One year away: Oklahoma City's final chance to keep Kevin Durant

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KEVIN DURANT IS quietly shooting free throws at the Thunder practice facility, his face expressionless. Dribble, spin, breathe, shoot. During games, he sometimes adds the slightest of shoulder shimmies, but on this Monday morning before training camp, he plays it straight. Dribble, spin, breathe, shoot. On the basket to his right, teammate Russell Westbrook is deep into his own routine. He breathes from his belly, taking his right hand up toward the top of his chest as he inhales, then swiping it down and away as he exhales, as if exorcising something.

Two young superstars putting in work, alone and together.

"Kevin was on one basket at 8 this morning; Russell was on the other," says Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks. "Same as they always are."

In the past five seasons, Oklahoma City has won 266 games, second only to the gold standard set by the Spurs. Durant has won an MVP award, an All-Star Game MVP and four scoring titles. Westbrook has won a scoring title and an All-Star Game MVP. But they are still chasing their first NBA title. With Durant hitting unrestricted free agency next summer amid whispers of discord between them, this season might be their last chance to grab it.

Not long ago, their future together seemed limitless. In 2009, when both players were 21, Cheeks would routinely ask coach Scott Brooks, "Did you know they were this good?" By 2012, headed to the NBA Finals, it seemed obvious how good the Thunder could be. It was a matter of how many titles, not when they'd win their first.

Since then, each attempt has ended in lament. A 60-win season was ruined when Houston guard Patrick Beverley crashed into Westbrook's knee in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs.

A 59-win season unraveled after Serge Ibaka's calf gave out before the 2014 Western Conference finals. And last season, a foot injury cost Durant 55 games and Oklahoma City missed the playoffs.

NBA history is filled with great teams with rotten luck. Ask Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash about 2005 and Joe Johnson's broken face. Sacramento fans still can't believe Vlade Divac tipped the ball right to Robert Horry in 2002. But OKC's string of bad fortune -- and the promise wasted -- is almost unprecedented. "If [Oklahoma City] doesn't win in the next few years, we'll be looked at similarly to Seattle, with Vin Baker, Brent Barry, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp," says ex-Thunder guard Reggie Jackson, now in Detroit. He blames himself for mistakes. He replays critical plays that went the wrong way. He wonders what might have been if Beverley's knee had hit Westbrook's at a slightly different angle.

"At the time I remember thinking we could still win. Next man up, you know?"

That's how confident they were back then. Too young to know how many things have to line up for a team to make it to even one NBA Finals, let alone start a dynasty.

Durant is 27 now. Westbrook is 26. They know now. This year's Thunder team is arguably the best one on which either has played. If Durant re-signs with Oklahoma City next summer and Westbrook follows suit in 2017, the Thunder will remain contenders for years. If one or both of them leave, it's time to rebuild. So much of that depends on how this season ends. Will they stay healthy? Will they play together? Will they be lucky? Will they win?

Except for platitudes spoken at Team USA media scrums and a Players' Tribune pledge to control his own narrative, Durant stayed quiet this summer. But during the first week of training camp, his coolness cracked after ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith suggested LA is his "primary objective" if he leaves Oklahoma. "Nobody in my family, my friends, they don't talk to Stephen A. Smith. So he's lying," Durant said.

Smith responded on Twitter: "It just appears that @KDTrey5 needs to learn something about today's world in professional sports: We don't have to talk TO HIM to talk ABOUT HIM! Folks like ME will still be here. Watching! Listening! Waiting! Reporting! Whether he likes it or not. While he's here and long and after he's gone. Time to get used to it."

It could've degenerated into an ugly back-and-firth. But Durant let it go after that. He's trying to stay disciplined about his vow of silence. The season will be chaotic and emotional. Durant knows that. He doesn't want to get swallowed up in it by giving thoughts of free agency too much weight too soon. "I hope that every time he's asked about it this year, every single time, he will say, 'I'll talk about this after the season,' " teammate Nick Collison says.

On media day at camp, Durant isn't all smiles while posing for the official OKC team photos, and when a videographer says, "Hey, KD, just wanted to catch up with you on media day," he scoffs, "It's always media day." But then teammate Enes Kanter asks him to take a selfie, and Durant beams. His nature is to connect with people, but having the game taken away from him last season hardened his resolve. Assistant Royal Ivey remembers one point last season when Durant was unable to get off the couch without help: "I felt for him because this is all he is."

Durant's mood lightens again during a joint interview with Westbrook near the end of the day. Team broadcaster Michael Cage is asking the questions, but there's a problem: one stool, two players. Durant and Westbrook look at each other and shrug. They sit together, cheek to cheek.

