Just one year ago, nobody on planet Earth thought the Oklahoma City Thunder’s title window was closing. Losing four games straight in the 2012 NBA Finals was disappointing for the dynamic Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-James Harden trio, but they were still so young and still on the rise. Durant was only 23 years old and coming off quite possibly his best statistical season (which he improved upon this past season). Westbrook and Harden were also 23 years old, with one submitting an unforgettable Game 4 performance and the other winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. Serge Ibaka was a year younger than the Thunder’s Big Three and had a breakout season as a rim protector with a decent perimeter touch.
My, how quickly things fall apart. I’ve already written about how OKC botched the infamously stupid James Harden trade, but it bears repeating: trading one year, or even five, years of Kevin Martin for James Harden, who emerged as the best all-around shooting guard in the entire league, was DUMB. Add that to the fact that Harden still had a whole year left on his contract before the situation absolutely needed to be addressed and general manager Sam Presti’s decision-making has to be questioned. Just like he built a near-dynasty through the draft by nailing his picks, he tore it down by choosing to give Serge Ibaka an extension and not doing the same for Harden.
“But wait!” you’re saying. “The Thunder couldn’t have afforded to give Harden AND Ibaka a big contract, they would’ve been over the salary cap!” My response is simple: Boo-freaking-hoo. This was a team with a loyal, new fan base excited about its future. The Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t just have a one-time title contender on their hands; they had a dynasty-in-the-making that could compete with the Miami Heat and the rest of the NBA’s elite for years to come. So when you consider that OKC rakes in millions of dollars a year, there’s no excuse for avoiding a measly luxury tax by forfeiting the chance to eventually win a championship.
Obviously, hindsight’s 20-20 when it comes to evaluating the James Harden trade. It’s a lot less likely Presti would have pulled the trigger if he’d known the Thunder would only be getting one year of Kevin Martin. Harden would also still be in a Thunder uniform if Presti had the gift of foresight and could’ve predicted Westbrook’s playoff-ending injury. But since Presti’s future-telling skills only seem to extend to nailing draft picks (Steven Adams pending), Harden’s gone, Martin’s gone and Westbrook is going to have to prove he’s still the same player post-injury. So should we take from this that a contender is rapidly unraveling?
The fact of the matter is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s title window is rapidly closing and Presti’s to blame. Kevin Durant is the unanimous second-best player in the world and Russell Westbrook is a top-10 NBA talent with breathtaking athleticism. But other than that, what do the Thunder have? Ibaka is a dynamic shot blocker and has developed his perimeter shot to be pretty effective, but when Westbrook went down and OKC needed him to step up, he completely disappeared. Durant and Westbrook alone make the Thunder a formidable force in the West, but unless Ibaka emerges as a true third member of a Big Three, OKC will have a hard time winning a championship any time soon.
But that’s not as big an issue as the Thunder’s non-existent bench. Kendrick Perkins (who Presti prematurely traded Jeff Green for, by the way) should’ve been amnestied a long time ago since his “locker room leadership” doesn’t get the Thunder rebounds or production in the paint. Nick Collison doesn’t get enough minutes because he’s either in foul trouble or Scott Brooks isn’t giving him enough playing time. Thabo Sefolosha is a great defender but can’t consistently knock down open 3s as needed. Steven Adams may not even steal minutes from Perkins. And to be honest, it’s amazing Derek Fisher is even still playing in the NBA (which is why he’s retiring soon). This team saw what happens when one star goes down, so there’s no excuse for not making the necessary moves this offseason.
Heat, Thunder have smallest roster turnover this summer http://t.co/r3q76OgqBN
— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) August 27, 2013
In the Thunder’s defense, their current roster isn’t completely hopeless. Reggie Jackson showed promise in the playoffs taking over the starting position and should be a valuable backup to a healthy Westbrook. Jeremy Lamb didn’t crack the rotation last season, but with Martin gone, Brooks will look to him to step up in a big way with more minutes this season. Is anyone convinced that Lamb will fulfill that Sixth Man/scorer’s role that the Thunder so desperately need? I’m not. Perry Jones and Andre Roberson will also be called upon to give valuable offensive contributions when they’re in, but that seems to be asking too much at this point.
Kevin Durant is too good of a player for me to believe that he’ll never win an NBA championship. He and Westbrook are still only 24 years old and although there is a possibility that LeBron James is a cyborg and will still be in his prime 10 years from now, the San Antonio Spurs showed us this past year that Miami is not invincible. Durant averaged 28.1 points, 7.9 assists, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game as a member of the elite 50-40-90 club last season and Westbrook averaged a career-best 7.4 assists per game. Eventually, the Miami Heat will fall and give way to a new perennial contender. But for the Oklahoma City Thunder to reclaim their status as serious NBA Finals contenders, their general manager needs to start making the most of the offseason.
Presti already royally screwed up his handling of James Harden. He botched another offseason this year as the Thunder watched every Western Conference contender get better. The Houston Rockets got Dwight Howard, the Golden State Warriors got Andre Iguodala, the Memphis Grizzlies got Mike Miller and the Spurs are more or less the same. It’d be a tragedy to see a star duo as talented as Durant and Westbrook waste away their primes with little help in Oklahoma City and Presti is absolutely responsible for making moves that change the current trend. Otherwise, OKC’s title window may have closed before it was ever really open.
Topics: James Harden Trade, Oklahoma City Thunder 2013 Offseason, Oklahoma City Thunder 2013-14 Preview 2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder Preview, Oklahoma City Thunder's Title Window Closing, Thunder Don't Do Enough In The Offseason, Will The Oklahoma City Thunder Win The West