The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty That Never Was
It was never supposed to reach this point for the Thunder. In June of 2012, Oklahoma City lost in the NBA Finals to LeBron James and the Miami Heat 4-1. The question after that series wasn’t “Will OKC ever have another chance?” Instead it was, “How many championships will they win?”
The Thunder were nearing the top of their ascent to the peak of the NBA. Built through the draft, the team was led by a ‘Core Four’, consisting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka, ages 23, 23, 22, and 22, respectively. Durant was a three-time scoring champion, Westbrook had two All-Star appearances, Harden was the 2012 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, and Ibaka was on the All-NBA Defensive First Team after leading the NBA in blocks. The Thunder were on the cusp of a dynasty.
Unfortunately, the dynasty never materialized. Shortly before the 2012-13 season, the Thunder traded Harden to the Houston Rockets before he had a chance to leave in free agency following the season. Title hopes were taken away again, this time Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus in the first round of the 2013 playoffs against Harden and the Rockets, leading to a second round elimination at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. In 2014, Westbrook only played in 46 games due to injuries and Ibaka went down with a calf injury in the second round of the playoffs. 2014-15 saw Durant only play in 27 games with a Jones fracture in his right foot, and Ibaka underwent season ending knee surgery in March. The Thunder missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. 2016 saw the Thunder, finally healthy for a playoff run, blow a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals against the 73-win Golden State Warriors.
That loss to the Warriors ended up being the final game for the Thunder’s core. During the 2016 NBA Draft, the Thunder traded Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis, rounding out the roster for another run at the Warriors in the upcoming season and surrounding Durant with the best Thunder roster he’s ever been on.
Except Durant will not be on the Thunder’s roster in 2016-17. On July 4, he shook up the NBA landscape by announcing he was leaving the Thunder, who (as the Seattle Supersonics) drafted him second overall in 2007, for the Warriors. Durant had turned his back on the Thunder in favor of their biggest rival, choosing Steph Curry over Westbrook and the Warriors over his Thunder teammates. Oklahoma City’s title hopes were dashed once more after the Durant blindside.
*Photo via Fox Sports
Now the Thunder are in the toughest of situations. Westbrook is entering the final season of his contract and will head into unrestricted free agency after the upcoming season. If Westbrook doesn’t 100 percent guarantee he will re-sign with the Thunder, Oklahoma City will be forced to trade the last remaining piece of the ‘Core Four’. With Durant leaving and the Thunder not getting anything in return, they can’t afford to risk losing Westbrook the same way.
There are only three scenarios for the Thunder and Westbrook: he re-signs with the team long term, he leaves in free agency, or they trade him before he follows Durant out the door. Obviously the Thunder’s best option is for him to re-sign and keep the Thunder in the playoff hunt for the foreseeable future. But what incentive does Westbrook have to sign before he enters free agency? Unfortunately for the Thunder, not much. The salary cap will increase again next season, meaning Westbrook can make more money if he waits until after the season to sign with a team.
Reports say that Westbrook has no intention of signing an extension with Oklahoma City until at least after the 2016-17 season. If the Thunder are forced to trade Westbrook, other teams won’t be willing to give up a lot unless they get an assurance from Westbrook that he will sign long term. Teams like the Knicks, Celtics, and Lakers are all among the rumored teams that would try to make a push for Westbrook in a trade or free agency.
For both the Thunder and their fans, the biggest fear has always been that Oklahoma City -the smallest market in the NBA- wasn’t big enough for their stars like Durant and Westbrook. Durant was always considered the more likely to stay, saying numerous times that he wanted to play for the Thunder his whole career. But if Durant left, how can we be so sure Westbrook will stay?
After the news of Durant’s decision spread, people in OKC still thought they could keep Westbrook long term, they feel like he is there for the long haul, but how can they know for sure? As a basketball fan, the worst thing about the Thunder’s fall is that if they (and the NBA) knew about the TV deal (the reason for the huge increases in the salary cap) that was going to be signed in 2014, the Thunder could have bit the bullet and paid the luxury tax for a year to keep all four members of the core together. But the harsh reality is if the Thunder’s front office feels like Westbrook is leaving, they will be once again forced to trade a member of its core, this time the final remaining piece of a dynasty that never was.