Russell Westbrook was dangerously close to not ever playing on the same team as Kevin Durant.
How close? Let us explain.
On the night of the 2008 NBA Draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder–who were still the Seattle Supersonics the night of the June draft–had a very difficult decision to make. They’d drafted the 2007-2008 Rookie of the Year, Durant, with the 2nd overall pick in the 2007 draft, and knew they had a potential franchise player and superstar on their hands that they’d need to build around. Sam Presti, the team’s general manager, knew his organization had gaping holes at two positions: point guard and center, and there were sensational talents available at each position when the Sonics prepared to make their first round pick, the fourth overall selection of the draft. You can understand the dilemma Presti was presented with. Should he pick up the offensively-gifted Stanford standout Brook Lopez, who would team up with Durant to form one of the most formidable frontcourts in the league for the next decade? Or should he take a chance on Russell Westbrook, the fiery, raw talent from UCLA, who was touted as one of the best two-way guards in the country?
P.J. Carlesimo was a member of the Sonics front office that year, and he talked to ESPN about the decision that came down to the final moments on draft night. Ironically, P.J.’s last NBA job was head coach of the team that ultimately selected Lopez in the first round of the 2008 draft, the
New Jersey Brooklyn Nets.
It came down to Brook Lopez or Russell Westbrook…We went back and forth and we really liked both of them. It wasn’t like half the group didn’t like this guy, half the group did. We liked both of them a lot for obvious reasons. We needed a big in the worst way. We certainly needed a point guard, too, but the conventional wisdom is always bigs are harder to come by.But I think back to even, during that year, Earl Watson, now the coach of Phoenix, he was our point guard. Him and Luke Ridnour, they’re playing point guard for us, and Earl came to me a couple times, and UCLA is one of those places—Carolina, there’s a couple others—where players go back and they play a lot against each other. So you walk into UCLA’s gym, the old gym where John Wooden conducted practices, you go into that gym and there will be 10 or 15 NBA guys playing there in the summer. Now, it’s in L.A., of course, but a lot of UCLA guys. And Earl told me for years, he said, ‘Coach, the best player there wasn’t Darren Collison. It wasn’t the other guys they had playing point guard.’ He said, ‘It’s Russell Westbrook.’ And he didn’t start as a freshman and then he was a Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. He said, ‘This kid is unbelievable.’ Earl was bubbling over about how good he was and how great he was going to be for [former UCLA basketball coach] Ben Howland even before that year started.
So fast forward, we worked them both out, and we loved both of them. We liked Russell and his confidence. He’s a delightful guy. There was a really good story the other day—I hope it was on ESPN.com [Ed. note: It was. See here.]—about how different Russell is off the floor and on the floor. People don’t really know him. But he’s a delightful personality, he was an excellent student. There was nothing not to like about both of them. And as we got closer and closer to the draft, I’m the one fighting for Brook. I think Brook’s going to be a multiple year starter. I thought he would be a multiple year All-Star, and he still may be. I just thought, ‘This is a guy that’s going to start in the league for 10 or 12 years. You can build around him.’ Better offensively, but I thought he could become a more dominant rebounder. I knew he could block shots. He’s up to almost two blocks a game. You just have to make that an emphasis with him. But he was such a good shooter and I thought he could be a pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll player because he shoots it so well in the pick-and-rolls and then you could pound it down to him.
I remember debating with [Thunder GM] Sam Presti and [Thunder assistant GM] Troy [Weaver] and those guys, [then-head coach] Scottie [Brooks]. I said, ‘Big guys don’t come around. We’re not going to get a guy like this. This is a 10 or 12-year starter. Put him with Kevin [Durant] and we’re halfway home already. We got two of the best young bigs in the league.’ But Sam, I remember him saying to me—and again, it wasn’t like it was cut and dry, we went back and forth—I remember Sam’s words like it was yesterday. He said, ‘You know what scares me? I just think this kid [Westbrook] can be so special that if we don’t take him, we’re making a mistake.’ Almost like Michael Jordan and [Sam] Bowie back then [in the 1984 NBA Draft]. It’s not just that he’s good. He’s going to be transcendent good. He said that, and as we got closer to the draft, obviously he had the last call, and they drafted Russell.
Wow. If anything, this tells you why the Thunder extended Presti’s contract during the summer of 2010. Needless to say, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have gone on to form arguably the NBA’s best one-two punch, and they’re currently on the verge of completing the greatest NBA Finals run in league history, eliminating the 15-loss Spurs in the Western Conference semis, and pushing the 9-loss Warriors to the brink of Cancun through the first four games of the conference finals.
Had the Thunder drafted Lopez, would they be as prolific? Lopez is easily one of the best centers in the league, and has been named an All-Star once in his career, but it’s hard to imagine OKC would be as successful had Presti not put his foot down that night in 2008.