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Are the Thunder In Trouble?

Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder missed the playoffs due to injuries causing Kevin Durant to miss the majority of the season. Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook missed time as well, compounding the Thunder’s injury woes. The injuries this season highlighted what should be a big concern for Thunder fans: without their stars, their team is nothing.

This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon for the NBA, look at what happened to the Chicago Bulls after Jordan left, and what happened to the Los Angeles Lakers when Kobe stopped being Kobe. When Cleveland lost LeBron to Miami after “The Decision” they were one of the worst teams in the league. Look at any of the contenders around the NBA and imagine what would happen to them if they lost their best player, very few teams would come out of the loss in great shape.

The Thunder, though, are facing the reality that they could lose their best player to free agency if they can’t convince Kevin Durant that Oklahoma City gives him the best chance to win a title. Durant will be a free agent next season, and just about every team in the league has been readying their sales pitch and salary cap for the young forward.

The Thunder aren’t ignoring this, and I’d imagine they’re readying their own pitch to keep Durant in town. That pitch will likely be focused on the abilities of OKC’s other star players, and how the Thunder will continue to have one of the most formidable starting lineups with the focal points being Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. The flaw with that pitch is that Westbrook and Ibaka are both unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2017 and will each command a lot of money in the open market.

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If I were Kevin Durant, I’d be seriously concerned about the possibility that the Thunder wouldn’t re-sign both Ibaka and Westbrook, either through those players’ decision to go elsewhere or the Thunder’s unwillingness to pay them and invoke a large luxury tax bill. This is the same team that traded James Harden because they didn’t want to have three max contracts on the books.

With the max deal the team gave to Enes Kanter, they currently have the three contracts they were trying to avoid. If they re-sign Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka to market level deals, they’ll have four max or near-max contracts on their salary cap. This would further exasperate one of the Thunder’s biggest weaknesses: their bench and depth.

Having such a top-heavy roster means the rest of the team gets filled with replacement level or worse players. Without the money to pay good rotation guys, the Thunder have had to resort to reaching on players and moving them further up on the depth chart than they probably belong. Dion Waiters as a fifth starter, and D.J. Augustin as your primary scorer off the bench is not a good sign for your overall depth. If the Thunder lose any of their top end talent, this lack of pieces around their stars becomes a much bigger problem.

None of this is a secret, and Durant knows these things as well as Thunder management. He knows the team doesn’t work if they lose him, Westbrook or Ibaka, so he’s not going to sign a long-term deal with the Thunder next season.

If he decides to stick around, he’ll sign a one-year deal with a player option for the 2017 season and make his decision to stay or leave knowing whether OKC will try to keep the whole team together.

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