Right now, every basketball-aware eyeball in Oklahoma City is fixed squarely on Russell Westbrook. With Kevin Durant leaving the city in the dust, Westbrook is the only potential savior Thunder basketball has to rally around. OKC is a city that has never known professional basketball without the Durant/Westbrook duo.
Just a few years after it once had three budding superstars on its team -- remember James Harden was a core member before the Thunder traded him to Houston -- the Thunder are staring downhill at a future where its stars have all burned out, leaving fans in the dark.
Every franchise knows that feeling, in some way or another. Superstars sign elsewhere, or retire, or simply fade out. But cut Oklahoma City fans a break for reacting with a little more desperation. They know they aren't L.A., and they also know Durant is much more, as a player, than your typical superstar. The same could be said for Westbrook. Many teams would empty their pockets for one of those guys. The Thunder had two -- and might end up losing both.
We don't yet know whether Westbrook is willing to stay or how that might play out. But you could argue the decision has already been made. Anyone wanting to know Westbrook's fate should ask a more fundamental question about success and failure in the NBA:
Is there any way OKC can salvage the Russell Westbrook era?
You can't fault fans for wanting to hold on to their superstar. It could be decades before Oklahoma City finds a point guard close to Westbrook's caliber. But Westbrook's greatness might form the primary argument for trading him away. If you look back to the 2014-15 season, you'll see Westbrook working overtime to account for an injured Durant. He carried that team to a 45-37 record, just missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Without Durant next season, and in a Western Conference that's as loaded as ever, you can expect a similar result. After Oklahoma City's now-forgotten trade of Serge Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova, and given Steven Adams' growth in the 2015-16 season, you could even justify slotting the Thunder for a low playoff seed.
Nothing could be worse for the organization's long-term well-being: With Westbrook keeping the ship afloat, the Thunder will never have a shot at a high draft pick.
For a team whose management is insistent on building through the draft, and a franchise whose owners are so averse to the luxury tax -- Harden was traded, in part, because of the financial implications of a larger contract -- the draft is essential to building a winning team.
That's doubly true for a team based in Oklahoma City, which has almost no experience in attracting free agents. Billy Donovan is a respected coach, and Westbrook would be an attractive teammate. After that, the Thunder are low on assets and short on ways to pick them up.
OKC's general manager, Sam Presti, is a smart, highly respected executive. But it's hard to imagine him breaking from the draft-and-develop strategy he's relied on, and suddenly trying to patch together a contender. It's fools' gold that has tempted many a poorly run organization, i.e. the Brooklyn Nets. Not only did the Nets fail miserably in that pursuit, but the moves required to assemble their short-lived title-chasing roster created a mountain of debt the team is still paying off.
Presti can also take a look at history and understand how teams typically fare after a superstar's defection. Even teams that manage a sign-and-trade to relinquish their star -- think Denver with Carmelo Anthony, and Orlando with Dwight Howard -- come out with a roster in need of rehabilitation. Because of the type of contract Durant signed, Oklahoma City couldn't even lobby for a sign-and-trade with the Warriors.
Even if they had, the gains would have been nominal. Superstars leave craters that aren't easily filled. Shaquille O'Neal's departure from the Lakers cost the organization years as it worked to retool the roster, even though the team had Kobe Bryant playing in his prime. When Shaq left Orlando for L.A. years earlier, it took about a decade before the Magic made a deep playoff run.
If Westbrook is smart, he'll recognize these circumstances. The cruel twist of competing in the NBA is that, in many cases, being average is worse than being bad. For a small-market team in particular, finding the young talent and free-agent pieces to rise from average to good can be much more unlikely than bottoming out in hopes of sling-shotting toward the top.
Critics of the league's machinations will call that tanking. But in the NBA more than any major team sport, a single player's potential impact is hard to overestimate. For Oklahoma City, Durant was the difference between competing for a championship and competing for the playoffs.
Now, Westbrook might be the difference between first-round exits as an eight-seed, and a top pick in next year's draft -- perhaps several successive drafts, which is how OKC built its team the first time around. It's guaranteed to be painful, but it might be the Thunder's only way to move forward.