The Thunder have been no strangers to change this season, but their ability to move on during difficult times has made it a near-seamless transition for one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
A team that built their core the last four years almost entirely through the draft, Oklahoma City made major news a week before the season began by trading Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets.
It was a trade that took most of the league by surprise. Oklahoma City was attempting to fit Harden’s eventual contract extension into their already tight salary cap, which had committed more than $45 million to three players for next season. Harden eventually received a five-year, $80 million max contract with Houston, where he has played well, while the Thunder received fellow shooting guard Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb in return.
The move was a difficult one for the Thunder, the team that drafted Harden third overall in the 2009 Draft and watched him mold into one of the league's top scorers. It was also difficult for stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who considered Harden a brother in the Oklahoma City locker room.
“Just being around a guy every single day for the last three years, forget the basketball part of it,” Durant said. “We called each other family here, so just to see one of your brothers leave the way he did so unexpectedly was the toughest part of it.
"Basketball-wise, we just know we have to come in and handle business because anything can happen in this league. Us being so close as brothers and doing everything together, it was kind of tough not having him here the next day.”
With such a young core consisting of 23-year old Westbrook, 23-year-old Serge Ibaka and 24-year-old Durant, it would have been easy for them to have trouble accepting the trade of someone they grew with both on and off the court.
And while head coach Scott Brooks said it was a difficult adjustment, he’s been happy with how his team has moved forward post-Harden.
“They’re young but they’ve been in the league for five or six years now, so it’s an adjustment," Brooks said. "There’s no question about that. If there wasn’t an adjustment you’d be worried about them because they’d have no emotions, and you’ve been with guys for a long time, even myself as a coach, it’s an emotional job.
“You get to be with these guys every day, but you also have to understand that’s part of the job. You’ve got new faces and new opportunities for guys and you have to integrate it as quickly as possible. There’s no excuses. You don’t have time. Nobody feels sorry for you. You do the best you can and you move forward without excuses and things usually work out."
Durant began the rebuilding project in Seattle, when he was selected second overall by the Sonics in the 2007 Draft. A year later, the brand new Oklahoma City Thunder selected Westbrook with the No. 4 pick and Ibaka with the No. 24 pick, and saw their record jump to 50-32 with a playoff apperance. Harden arrived a year later as the Thunder improved to 55 wins and a Western Conference Finals appearance.
And last year, that core came within three wins of an NBA Championship. It seemed as though this could have been the year the NBA’s best young talent made it over the top, but the financial restrictions kept Harden away from Oklahoma City.
Durant said it was difficult, but also that the team is adjusting well with Martin in tow. Martin has averaged 19.3 points per game off the bench through four games. The Thunder are just 2-2, but seem to have adjusted well to the major change that took place just a week before their season began.
It’s all in a day’s work for Durant, who said the change was difficult to cope with but something he understands as being part of the business of the NBA.
"Anything can happen in this league. We see some of the best players switch teams quickly, we've seen so many players get traded, let go in this league, so there’s nothing that’s new to us, and I think that with that mind set you’ll always be prepared for anything," Durant said.
"And we just gotta come in and do our jobs every single day and everything will work out for us for the best. So I’m not worried about anything that happens in this league. It’s been happening for the last five or 60 years, so you've got to just play through it and move on."