Russell Westbrook trade to Rockets ends Thunder era Warriors shaped


Russell Westbrook trade to Rockets ends Thunder era Warriors shaped

Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant stood together during Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals as the final seconds ticked away -- cementing a championship for the LeBron James-led Miami Heat -- with the world assumed to be at the trio's fingertips. 

With each player yet to turn 24, the general presumption was that the three would lead the Oklahoma City Thunder and dominate the NBA for the next decade. Meanwhile, the Warriors were building up a dynasty of their own 1,600 miles away, led by young sharpshooters Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Draymond Green was drafted just eight days after the Thunder's Finals loss. 

Despite Harden -- who had just won Sixth Man of The Year -- getting traded away three months after the aforementioned Finals, the Thunder remained one of the Warriors' benchmarks for the remainder of the decade. Oklahoma City even pushed Golden State to the brink of elimination in the 2016 Western Conference finals. 

By late Thursday afternoon, all remnants of that image in Miami vanished when the Thunder reportedly traded Westbrook to the Rockets in exchange for Chris Paul, two first-round picks and two more pick swaps, marking the end of an era for the Warriors' former foe. 

As Golden State ascended from a fun team under coach Mark Jackson to a champion under Steve Kerr, the Thunder always seemed to play their way into Golden State lore.

It was Oklahoma City that provided the site of Curry's most iconic regular-season shot, when he hit a 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left to give Golden State a 121-118 victory, helping preserve the Warriors' eventual 73-win season.

It was the Thunder who went up three-games-to-one in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals three months later, threatening to undermine the Warriors' historic season, before Golden State roared back to win the series.

And it was the Thunder who mourned when Durant tweeted out a link to The Players' Tribune announcing his departure to the Warriors on July 4, 2016. 

When Durant left, Westbrook -- as the last Thunder star remaining -- became the symbol for player loyalty in a league increasingly centered around free agency. Over his last three seasons, he averaged a triple-double while the Thunder attempted to maintain a championship team around him. 

[RELATED: Westbrook-Paul trade has big names, but little impact]

General manager Sam Presti acquired and eventually re-signed Paul George, took a flier on Carmelo Anthony and rounded out the roster with solid role players in Jerami Grant, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. Fans in Oklahoma still had time to save their deafening boos whenever the Warriors came to town, However, the Thunder's roster wasn't enough to get out of the first round in each of the last three seasons. 

The first inclination of a rebuild came last week when the team traded away George to the Los Angeles Clippers for a record-setting amount of first-round picks, leaving Westbrook as the only All-Star left on the roster. Now, Westbrook reportedly heads to Houston, reuniting with Harden in a quest to win the pair's first ring while the rest of the NBA wonders what could've been from the young trio who stood together in Miami seven years ago. 

Warriors must bring energy, focus on defense to prove naysayers wrong

Warriors must bring energy, focus on defense to prove naysayers wrong

Editor's note: Grant Liffmann (@grantliffmann) is the co-host of Warriors Outsiders, which airs on NBC Sports Bay Area 90 minutes before each home game and 60 minutes after every game. Each week, Grant will drop his Outsider Observation on the state of the Dubs.

The Warriors' roster upheaval has been significant and dramatic. After years of historically great offensive output, the team will try to find a way to make up for nearly 55 points per game lost after the departures of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, as well as Klay Thompson, who will be out until at least February as he recovers from a torn ACL.

As debilitating these absences are for the offense, the defense will be equally impacted. Iguodala, Thompson and Durant were three of the top defenders on the team and in the league.

Starting with the arrival of Iguodala in 2013, the Warriors have been one of top defenses in the NBA year after year. In the 2013-14 season, the team ranked third in the league with a defensive rating of 101.4, followed by a No. 1 ranking with a 100.4 rating in coach Steve Kerr's first season in 2014-15. The following season in 2015-16, the Warriors were sixth in the NBA at 102.8, before finishing second in the league with a 103.4 rating in the 2016-17 campaign. The team started to decline defensively in the 2017-18 season when they fell to 11th in the NBA with a 106.8 defensive rating. Finally this past season, the Warriors continued their defensive slide, posting a 108.6 defensive rating which was good for 11th in the NBA yet again.

There are many reasons for the team's defensive rating worsening in each year of the Kerr era, with the most significant being overall regular-season apathy. As the team became more dominant, talented and successful, they also became less inclined to give a full effort on the defensive end of the floor on an every-game basis.

The road to the NBA Finals was too exhausting mentally and physically to be able to be fully engaged against lesser teams throughout the regular season. During the postseason, the team was able to maintain a strong defensive presence with increased focus and energy, except for last season, when some of the team's best defenders were hobbled or out due to injury.

Another major factor in the team's defensive decline has been the overall improvement of the NBA's competitive balance, and the adjustments teams have made to catch up with the Warriors' style and pace of play.

Because of this, coupled with major superstar shifts in the NBA landscape and the Warriors' loss of talent, there are some that do not think the Dubs will be able to make the playoffs this season. If the Warriors are able to prove these naysayers wrong, it will have to start by surprising many on the defensive end.

With the absence of Iguodala, Durant, and for the most part, Thompson, the Warriors will be left with two of their top five defenders from last season, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney. Despite last season being considered one of Green's least effective years, he still was quite good. Out of the Warriors' top eight defensive rated lineups that played 50 or more minutes last regular season, Green was part of seven of them.

