After dropping three straight games to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season ended, again in disappointing fashion, and thus began the most important offseason in their time in Oklahoma. With Kevin Durant as a free agent, the Thunder have to convince the superstar that Oklahoma should remain his home, while Durant has to decide if it is the best place to capture his elusive first NBA title.
Durant, for an NBA star at least, is grounded. He appreciates Oklahoma, and speculation that he might look at larger markets like Los Angeles and New York are likely unfounded. But, if Durant looks at the Thunder’s future, he will see that Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams all have contracts that expire next offseason in the summer of 2017. Durant does not want to sign a long extension with OKC, come up short of a title again next year, and then see some combination of those three players leave for greener pastures. The NBA salary cap is expected to rise again next year (albeit not to the extent that it jumped this season), which means certainly Westbrook and possibly Ibaka will be looking for a pay raise. Adams, still currently on his rookie contract, will be due a massive salary increase.
Therefore, many have speculated that Durant could take a page out of LeBron James’ book and sign a one-year deal with the Thunder to give himself the flexibility to weigh his options again next year. Indeed, this could be very likely and it would make a lot of sense for Durant. For the Thunder though it would be strangling; their FOUR best players, all in their twenties, would have expiring contracts in the same offseason.
The worst part about that scenario is that it would force the Thunder to put all their chips on the table in their quest for a championship in 2017. Ironically, General Manager Sam Presti and the Thunder front office have made a living off of avoiding mortgaging the future for one season, but rather always making the safe long term personnel moves. In fact, it could be argued that the Thunder have played safe to a fault and that may be the biggest reason why they have not won a championship yet.
Armed with the second, fourth, and third overall picks in consecutive drafts from 2007 through 2009 respectively, the Thunder nailed each pick scoring them Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden. With that nucleus the young Thunder made the NBA Finals in 2012 before falling to the Miami Heat. The future was set up for years to come; the question was not if the Thunder would bring a championship to Oklahoma City, but when.
But then the Thunder traded Harden to the Rockets right before the start of the next season for veteran Kevin Martin, raw prospect Jeremy Lamb, and the number 12 pick in the 2013 draft, which the Thunder eventually used to choose Adams. While Martin was a decent one-year stopgap, he was clearly a downgrade from Harden. The prize of the trade was the draft pick that lead to Adams. In the 2013 playoffs Westbrook suffered an injury in the second game, so the Thunder never really got to see how far that team could go, but it is difficult to believe they would have made it through the Spurs and the Heat.
The Harden trade has been scrutinized incessantly since it was made, but the 2016 postseason marks the point where the Thunder definitely were glad they had Adams over Harden. Harden and Westbrook would not be able to co-exist, and Adams’ impressive size and athleticism is a perfect complement for the Thunder. However, the Harden trade will always be questionable because it essentially eliminated the Thunder’s chance at a title that season in 2013. Harden was on the last year of his contract. It was the safe, long-term approach to trade him. But it minimized their chances for that particular season.
A closer look at the Thunder’s moves over the last handful of years shows that the Harden trade was not the only example of this conservative, long-term approach. Specifically, the Thunder have made trades that netted them draft picks, rather than players who could help them immediately. From the Harden trade, they received the aforementioned Adams pick and what ended up being the 21st pick in the 2014 draft, which they used to take Mitch McGary. Both Adams and McGary showed flashes in college, but they both had underwhelming seasons in college leading up to their respective drafts. It is doubtful that the Thunder expected either of them to make major contributions to their title-contending team immediately. Adams has lived up to his potential nicely. The Thunder are still waiting on contributions from McGary after two years.
A season-ending injury to Kevin Durant in 2015 lead to a rare miss of the playoffs for the Thunder, but it also allowed them to pick 14th in last year’s draft. The organization decided to use it on Cameron Payne – from Murray State. The Thunder scouting department really outdid themselves with that pick, noticing Payne’s skill while dominating the Ohio Valley Conference, while other prospects were playing in more mainstream showcases like the NCAA tournament.
It is rare that a contending team would get the 12th, 21st, and 14th picks in consecutive drafts. The Thunder decided to draft projects who left college early with those assets, rather than trade them to rebuilding teams for pieces that could help them win right away. One of those picks has turned out nicely. The Thunder are still waiting on the other two. McGary and Payne could become good players for the Thunder someday. Who knows if Durant and Westbrook will be there when it happens.
In 2012 a Thunder championship seemed inevitable, but a Westbrook injury in 2013, and a Durant injury in 2015 eliminated two possible years. In every season the Thunder front office have put together a team good enough for title contention, but never put themselves over the top. Now Durant will be at least 28 before he wins a championship, and the OKC window may be very nearly shut.
The impending free agency of Kevin Durant illustrates how delicate player-team negotiations can be. The Thunder and Durant have a very good relationship, but the team’s future is dicey enough that even though they can offer the most money and present a great chance at immediate title contention, it may not be a slam dunk that they are able to sign him.