The Future of the Oklahama City Thunder — Are Durant and Westbrook Enough?
June of 2012 -- It was supposed to be a time that the “kids” from Oklahoma City could look back on as a necessary defeat in order to build up for the ultimate victory.
On this date, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka (all under the age of 23 at the time) went toe-to-toe with LeBron James’ Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. The older and more experienced team, Miami in this case, would win the championship, but most, if not all, thought Durant and the Thunder would be a regular fixture on the Finals stage for years to come.So far, they have yet to return.
The four core players have all grown into some of the best at their position, yet the Thunder doesn't have anything to show for it as a team. So how’d they get here? Simple, the Thunder didn’t want to mess with paying the NBA luxury tax, therefore, were faced with trading Harden or Ibaka. They chose Harden and they’ve never really recovered. While Harden has evolved into likely the games best 2 guard, Ibaka has struggled with health and likely maxed out as a non-all-star 3rd wheel that gives you about 13 points and 8 rebounds a night. Although the Harden trade is a big factor, OKC has also made other big mistakes that really have hindered their growth, such as Coach Scott Brooks sticking with a weak starting lineup instead of opting to mix it up, Center Kendrick Perkins is a great example.
However, now with OKC's two full seasons under their belt since that summer, you have to ask yourself, "What’s the future here?" They clearly have one of the two alpha dogs of the league in reigning MVP Durant and also a top 10 player in Westbrook, but after that? Their three next best players are likely underachieving Ibaka, unproven Reggie Jackson, and a tossup between Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams for the 5th spot. Compare those three players with the reigning champion Spurs’ bottom three top five players: Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobli, and starter Boris Diaw. The difference is clear. So now we look at this past off season, how the Thunder “got better” and all they have to show for it is the drafting of two late draft picks that can’t contribute anyways and the signing of, wait for it… Anthony Morrow. They also in the process departed with starter Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher. So in fact, OKC seems to have gotten worse this year, despite being in a “win now” mindset. So the team that just two years ago many saw as locks for the finals for years to come is now entering this season with certainly a bit of uneasiness.
This is not to say that Durant and Westbrook can’t jointly carry this team deep in the playoffs once more as we’ve seen it done before, see LeBron James’ first Cleveland stint, but it begs the question what if the two stars simply can’t do it with such a weak team? This would bring up an interesting scenario because Durant and Westbrook will both be free agents in 2016, but if they continue to disappoint in the playoffs and one of them makes it clear they won’t resign, it will tempt the Thunder to trade one of the two in order to yield some type of value. Nonetheless, the future in Oklahoma City is certainly not as bright as it should be, blame it on whoever you want but one thing's for sure: the Thunder have to produce this season. Although it’s still preliminary, this will be an interesting plot to follow as the NBA season begins to roll around. Now we wait to see if June 2012 was a fluke or if it really was a sign of things to come.