On July 4th, 2016, Kevin Durant took a calculated risk. He weighed the pros and the cons of his different options, and made a decision. His choice to join the Golden State Warriors was viewed negatively by many around the league, but after winning his first title yesterday, he can look back on his decision and smile, knowing he made the right choice.
Durant can finally sit at that table. The Table of Champions. Any time someone talks about what it’s like to win a championship, Durant can now slam his hand down on the table like he has the winning domino and show them the bling that is the secret password to gain entrance into the vaunted club.
He’s earned it. He’s put ten years of blood, sweat, and tears into the game, and the game has rewarded him with the ultimate prize. Is it crappy for Oklahoma City? Of course it is. Not only was his decision a slap in the face to OKC, but it was also the culmination of a string of bad luck for the Thunder.
The unnecessary Harden trade (yeah, I went there first). The Russell Westbrook injury. The Durant injury. The Serge Ibaka injury. The luck of Golden State signing an oft-injured Stephen Curry to a very friendly post-rookie extension only to see him get completely healthy and set the league on fire from there. The Warriors hitting on a 2nd rounder from Michigan State to have him become the prototypical point center during the small-ball era. The Curry contract allowing the Warriors to re-sign Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to max or near max contracts without nary a hint of fear their contracts would debilitate their salary cap situation. The increase in the salary cap from the TV money that allowed nearly every team in the league to have money necessary to sign Durant during his free agency. Over the past five seasons, it has been a series of unfortunate events that have brought the Thunder to where they are now.
But as a Thunder fan, you can look at it one of two ways: you can either let it torment you for the rest of the summer (and likely for the next 3-4 years) or you can look at as the next great challenge Thunder fans have to face and overcome. We’ve faced challenges before. And we’ve overcome most of them. This may seem like a monumental task. But sports has a sneaky way of introducing equalizers that aren’t expected. Be it injuries, chemistry issues, or boredom, sports has ways of introducing parity that has nothing to do with player movement.
One of the many traits the Thunder have mimicked from the San Antonio Spurs organization is the consistency to be ready when an opportunity presents itself. Over the past 20 years, the Spurs have been the model of consistency, and that has helped them get five championships during that time span. They were the best team in the league for some of those titles. But they were also opportunists for some of those runs. Again, injuries and chemistry issues have a way of equalizing the playing field.
That’s what the Thunder front office has tried to do with this team from the beginning. Words like sustainability and consistency don’t carry the same sexiness as words like free agent signing and max contract offer. But it has allowed the Thunder to be competitive for the past 8 seasons, despite player movement and injuries. And that why the Thunder are in the position they are in, even after the departure of Durant.
Internal development will be the word du’jour for the Thunder this summer. Players like Alex Abrines and Victor Oladipo have already shown physical signs of improvement through offseason weight training. Guys like Domantas Sabonis, Jerami Grant, and Doug McDermott will each have a full offseason and training camp with the Thunder. And Russell Westbrook just experienced fatherhood (don’t discount what that does to a man).
Yesterday, a monkey was removed from Kevin Durant’s back. In reality, though, a monkey was also removed off the Thunder’s back. No longer do they have to deal with the “Durant vs. Westbrook” narrative. Durant made his decision. And if getting a title was his ultimate goal, then he accomplished that goal. Now, it’s time to move on.
It’s the Thunder’s move, now. There is a hunger with this team. Will that alone lead them to become contenders? Probably not. The Thunder are probably still a superstar away from contending. But when that time comes, they will be ready. And unlike Durant, they will be up for the challenge. Now the fun starts for the Thunder. On to the offseason….