Kevin Durant will be a free agent in no time. Can the Thunder succeed where the Cavaliers failed?
The Oklahoma City Thunder are in a fight for their playoff lives, sitting just a half-game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans for the 8th and final spot in the Western Conference. Considering the two teams’ remaining schedules, the Thunder look like a good bet to hold their position and punch a ticket to the postseason.
Kevin Durant is out of for the rest of the season, however, and Serge Ibaka unlikely to return any time soon from knee surgery. So even if Oklahoma City is able to extend its season, the Golden State Warriors will make sure it ends about two weeks later.
So the real competition now for the Thunder is no longer Western opponents.
They’re fighting against themselves in a battle to keep Kevin Durant.
The current holder of the MVP trophy becomes a free agent in the Summer of 2016. And though it looked like Oklahoma City might have a few rings by then, bad injury luck means that Durant is officially a flight risk.
He will spend the next few months rehabbing his recently repaired foot, but even if he doesn’t win the scoring title next season — as he did if four of the past five year — there will be 29 other teams in the NBA that will want to lure him away from the Thunder. And since the league is getting a huge influx of money from a new broadcasting deal, almost every team will have the money to give him a max deal if he is willing to join them.
The cynical money is on Durant (who grew up near the metropolis of D.C.) jumping ship from Oklahoma City (which is in Oklahoma). Playing with John Wall and Bradley Beal in the nation’s capital would be appealing to anyone, and that must apply to someone from the area. The limelight of playing for the Lakers or Knicks in Los Angeles or New York is also the stuff of dreams for many.
When an average worker is making a career choice, the employee interviews for a company. But this isn’t normal. This is the second best basketball player on earth, so his current company is auditioning for him.
The Thunder still have another year to prove themselves to the CEO of Kevin Durant, Inc., but how have they done so far? There is almost no precedent to grade the team — except one.
Five years ago, LeBron James had a similar decision. The Decision. These are twice-in-a-generation talents and now the second one is coming to his crossroads.
How does the Thunder’s track record in the recent, critical years compare to the last time a franchise knew its future hinged on whether it could keep its irreplaceable employee? How have the Thunder done in the past few years compared to how the Cavaliers did in the final years before LeBron bolted?
The Thunder have drafted tremendously over the years. They may have gotten Kevin Durant by default after the Trail Blazers took Greg Oden, but they have been smacking picks out of the park ever since.
They took Russell Westbrook fourth overall, and with all the obvious, hopeful caveats that Derrick Rose recovers fully from his knee injuries someday, Russ might go down as the best player from the 2008 draft. Same goes for James Harden, who they took 3rd in 2009. But those were the “easy” picks. Better still were the late first-round gems: The Thunder took Serge Ibaka with the 24th pick the same year they got Westbrook and struck gold again at #24 two years later with Reggie Jackson.
More recently, in the early days of the “We Gotta Keep Durant Era,” they have found Steven Adams and Mitch McGary, two relatively unknown big men who have proven themselves as valuable contributors who any team would love to have.
The Cavaliers, during the end days of LeBron’s first tenure, by contrast, were less successful.
After making the no-brainer LeBron pick in 2003, they have a spotty record. The Anderson Varejao pick the following year (#30 in 2004) was a stroke of genius. And grabbing Boobie Gibson (#42 in 2006) and Danny Green (#46 in 2009, though hardly used in Cleveland) were both excellent pulls. J.J. Hickson (#19 in 2008) and Shannon Brown (#25 in 2006) were both adequate selections as well, and in their defense, the Cavs didn’t have many high selections. But the whiff on Luke Jackson (#10 in 2004) was a huge setback considering he was taken ahead of Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Jameer Nelson, and Tony Allen.
By the time LeBron was getting ready to make The Decision, he couldn’t have had much faith in Cleveland’s ability to get better in the draft, especially given their willingness to trade away picks for stop-gap solutions. Durant, on the other hand, should feel like Sam Presti is apt to pull another Serge Ibaka or Steven Adams out of thin air every year.
If Durant leaves, he will be exiting arguably the best-drafting franchises of the past decade.
The Thunder made a big move at the trade deadline this year, and some of this felt like déjá vu.
In the final two years of LeBron’s first stretch in Cleveland, the team’s front office made several large trades aimed at showing their star they were unafraid to go out and get talent — no matter the cost. What Danny Ferry and company didn’t realize, however, was that LeBron is not the Knicks fanbase: He couldn’t be appeased by showy moves that were in reality little more than shuffling the deckchairs around an aimless, sinking roster.
Sam Presti’s move to acquire Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, and Kyle Singler was not that.
The Thunder lost James Harden. Willy Wonka couldn’t sugarcoat that.
