points when the series moved to Oklahoma City. Durant led the way in Game 3 with 33 points, and Westbrook took his turn in Game 4, notching 36 as the Thunder took a 3-1 series lead.
But the Warriors stormed back. After narrowly winning Game 5, Golden State received a Klay Thompson performance for the ages in a Game 6 thriller. Thompson scored 41 points while shooting 11 of 18 from three, an NBA playoff record, and outscored the entire Thunder team in the fourth quarter in a 108-101 win.
Oklahoma City was left shellshocked. They were up by seven points with five minutes left, but watched Durant and Westbrook shoot a combined 3-14 in the fourth quarter. In those final five minutes, the Thunder’s two stars went 0-5 from the field and committed six turnovers.
Oklahoma City hung around in Game 7, but eventually perished thanks to a 36-point Stephen Curry night. The Thunder were on the brink of a long-awaited NBA Finals return, but instead watched another season end in heartbreak.
June 23, 2016: Goodbye, Serge
The summer of 2016 was set to be a monumental one for the Thunder. Durant was a free agent, and with Westbrook due to become one the next summer, Oklahoma City again had difficult decisions to make.
On the day of the 2016 NBA Draft, the Thunder dealt Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the No. 11 pick, which turned out to be Domantas Sabonis. The plan was for Oladipo to slot in as a sixth man alongside Durant and Westbrook. Oklahoma City was also heavily interested in signing free agent big man Al Horford, who had played under Donovan in college at Florida.
The idea was to aggressively add pieces to help compliment Durant in the hopes he’d re-sign to a long term deal. Instead...
July 4, 2016: Kevin Durant leaves
Oklahoma City’s roster reconstruction wasn’t enough to keep its biggest star. Durant first met with the Thunder, and then went to the Hamptons in New York to hold meetings with the Clippers, Heat, Celtics, Spurs, and the Warriors.
On July 4, Durant broke OKC’s hearts, via a Player’s Tribune essay announcing his decision to leave the Thunder to sign with the same Warriors team that knocked them out in the previous year’s conference Finals.
“I will miss Oklahoma City, and the role I have had in building this remarkable team,” Durant wrote. “I will forever cherish the relationships within the organization — the friends and teammates that I went to war with on the court for nine years, and all the fans and people of the community. They have always had my back unconditionally, and I cannot be more grateful for what they have meant to my family and to me.”
That same day, Westbrook posted a picture of cupcakes on Instagram.
It looked like a simple photo from his Independence Day cookout, but we later learned there was a hidden meaning behind the post. Via Lee Jenkins’ Sports Illustrated feature:
When Kendrick Perkins played center for the Thunder, he called teammates “cupcake” if he thought they were acting a little soft. Westbrook and Durant adopted the term in jest. Westbrook posted a bittersweet pic on Instagram: three plates of cupcakes topped by red and blue stars and sprinkles.
Aug. 4, 2016: Westbrook’s revenge tour
With Durant now playing in the Bay, the Thunder couldn’t afford to lose Westbrook. The two sides re-committed to each other with a three-year, $85.7-million extension.
“There’s nowhere else I would rather be than Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said in a press conference that was opened to media and fans. “You guys have basically raised me. I’ve been here since I was 18, 19 years old. You guys did nothing but great things for me. Through the good and the bad, you guys supported me through it all, and I appreciate it.”
Then, Westbrook’s revenge tour began. He recorded 42 triple doubles, eclipsing Oscar Robertson’s record for most in a single year, and also became the first player since Oscar to average a triple double in a season. Westbrook broke both marks in stunning fashion, scoring 50 points and hitting the game-winner to lead the Thunder back from an 14-point deficit with six minutes left to beat the Nuggets.
Thanks to his record-breaking year, Westbrook was named MVP of the 2016-17 season, beating out his two former teammates. He wasn’t as successful in the playoffs, however, as Oklahoma City was dispatched by Harden and the Rockets in five games.