THE OFFICE OF Thunder GM Sam Presti is an open book. Hundreds of magnets decorate the walls, each with a bit of wisdom he has collected: focus on the signal, not the noise; optimism is the engine for resilience; to build is immortal. His shelves are filled with architecture and music books. There are pictures of his dorm room when he was a guard at Emerson College and of the seats he shared with San Antonio GM R.C. Buford when he worked there. There's a photo of a Thunder jersey hanging on a fallen tree in Moore, Oklahoma, sometime after a category EF5 tornado destroyed the town in 2013. And there's a picture of Bill Walsh, moments before a Super Bowl, lying on the locker room floor, arms crossed behind his head. "Preparation," Presti says.

He gives a tour to every player the team considers signing. It starts at the Thunder's gleaming practice facility, where every detail has been scrutinized, down to the ideal height of each electrical socket, then moves on to the team's older practice facility, a converted roller-skating rink. The tour finishes at the museum commemorating the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Presti prefers to visit the Memorial at night, when it is most striking. He can tell which players understand the magnitude of what happened there.

Before a recent tour, he studies the evening sky. "You get these incredible reds out here," he says. Rookie coach Billy Donovan is on the lawn behind the practice facility, sweating through his long-sleeve gray shirt. Donovan starts sprinting. Thirty seconds at full speed, a minute to recover. Thirty seconds at full speed, a minute to recover. Over and over again, until he can't do it anymore. After the team missed the playoffs last season, Presti fired Brooks and hired Donovan from the University of Florida, looking for a new voice to lead the team into this pivotal season.

If Durant stays, everything they've built here endures and other small-market teams that have tried to replicate what the Thunder have done well -- teams like Orlando, Utah and Milwaukee -- have the same chance. But the NBA's new nine-year, $24 billion media rights deal with ESPN and Turner Sports complicates the Thunder's efforts to re-sign Durant in 2016. The new revenue is projected to spike the salary cap by $20 million next summer, giving virtually every team the war chest to pursue Durant, instead of just the handful that had sacrificed to make room under the old cap. It is anathema to what the NBA and its owners fought for in the 2011 lockout and a hell of a curveball for one of the league's most successful small-market franchises. (The players' union, however, rejected the league's "smoothing" proposal to mitigate the impact of the one-year spike.) Asked how he feels about the economic shift, Presti bites his tongue and points to a magnet on his office wall that reads: Forget It, Jake, It's Chinatown.

If Durant or Westbrook leaves before they win a title together, Presti's thrifty decision to deal James Harden to Houston after the 2012 Finals will loom large. Would he have done the trade if he'd known the cap would expand this year? Did he miss something?

"It would mean that we would've been the only team to act upon that type of information," Presti says coolly.

Instead, he chose to pay Ibaka and fund a deeper bench. He stockpiled picks to replenish the talent, casting off underperforming assets before they were in line for a payday. The idea was to develop players on rookie-scale deals so Durant could picture a future in Oklahoma City.

Can Donovan, a gifted college recruiter, paint that picture? This moment isn't about wooing, it's about winning, he says: "My responsibility is, How do I help him grow? How do I help him get better?"

Presti has been studying Durant, and those questions, for more than a decade.

"I don't know if anyone could've done more due diligence on Kevin Durant than Sam Presti did," says Rick Barnes, Durant's coach for his one season at Texas. "I'll never forget him saying to me, 'I've got to get this right. I've got to be right.' "

His read on Durant's priorities remains unchanged -- he will go where he can win. Durant left his home in Washington, D.C., to play high school ball at Oak Hill Academy up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. "It's just books and basketball here," says coach Steve Smith. "We don't even lock the gym at night." KD didn't know how to drive until he was 18 years old, when, finally, Ivey taught him. Former UT assistant Russell Springmann remembers him sleeping on a teammate's air mattress the summer after his rookie season. "He could've afforded the largest suite on the lake," says Springmann, who later named his first-born son Durant. "But he's sleeping on an air mattress in Justin Mason's apartment because that's Kevin Durant."

LeBron James left his hometown Cavaliers in 2010 because the second-best player in Cleveland was Mo Williams and none of the desperate Hail Mary passes the Cavaliers tried -- trading for Shaquille O'Neal or Antawn Jamison -- got him any closer to winning a championship. Miami had stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Four years later, when Cleveland had the talent, he went home.

