Kevin Durant didn’t want any of the pressure. He left.
Paul George does. He stayed.
And for the first time since Durant bolted, which was two years ago this week, but feels like a lifetime, this Thunder team has now begun the process of its version of “Extreme Makeover.”
In this very space a few days ago, I asked a question about how the Thunder were better now that Paul George has committed to playing basketball here in Oklahoma City for more than just the near future, That question bothered you. You hated the idea, because you knew it might be true. That there’s a chance the same, old issues would pop again this fall and affect the team through the spring. Maybe it was the wrong time to ask the question, because there was so much new, raw excitement about the team. I can see that now. My mistake.
But maybe there’s an answer.
With a few words at a party thrown in his honor, Paul George didn’t just agree to play for the Thunder, he agreed to take on the pressure and the burden of winning – something Durant didn’t want any part of, not in Oklahoma City, anyway.
Winning isn’t on just Westbrook now. It’s on George, too, and perhaps that makes the Thunder better. Westbrook called George “loyal,” on Saturday after George announced to the partiers that he was coming back, but really Westbrook should have told him, “Thanks.” This is still Westbrook’s team, but George lined up as his first officer.
Two seasons ago, Westbrook was seen as a hero. He took the Thunder to the playoffs and won an MVP in the face of the rest of the league saying KD left the Thunder and Westbrook all alone. Westbrook was seen as a sympathetic figure. His triple-double season made him an MVP and made him likable.
But the last time we saw Westbrook on the court, he was undone physically and picked apart mentally by the mighty Ricky Rubio of the Utah Jazz. Westbrook’s shine, despite another triple-double season, was dulled. No MVP. No mention of it, really, and another first-round exit from the playoffs. But this season felt different. Westbrook wasn’t seen as anything close to sympathetic. Instead, Westbrook’s performance, especially in the playoffs, was seen as troublesome, and his ability to evolve was questioned.
So, what happened? Well, George chose Westbrook, something Kevin Durant, for whatever his reasons, or motives or aspirations were, didn’t do. Paul George did. That kind of trust, regardless of what happens this season, could have an amazing impact on the Thunder and be the kickstart to the makeover and evolution of Westbrook.
That kind of trust is something the Thunder front office has put on Westbrook, but no other player, certainly not one of George’s status, has. Despite his faults, despite his horrid playoff performance and snarly on-court attitude, George chose Westbrook and now has taken on a burden, that until Saturday was a Westbrook only, solo endeavor.
It’s been “Russ vs. the World” in Oklahoma City since Durant departed. We’ve embraced it, too, taken it on as our own VisionQuest, futile as it may be, but dripping with nobility.
But the real nobility is what Paul George has done. He saw a superstar in Russell Westbrook and told him, “Let me help. Let me take this burden and share this pressure.”
The Thunder may not win more than they did a season ago, but for the first time since Durant left, this team has truly evolved and that may make them better.