Meanwhile, Looney widely is considered a terrific pick-and-roll defender and a player that consistently is in the right position. Steph Curry is a better defender than he has been given credit for in his career, but with the Warriors will be so reliant on his offense, they won't ask him to stop any opposing scoring point guard. D'Angelo Russell hasn't garnered a good defensive reputation so far in his young career, so it will be up to him to improve his effort and seek guidance from elite coaches such as Ron Adams.

The Warriors do have a few wing players that have solid defensive reputations in their careers (both in college and the NBA), including Jacob Evans III, Eric Paschall and Glenn Robinson III. All three will be needed to provide good wing defense if the team is to overcome their roster holes. Alec Burks and Alfonzo McKinnie have not proven to be reliable defenders so far, but have the physical talent to be effective if properly utilized.

When it comes to the frontcourt, Willie Cauley-Stein, while not a rim protector, has the length and athleticism to compete defensively in today's fast-paced game and also will be a pupil of Adams. The jury still is out on what Omari Spellman, Jordan Poole and Alen Smailagic can bring on that end. The defensive question marks are real and rightfully concerning for a team that has become accustomed to being elite.

[RELATED: Warriors must embrace new NBA reality after golden era]

But with more energy and focus in the regular season, the Warriors are hoping that a few of their new additions will emerge and push them to defensive respectability once again.

Warriors must prepare to embrace new NBA reality after golden era

Warriors must prepare to embrace new NBA reality after golden era

OAKLAND – After establishing a standard of excellence, the events of the NBA's latest July whirlwind have amounted to, at the very least, a temporary setback for the Warriors.

Kevin Durant’s decision to leave for the Brooklyn Nets – to partner with close friends Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan – along with Klay Thompson suffering a torn ACL that will keep him out most of next season didn’t necessarily apply brakes to the franchise’s rocket to the sports mountain. It did, however, force radical rerouting.

This is the first summer since 2015 that the Warriors are not considered serious contenders to win a championship. As someone who understands ownership is the first step toward competitive advance, CEO Joe Lacob can’t be pleased with the outlook.

The question, then, becomes whether Lacob understands the success/failure cycles inherent to teams in the NBA. The early indication is that he does.

“Joe loves action, in some respects, but not without thought behind it,” president/general manager Bob Myers told NBC Sports Bay Area on Monday. “He wants action with intentions.”

After a frenetic 17 days between the draft and free agency, here are the changes Myers and his front office team are delivering to Lacob and Warriors fans: One top-50 NBA player (D’Angelo Russell), one second-year big man already facing a career crossroads (Omari Spellman), three free agents light on credentials (Alec Burks, Willie Cauley-Stein, Glenn Robinson III) and three rookies (Jordan Poole, Alen Smailagic, Eric Paschall).

The Warriors likely will open the season with those eight players trying to create unity with holdovers Stephen Curry, Jacob Evans III, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Alfonzo McKinnie. The hope is that Thompson will suit up sometime after the February All-Star break.

“Joe was actually very supportive of our direction,” Myers said. “He liked the idea of us going younger. He was a little fearful of being an old team in the next few years. But with Kevin’s departure, it pushed us in this direction.

“From Joe’s vantage point, he embraced the emphasis on youth. Once we went with D’Angelo, the idea with all of us, including Joe, – was not to grab some young guys and see what they can do when combined with Steph and Draymond and Klay. Kevon is young, but on this team, he’ll be considered a vet.

“Joe was good,” Myers continued. “Joe’s super competitive, super driven. But he also does support us in our decisions. He’s involved. He’s excited about what’s coming.”

Lacob also is acutely aware that the NBA is stronger now than it was five years ago, and that the Western Conference is downright treacherous. After five years of treating the Pacific Division with the back of their hand and burying their rivals by New Year’s Day, the Warriors suddenly are looking up at the Clippers and maybe the Lakers.

Which bring us back to the subject of ownership being the biggest competitive advantage. The Lakers may be wandering through a purple haze of desperation, hoping to squeeze a championship out of the last active years of LeBron James’ career, but the Clippers are lining up to compete jab for jab with the Warriors.

“They’ve got great ownership,” Myers conceded. “And it’s not just them, it’s the whole Western Conference.”

Perhaps, but only the Clippers have tools at every level to earn respect throughout the league. Chairman Steve Ballmer is Mark Cuban 2.0, every bit as demonstrative but with an air of restraint that doesn’t extend to his net worth, estimated to be between $41 billion and $51 billion – in either case, at least twice the wealth of any other NBA chairman.

Ballmer is in many ways following the blueprint drawn up by Lacob upon reaching agreement to buy the Warriors on July 15, 2010. Like Lacob, Ballmer was accused of overpaying, at $2 billion, to purchase an underachieving franchise. Unlike Lacob, Ballmer believed in his incumbent coach, Doc Rivers. Like Lacob, Ballmer believes his coach is best restricted to coaching; he took away Rivers’ GM powers, hired a real front office and then, as Lacob did, hired Jerry West, perhaps the best talent evaluator in league’s modern age.

And with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Ballmer and the Clippers now have arranged their own “KD moment,” a seismic makeover that ensures a spotlight of levels unprecedented in franchise history while also making them at least co-favorites to win it all.

“What we’re seeing now and what makes it interesting . . . is the fluidity of the sport,” Myers said. “Everything is moving so fast now. All of a sudden, teams are compiling players that didn’t come up in their system or that they didn’t draft. And those players landed with them through free agency.”

[RELATED: Myers bids farewell to golden era of Warriors basketball]

Here comes reality, and it’s coming fast. The Warriors will, at some point, regain their footing, but next season and maybe more is time for fans, with Lacob at the top, to buckle up.