"Every guy is loyal to a certain extent," says Wade, who had workouts with Durant this summer. "Look at [Kevin Garnett]. He was loyal to a fault in Minnesota, but he left to win. "As a player, when you have the muscle, you better use it," adds Wade, who was with James on a charter flight from Las Vegas to Miami on the night he decided to return to the Cavs. "It's a business."

THE LAST TIME Durant had a decision of this magnitude, he signed a five-year, $86 million extension with Oklahoma City in 2010, quietly tweeting out the news the day James broadcast "I am going to take my talents to South Beach." The contrast cast Durant as loyal foil to James' greedy superstar. It made his brand.

Years later, though, Durant questioned the wisdom of giving up his player option in the fifth year of that deal. "To be honest, I just didn't know. I was 21," he said after a Team USA camp in the summer of 2014. "Obviously, when you sign a deal, you want the best options for yourself, the best flexibility. But I loved Oklahoma City so much, I just wanted to be dedicated and show them that I'm all about the team."

Will business considerations drive his decision now? Will loyalty tug at him? People in Oklahoma City feel as if they know him and believe he cares about the things they do: hard work, perseverance, strength. The Thunder franchise was the first in major sports to put down roots in OKC. Durant was the first superstar fans there could call their own. Before 2008, this was a college town. The Thunder elevated this city. Made the people here feel like their town was growing. New restaurants and hotels are springing up all around Midtown, OKC, including hipster spots like the Waffle Champion, where you can pump truffle mayonnaise on your turkey chorizo. Presti chooses a new steakhouse called Broadway 10. "I think it's important to support local places like this when they open up," he says.

Waynel Mayes was a first-grade teacher at Briarwood Elementary School in Moore on May 20, 2013, the day a mile-wide twister ripped the school's roof off, leveled its walls and buried her and nine students under their desks. As they waited for rescue workers to dig them out, Mayes told her class to sing and bang on instruments until "a hero comes to save us." One of the boys looked out from under his desk and asked, "You mean Kevin Durant?" She laughed. "I meant a fireman or a rescue worker." "Oh man, we wanted Kevin Durant," he said. In the days after the storm, Durant donated $1 million to relief efforts and walked the streets of the community, telling residents to be strong.

When he signed the five-year extension to stay in Oklahoma City in 2010, just two years after the franchise had relocated from Seattle, his decision seemed like some sort of validation for the fans. Now, at media day, a local reporter asks him whether he would like to be wooed by those same people now. He's got a script for these questions, but this one requires him to dig a little deeper. "I'm not one of those guys that's living for praise or looking for everybody to ... lobby me or whatever.

"I just enjoy the game. I enjoy these wonderful fans. I want to give them the best version of me. I can't control everything else."

PRESTI'S APPROACH SO clearly mirrors the Spurs' model that it's easy to view Durant as a next-generation Tim Duncan and Westbrook as Tony Parker. There's only one Duncan, though, and he's curmudgeonly coach Gregg Popovich's spirit animal. Duncan would never star as himself in a cheesy trading places movie like Durant's "Thunderstruck." No, Duncan's idea of a good time is taking on his teammates in a game of paintball. Parker had his brush with fame when he married actress Eva Longoria, but has been delightfully dull ever since. Westbrook lives in Los Angeles, jetsets to fashion shows around the world, and wears leather capris pants to the arena.

But part of being a good parent is allowing your children to zig and zag until they figure out who they are and what's important to them. You live with their mistakes, and hope they come through the angst OK. In most cases, this is a private process. But the entire NBA is watching Kevin Durant and the Thunder now.

The core Thunder personnel were all kids when they met up. Presti was 29 when named GM in 2007. Durant and Westbrook were teenagers when they joined the team a few years later. Now they're in different stages of their lives. Presti got married in 2012 and has a 6-month-old son. Westbrook wed his college sweetheart this summer. "It was eye-opening," Durant says. "It showed me that we are getting older and things are changing."

Out on his tour of the city, Presti likes to remind his passengers that change can be good, but so can remembering where you've been. He stops by the old practice facility in Edmond, opens the car door and inhales deeply. Something is rank. "Whoo, you're getting the full effect now," he says, pointing to a dog-food factory. "It's hard to get too full of yourselves when you walk out to that every day."

Even with egos in check, it remains to be seen whether Presti's two alpha dogs can discover how to lead together. This is the year.

"We are not going to bury our head in the sand," Presti says, "and pretend that's not going to be in the air."

Durant and Westbrook have one more chance to elevate each other and to win the Thunder a title. One more season to determine Oklahoma City's legacy.

A potential dynasty depends on it.