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Thunder ready to transform, transition into Durant-less era

From what happens next with Russell Westbrook to the on-court game plan, Oklahoma City faces some uncertainty in 2016-17

POSTED: Jul 11, 2016 12:46 PM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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How does Russell Westbrook view his future in Oklahoma City now that Kevin Durant is gone?

Where does the Thunder go from here?

The Peake was so lit.

The evening of May 28 felt portentous, the guard in basketball about to change. A seven-game playoff series leaves no ambiguity; by the end of it, one team is clearly better than the other. And after five games between Oklahoma City and Golden State, the Thunder seemed, clearly, to be the better team, superior to the defending champions. All it had to do to prove it unequivocally was win one game at Chesapeake Energy Arena, in front of one of the league's top two or three home crowds -- where, just days earlier, OKC stomped the Warriors for a second straight time at home to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals. Only nine teams had ever blown a 3-1 lead in a seven-game series.

This night, the 28th, the fans, almost to a person, wore blue.

And then ... the spirit got into Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant reverted to hero ball, and you know the rest. The Thunder lost a seven-point lead with six minutes left, and lost Game 6, and then lost Game 7 two nights later. And thus, that night at the Peake was Durant's last home game for the franchise that had picked him No. 2 overall in the 2007 draft, and for whom he'd played the last nine seasons.

A week ago, Durant announced he was joining the Golden State Warriors.

GameTime: Kevin Durant Move On

Vince Cellini and Dennis Scott discuss Kevin Durant signing with the Golden State Warriors.

There will still be a 2016-17 season in Oklahoma City.

Make no mistake: losing Durant was a body blow, not just to the Thunder, but to the city. They bought in to the idea that supporting the team was a civic duty, from the biggest corporate sponsors to those who rarely went to games, but would welcome the team back from trips at the airport. People came to games from all over the state, and when the Thunder went deep into the playoffs, media came from all over the country. (We all drank and ate in Bricktown, or so it seemed.)

For almost a decade, Durant told anyone who asked how much he loved it in the 405, how they left him alone, how living there was more his speed, anyway, and that he took seriously his position as someone who'd helped speed along the city's development -- economically, demographically and in other ways. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame last year at age 27. (Westbrook will be inducted this year, BTW.)

Everything was set up for another years-long run at a title, with a new core group featuring Durant, Westbrook, center Steven Adams, sixth man Enes Kanter, plus the newly acquired Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and rookie Domantas Sabonis -- picked up from the Magic on Draft night for Serge Ibaka -- and perhaps Al Horford, whom the Thunder stealthily courted early that Fourth of July weekend, hoping to form its own super team. (The future of guard Dion Waiters, a restricted free agent, in Oklahoma City is still up in the air.)

But Durant walked. Horford went to Boston. And one of the league's best-run and most successful franchises -- only the Miami Heat has won more playoff series during the last seven years, with OKC reaching at least the conference finals four times since 2011 -- has to recalibrate, with next to no time to be active in free agency this summer, figure out what to do about Russell Westbrook and see if it can attract free agents going forward.

"I just think that what he represented for the city was something larger than basketball," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said at a news conference last week. "I think that he arrived at a time where the city was also on an upward trajectory, a 20-year-old young man in an aspirational city. People kind of snicker and kind of sneer when we talk about that kind of stuff, but my guess is you're probably not doing that right now."

A franchise built around Durant will now have to retool. First, obviously, is Westbrook's future. The five-time All-Star is an unrestricted free agent next summer, and rumors have been plentiful for years that Westbrook has his sights on returning to his native Los Angeles as soon as possible. (The rumors don't differentiate between the Lakers or Clippers, most of the time.)

The Thunder hoped he'd sign an extension, the same way ex-Thunder standout James Harden did with Houston over the weekend. But a source made it clear last week that there was no way Westbrook would do that; why would he, when he could make much more playing out his deal next season, whether he stays in OKC afterward or goes elsewhere.

A five-year max deal with the Thunder for Westbrook would start at 30 percent of the cap in 2017-18 (next season will be his ninth in the league). With the 2017-18 cap currently projected at around $102 million, Westbrook could sign a five-year max deal in OKC in excess of $175 million, give or take a buck, or a four-year deal elsewhere for more than $135 million. Or, he could re-sign with Oklahoma City for one year next summer, then be eligible for a max of 35 percent of the cap after the 2017-18 season.

Top 10 Plays: Russell Westbrook In 2015-16

Russell Westbrook's Top 10 Plays of the 2015-16 Season.

Westbrook has said nothing publicly since Durant's decision, though Durant said at his own introductory presser in the Bay last week that he'd spoken to Westbrook after deciding to go to the Warriors.

"I'm sure he wasn't happy with the decision, but he respected it as my friend," Durant said.

It's not a good bet to assume anything about what Westbrook thinks about his future. For one, he'll be the unquestioned leader of the Thunder for the first time in his career. And with Durant and Ibaka gone, Westbrook will be one of the few veterans in OKC's locker room.

But Westbrook is a superstar. With the ball in his hands, a triple-double is possible every night.

At least now, a week into this, the Thunder is not under the impression that Westbrook wants out, or that Durant's departure necessarily means Westbrook is right behind him out the door. But like everyone else, Westbrook is just starting to process what not having his friend and fellow Alpha Male around any more is going to mean.

The hope is that Westbrook will view himself the way Dwyane Wade viewed himself in Miami for most of his career -- before these last few days. Wade played on championship teams in Miami ... but he also played on lottery teams. He played on playoff teams ... and teams that just missed the postseason. But he was part of the franchise's fabric for 13 years.