It was a savvier move that had the additional benefit of sending away Reggie Jackson, a player who the core members of OKC reportedly wanted gone. The team had to send away Kendrick Perkins in the deal, too, and Durant is a Perkins fan. But deep down, even KD had to realize that Perkins was years beyond being a useful player on the court.
Durant also has to be looking at the Anthony Morrow pickup as a get. Morrow isn’t a world beater, but he scored 30 points just the other day and is one of the few high-level shooters, other than Durant and Harden, to grace this roster in recent years.
Then there were all the Cleveland moves.
It started off well enough: The Ben Wallace/Wally Szczerbiak/Delonte West deal was undeniably helpful compared to what they gave up (Larry Hughes/Drew Gooden/Donyell Marshall/filler). But the Cavs tried to double down on these big, multi-player moves whenever things got rocky, first getting Shaquille O’Neal and later netting Antawn Jamison.
It never worked, and the team just kept getting older. LeBron carried them to great regular season heights, but the team always got outclassed in the postseason when opposing coaches had the time to pick apart the flaws of the team’s middling talent.
Then again, even if they weren’t doing great work, at least they were doing something. Prior to dealing for Kanter and Augustin, the Thunder hadn’t made many trades or free-agent signings of note.
Fortunately for Oklahoma City, Durant seems savvy enough to understand the need for patience. His front office has been prioritizing continuity and building slowly since the Harden setback. Durant can’t be happy with the bad luck and injuries that have decimated the team’s postseason chances ever since, but he likely knows this is a better strategy than trading away a future picks for improving-in-headlines-only moves like dealing for Antawn Jamison.
The Thunder lost James Harden. Willy Wonka couldn’t sugarcoat that. And worst of all, they dumped him to save money. It’s easy to say they had to choose Harden or Serge Ibaka, but they could have kept both if their owner was willing to take the financial hit, and there were options to wait longer before dealing him that could have given Durant a good chance at a ring.
How do you get past that?
Some people probably can’t. Some people definitely cannot.
Other than losing Harden, however, the Thunder have kept their core together, losing little other than Thabo Sefolosha. And the team has better role players now than Thabo ever was.
LeBron instead had to deal with more of a merry-go-round of teammates, seemingly losing a few rotation players each year as the team reshuffled the deck. None of the losses, in and of themselves, was a major setback, but the constant state of flux couldn’t have been a great environment.
Either way, the Cavs never made a single move as bad as trading away a potential MVP. LeBron might not have loved the moves his front office made, but he never woke up feeling betrayed either.
The softer side of the NBA transaction world is harder to judge, but it matters nonetheless. These aren’t the things that reverberate through the fanbase, but they send a definite message to the organization.
Both teams have stayed loyal to the people that mattered the most to their superstars.
Within a year, Sam Presti locked up Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Scotty Brooks long term. And just recently the Thunder extended Nick Collison’s contract, something that certainly pleased Durant.
The Cavaliers took a similar path, making sure to keep LeBron favorite Anderson Varejao around as well as James sidekick Boobie Gibson. And they, too, stayed true to their coach, Mike Brown.
This might have been the wrong choice. Brown won coach of the year the following season, leading the Cavs to 66 wins, but there was always an air around the coverage of the team that he was lacking in creativity and late-game management. And given that one of the team’s last ditch efforts to convince LeBron to stay was firing Brown — just weeks before James left for Miami — it now definitely looks like the wrong move in retrospect.
Scotty Brooks has a similar reputation as a limited offensive mind who can’t put his players in good spots to win in close games, but Durant loves his coach even if the media doesn’t. For better or worse, the Thunder like Brooks — and if keeping him helps them keep Durant than its hard to argue with their logic.
Keeping Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant’s potential departure isn’t just media speculation. The reigning MVP has made it apparent that he will put himself in a position that helps him win titles — wherever that is.
That’s just how the best players think now.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh changed the game when they signed together in Miami. LeBron clearly had no faith in the Cavaliers ability to build a championship roster, so he made a power move. And just like that, those three helped other athletes realize that they can control their future.
Kevin Durant knows his destiny is in his hands, and in a recent GQ profile, he made it obvious that he is scrutinizing his front office.
"“Players are paid to do their jobs, no matter who’s on the court. And as superstars, you gotta lead what you have. You gotta make them better. Some players might be better than others. Some teams might be better than others. You gotta do your job, and you gotta trust that the front office is going to do their job. It’s hard, though. You know what I’m saying? Because it’s like, shit, I want win. Obviously our players aren’t as good as, you know, than they were before. But you have to figure it out.”"
You have to figure it out.
Yes you do. We all have to, and fortunately most of us get decades to find our way in our careers.
The Thunder don’t have that luxury. They have less than 15 months before the best player in franchise history decides whether he will stay or go.
Next: Around the Association