It all started, as these things so often do, with the smallest suggestions. A possession that could have gone another way. Body language that betrayed a moment of frustration. Thread enough of those incidents together and you start to see the outline of something. Squint and that something can become narrative. Russell Westbrook doesn’t pass enough. Kevin Durant settles. This is Westbrook’s team. This is Durant’s team. The two can’t play together.
Every comment between those two stars was used to gauge their relationship. Any game of consequence was broadcast through the noise. The Thunder stars were viewed as an an imperfect pair, even as they progressed deep into the playoffs whenever good health allowed. The notion that Durant may have preferred playing with some other type of star is now a matter of public record. Durant made his choice. And when he returns to Oklahoma City on Saturday (8:30 PM ET, ABC) as a member of the Warriors for the first time, the state of two franchises will be distilled to the strained relationship of two men.
The intrigue is obvious. A league that revolves around stars must also be shaped by the gravitational pull between them. Pairing up exceptional talents is a thought exercise implicit to the rise of the NBA, but modern stardom would be nothing without passion for the interpersonal. Much of the hand-wringing and conjecture about the young Thunder dripped with subtext. It wasn't simply about what kind of playmaker best fit Durant's game. It was about how playing with Westbrook felt to an established superstar. The NBA's casual, window-shopping fan base flocks toward friction between great talents, even in those cases where the players involved are so buttoned-up as to never fully say publicly what they might like. Not only did Durant and Westbrook never really go there, both said only the right things when given the opportunity. They shared a mutually protective public relationship.
All of which makes this situation so distinct from the Kobe–Shaq formula. There were no irreconcilable differences between Durant and Westbrook. There was simply a different kind of opportunity. Any antagonism came after the fact—stoked as much by the way Durant left as it was by his leaving. It seemed they were close, once. Per the characterization of the reporting on the subject and Durant's own comments, they weren't by the end. "Work friends" is a chilling turn of phrase for two players who came up into the league together. It also could be wholly accurate in a way that wouldn't discount anything that the Thunder accomplished.
NBA history has been written through the sensational returns of imperfect relationships. Every roster collects some of the most driven, career-minded, and naturally talented individuals in the world. They have only a limited window to achieve all they'd like in this particular pursuit. Many are stubborn. Each is entrenched in what they know. Almost all are deeply competitive. A franchise can only be so greedy as to hope, in these circumstances, for relationships that work. Anything beyond that would veer into the exceptional—the fantasy that teammates in a transient business must be lifelong friends.
What matters is that it worked—long enough, at least, to give the Thunder an honest chance. The way Westbrook plays basketball factored into their eventual split. The sum of their history together was a piece in all that Durant mulled over. But through all the tension and gossip and public second-guessing, Durant and Westbrook played strikingly effective basketball. Were it not for some pain in Durant's foot or a tweak of Westbrook's knee, the Thunder could be champions. And they could have reached those heights without any fundamental change in the relationship of their stars. Every year, work friends win titles.
History went a different way. Now we scrub b-roll audio to determine whether Westbrook took some veiled shot at Durant hours before tip-off. Fashion choices became admissible evidence. Instagram posts are parsed for double meanings. Quotes are relayed back and forth for comment and re-comment until the thread peters out. A little ire can be good for the game. Yet the rivalry machine always threatens to burn out once it shifts into overdrive, no matter the real resentment used as its fuel. Westbrook and Durant have a score to settle. They also had a functional relationship as recently as May, convenient as that might be to erase.