So this is the article "Unfinished Business" I mentioned on the night of Westbrook trade. The emotion was pretty high that night so I waited a couple more days for everything to settle down.
This afternoon I spent some time and got the translation done. It wasn't perfect though, but hopefully it serves as a good read by looking back the years of all the ups and downs with this Thunder team. Admittedly I always feel appreciative of landing Harden from OKC, and it goes without saying with Westbrook there is more of a connection now. I first wish you guys nothing but a quick franchise turnaround and some of those draft picks can turn into gold. I know some of you are not a big fan of Houston Rockets (it might be an understatement lol), but I am sure you all will root for Westbrook to succeed wherever he goes.
Enjoy the read.
We set the scene back in 2011 when the young core lost to Dirk in the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant went 21/41 in the first 2 games, then dropped to 24/64 in the next 3. Westbrook was 11/28 in the decisive Game 5, and he was only 3/15 in KD's best game (game 1). Ibaka could not do anything to Dirk, and at that time Harden wasn't even at the front stage yet, 7 points in total for game 4 and 5.
At that time we were all telling ourselves, it's okay, they will get better.
2012, they cut through the West like a hot knife through butter. Kobe could not stand in the way anymore like he did two years ago, and KD took that sweet revenge. Spurs went up 2-0? It doesn't matter, Harden stepped up in game 5 with a dagger in the face of Kawhi, and KD and Westbrook combined for 60 points in Game 6. They even went on to take game 1 in the finals. At the time we thought that OKC team was turning into the 1991 Chicago Bulls, then Miami won the next 4 games (with a little help from the 2-3-2 format).
We were still telling ourselves, it's okay, they will get better. And here is that speech from Brooks.
"We're going to treat them like they're the champions. After this game, we're going to walk and shake their hands and acknowledge all of them. Unfortunately, we didn't get it done this year," Brooks said as he looked around the huddle, making eye contact with his players. "There's no way any of your guys should keep your head down. Keep it up. Keep doing what you've done. Build yourself up this summer, get better, that's what we're about. We're about staying together, we're about playing for each other, we're about staying together as a family."
This is probably the most classy post game speech I've ever heard.
Staying together as a family, yes, a family Harden was no longer part of 4 months later that same summer. In the upcoming 12-13 season OKC still won 60 games as the 1 seed, KD finished 2nd in MVP behind LeBron who came off a 27 winning streak. Maybe this is the year? In the opening series against Houston, a bump between Beverley and Westbrook took away his knee as well as all the hope of doing anything meaningful that year. KD got piled on by the butchering Grizzles in the next round and OKC could not survive that grinding series, not without Westbrook.
This was the first time we started ask ourselves, are we sure that OKC can get better than this?
Even till today, I firmly believe that OKC vs Houston series was the true turning point between the uprising OKC and its downhill. Before that point, they had all the talent, all the health, they were thriving on their youth while drawing the blueprint of a championship; After that series, they never stopped facing injuries and the lack of consistent firepower outside of their two main guys. They used up their honeymoon of "it's okay, they are still young, they will get better", and they had to face the eventual question of "if you don't bring result now, then when". Just like a guy out of college eventually has to face his mortgage, family, kids, and the girl sitting next to you will start to care more about everything else other than your pretty face or how good you are with your guitar. The reality started to kick in.
OKC started losing bodies from 2014. Westbrook missed part of the season where KD got his first MVP, they survived against the Clippers in that famous game 5 final minute, but they lost Ibaka at the worst time in the next series. 2015 was the year both KD and Westbrook got hurt in different stretches, and after 3 conference finals appearances, they missed the playoffs on a tie breaker ironically by an AD buzz beater in the face of KD and Westbrook. In 2016, they brought in a new coach who used a 7 man rotation for the post season and eventually collapsed in a historical fashion against the 73W Warriors. Then it's 2017 when KD and Ibaka both left and Westbrook was all alone, who decided to turn himself into a modern day Oscar Roberson. That year, he was the most exciting point guard the league has seen since the ABA merge. However, we all know the hope of "OKC could be the next dynasty" has already ended long before at that point.