Playoff Turnaround: Warriors Complete Comeback

The Warriors rallied from a 3-1 series deficit and beat the Thunder in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals 96-88.

At the least, there will be no middlemen required between Westbrook and the team. Westbrook is not coy. And the Thunder believes that when and if Westbrook makes up his mind for good, he won't be secretive and he won't leave them in a lurch. If he wants to leave, they believe. He'll let them know with enough lead time for the team to try and make a deal. There simply cannot be a repeat of July 4 next July 4.

There is a precedent, of sorts, in recent NBA history to what the Thunder faces now.

After Michael Jordan's first retirement, following the Bulls' first three-peat in 1993, Chicago faced the 1994 season without its transcendent, title-munching superstar. (No, Durant is not Jordan, but he was the closest thing OKC had.) The Bulls still had a great player in Scottie Pippen, but no one believed Chicago was still a threat.

But Pippen responded with what may have been the best individual season of his Hall of Fame career, averaging 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. Guard B.J. Armstrong had the best season of his career, making his lone All-Star appearance and averaging almost 15 points a game.

The Bulls won 55 games, swept Cleveland in the first round and looked like they would take a 3-2 lead against New York in the conference semifinals. Then, the late Hue Hollins called an extremely iffy foul on Pippen as he flew past the Knicks' Hubert Davis on a last-second shot, with the Bulls up one at Madison Square Garden. Davis made both free throws, the Knicks won Game 5 and went on to win the series in seven.

Jordan, though returned to the Bulls from his baseball sabbatical late the following season, and while Chicago lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1995, the Bulls staged another three-peat from 1996-98.

Durant will not be returning to OKC. So, it will take time to find out exactly what the Thunder has post-Durant. Trying to create a new team immediately does a disservice to the reality of the massive change that's taken place. The locker room needs time to regain some equilibrium.

How good is Oladipo, who showed signs of being a defensive presence in his three seasons with the Magic, but has yet to shoot better than 44 percent overall or 35 percent on 3-pointers? Will he bloom playing alongside Westbrook, or shrink? Will he be demonstrably better at the two than Andre Roberson, who had some huge games for the Thunder in the playoffs?

Ilyasova will be a very different power forward than Ibaka, not nearly as athletic -- Ibaka has almost 1,100 more blocked shots in his career than Ilyasova, though they've played almost exactly the same number of career games -- and not the finisher at the rim that Ibaka could be.

But, Ilyasova has been a much more consistent perimeter threat over his career than Ibaka, and with Durant gone, the Thunder will need as much spacing as they can get for Westbrook to maneuver.

OKC may have to become a more traditional, inside-out team without Durant, too. Adams showed he could handle more offensive responsibility last season, shooting 61 percent from the floor, but he never saw double teams playing with Durant and Westbrook. Opponents won't be as leery of leaving Roberson or whoever winds up at the three next season as they were playing off of Durant.

The bigger issue will come after next season. Only Kanter, Kyle Singler and Sabonis will definitely be on the books for 2017-18. OKC has incredible cap flexbiity, even with a large cap hold for Westbrook on the books until his future is certain. With a commitment from Westbrook on a long-term deal, OKC could be ridiculous free agent players a year from now.

If players want to play in Oklahoma City.

There will be premium talent galore: Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Andre Iguodala and Paul Millsap all are likely to exercise their early termination and/or player options and become unrestricted in '17, along with the likes of Greg Monroe, Ibaka, Danilo Gallinari, Zach Randolph and J.J. Redick.

Has Oklahoma City -- the town and the team -- done enough during the Durant era to make itself into a destination for the NBA's elite players? (It would be fascinating, especially, in a potential wooing of Griffin, who was born and grew up in Oklahoma City, played high school basketball 20 minutes away in Edmond and two years of at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman.)

After LeBron James left Cleveland, the Cavaliers fell through the NBA floor. The Thunder would not drop all the way to the lottery if Westbrook were to leave after Durant. But the view would be vastly inferior.

Still, they have perspective in Oklahoma City. Durant leaving is hard, and Westbrook leaving would be harder still. But the Thunder had already endured much worse last year: the death of assistant coach Monty Williams' wife, Ingrid, after a car accident Feb. 9 (Williams left the team soon afterward and will not return next season), the death of part-owner Aubrey McClendon March 2 in another car crash and the death of Waiters' brother, Demetrius Pinckney, in Philadelphia less than a week later.

This is a community that endured the evil of Timothy McVeigh and the brunt of tornadoes that killed 24 people in nearby Moore, Okla., in 2013. A basketball player, even one as great and as beloved as Durant, will be remembered, and his absence will hurt. There will be ripple effects. But they will go on. They will work through it together.

It was a tough flight back to Oklahoma City from the Hamptons, where Durant decided his fate, and the fate of his former team. But Presti had to answer soon after landing back home. What should people in Oklahoma City think about Kevin Durant?

"They should feel thankful, grateful," Presti said at his presser. "They should not -- I can't tell them not to be disappointed, but the one thing I would also say is the city should be incredibly proud of what they've helped create for the Thunder. It's not possible without that. They need to carry that on. They need to carry on the spirit and the fight and the grit, because that was here before the Thunder. That was here before the Thunder, that spirit, that ability to continue to press forward. That's in the water here."

MORE MORNING TIP: After first wave of free-agent deals, a new mantra is afoot | Your questions: What's next for Heat with Wade leaving?

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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