July 1, 2017: The Paul George save
For the second summer in a row, the Thunder shook up their roster. In a massive, out-of-nowhere gamble, they traded Oladipo and Sabonis, the prizes of last summer’s Ibaka trade, to the Indiana Pacers for disgruntled superstar Paul George. George was set to be a free agent next season and reportedly had his sights on joining the Los Angeles Lakers. Oklahoma City had a year to change his mind.
Sep. 29, 2017: Westbrook becomes a Thunder for life, or so we thought
The two sides agreed to a five-year $205M deal under the league’s new supermax provision. It looked like Westbrook would never leave.
In addition to re-signing Westbrook and trading for George, Oklahoma City made a late offseason splash, acquiring all-star Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second-round draft pick.
July 1, 2018: The one-year George experiment worked
With Westbrook, George, and Anthony fitting together awkwardly, OKC finished as the West’s fourth seed, rallying from an 8-12 start. The problems with that combination proved to be fatal in a six-game first-round series loss to the underdog Utah Jazz. In the Game 6 clincher, George scored a mere five points on 2-of-16 shooting. The chances of re-signing him didn’t look good.
But when the clock struck midnight, George shocked the NBA world by announcing he was staying with Oklahoma City, revealing the news at a party Westbrook threw. George ended up signing a four year, $137 million deal.
If y’all didn’t quite get it, let me say it again. I’m here to stay!”
It seemed like the Thunder had recovered from the loss of Durant.
Feb. 26, 2019: Another injury that changed everything
With Westbrook taking a bit of a backseat and Anthony off the team, George put together a stellar first half of the season. Through the end of February, he averaged nearly 29 points and more than nine rebounds per game, all while providing elite defense on the wing. OKC had a 38-21 record at the time and looked like the top challenger to the Warriors, again.
But things began to spiral out of control when George suffered a shoulder injury in a matchup against the Denver Nuggets. He kept playing, but looked like a shell of his former MVP-quality self. “Four days ago, I couldn’t even lift my shoulder,” he said after Game 1 of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City went 11-11 for the rest of the regular season, setting up a matchup against the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers. Portland took the series in five games, with Damian Lillard hitting the series-ending buzzer beater in George’s face and then waiving the Thunder goodbye.
Little did we know he really was waiving the Thunder goodbye.
July 3, 2019: George goes to LA after all
Free agent Kawhi Leonard wanted to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, but needed a co-star to join him. He recruited George, and then George requested the Thunder trade him. This put the Thunder in a bind.
Two nights later, they did as George asked, dealing him for a record haul of draft picks (five first-rounders and two pick swaps), along with Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
George thanked Oklahoma City on Instagram, shouting out Westbrook specifically.
View this post on Instagram
Thank you Oklahoma for 2 great years, you took me in as one of your own from the day I touched down. Thank you to the fans who make representing those 3 letters mean something. Thank you to Sam and Clay for being the best management a franchise and player could ask for. Thank you to the friends within the organization that took care of my family and I whenever we needed help. The picture shown is a bond that can’t be broken I truly loved and enjoyed the race from start to finish. Thank you OKLAHOMA! You already know what it is @russwest44! Love brodie!
But with George gone, any chance of the Thunder competing in the near term ended. That left just one more move to make.
July 12, 2019: Westbrook returns to an old friend
After the trade of George, the writing was on the wall for Westbrook’s departure. The Thunder moved Westbrook to his preferred destination of Houston, which meant a reunion with Harden, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Oklahoma City ended up receiving Chris Paul, along with two first-round picks (2024, 2026) and two pick swaps (2021, 2025).
The initial promise of the great Thunder dynasty had long faded, but Westbrook’s departure completed the franchise’s deconstruction. Making the Finals in 2012 was supposed to be a stepping stone to generational greatness for the young trio of Westbrook, Durant, and Harden. Instead, it ended up being their best achievement as teammates.
It took eight years, but the dismantling of Oklahoma City is now complete. Now, all we have left is what could have been.