Thunder fans have a right to feel saddened by Kevin Durant’s departure, but the future could still be bright for Oklahoma City (emphasis on the word could).
But let’s get all of the negative thoughts out of the way first. If I was a Thunder fan, I’d actually be less upset over Durant’s final decision and more distraught over the missed opportunity they had to beat Golden State in the Western Finals. When you think about it, if Oklahoma City had beaten the Warriors, then would Durant have left? I’d wager he wouldn’t have. But since the Thunder collapsed, Durant probably figured that if they couldn’t beat the Warriors then, than would they ever be able to? It’s a flawed outlook to have because the Thunder were probably just another good bench player away from beating the Warriors, but I feel that this was Durant’s mindset. For that reason, Oklahoma City’s collapse now goes down as the most crushing series loss in a long-time.
But who am I kidding: losing Durant is awful for the Thunder. This is the NBA’s third leading scorer of all-time we’re talking about here. Simply put, if Durant retired right now, he’d be a Hall of Famer- and the scary part is that he is still only 27. This situation doesn’t remotely compare to the Atlanta Hawks losing a very good player like Al Horford or the Boston Celtics trading away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce when both were past their prime. The Oklahoma City Thunder are now in rare company as one of the few teams to know what it’s like to lose a Hall of Fame-caliber player at the height of their career.
Many have compared Durant’s exit to LeBron’s departure from Cleveland in 2010. Until James returned to the Cavs, the franchise was lost without him. Really lost. They were the second worst team in the NBA in those four years without the King. But here’s the first piece of good news for the Thunder: They won’t go the way of Cleveland. That Cavaliers roster had many weaknesses, particularly down low where they had to rely on Anderson Varejao and a 37-year old Shaquille O’Neal.
Oklahoma City doesn’t have nearly as many problems. When he wasn’t getting kicked in the balls by Draymond Green, center Steven Adams, who is only 22 years old, was very effective in the post during the playoffs. The Thunder also recently acquired Victor Oladipo from Orlando, who is coming off another season where he averaged 16 points per game. Plus, like Adams, Oladipo is young and has the potential to develop into an even better player.
Of course, the main reason why Oklahoma City won’t collapse without Durant is because they still have Russell Westbrook. However, many experts are starting to speculate that the Thunder should completely blow up their roster and trade Westbrook now that Durant is gone. After all, he is set to hit free agency after this season. However, unless the Thunder are absolutely certain that they won’t be able to re-sign Westbrook to a long-term deal, I think trading him would be a huge mistake.
The key to success in the NBA is to have star players. Four of the last five NBA champions have had at least one player in the top five of player efficiency rating; twelve of the past fourteen have had at least one player in the top 10 (only exceptions: the 2014 Spurs and 2004 Pistons- but aren’t those teams the exception to every rule in the NBA?). I mean, why else would former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie spend all those years tanking? To position himself to acquire the next LeBron or Durant at the top of the draft, obviously!
Luckily for the Thunder, they are unlike a majority of the other teams in the NBA still searching for that star player. But they don’t just have a star: They have a superstar in Westbrook. He not only ranked fourth on my highly-acclaimed NBA player rankings, but he’s coming off his third straight season in which he ranked in the top five in Estimated Wins Added, and a fifth consecutive year in the top 10 (excluding the 2013-14 season, in which Westbrook was injured). Westbrook was also the only player in the NBA to average at least 23 points and 10 assists, to go along with over 7 rebounds per game. He really has a case as the league’s most dynamic player, right alongside LeBron James.
Recently at Check Down, we’ve been discussing the idea of who the best players are to build a franchise around in the MLB and NFL. Well, if we shifted this discussion over to the NBA, then Westbrook would rank very highly on that list. After all, he’s only 27-years old and has produced like few others have over the past couple of seasons. Plus, as I said before, Westbrook still has help around him even though he can longer look to Durant to take over games. So unless the Thunder are absolutely certain that Westbrook is leaving town in 2017, then trading him in hopes of finding another star player in the lottery is useless. You already have one! With Westbrook running the show, he has more than enough around him to at least make the Thunder a respectable playoff team next year.
Yet the irony of Oklahoma City’s position is that being respectable might be the worst thing that can happen to them. If the Thunder make the playoffs and lose in the first round, that won’t be helpful for them in the long-run because they won’t secure a high lottery pick, which is the most likely path for them to potentially acquire another player of Durant’s caliber. What’s the only way for the Thunder to secure such a pick? Trading Westbrook.
In short, the Thunder’s situation is perplexing. They shouldn’t trade Westbrook because superstars are vital to success in the NBA, yet they don’t grow on trees. That means locking him up before he becomes a free agent after this season should be the front office’s top priority. In order for the Thunder to salvage the blow of losing Durant, their front office will need to make shrewd decisions because they have little margin for error. They’re unlikely to obtain a high lottery pick in the near future and Oklahoma City isn’t exactly a top free agent destination. That means the onus is on Billy Donovan to develop the players he already has and hope that the Thunder can capitalize on a trade for another very good player that will make them contenders again.
Oklahoma City is now in a position where they are too good to truly retool their roster, yet too thin in terms of depth to seriously compete. This situation is eerily similar to what the Orlando Magic experienced in the 1990’s when Shaquille O’Neal left for Los Angeles. Once Shaq left, Orlando couldn’t manage to get out of the first round in their next five playoff appearances. Given how strong the West is, this scenario is likely to occur in Oklahoma City. Yet however frustrating that may be, it’s better than putting your faith in the lottery. As we’ve seen with other small-market clubs like Sacramento and Milwaukee, it may take years to find another player as good as Russell Westbrook. That’s why the Thunder should hang on to the great player they still have and chart what may be an ill-fated course around him.
Westbrook/Donovan photo courtesy of Getty Images; Westbrook photo courtesy of Reuters