By Max Zavidow
The dynasty in Oklahoma City is over before it began. Their championship window has closed and they have nowhere to point the blame except for back at themselves. After spending years perfectly crafting a team through the lottery system that looked poised to be championship contenders for years to come, it appears as though the window has closed. Where did it all go wrong and why can’t Durant and Westbrook save the day?
Many fans like to point to the James Harden trade as the first move in the steady decline of the Thunder, but I say it goes back deeper. It goes back to the post 2010-2011 season, when the OKC Front Office started to get a little antsy. After finishing first in the Western Conference during the regular season, the highly inexperienced Thunder made it all the way to conference finals, where they lost to the eventual NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks in 5 games. Oklahoma City was on their way; they were making tremendous progress as a franchise. There was no question about it— the Thunder had, far and away, the best and the youngest roster in the league. Their time was coming. Then, they got impatient. When they decided to trade Jeff Green, they formed a habit that would ultimately lead to their demise. Jeff Green was a young stud, averaging roughly 16 points and 6 rebounds per game in only his third year in the league, but they traded him away for a declining Kendrick Perkins. Green was energetic and young. Perkins? Not so much. The trade never made much sense to me, because for a team to invest in a win-now pay later player like Perkins, they were thinking like a team that didn’t have much time left to win a championship. But with Green, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook, this team was poised to win for the next 8-10 years at a ridiculously competitive level. The front office never let this team, riddled with young talent, gel together, and now it is paying dearly for it. That team had fire power. They were hungry. But they are no more, and for that reason, it will be years until we see a championship down South in OKC.
Despite losing a cornerstone of their future when they dealt Green, the Thunder managed to keep moving forward, once again claiming the one seed in the Western Conference. However, what was different about this year was that the young Thunder team, now with a little experience under its belt, made it to the Finals. Although they lost to the Heat in 5, the Thunder still had so much promising, untapped potential left to dig into. But, as they had been before, they were not patient, and they traded Harden. Trading James Harden was the right move for him, but the wrong move for them. For the Thunder, they saw that they could commit to either Ibaka or Harden, and when they decided not to commit themselves to Harden, they sunk themselves further into the muck. After his third year in the NBA, in which he averaged 17 points per contest, Harden was shipped to Houston in exchange for an older, less fierce Kevin Martin. The once young Thunder had lost much of their roar. In the three years since the deal, Harden has since exploded onto the scene as one of the best players in the NBA, while the Thunder has yet to return to the NBA Finals.
Yes, the Thunder have two of the best players in the league in Westbrook and Durant, but with the two of them missing time early in the season, the Thunder are sitting at .500 forty-eight games into the season and they do not look like a playoff team. They do still have Reggie Jackson and Ibaka, but those two cannot begin to compensate for the loss of Harden and Green (even if Green’s career has taken a slight left turn). If the original Thunder squad from the 10’-11’ season stayed together, they would most likely have won at least one title by now, with many more on their way. But they didn’t. And within the next two years, it is highly possible that Durant and Westbrook both walk away from the team that cannot offer the two stars what they once could.