Why Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook changed everything and nothing

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Russell Westbrook (right) listens to Kevin Durant after the Thunder beat the Warriors in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook (right) listens to Kevin Durant after the Thunder beat the Warriors in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

After hinting at it last week, Kevin Durant has now made it clear: he “damn sure” wouldn’t have chosen to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency had the Dubs held on to win the 2016 NBA championship rather than blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the greatest collapse in NBA Finals history.

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Durant confirms as much in a new Rolling Stone cover story published Wednesday, a wide-ranging conversation with Paul Solotaroff about, among other things, what precipitated his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Warriors, the team that had just eliminated OKC from the Western Conference finals, rather than re-upping in Oklahoma to rejoin longtime partner Russell Westbrook in pursuit of glory:

Riding the brilliance of Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder raced out to a 3-1 lead, not just beating but bullying the reigning champs, knocking them around the lane like duckpins. Then suddenly, its stars ran out of gas against the three-headed monster of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. With a lead in the fourth quarter of what could have been a clinching Game Six, Durant and Westbrook began clanking up misses as Thompson and Curry caught fire, dropping three-pointers from the rafters while falling out of bounds. “It’s like the hand of God touched Klay,” says Durant. “He couldn’t miss. And then Steph went nuts and – well, day-umm …”

Yes, exactly: day-umm. Durant had wanted that game so bad, he did something he never did: let himself savor winning before it happened: “Man, I saw us in the ball caps and T-shirts, with our fans going crazy and dancing. That town was so good to us, showed us love even when we lost. I wanted it more for them than even me.” He went home crushed, replaying his every miss – and there’d been plenty. He acquitted himself better in Game Seven, but Westbrook was strictly on fumes then. Some part of Durant knew he’d already punched his ticket. “It felt like that whole thing was set up for me to leave,” he says, “especially after they blew a lead in the finals, because I damn sure wasn’t going there if they’d won. But after Game Seven, I called up my agent and said, ‘Damn, dude, Golden State – what if?'”

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We’ve thought about, analyzed and dissected that “what if?” quite a bit since July — of what it means on the court for Golden State and Oklahoma City as teams, and what it means for the way we view Durant and Westbrook as individuals. Perhaps most of all, we’ve thought about it in the context of what it means for the relationship between Durant and Westbrook, who rose together from wide-eyed neophytes to two of the most dominant and domineering presences in the NBA, and who developed what appeared to be an exceptionally tight bond on and off the floor.

The nature of Durant’s departure, though — the report that KD didn’t call Russ to break the news, the revelation that he just shot Westbrook a text after his Players Tribune essay went live, Westbrook’s instant laughter when KD’s name came up, Durant’s you-need-more-people insistence that the two are “still cool,” etc. — sure made it seem like they might not have been that close, irrespective of the eight years they spent together carrying the Thunder. Durant suggests as much in the Rolling Stone piece:

As close as people presumed he and Westbrook had been, they were never much more than work friends, he says. “We had our own cliques that we hung with on the road. Russell had his guys, I had mine. It was never a bad thing. Just how it was.” For the guy who’d grown up friendless through grade school and preps, the pull of [the Warriors’] stars and their shared affection must have felt like a welcome banner. All his life, he’d been walking alone, a party of one in the desert. Now, at last, his tribe called out to him. Who among us could have said no?

That Sunday, after everyone had had their say, including reps from the Thunder, whom he saw twice, he brooded alone in a hot tub for two hours, agonizing over the choice. Finally, he went to bed, unsure what to do. When he woke, at 5 a.m., he heard one word in his head: Warriors. He went and rousted Kleiman, then prepared himself to make the hardest phone call of his life. “It was rough, talking to [Thunder GM] Sam Presti and [owner] Clay Bennett. I cried and got emotional, I’ll put it like that.” He texted Westbrook the news, but didn’t call him – they hadn’t really talked through the process. Asked why, Durant gives a shrug. They’d had those years together, fought as hard as two men can when they’re outnumbered. Sometimes, when it ends, you let the silence speak; words just don’t seem adequate, for better or worse.

