It wasn’t too long ago that the Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. The year was 2012 to be exact. Though the public eye was mostly on whether the Heat could indeed fulfill their epic promise of building a dynasty in Miami and finally deliver the first ever championship ring to King James, at the time the Thunder had their own Big Three in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden looking to bring a first ever NBA title to Oklahoma.
Unfortunately, Miami proved to be too much to handle and the Thunder were sent home quickly, falling in five games. Almost immediately after being sent home packing, questions began to arise about the future of Harden, who had proved his worth and his potential as an up-and-coming star, even though he had a rough Finals. After putting up 16.8 points per game coming off the bench during the 2011-12 season, it became clear that Oklahoma City may have to choose between Harden and teammate Serge Ibaka.
Harden would reject a four-year extension offer worth $54 million, and he was subsequently traded to the Houston Rockets, where he’d receive $80 million over five years. It was clear at the time that the Thunder valued the team’s young big man over an extra guard at a time when the luxury tax was a real concern, and since Harden’s departure, the team hasn’t really been able to get back to title contention, although a string of key injuries have had a big say in that.
Headed into the last day of the 2014-15 season on Wednesday, the Thunder need to win their final game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and need the New Orleans Pelicans to falter against the San Antonio Spurs in order to secure a playoff spot. What a difference a few years makes.
Of course, anyone can understand how the team has found itself in its present day reality. While Harden is playing like an MVP as the leader of the Rockets, Westbrook is doing the same with the Thunder, but largely because Durant has had to sit out the majority of the season due to issues with his right foot. And thus the not-so-perfect storm for the possibility of a full-on rebuild in Oklahoma City was born.
Think of it like this: Prior to the start of the 2014-15 season (and more specifically, prior to Durant getting hurt the first time), questions had begun to surface about whether or not Durant would stay in Oklahoma City following the impending expiration of his current contract next year or explore the possibility of playing somewhere else. If not for his absence, good old Russ is still a sidekick and not a nightly triple-double threat or MVP candidate. But now that Westbrook has proven he can carry a team on his back, he’s now worth the most dollars and term he’ll ever get on the open market.
The Thunder will most certainly try to keep both players long term, but there will be added risk involved that no one envisioned a year ago thanks to Durant’s health. To give both Westbrook and Durant maximum contracts when their deals are up could mean gutting the supporting cast, and even if the team managed to make it work, the fate of the franchise would still rest on Durant’s foot, at least as it relates to competing for titles again.
And so there it is, the time for a rebuild and fresh start may arrive in Oklahoma City years before anybody thought it would, but such is the fragile existence that is professional sports. An injury here, free agency there, and the emergence of MVP caliber talents like Harden and Westbrook, and all of a sudden, the Thunder could find themselves starting from the bottom.
While it may sound foolish to jump to that conclusion right now, it’s definitely looking more and more realistic. Especially if the Thunder decide to part ways with coach Scott Brooks, which could happen if the team finds itself on the outside of the playoffs looking in at the end of Wednesday’s games, much like the rest of the NBA was doing back in 2012, when Oklahoma City looked poised to grow into a perennial contender and no one could have predicted the future effects of a change in the forecast.