By Matthew Budkofsky
The Oklahoma City Thunder really put themselves on the map when they made it to the NBA Finals in the 2011-2012 season. The youthful Thunder revolved around a core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. At the time, all of these guys were 23 years old or younger, and it appeared as though that Thunder team was going to be around for a while.
The Thunder made excellent draft picks in three straight seasons, landing Kevin Durant in 2007, followed that up by drafting Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in 2008, and capped it off by selecting Harden in 2009. When all of those players became eligible for contract extensions, the Thunder obviously locked up Durant and Westbrook for big money. But after the labor dispute, the Thunder were forced to decide between keeping Harden or Ibaka. Oklahoma City gave Harden a chance, but he refused their offer that was close to a max-deal. It was clear that Harden wanted to be the face of the franchise, but at the time he was nothing more than a fantastic sixth man. Instead, the Thunder went with the rim-protection services of Ibaka, and shipped Harden to Houston. This was a move that many fans were not too happy about, and fans still regret that the franchise made that decision. To be honest, it would have been very hard for Harden to emerge into the star he is today in a Thunder uniform because of how often he would have to defer to Durant and Westbrook.
The Thunder have had plenty of regular season success since the Harden trade, but have not been able to get back to the Finals since their appearance in 2012. Kevin Durant has been one of, if not the best player in the league these past few seasons, as shown by his MVP award last year. But, Durant is scheduled to become a free agent in two seasons, and it is almost certain that he will test the market. Durant will surely receive a max contract, but from whom? Rumors have been floating around that Durant would like to return to his hometown and play for the Wizards. Also, big market franchises like the Knicks, Lakers, and Heat are all gearing up to make their push for KD when they get the chance. Durant’s choice might not be all about the money: he earns so much money from Nike that he doesn’t even need to play in order to support himself. However, the Western Conference is only getting better and better, and it will be extremely challenging for Durant to lead his team back to the Finals. Before they even start thinking about any kind of Finals, the Thunder must first get into the playoffs. The Thunder are currently three games behind Phoenix for the 8 seed in the West and really have to make their push for the playoffs now in order to set themselves up for the postseason.
Russell Westbrook is just as important to the Thunder’s championship puzzle as Durant. Westbrook is certainly a top-10 player in the league when healthy, and is one of the best athletes to ever play the point guard position. He has three seasons left on his deal, but when he hits the market, he will probably sign for max money as well. This is just the price the Thunder have to pay for having two top-10 players on their roster. Personally, I think that without Kevin Durant, Westbrook has the ability to be a serious MVP contender. When Durant is out of the lineup, Westbrook averages 30+ points per game. Obviously, for the Thunder to be serious contenders, they need Durant, but they also need Westbrook, badly. The Thunder are almost certainly going to have to give both Durant AND Westbrook max money to stay, but they also need to surround them with a supporting cast that is good enough to get them over the hump, which will be tough to do with such a salary cap bind.
The third and final piece for the Thunder is Serge Ibaka, who is one of the league’s best shot blockers and doesn’t get too much credit for anchoring the Thunder’s defense. Without Ibaka, I don’t know how far the Thunder could go: their defense would be flat out awful. Also, Ibaka has only three years left on his contract and will want to cash-in when he gets the chance. Last season in the playoffs, we got a glimpse of what the Thunder look like without Ibaka when he went down with an injury. The result wasn’t pretty. For everyone who would rather have Harden than Ibaka: what you fail to realize is the impact that Ibaka has on every game he plays.
The Thunder don’t actually have such a bad bench either. Reggie Jackson is an excellent scorer and Steven Adams has had a very nice season so far. Many players have had excellent opportunities to play this year due to injuries to both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Trading for Dion Waiters wasn’t a horrible move because he can be a spark off the bench every night as well. The issue I see with the Thunder is Kendrick Perkins. Perkins is the fourth highest paid player on the roster, but is finally in the last season of his contract. Perkins used to be solid, but now he barely sees the floor. His departure this offseason should open up $9-$10 million, which could be very useful for the team. This will also alleviate some pressure on the franchise as a whole, as the Thunder currently sit $16 million above the cap.
The Thunder’s championship window is only getting smaller. They have at least two seasons left with their current core, but I’m not so sure how they will be able to beat three different teams in the Western Conference playoffs and then have it in them to knock off whoever comes out of the East. For Oklahoma City to have any real chance, they will need their Big Three to stay healthy and perform at a very high level. Also, they will need role players like Jackson and Waiters to step up, especially when the stars are struggling. The Thunder’s championship window is continually closing, but as long as they have Durant performing at an MVP level, you can never count them out.