In the throes of the NBA Finals, spare a thought for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They were but one win away from the big dance. Not one game, one win. In fact, in game six, just one quarter from a spot in the Finals. But the Warriors are defending champions for a reason, rope-a-doping their way back to basketball’s greatest stage. Playing the Ali to the Thunder’s Foreman.
There is little time for the OKC to retreat and lick their wounds. To spend the off-season wallowing in self-pity is something they cannot afford to do.
This summer, and next season, could be the most important in the Franchise’s history. This team has flirted with greatness more than once. This team has shown how good they can be. This team is primed to win now. Failure is not an option.
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Priority number one
It goes without saying that re-signing Durant is the unquestionable priority for the team. The former MVP appears to have fully recovered from his injury laden 2014-15 outing and, barring some unlikely series of events, should resign.
What reason does he have to leave? He’s been part of this franchise since they were the tanking SuperSonics and now they stand as one of the elites in the league. Who could offer him the same level of success without him being called a band-wagoner? And is that the legacy a fierce competitor an all-time great would be comfortable having?
The tear the Thunder went on in these playoffs was the best sales pitch anyone could have dreamt of for keeping the Durantula in the Chesapeake Arena. And that’s before we consider the money. This is not the Knicks resigning Melo. This is not a player claiming winning is his priority, then signing his future away to championship irrelevance for the sake of a stack of cash.
Let’s look at the numbers; KD is undoubtedly a max level player. Tommy Beer of Basketball insiders broke down Durant’s options as follows:
a) Sign elsewhere and earn $110.9 million over the next four years
b) Re-sign in OKC and earn $150.2 million over the next five years
Both sound like significant windfalls, but then there is option c). Last June, ESPN’s (then Grantland’s) Zach Lowe suggested KD could sign a one to two year deal with a player option for year two. The option gives Durant an element of security in a worst case scenario, but the expectation is that he would opt out and re-sign for a huge contract as the salary cap increases. Here’s what it could look like:
c) Year one of two the year deal at $25.9 million. Opt out and re-sign for £208.1 million for a further five years.
Total over six seasons… a jaw-dropping $234 million. But this all hinges on KD re-signing.
If, for some reason, the 6'9" do-it-all forward signs elsewhere, the Thunder will be thrown into a state of chaos. How could you replace such a player without missing a beat? The short answer is, you can’t and OKC’s title hopes would be severely hampered. If he bolts for Washington, Golden State or San Antonio (again, why would he?) then the Thunder will need to look at players like Harrison Barnes or Nicolas Batum as potential replacements.
Though both are competent players, neither are a patch on Durant really.
The rest of the roster
So let’s assume that Durant re-signs. That leaves Dion Waiters, Randy Foye and Nazr Mohammed coming off the books this summer. Forget Mohammed. He was picked up towards the end of the season as roster filler and the 38-year-old featured in just five games averaging 1.6 points and 0.8 rebounds. As great a locker room presence as he is, he brings nothing to the teams on-court production.
Which leaves Waiters and Foye. Foye has been serviceable as a back-up combo guard, filling in for Russell Westbrook, but expect rookie Cameron Payne to take a bigger share of the load next season. At times this year, he has shown signs of a bright future and the Thunder have a track record for developing players. But Foye may still be needed as a two guard.
The shooting guard position is the single chink in the armour of OKC’s starting unit. Waiters is too inconsistent and unstable, but has shown he can play in spurts. The aforementioned Foye is serviceable but is he worthy of a starting spot? Neither is really capable of stealing the spot from Andre Roberson, who started 70 games this year.
Roberson is a defensive specialist on the wing, but his lack of consistent contribution on offense limits the Thunder. OKC could certainly use some offensive firepower from a back in that spot, but their salary cap restrictions would limit them. Finances permitting, Courtney Lee, Arron Afflalo or Gerald Henderson could prove serviceable replacements for Waiters or Foye.
But that’s really only a minor tweak to the roster. If Durant returns to the fold, the Thunder will enter the 2016-2017 season with one of, if not the, most athletic fives in the league. Coming off a game seven loss in the Western Conference Finals, anything less than reaching the next level could be considered a step backwards.
End of an era?
Which is why the team’s success over the coming year is so imperative. This could be their last dance. Their swansong as a unit. Both Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will become unrestricted free agents, Steven Adams and Roberson will become restricted free agents. Combine that with possibility of KD taking the two-year deal, opting and bolting out if Russ doesn’t resign and suddenly the Thunder could lose their starting five in one foul swoop.
Durant and Westbrook will command max salaries, Adams and Ibaka will get near to the max, and if Roberson can add some perimeter offense to his game, he could significantly increase is earning potential. This creates a big problem for the franchise - an eye-watering payroll which limits their ability to fill their five remaining roster spots opening up that summer.
The only real hope is for the team to convince players to stick together and take a pay-cut. And the only scenario that this would be inclined to happen is if they are all basking in post-title glory next June. It’s as simple as that. Failure is not an option. For the Thunder, this coming season is Championship or bust.