Baller Mind Frame

Now or Never for the Thunder after Kevin Durant’s injury

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Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Fair or not, final results are everything. No one cares that the Oklahoma City Thunder almost made it to the 2014 Finals with a hobbled Serge Ibaka. One could also argue that the Thunder would have lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs last year if the NBA didn’t suspend Zach Randolph for Game 7 as a consequence of a psuedo-punch. The what-ifs are unimportant and coming close to winning it all is not enough. Similarly, all things must conclude. This is Year 7 of the Kevin DurantRussell Westbrook experiment. That’s at least half of an athlete’s prime in any sport, particularly in a partnership. Even before unfortunate Durant’s injury, the 2014-15 season symbolized a ticking time bomb within the Thunder organization. Durant’s Jones fracture is simply someone cutting the wrong wire. Now time is more pressing than ever.

The 2014 offseason was the time for the Thunder’s front office to make a significant move. Durant’s contract runs out at the end of the 2015-16 season. Any big changes made after the 2014-15 season will only have one year to work, or Durant is leaving for greener pastures. For example, if a coaching change was going to be made, it had to be in the 2014 offseason. If the Thunder do not make the Finals this year, the front office might seriously consider firing Scott Brooks only it would be too late. Hiring a new coach for 2015-16, the last year of Durant’s contract, is a much riskier proposition because the new coach would have one year to push the Thunder to the next level.

The other obvious way to improve was through free agency or trade, but the Thunder did not push hard for that option. It’s hard to believe that Lance Stephenson would have signed with the Hornets at 3 years, $27 million if the Thunder offer the same deal. Luol Deng. Pau Gasol. These quality players and many others were not asking for max dollars and there were ways to get under the salary cap if need be. The Thunder are taking Durant’s presence for granted. They need to win now. Durant will enter unrestricted free agency as a player entering his tenth season. No player of his caliber would stick with a franchise that refuses to make changes when necessary. The same could be said of his superstar teammate who has been coddled so much by the organization that he can’t tell when things needs to change in his game. Courtesy of ESPN:

“It’s not about me. It’s about our team. I can’t win games by myself. I can’t do anything by myself,” Westbrook said Monday. “I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it more on the team. Everybody keeps asking what I’m going to do and how I’m going to change. I think it’s more about our team and what we can do…”

Asked how his role might change, Westbrook responded simply, “It doesn’t.”

Westbrook’s words represent everything the Thunder are about: No one wants to rock the boat; everyone will be chill as long as they keep overwhelming people with their talent. This is insanity. Why would Westbrook or anyone in the organization espouse anything this crazy? Just read what Grantland’s Zach Lowe had to say and Nick Collison‘s response.

Durant’s singular greatness has allowed the Thunder to thrive on offense without any coherent system. It is part of the reason the Thunder, so young and so good, haven’t rushed the construction of that kind of system in some accelerated imitation of the Spurs. “We have a different team than them,” Nick Collison told me last week. “Everyone looks at us and says, ‘Why don’t they move the ball like the Spurs?’ But so much goes into building that, and we have two guys who can just take their guy and score. We do need to have more ball movement, but those guys can make plays.”

Durant is out of the lineup for 15 games in the best case scenario at a time when 49 wins is not enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. Everything has changed, like it or not. It doesn’t mean that everyone should panic, but pretending that Westbrook can do what he always does is certifiable. No, Westbrook can’t dominate the ball for 16 seconds and then pass it to a teammate to hope magic happens. Yes, he does have to distribute the ball more. Also, “on offense without any coherent system” is an objective observation by Lowe, a sharp basketball mind. To reiterate, Durant and Westbrook have played together for seven years without “any coherent system” on the offensive side of the ball. That’s not okay.

Brooks must find other ways to get role players actively involved on offense. The Thunder are missing one of the gravity wells that allows their role players to get open opportunities to shoot the ball. Ibaka is a great mid-range shooter when left wide open, but open shots will be hard to come by without Durant and Westbrook being on the floor together. Westbrook will find ways to be more effective without the ball and keep the team afloat until Durant gets back unless he really does believe his role hasn’t changed.

The Thunder have to advance in the playoffs to retain Durant, but now see themselves in a position where they have almost certainly ceded home court advantage in the Western Conference before the gates of the season have opened. They could miss the playoffs altogether. Durant’s injury sets up a dream season for the Thunder unlike anything we have before, or the beginning of the end for a team with lost potential, similar to the 90s’ New York Knicks, 2000s Sacramento Kings, and various other great teams who could not get over the hump for one reason or another. Either way, this stretch without Durant will determine if he stays or goes because it dictates the Thunder’s chances to compete for a title.

The right circumstances would have made Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook a perfect union. Sometimes sports-bromances end because of bad timing or the wrong coaches or a girl but when it’s time to break up, it’s time. In this case, Durant leaving would be nothing personal. Just basketball.

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