Looking back at the league history, if we think of winning a championship as entering an elite exclusive club, and having championship winning talent as first receiving an invitation from that club, there are only a small set of players who had the invitation as well as eventually making into that club. Even with 20 years of great, HOF level play, Malone and Stockton could not get in. Those who got in? Jordan and Pippen, Bird and McHale, Erving and Moses, Shaq and Kobe, Duncan and Pop, LeBron, and the splash brothers. And what about the guys who were good enough to get the tickets but couldn't make it? David Thompson, Bobby Jones and Issel of Denver, Hakeem and Sampson of the Rockets, Penny and Shaq, the pre-Duncan David Robinson, the latest being KD Westbrook and Harden.
This is the story of unfinished business of the OKC big 3. We always thought they were the 1990 Bulls, 1999 Lakers, 2005 Heat, 2010 Mavericks that showed enormous promise and turned a heat breaking loss into winning a championship the next year, but instead, they became the 1987 Rockets, the post Walton injury Blazers, and 1994 Penny-Shaq Magic. It's like if you miss a peak that is supposed to be yours, you inevitably are facing the downhill.
In the summer of 2012, Harden did want to be the Manu of OKC given the right price - a few millions more - but Presti decided he was not worth it and Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb together would be enough. Kevin Durant went from tweeting against the Miami Heat super team in 2010 to the biggest villain who joined a historical super team in 2016. Westbrook had the potential to be that super athletic point guard version of Pippen next to his own MJ yet he became more like an Iverson, and the fact is, he was really happy to be KD's robin when he was there despite getting occasionally hot headed. There are so many what ifs in this OKC story, that the very moment I heard Westbrook and Harden both pushed for this trade to happen and OKC fulfilled their request even with some potentially higher bidders out there, it was a wonderful feeling. It's like something really beautiful that only happened in your childhood is going to happen again.
Even from a pure basketball point of view, this can be a trade that makes more sense than most people think, as everything comes down to two questions right now: how do these two fit together, and how much better a 2019 Westbrook is than 2019 Chris Paul?
We all know as a ball handler and offensive initiator, the ability to create enough offense and potential scoring opportunities is called Production, and how well you convert those opportunities as a scorer, is called Efficiency. Production and Efficiency always go hand in hand, but different teams might have different priorities between these two. The 2017-2018 Warriors team for example, they use a set of complicated high-speed ball movement anchored around two former MVPs, prioritized on playing unselfishly and efficiently, they need Efficiency as they are on their best when they make less turnovers. For a team like the Rockets that employs a relatively straightforward ISO offense that relies on endless ball handler hunting for mismatches through high picks, very one dimensional, they need elite ball handling players who can make mass production to help reduce Harden's usage. They need Production. So at this point of their careers, if we are strictly talking about ball handling production, as a work horse, there is no doubt that Westbrook delivers more than Paul.
Paul is aging with a rapidly declining explosiveness and agility. More importantly, he doesn't have the length/size to fall back on once his body starts to betray him, and his weight management is going to a big issue moving forward (considering his extreme work ethic this is particularly alarming). 1 on 1 he can no longer beat his defender, and he needs a lot of helper screens preferably by bigger bodies to get him open. In other words, the 2019 version of Paul would thrive in a motion system with guys moving all the time for him to surgically pick his opponent open, but not the relatively stationary Houston offense. On the other hand, Sam Presti really didn't do a good job by surrounding Westbrook with consistent shooting, and the lack of spacing contributed to his shot selection too - he didn't have much better options. Outside of 2019 Jan - Feb when Paul George was playing his career basketball and Westbrook willingly took a backseat, it was really just a "right yall can't shoot so I am gonna do it my way" mindset. This should be less of a problem in Houston, a team built on shooters spacing the floor. So in a sense, Westbrook's weakness might be less noticed in Houston but his strength will contribute positively - his ability to push the pace and a relentless transition offense, the exact things that are missing from Paul.
Nonetheless, I really don't care that much about the basketball part of this trade. The remaining OKC big 3 will have a chance to fight in the same trench again and fight for a championship together. It's about the brotherhood. It's about the togetherness Scott Brooks was talking about in that beautiful post game speech back in 2012.
The unfinished business.