With Kevin Durant out for the season and set to be a free agent in a little over a year, is it time for OKC to hit the panic button?
Nothing is going right for the Oklahoma City Thunder. There are the injuries—Serge Ibaka is missing up to six weeks, Enes Kanter and Nick Collison are both ailing—and the basketball problems—Dion Waiters is shooting around seven percent, the once-formidable Thunder defense seems as porous now as Swiss cheese—there’s the continually asked question of whether Scott Brooks is the coach to lead this team to a title, there’s the James Harden trade ever lurking because Bill Simmons won’t drop it, and now there’s The Problem.
Late last week the news dropped that Kevin Durant—the reigning MVP, the Slim Reaper himself, the once-proclaimed heir of best player in the world after LeBron James—will most likely miss the remainder of the season. Catty as ever, the Thunder franchise and general manager Sam Presti are nonetheless maintaining their vague stance toward injuries. Is Durant out for the season? “Essentially, that’s the direction we’re headed right now,” Presti answered. The Thunder responded by beating the East-leading Atlanta Hawks, and maniac Russell Westbrook tallied another triple-double, but everyone inside and outside the franchise knows that without Durant, the Thunder aren’t winning a title.
Consider Oklahoma City’s roster if it were at full strength: Two superstars in Durant and Westbrook, one of the league’s best shot-blockers in Ibaka, a flurry of tertiary scorers in Anthony Morrow, D. J. Augustin and Dion Waiters, and a young frontcourt that now, since the trade deadline, regularly puts up double-doubles with Kanter and Steven Adams. Add to this a wily veteran in Collison and a budding glue-guy in Mitch McGary, and, all considered, you might have the most talented roster in the league, even against teams like Golden State and Cleveland. The problem is, of course, injuries.
But the bad news only gets worse, because as much as it hurts to be missing out on a championship run this year, when the Thunder roster seems to be the deepest and most dynamic it has ever been in franchise history, what’s perhaps more frightening is how the Thunder will deal with the pressure next year, Durant’s last on his current contract.
This team believes it has seen and faced down pressure, but as soon as this year’s champion is crowned—whether Golden State, Atlanta, Cleveland or someone unexpected—the clamors will start. The critics will sharpen their pens. The blogs, opinions and fans will restlessly wonder: What in the world is going to happen to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder?
But despite the widespread belief that Oklahoma City’s window of opportunity has passed, despite the injury curse, despite Bill Simmons, despite the intense, otherworldly pressure about to be exerted on this franchise and team, I’m here to tell you the truth: Not only has Oklahoma City’s championship window not passed, but the Thunder should already be considered front-runners for re-signing Durant. While some writers and sports critics have taken the new level of Westbrook’s play as cause to believe Presti might consider trading Durant, in fact the opposite will occur. The better Westbrook plays, the more Durant will see that nowhere—not Los Angeles, not Washington, not anywhere else—has the talent that Oklahoma City has. What’s more, despite the reputation the front office has gotten because of the Harden trade, the Thunder this year have shown they are willing to do whatever it takes; expect Kanter to receive a pretty nice extension when the season is over.
This isn’t optimism without foundation. This is the facts. This isn’t optimism without realizing the future difficulties, tests and trails—because there’s no denying the pressure will be there next year, and it’ll be intense. Nonetheless, the franchise will have a chance to win a title once again; they’ll be the best they’ve ever been.