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Even if you believe fervently and wholly that Durant had every right to make the call he did — that he owed nothing else to the Thunder after eight brilliant seasons, that deciding “to accept an employment offer that he preferred” and pursue what he thought might be a more joyous opportunity is completely natural and justifiable — you can sympathize with why someone in Westbrook’s position might think “words just don’t seem adequate” is worse, not better.

For his part, Russ — himself the subject of a pair of national magazine cover stories this week — is being cautious with what he says as he discusses Durant’s exit and his path forward. But he’s not exactly shying away from saying what he thinks about it all, either. From GQ’s Daniel Riley:

In the days that followed Durant’s departure, Westbrook was said to be angry and hurt, but he stayed largely quiet. Even now, months later, he’s careful with his words. He knows how things can sound, knows the value of striking a conciliatory tone.

“I mean, obviously in the NBA there’s a lot of different decisions that people make,” he says. “The whole thing in the NBA is that people sometimes have an opportunity to go where they want. And Kevin chose a place where he wanted to go.”

So, have they talked much since?

“Uhh, not much, no.” […]

“[Deciding to stay in Oklahoma City] wasn’t like that at all for me. There was no process. It was just very simple,” Westbrook says. “I wasn’t trying to figure out if I was leaving or not. I was happy where—I am happy where—I’m at. It’s very simple.”

To hear Westbrook tell it, it’s simple because all he’s focusing on is what he thinks and wants, rather than what anyone else might have to say about it. (Which, ironically enough, is exactly what Durant says in the Rolling Stone interview he finally started doing after suffering season-scuttling injuries to his right foot in 2015, and which ultimately led him to leave OKC for the Bay.) More from GQ:

During last year’s conference finals, it seemed that Westbrook was playing as though he were finally sick of hearing all the Steph Steph Steph business of the last couple of years. I told Westbrook that he was the favorite for league MVP, above even James and Curry—but that I had suspected he’d maybe felt he was the league’s best player for a while. That the Steph Steph Steph chorus might even be part of what’s pushed him to that place.

“The thing about me you have to know is, I don’t care what other people are doing. I. Don’t. Care. I’m so busy worried about how I can improve, I just don’t have time to worry about what any other person is doing.”

Except … well, that’s not entirely true, is it?

Sure, it might be true now, with Durant’s Warriors and Westbrook’s Thunder in the throes of preparation for the season ahead. But it wasn’t true on July 4, in the aftermath of Durant’s announcement, as detailed by Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated:

Westbrook didn’t disparage Durant. He didn’t judge him. All he did was take a picture. When Kendrick Perkins played center for the Thunder, he called teammates “cupcake” if he thought they were acting a little soft. Westbrook and Durant adopted the term in jest. Westbrook posted a bittersweet pic on Instagram: three plates of cupcakes topped by red and blue stars and sprinkles. […]

HAPPY 4th YALL….????????????????????????

A photo posted by Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) on Jul 4, 2016 at 10:40am PDT

“This is professional sports,” Westbrook sniffs. “You have to live with it. I just continued about my day.”

There’s only so much he and Durant will actually be able to do that, of course. The dissolution of their partnership is one of the biggest stories in the sport, and with the season upon us and the first meeting between Golden State and Oklahoma City just two weeks away, the anticipation for their first game as opponents will only continue to mount.

In the meantime, they’ll have to try to find some peace of mind and happiness in the paths they’ve chosen — Durant in choosing what might make him happy and finally living his life rather than “acting like a passenger in” it, and Westbrook in choosing to stand pat and double down on doing “the same things,” whether others like it or not. It’s simple, and it’s complicated, and it’s incredibly compelling. It’s why we’re going to keep watching, listening and reading every last word leading up to that Nov. 3 tipoff at Oracle.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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