Wednesday 24th July 2024,
The Hoop Doctors

Thunder Missing Playoffs Allows Gravity of KD’s Free Agency to Set In

durantbenchlWelp, here we are, at the end of another NBA regular season, preparing for a postseason gauntlet that, for the first time in five years, won’t include the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder did their part on Wednesday night, slaughtering the tanking Minnesota Timberwolves 138-113. Russell Westbrook did Russell Westbrook things, exploding for 37 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough—not the win, not the season-long persistence, not the desperate manner with which Oklahoma City closed out 2014-15.

Anthony Davis’ New Orleans Pelicans upset the San Antonio Spurs 108-103, locking up the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff slot, simultaneously hurling the Thunder into a future rife with uncertainty.

Kevin Durant isn’t going anywhere this summer. He has one more year left on his contract, so the Thunder would either need to willingly trade him or acquiesce to his demand for a change of scenery, neither of which is going to happen. But he will enter free agency in 2016, at which point he’ll have nine NBA seasons under his belt, and likely no championship to speak of.

Injuries bilked the Thunder of championship contention this season. Serge Ibaka, Durant and Westbrook were rarely healthy at the same time, as has been the case for the last two years. After seeing more than 2,000 minutes of court time together in 2012-13, the Thunder’s Big Three has logged barely 1,800 over the last two seasons combined, per Basketball-Reference.

But it’s Durant who has been the lone constant. He missed just 16 total contests through his first seven seasons, making this year’s 27-game sample size an obnoxious anomaly. Yet it’s an aberration that, along with other setbacks, cost the Thunder another shot at a championship. And now, with Durant’s free agency on the horizon, their title window may be closing.

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No one’s saying Durant is going to leave Oklahoma City. He’s publicly committed to the city and the team and the fans and everything even remotely Thunder related. But he also wants to win. We know this. He’s been overtly obsessed with his standing among superstar peers—most notably LeBron James—in the past, a sense of longing that won’t soon be stamped out by an equally strong sense of loyalty.

Unless the Thunder win a title next season, Durant’s free agency is going to be a point of issue. They could lose and retain him, but winning is the only way to take the guesswork out of the equation, to preemptively ward off the financially flexible dogs that will swarm Durant once he becomes available.

And this isn’t like in years past. Even if we’re going to assume the Thunder will be fully healthy and functioning to start next season, the odds are against them winning. The Western Conference is a contender-crammed bloodbath. Not one of the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors is going anywhere. The Spurs will, in all likelihood, be back as well. And then there’s the Pelicans and an even more experienced Davis to consider. Making it out of that field will be brutal for all involved; the Thunder won’t just waltz their way into the NBA Finals.

One more shot is all they have to make this a non-issue. And it’s a shot that comes after two seasons worth of purely unfortunate luck, the kind that makes it so the well-being of their core—from chemistry to health—is a question mark. That’s not ideal under the circumstances.

So as the playoffs turn into the draft, and as the draft becomes free agency, and as free agency leaks into training camp, and as training camp turns into the regular season, and as the regular season starts to wind down, the Thunder will be facing a harrowing future—the kind that’s hazy and tightly tethered to another championship push, which, if futile, could be their last with Kevin Durant.

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