The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a Western Conference powerhouse since the 2009-10 season. After hitting big on an array of draft picks, starring Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder seemed in position to be a staple in the West Conference for years to come.
A lot has happened in the time being, and now the dynasty that many predicted would spell the demise of the San Antonio Spurs seems to be in peril. After getting run out of the gym in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, many are trying to dissect how Kevin Durant is feeling right about now – all the Thunder front office can hope for is that Durant is not thinking to himself “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
But before we begin to speculate about Durant’s whereabouts for next season let’s take a step back and examine just how exactly Oklahoma City was able to botch such an opportunity.
After drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James “Bearden” Harden, and Serge Ibaka in consecutive drafts the Thunder had four cornerstone players. Each player was under 25, inexpensive, and only getting better. The Thunder were in an ideal position – good enough to contend right off the bat with the ability to remain patient, knowing that their young studs were only going to get better.
And that is exactly what happened.
The Thunder got better, a lot better, at an exponential rate. Kevin Durant honed his scoring craft, Russell Westbrook developed into a one-man wrecking crew, Serge Ibaka became a defensive wizard, and James Harden became a vital bench cog that could carry the second unit as the starters rested. By 2012, the Thunder already had themselves a Finals appearance, and they got there by ripping off four, yes four, consecutive victories against the almighty Spurs dynasty.
While they failed to take down the Miami Heat in the championship that year, the Thunder core knew that they would be back – they were a young team that was certainly only going to get better, so it was inevitable, right?
Well, that summer something happened to the Thunder that would alter the franchise’s trajectory for years to come. The James Harden trade to Houston marked the beginning of the end for the Oklahoma City Thunder. For so long Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City brain trust had hit on a countless number of deals and draft picks. The Harden trade is a prime example of how somebody can ultimately outsmart themselves.
Presti saw Harden as a player on the rise; he had just come off winning the 6th man of the Year award and was two years away from free agency. With the Thunder being a small market team, Presti thought he was trading Harden at peak value. He believed if he waited too long his looming free agency might detract from his value and cause the Thunder to take less in return. What Presti underestimated was just how much value Harden had to the Thunder and, well, in general.
With Harden thrust into the starting role in Houston, we saw firsthand how refined his game was offensively. Harden instantly turned into a perennial All-Star, and the only remaining piece on the Thunder roster from that trade would be Steven Adams. The Harden trade was a catastrophe in many different ways, beginning with the horrible return they received and ending with the effect it had on the psyche of the Oklahoma City players. Any time a good player gets traded because a team does not want to pay him the money he deserves, it does not sit well with the players. However, the Harden trade only marked the beginning of Oklahoma City’s downfall.
The season after Harden was traded, the Thunder regrouped and came back stronger than ever. They finished in first place in the Western Conference, Kevin Durant played out of his mind and almost won MVP, and everything in Thunderland seemed to have been restored. Those NBA playoffs appeared to mark the beginning of a string of a series of unfortunate events for the Thunder. That season seemed to be destiny for the Thunder as Durant was playing the best ball of his life and it seemed that Westbrook had settled in nicely into his role as Robin.
However, in the first game of the playoffs against Harden and his new squad, Russell Westbrook suffered a major knee injury and was ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs. The Thunder would advance to face the Grizzlies, but then lose in embarrassing fashion. The Thunder still were not ready to panic, as they saw Durant come off the best season of his life and figured Westbrook would come back next year. More importantly, they still controlled Durant for three more seasons, which meant they had plenty of time to get this right.
The following season Kevin Durant came back a man possessed. Durant started the season off on fire and never looked back. By the time the All-Star break came around he was the consensus MVP – he would go on to win the MVP that season, giving the famous “you da real MVP” speech..
Heading into the playoffs the Thunder had all the momentum; Durant appeared to be the best player on the planet, Westbrook seemed to be coming into Westbrookian form just in time for the playoffs, and the Thunder were ecstatic to go into the playoffs healthy.
In the first round, they faced the same team that knocked them out the prior season, the Grizzlies, and defeated them in seven games. The Thunder looked more mature, as they were able to close out games they had not been able to in the past. You could see that they were an experienced playoff team that after years of failure knew what it took to win.
