Not since the 2000s, when Kobe and Shaq were squabbling members of the Lakers, has a relationship between NBA teammates been analyzed and scrutinized as much Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
The examination – and insinuation – continues even now, four months after Durant left the Thunder to join the Warriors.
The subject can at least begin to be put to rest Thursday night, when Durant and Westbrook meet on the court as OKC comes to Oakland to face the Warriors at Oracle Arena.
Because of his eight seasons alongside Westbrook and also his nine years with the organization, Durant acknowledges his emotions will run high.
“It’s just the way it is,” he said last Tuesday night, after a 127-104 victory over the Trail Blazers. “I’ve got a job to do. At the end of the day, I’m going to go out there and do it.
“But it’ll be good to see some people I haven’t seen in a while.”
Durant’s July 4 decision as a free agent to leave OKC and join the Warriors broke hearts and some of the spirit in the heartland. Once a beloved icon of the Sooner State, Durant in the eyes of many became a traitor. Fans of the Thunder were, and still are, angry that Durant made a choice that not only weakened their team but also left them feeling abandoned.
Westbrook has said and done precious little to distance himself from those who remain bitter over Durant’s departure.
That Durant has continued to speak highly of Westbrook and also expressed a modicum of regret over not personally speaking to his ex-teammate about his decision speaks to the personality differences between the two men.
Whereas Westbrook is a hard-charging competitor who approaches every game, every season, with an us-or-them mentality, Durant takes a broader view. Suns coach Earl Watson, a friend to both, recently explained that an in-season meeting with Durant would result in an embrace but such niceties with Westbrook would more likely be put on hold until the offseason.
That hardly means Westbrook hates Durant, and it surely does not imply Durant detests Westbrook.
“We’re boys,” Durant told Bay Area News Group this week. “My interest went this way, his went that way. He got married, I didn’t. He hung with his wife. What you want me to do? I love Russ. I don’t care what nobody say. I don’t care what he say or what the fans say. Like, this is a tough time right now in our relationship. But I love Russ. I love his family.”
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, the rage continues. Some fans burned Durant jerseys, while others vented on talk radio. Durant’s popular restaurant, KD’s, was forced to undergo a change in management and, moreover, get renamed.
That Westbrook, now the clear franchise player, has started in such spectacular fashion – he leads the league in scoring and through three games is averaging a triple-double – the fans may be on the verge of getting over Durant.
But Durant, while conceding OKC fans have a right to feel as they do, is quick to say the memories and friendships made with his former employer will stay with him forever.
Warriors forward Draymond Green, who was a leading figure in the recruitment of Durant, has become one of Durant’s good friends. He understands what his new teammate is coping with and knows it can’t be easy for Durant to clash with his former teammates.
“I think it’ll be a lot of emotions,” Green said. “They’re going to want to beat him really bad. He’s going to want to beat them really bad. In turn, we’re going to want to beat them really bad because we want him to beat them really bad.
“It’ll be a lot of emotions, but it’ll be a fun game to play in. It’s always a high-intensity game against them and I expect nothing less.”
Durant says he’ll get away from basketball on Wednesday, take some time for himself and recharge. The game will be there on Thursday. Maybe he needs a few hours to absorb what’s ahead.
It’s going to be a strange feeling for Durant to take the court and face those wearing the only NBA jersey he had known previous to joining the Warriors.
“I wouldn’t say weird,” Durant said. “I’ll be just locked in, I guess, to following the game plan and just playing.
“Once you step on the court and you see the different jersey, I’m sure it will hit me. But for the most part, once we’re going over game-plan stuff I’ll just try my best to lock in and get ready.”
There is no doubt, though Durant would like to get past the ongoing drama, much of which has been the result of fabrication and hypothesis. Practically anything Durant has said in praise of Warriors has been inferred as condemnation of the Thunder.
Practically anything he says that sheds positive light on a Warriors teammate is studied for the chance it may be a veiled complaint or cryptic critique of his former teammates, Westbrook in particular.
This is not Kobe-Shaq, the cornerstones of Lakers teams that won three championships before they grew tired of sharing the same space. This is Durant-Westbrook, teammates that went quite far but never all the way to the top.
Durant’s move did not dismantle a team laying waste to the NBA. It merely sent him to the place of his choice, to join teammates with which he had grown comfortable.
He has moved on. He’s ready for the rest of the world to move on. Maybe on Thursday the issue will take a long stride toward the dusty pages of history.