In the backdrop of the entire season for the Oklahoma City Thunder has been what was coming at the end of the season: the free agency of star forward Kevin Durant.
All offseason, once training camps and preseason games got underway, the attention shifted for the Thunder into the thought process of Kevin Durant. Season previews for the Thunder talked of just how much would it take this season for Durant to want to stay in OKC: a trip to the Western Conference Finals? The NBA Finals? A championship?
Back in October, the talk swirled around Durant’s desire to play for his hometown team:,the Washington Wizards. Before the season, the Wizards were an up-and-coming team, fresh off competing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and bringing their young nucleus back. But as the Wizards struggled, talk of a Durant return to his hometown waned.
Instead, the buzz in November moved to Durant’s friendship with Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors, and the chances of Durant playing with the already loaded Warriors and forming a super team.
Since then, countless teams have been rumored to be shedding cap space and looking to make a play for Durant in the offseason, and as the rumors have churned, so too have the reasons as to why Durant would leave Oklahoma City to begin with.
CBS with all the possibilities. (KD, just saying… Cuban thinks you’re a superstar!) https://t.co/uDtBGDusNR
— Josh Eberley (@JoshEberley) May 31, 2016
Criticism has been rampant over the ‘flawed’ marriage of Durant and his point guard, Russell Westbrook. Ever since their Finals run with James Harden, the knock against the two was that there just wasn’t enough ball on the floor to share amongst the two of them.
Westbrook and Durant both favor “hero ball” when things don’t go as planned, and don’t like to defer to one another too much. The Thunder have struggled in late-game situations for the last three seasons with these two at the helm, and the criticism grew that the two needed just one alpha – not two trying to out-shoot the other.
Another knock on the Thunder has been the perceived lack of shrewd ownership. Since the Harden trade, the Thunder have done little to supply Durant with quality talent outside of Westbrook. The overall perception of the league is that the Thunder ownership and front office didn’t do quite enough to keep Harden, instead trading him away when it seemed that he would command a large salary. While other teams have paid three big superstars to fight for a championship, the Thunder took the cheap way. And in the eyes of Durant, surely he’d see this as a hindrance to his possibility to a championship.
The talent around Durant has been rough, with an investment in Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson and Randy Foye as the filler at the two-guard position, and a revolving door of centers until Kanter and Adams shored up the frontcourt. But the biggest swipe at Durant came in this offseason, as the Thunder parted ways with his longtime coach, and the person he wanted to keep, in Scott Brooks. Durant was adamant about his displeasure in the move, and many have seen the change as a slight to Durant that he might not be able to ignore.
Meanwhile, with all the rumors and speculation and criticism, the Thunder just won. For the first time in three seasons, Durant and Westbrook played a full season together. They lit the Western Conference on fire, albeit quietly, with the Spurs and Warriors commanding most of the column space and headlines. But in the postseason, the Thunder shined, destroying Dallas and upsetting San Antonio. And in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder was just one win away from the NBA Finals for a second time in the Durant-Westbrook era.
It was a season to be excited about, as Roberson has erupted into a quality starter, Serge Ibaka has found his groove, and Steven Adams has turned into an absolute monster. The Thunder have supplanted the Spurs as the heir apparent to the Warriors in the West, and things are looking incredibly bright for the organization.
But of course, that’s not how recency bias will allow us to see this. The Thunder did command a 3-1 series lead over the Warriors, but the Thunder also fell flat again. Durant and Westbrook struggled to play well together, and especially in Game 6, the two looked listless and completely uncomfortable. Six days ago, the Thunder were the surefire favorites to re-sign Durant, as he looked to be ready to chase a championship this season after exposing the Warriors.
But today is a different day. That Thunder team is a different one than what we will remember, and now Durant is feeling more pressure than ever before to find a situation where he can win. Every team is a possibility, and every team feels like they have a chance.
Boston, with a myriad of draft picks and strong young players are in the mix. So are the Spurs and Warriors, looking to establish super teams and move closer to a dynasty. And of course the usual suspects of big-market teams: the Clippers, Lakers, Knicks, Heat and Rockets. And yes, the hometown Washington Wizards, who even went out and signed Durant’s favorite coach, Scott Brooks, with the intent of luring KD away from OKC.
This isn’t to say that OKC isn’t still the favorite to resign KD. Nobody knows exactly what’s going on in Durant’s head. And if he’s to be believed, he doesn’t even know.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 1, 2016
After Game 7, Durant brushed off the speculation, saying, “”I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it. I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season. I’ll think about that stuff, I don’t know when. But we just lost an hour ago, 30 minutes ago, so I don’t know.”
There’s no real way of knowing what goes through a star’s mind after a crushing loss like what Durant went through. But this game, especially toward the end of the fourth quarter, when OKC looked to have really thrown in the towel, was reminiscent of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 6 between Cleveland and Boston.
A young LeBron James, giving everything he could to a team that just wasn’t quite good enough, and one that had mentally checked out.
We all know how that ended for Cleveland.
And for Oklahoma City’s sake, let’s hope Durant doesn’t feel the same.