Next up the Thunder had the Clippers, another tough opponent spearheaded with Chris Paul, Blake Griffen, and new coach Doc Rivers. Again the Thunder played calm, cool, and collected, and won the series in 6 games. All that was standing in the way of the Thunder and a finals appearance were those pesky Spurs. Sports writers believed that this was going to be the series where the Thunder finally conquered the Spurs dynasty for good. Two years prior they ripped off four consecutive wins and made the Spurs look prehistoric. The Spurs simply could not keep up with the young and up-tempo Thunder; however, as the Spurs have shown us, they are simply a different animal than most teams.
They adapted, played their Spursy style of basketball, and ran the Thunder out of the gym the first two games. The Thunder were down 2-0, but Durant was not going down without a fight – he was the MVP after all. The Thunder came roaring back to tie the series at two, made the necessary adjustments that a champion needs to make, and looked as if they might they might repeat what they did in 2012. However, the Spurs used their wisdom, their team-first style of basketball, and the motivation that came with the heartbreak of losing to the Heat in the finals the prior season to prevail.
The Spurs went on to become one of the greatest redemption stories in basketball history. They defeated the Heat easily in the finals that year and proved to the world that as long as they had Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Coach Pop that they would always be a championship caliber team.
The Thunder were crushed, and the anxiety began to set in. The clock on Durant’s free agency officially started ticking, t-minus two seasons for the Thunder to figure this out. While the anxiety began to settle in, the Thunder knew that as long as they had a healthy Westbrook and Durant, they should contend for a championship – so they did not press the panic button. However, the following season, their worst fears were realized. The Thunder, and Kevin Durant, have not been the same since.
Last season the Oklahoma City Thunder lived a real life nightmare. In the first week of the season, Durant suffered a serious foot injury and was deemed out indefinitely. Any respected sports doctor would tell you that the one injury you absolutely never, ever, ever, never, ever come back from too quickly is a foot injury. So what happened? Durant subsequently came back too soon and re-injured the ankle on the same foot. His season would be defined by the time that he missed, as Durant would only play in 27 games and never really regain the form of his previous MVP season.
Luckily for the Thunder, Westbrook found a new dimension to his game and went straight beast mode last season to ensure that the Thunder would be at least respectable. However, Westbrook’s rise without Kevin Durant changed the dynamic around the Thunder. Westbrook asserted himself as alpha, or at least co-alpha, of the Thunder and when Durant returned late in the season, the chemistry just was not the same. Not to mention Durant was not the same as a player after his injury-riddled season. The Thunder missed the playoffs on the last day of the season, an embarrassment given the talent that the team possessed. Fans reacted accordingly..
With Durant’s free agency now only one season away, the Thunder did not just hit the panic button, they slammed it ferociously and continued slamming it like it was a freaking Staples “that was easy” button. The Thunder fired longtime coach Scott Brooks, a favorite of Durant. Shortly after, there were reports that Durant was shook by the decision. Relations did not smooth over after the Thunder hired longtime college coach Billy Donovan without Durant’s input. Furthermore, the Thunder did not really improve the roster much this offseason – they staked a bet that Donovan would propel them into the next stratosphere and after Year One it appears they lost that bet.
The Thunder regressed this season, and it was noticeable. The Thunder were exposed by the Spurs and Warriors this season as those two teams showed the world how a TEAM should play basketball. The Spurs and Warriors both have immaculate chemistry, and their offenses are run with such precision and fluidity that it’s honestly a pleasure to watch whether you’re a fan or not.
The Thunder, on the other hand, often play stagnate basketball as four guys are often left to watch Durant/Westbrook try to put some points on the board. Additionally, the offense that Billy Donovan has installed never seems to change, even during crunch time. While the Thunder did not necessarily play that poorly this year, their play was still noticeably different than during their apex in Durant’s MVP season. Blowouts on numerous occasions during this regular season to both the Spurs and the Warriors also showed just how far away the Thunder were from competing with those teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder regressed this season and both the Warriors and the Spurs dramatically improved; don’t think for a second that Durant has not noticed this, and this realization could ultimately lead to the demise of the Thunder dynasty.
