By Cliff Brunt
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook is no longer sharing the NBA marquee in Oklahoma City after the Thunder lost much of their identity when free agent Kevin Durant chose to join the Golden State Warriors on Monday.
The Thunder’s focus now has to be primarily on one of the most electrifying players in the NBA who they still have on the roster __ at least for now. Westbrook’s future is unclear. He is heading into the final year of his deal, and he could be traded before that.
Westbrook won the 2015 scoring title and finished fourth in the MVP balloting last season, ahead of Durant, who finished fifth. Westbrook, the two-time reigning All-Star MVP, has consistently improved throughout his career, and he could take his game to another level without sharing the load with Durant, a four-time scoring champion and former league MVP.
Durant answered the biggest question of this offseason when he announced Monday on the Players’ Tribune that he is heading to the Warriors. Durant will sign with Golden State on Thursday, when free agents can finalize deals. His departure is huge for OKC, though the Thunder still have a talented roster featuring Westbrook.
Young stars Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are rapidly improving. Adams, a bruising 7-foot center, emerged as consistent double-double threat during the playoffs. Kanter, a crafty 6-foot-11 forward, was third in the race for sixth man of the year.
The Thunder have been making changes to their roster, and now more will undoubtedly come.
Oklahoma City dealt Serge Ibaka to Orlando on draft night in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo, forward Ersan Ilyasova and draft pick Domantas Sabonis, a move that improved their depth and shored up their inconsistent shooting guard position.
But the focus of the team right now is Westbrook and his future.
Even with Westbrook’s presence and the young talent around him, it doesn’t ease the sting of losing Durant for the franchise and the city after his nine-year run in Oklahoma City.
Durant has elevated Oklahoma’s profile so much that he was inducted into the state’s Hall of Fame late last year. And Durant has made a point to have a local presence. He donated $1 million in disaster relief to the Red Cross in 2013 after a tornado ravaged south Oklahoma City and Moore. He also owns a popular restaurant in downtown Oklahoma City.
“Kevin made an indelible mark on the Thunder organization and the state of Oklahoma as a founding father of this franchise,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a statement. “We can’t adequately articulate what he meant to the foundation of this franchise and our success. While clearly disappointing that he has chosen to move on, the core values that he helped establish only lead to us thanking him for the many tangible and intangible ways that he helped our program.”
The NBA had been anticipating Durant’s free agency decision for more than a year. The 2014 MVP led the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012, and to the Western Conference Finals in four of the past six years — and he’s only 27. He recovered from a broken bone in his right foot that cost him much of last season to post one of the best years of his career.
Not long ago, the Thunder were up 3-1 on the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, easing Thunder fans’ minds about the possibility that Durant might seek greener pastures. Even after the Warriors rallied to win the series 4-3, Durant headed into free agency talking as though he would return to Oklahoma City.
“Are we going to work on our game and come back even better, or are we going to be excited about what we did?” Durant said last month. “Be complacent, or are we going to want more? I think that’s the next step for us all — thinking of how we can all be better.”
A month later, Durant is headed to the Bay Area.
In his article, Durant said, “It really pains me to know that I will disappoint so many people with this choice, but I believe I am doing what I feel is the right thing at this point in my life and my playing career.”