You can stick a fork in the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their days as a title contender are just about done. I wrote this about them two years ago, after they made it the Western Conference Finals and put up a game effort against the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks:
As soon as the old lions fade away, the world will be theirs. But if you check the history, this rarely comes to pass. In fact the opposite usually takes place; the precocious bunch that takes the world by storm one year is often disbanded within a few seasons and the franchise that housed them may quickly find themselves back in the lottery. Right now, things look great for the Thunder. Their core seven are all young: Kevin Durant and Westbrook are 22, Serge Ibaka and James Harden are 21, Eric Maynor is 23, and Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins are both 26 years old. They look set to rule the West starting next year while the Lakers and Mavericks stagger into old age, but if history is to judge, don’t bet on it. The seeds of an OKC collapse are already there.
And to be fair, the plan was working very well over the year that followed. The Mavericks and Lakers did take a step back, and the Thunder took the next step, winning the conference finals in 2012 and going on to the NBA Finals where they lost in five games to the Heat. And then……..things began to take a turn. The front office looked at James Harden’s situation, a contract that was set to expire at the end of the 2012-13 season and a sure desire for a bigger salary and an increased role in the offense, and panicked. Fearful of losing him for nothing, the Thunder management decided to trade him first and get something in return. Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and some draft picks. In theory, this made sense. Martin was a capable scorer, and one who wasn’t as thirsty for shots as Harden was becoming. He could come close to approximating Harden’s offensive contribution without requiring as much money or attention to keep him happy. They could re-sign him for a lot less than it would cost to keep Harden. Or so they thought.
The 2012-2013 season was rolling along at a fine clip….and then Westbrook went down two games into the playoffs. Durant was able to get them through their first round series against their old teammate Harden and the Rockets, but then they went quietly in the second round to the Grizzlies, a team they’d dispatched in seven games the year before. That wasn’t the only problem. Perkins effectiveness has diminished rapidly over the last twelve months, to the point where a replacement needs to be considered. Ibaka, thought to be improving rapidly into a major force at power forward, seems to have leveled off at a level that is good but not great (his scoring improved from nine points a game to thirteen but his rebounding has stayed at seven per for the last three years). Maynor battled injuries, and has now reportedly moved on to the Washington Wizards. And then……there was the killer. Martin decided to bolt the Thunder for the Minnesota Timberwolves and a four year, $28 million deal. So now, the Thunder’s gamble had come up craps. Harden was gone, Martin was gone, and Westbrook is out until some time next season.
Barring some miraculous trade, the Thunder are going to go into the 2013-14 season with a backcourt of Lamb and Reggie Jackson. Unless those guys step up in a huge way Durant will have to completely carry the load until Westbrook is back. If they get off to a slow start they could easily miss the playoffs. A healthy Timberwolves team with Martin, Kevin Love, and Ricky Rubio will be a better team on paper. Denver, Portland, and Utah will all be competitive teams, and the usual suspects in San Antonio, Houston, Memphis, Golden State, and Los Angeles will be there. And there isn’t much space for roster moves, either. Their cap totals for the next two seasons are $65.2 and $59.36 million, leaving no room for signings. Salarywise, they are locked in through 2017 for Westbrook and Ibaka and 2016 for Durant. Ibaka’s contract is especially harmful; $12.25 million a year for the next four years. Perkins is signed through the next two years for $8.5 and $9.1 million. They will have to ride with this roster for at least another year, until they can trade Perkins when he has an expiring contract in 2015. And we haven’t even mentioned how Oklahoma City isn’t exactly a free agent magnet as a city.
And then the real danger comes in 2016; Durant’s contract will be up and if the Thunder struggling to make any headway in the postseason, a then 27 year old Durant will find himself in the same boat that a 25 year old Lebron James did; at the top of the league but with no rings and serious legacy questions looming. He may not be a big city guy at heart, but at that point if he has no titles and is staring at his tenth year in the league and a Lebron James still only 31 years old possibly still ruling the roost…..moving on to L.A. or New York (or Miami if Lebron is no longer there) may be impossible to refuse. This a serious needle that the Thunder front office needs to thread. You have to survive this coming season, hope Westbrook can come back at 100 percent, and then find a way to replace Perkins and add some more pieces before 2016. If they can pull it off more power to them, but it’s looking more like 2012 was the peak for them and it’s going to be downhill from here.