So here we are today, May 2, 2016. Tonight the Thunder play the Spurs in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. In the first game they were absolutely run out of the gym. Kevin Durant tried to appear as positive as possible after Game 1, but this series has the potential to turn very ugly very quickly. The Thunder looked lackadaisical on defense and incoherent on offense, and worst of all Durant has been colder than ice all postseason. In fact, he even tied Michael Jordan for the most misses in a postseason game since 1997 with 26 in a Game 2 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Frustration is mounting and time is running out for the Thunder to get this right. Even if Durant/Westbrook can will the Thunder past the Spurs (a long shot at best), they still have to try and conquer the beast that is the Warriors. For a Thunder team that has noticeable deficiencies, it would take a miracle for them to come back and defeat the Spurs’ powerhouse and then the best team in NBA history.
For the third straight season, the Thunder season is going to end in abject disappointment. How well that will sit with Durant remains to be scene, but recently teams that have stagnated in the playoffs have seen their star players bolt for greener pastures. The bottom line is, the Thunder should be worried about what is on Kevin Durant’s mind these days.
For the better part of the past two years, everybody has had an opinion on where Durant will land this summer. And look, Durant has played in OKC for his entire career (save his rookie season in Seattle before his Sonics moved to Oklahoma), he has a great relationship off the court with his co-alpha Westbrook, and maybe he genuinely is one of those one-of-a-kind athletes who is feverishly dedicated to his franchise.
However, the writing is on the wall. The Thunder have not gotten over that defeat to the Spurs two seasons ago. Teams have leapfrogged them in the Western Conference pecking order and players have leapfrogged Kevin Durant. His overall aura has undoubtedly been diminished a tad with the rise of players like Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, and even to some extent his own teammate Westbrook. Don’t think for a second that this sits well with Durant, considering he was so close to surpassing LeBron James as the “greatest on the planet” title – which now seemingly/temporarily belongs to Steph Curry.
Kevin Durant has been in an undeniable rut with Oklahoma City, so maybe he sees bolting as the only way out. Looking at the horizon, you see Durant’s hometown Wizards, with John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Durant’s ex-coach Scott Brooks yearning to make a run at the hometown superstar. You see Durant’s ex-teammate and good friend James Harden gushing at the opportunity to play with Durant again. You see the Lakers and Knicks as the classic big market threat to lure Durant away with the appeal of being a God on the grandest of stages. Finally, you see the Warriors and Spurs lurking, trying to figure out what kind of salary-cap gymnastics they will have to tightrope to make a run at Durant.
In the back of Durant’s head, he knows damn well how unstoppable the Warriors and Spurs would be if he were inserted into their lineups. He is a perfect fit for the Spurs as he can shoot at any spot on the floor, and he is the prototypical small-ball power forward for the already record-setting Warriors. Durant knows very well that if he were to join either of those teams it would be game over – the only question that remains is whether or not the competitor in Durant would allow him to do that.
Bottom line, Durant is going to have options this summer, a lot of them. This summer he will essentially be given the LeBron James treatment – meaning, if he wants a one-year deal he can have that, and if he wants a 5-year max he could have that as well. Teams are going to go out of their way to try to appeal to and accommodate Kevin Durant. He is going to be offered all the temptation in the world to leave OKC. How this series pans out from here is going to have a major impact on how Kevin Durant goes about his free agency. If the Thunder are embarrassed by the Spurs, Durant is going to leave. He will be smart enough to accept the fact that this Thunder team is broken and cannot be fixed. Where the Thunder go from there, who knows? However, if the Thunder come out and play the rest of the series with a little fight and at least extend this series to a sixth or a seventh game, then maybe, just maybe, Durant won’t be bitter enough to leave.
The fact remains that he has a great relationship with Westbrook, who has another year remaining on his contract. If the Thunder can prove that they can at the very least play with the Spurs, then maybe Durant decides to sign a one-year max deal with the Thunder to play out Russ’ contract before reevaluating his options. However, if they get run out of the gym by the Spurs, the same Spurs that the Thunder were once-upon-a-time supposed to dethrone, the Thunder will see their premature demise.
If that happens, then the Thunder will forever wonder what could have been. Right now Kevin Durant is at a crossroads in his career. How he navigates his next few moves could have a dramatic impact on the NBA for years to come.