This first appeared in the Oct. 2 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, The Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
EDMOND, Okla. — In each of the 10 seasons of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s existence, the franchise has held a preseason scrimmage at a local high school. It initially served as a way for a team entering a brand new NBA market to begin to ingratiate itself with its new constituency. But, over time, it grew into an annual celebration of the local team being one of the NBA’s best.
A year ago, though, the franchise convened at John Marshall Mid-High School in a very different place. Both the city and the team were still reeling from the loss of Kevin Durant as a free agent over the summer, and the Thunder’s subsequent fall from the league’s elite. And while Russell Westbrook remained the face of the franchise, it was hard to see how the Thunder could find the pieces to put around him to return Oklahoma City to that level again. The possibility Westbrook could join Durant in leaving the only team he’d ever played for was very real.
That context is necessary to put into perspective what took place at this year’s Blue and White Scrimmage, which took place at Edmond North High School. It wasn’t just Westbrook’s first public comments since agreeing to an extension Friday (on a day that, by no coincidence at all, just so happened to be Durant’s birthday), or that those comments came at an outdoor fan festival complete with a video tribute narrated by his brother, Ray.
It was also that this year’s game featured Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — the all-stars stunningly acquired this summer by Thunder General Manager Sam Presti. Suddenly, the Thunder had returned to the ranks of the elite.
“Obviously they made moves to improve our team,” Westbrook said. “Being able to play for a championship and being able to play at a high level is something that I want to do every single year, and those moves proved that.”
Still, even with those moves being made, there wasn’t a compelling reason for Westbrook to do this now. He didn’t get an extra dime by signing with the Thunder early, and it leaves him in the possible position of going back to being without any co-stars as soon as next summer.
Signing now, though, did reaffirm everything Westbrook had previously said: Oklahoma City is home to him, and he had no intention of going anywhere.
“My focus never shifted,” Westbrook said. “I mean, obviously I didn’t talk to you guys so you guys were kind of making up your own assumptions, but my focus never changed. For me, you know, taking my time, family is the most important thing to me, and that’s what I was focused on.
“When it’s time to focus on basketball I do that, and that’s it.”
Unlike a year ago, when everyone here was still reeling from Durant’s departure, Sunday was a day to celebrate the possibilities of a new beginning. And in their first public appearance with their new team, George and Anthony didn’t disappoint.
No, Westbrook wasn’t on the court (he remains out after getting a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left knee recently but should be back soon), and Oklahoma City’s starters and key reserves were going up against a group of either end-of-the-bench players or nonroster training camp invitees. But that didn’t matter to the 2,000 fans crammed into the gym Sunday, who watched George score 30 points on 12-for-14 shooting — including seven threes and a massive tomahawk dunk — while Anthony added 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
It was a reminder, even against limited opponents, of the Thunder’s new level of firepower, and a stark change from a group that a year ago revolved around Westbrook at every moment. Westbrook did, of course, have a remarkable individual year, becoming the first player in more than half a century to average a triple-double for an entire season, and claiming an MVP award as a result.
But the Thunder were not a relevant team in the Western Conference — let alone in the NBA. For all of Westbrook’s heroics, Oklahoma City was easily dismissed in five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. After that series, it was hard to see how anything would change this year.
Then George and Anthony showed up. Now the Thunder has three elite scoring options offensively, and — thanks to the addition of Patrick Patterson on a value contract in free agency — far more shooting to space the floor, opening more room for everyone to operate.
And with Westbrook locked in for the next five years, it seems a virtual certainty that Anthony will be back for the 2018-2019 season on a player option worth nearly $28 million. With both of them there, perhaps George will be convinced to stick around for the long term, as well.
“Absolutely,” George said Saturday, when asked whether Westbrook’s decision will impact his. “Absolutely. We’ve been on an unbelievable start right now and, for him to be committed here, it says a lot. Not only in us pairing together but just knowing what type of dude Russ is and his values and his beliefs and him being committed to this organization says a lot. And I’m one person that’s enjoying it here, so I think when that time comes, the decision will be easier to make for myself.”
All of that made for a celebratory feeling Sunday, both due to what took place over the past few months and for what now is potentially in play for the next few years.
What a difference a year makes.
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