Lottery Bound

By: S. Davis

It was going to be a “pure basketball decision.” Those were the thoughts emerging from Kevin Durant – and his representatives – as the superstar was preparing for his first invitation into the madness of NBA Free Agency. He took his meetings, flew to the Hamptons and Boston for a few more – and then made his decision. By now the choice has been evaluated and discussed across most media outlets so you won’t find that here.

After the yelling, cheering and horror (from the Oklahoma City Thunder supporters) where is the franchise headed? Just four years ago, the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. It was almost taken for granted at the time that they would be challenging for the trophy every June into the foreseeable future. They have yet to win the NBA championship, traded James Harden a week before the 2012-13 season began, let a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals over the Golden State Warriors slip through their hands…and now Durant is on this way to the Bay Area. That unfolded swiftly.

Is this how a dynasty that never was disintegrates? Over the last decade there’s been a chorus supporting the notion that market size doesn’t matter anymore (the obvious test case being the San Antonio Spurs) but it’s hard to ignore that Oklahoma City is facing a future with just one star in Russell Westbrook…who is in the last year of his current deal. Is this franchise headed for the lottery?

This isn’t a knock on Oklahoma at all. The question is whether the franchise will be able to recruit top-tier free agents for the first time that they will definitely need to. They’ve had the comfort of having their own stars in-house and now the coin has flipped and they’re going to have to enter the same free agency dance that other teams are well-versed in going forward. It’s going to be a tough sell without having Durant and Westbrook, together, under contract. Major free agents haven’t viewed the Thunder as a destination and now the franchise needs to pitch players on why it is one.

With the trade of Serge Ibaka, Westbrook is the last of the four cornerstone players expected to compete for titles as long as they remained healthy throughout their respective athletic primes. The top-tier free agents have mostly agreed-in-principle to deals so the options remaining on the market are the scraps in the bargain bin. (Bargain being a loose term when factoring the amount of money being handed out to journeymen and unproven NBA talent over the weekend; it’s eye opening.)

Can general manager Sam Presti construct a playoff contender; better yet, a championship contender around Russell Westbrook? The worst thing in the NBA is to be mediocre because all that does is cement a four-to-six seed in the postseason, an exit in the first or second round all the while killing the chance to get a high pick in the draft to (possibly) acquire a franchise changing player to make the team elite. Presti is sure going to try but the clock is ticking loudly on Westbrook’s time; it started yesterday morning.

At this point he’s faced with trading one of the few, true, superstars in all of sports or running the risk of losing him this time next year for nothing at all. It’s easy being a general manager when things are humming along like a brand new sedan. What does it take to steer a franchise clear of the abyss? After their inaugural season in 2009-10 they’ve made the playoffs every year (with the exception being last year due to the foot injury to Durant).

The franchise was incredibly lucky to relocate to Oklahoma City with Durant and the newly drafted Westbrook in tow. Through exceptional scouting and draft positioning Harden and Ibaka joined the fray to complete a devastating, young core. They’ve never faced two losing seasons, consecutively; a small comfort on this summer evening but one that could change dramatically depending on the next few months.

Presti will have the decision on Westbrook, the future of the franchise and his job, obviously, all in his hands and they are all connected. Across social media, basketball fans in Seattle are claiming “karma” for Durant’s decision to join the Warriors. Maybe.

What’s in the future for the Thunder?

Through sheer will and force Westbrook can lead his team to a playoff berth in the upcoming season. The locks in the Western Conference seem to be the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. That’s five slots and adding the Dallas Mavericks makes six so the last two seeds will be open among the Thunder, Houston Rockets and the team too-many-love-too-soon, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Selfishly, it’s sad that one of my favorite tandems will no longer be together but no one can say the NBA is absent of stories next season…or obscene contracts due to the salary cap spike.

 

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