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Is the Championship Window Closing on the Oklahoma City Thunder?

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a young and talented team. They have managed their playing group well and consistently made moves to keep the franchise near the top of the Western Conference and the league. The pinnacle of their history has been the 2012 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, and they have been Western Conference Champions and also made the Western Conference Finals in the season just passed – losing to eventual NBA Champions the San Antonio Spurs.

With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the charge, it seems as though the Thunder are set for the future. They have the talent, they are developing some very good young players and they are building cohesiveness and chemistry every time they take the floor. So why does everyone fear that the championship window is closing on the Thunder? Why is it such a desperate “now or never” attitude among some fans and analysts?

Quite simply – the summer of 2016. This is what plays on everyone’s minds when they talk about the Thunder’s title aspirations. Kevin Durant’s impending free agency has upped the ante for followers who are wanting to see their superstar and franchise player stay – but think only delivering a title can keep him. Add to this the delicate contract situation with key rotational guard Reggie Jackson and you can see why people are jumping the gun and crying to the hilltops.

There is little doubt that the Thunder go as far as Durant takes them. But, as LeBron has shown – it takes a team to win a title. The Thunder have drafted and developed their roster over a number of years, adding the right pieces at the right time, to build a title contender and to keep contending now and into the future. Taking Serge Ibaka, drafting Reggie Jackson, shoring up the center spot for the future with Steven Adams, grabbing a Nick Collison contingency plan in Mitch McGary and getting return for James Harden in Jeremy Lamb. The Thunder want to win a title, but they want to be able to contend for a title in repeat years – similar to the San Antonio Spurs model which has proven so successful over a DECADE.

Winning immediately is what fans want, it’s what players, want, it’s what franchises want. However, too often we have all seen franchise searching for a quick fix and an immediate reward fail and in the process limit their future ceiling. OKC are adamant about not ending up in that boat. This off-season they had a real shot at trying to secure Pau Gasol. While it wasn’t successful, it showed the fans and players, that this front office is serious about winning. Their “consolation prize” was sharp shooter, three-point specialist Anthony Morrow. His unique skill set and ability to space the floor, addresses a key flaw in the Thunder system and might be the piece that puts this team over the line. But for more on WHY the Thunder can win it all – check this out.

So – back to the original question – is the Thunder’s championship window closing?

In short – no. What we have learned from the Thunder front office is that they are very astute and that GM Sam Presti is one of the best in the business. Here’ why. He has made the big and tough calls when he has needed to, and managed to secure a solid deal on all occasions (Jeff Green, James Harden etc). He has drafted smartly and loaded the team with talent that is finally starting to mature and develop. He has maintained financial flexibility by not overpaying (outside of Kendrick Perkins but at the time that was a necessity to protect his young stars) and the Thunder haven’t hit the luxury tax – let alone the repeater tax. If LeBron left Cleveland because they weren’t making the right moves to build a contender, Durant doesn’t have the same issue here.

To say the title chance is about to slip away from the Thunder suggests you think Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and / or Reggie Jackson are going to bolt in Free Agency. But why would they? To “return” home? That is a very new notion and was only made due to LeBron having already won 2 rings – trying to repair his tarnished legacy (let’s be honest). The Thunder love their stars and their stars love the Thunder. If they stay together, it looks as though their championship window might look more like a Spurs dynasty. (Plus, how long can Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker keep playing?)

So, if you think everyone stays but you still think the championship alludes the Thunder, you must think there are better teams out there. Name them. Cleveland? All these “superteams” take time to develop and gel – no-one wins it straight up. San Antonio? Perhaps. They return everyone and add a stellar rookie – but the Thunder nearly took care of them even with injury concerns and the Spurs will be another year older. Clippers? Warriors? Portland? All very good sides, but at their best, are the better than OKC? I don’t see it. Durant will be better for his rest and time away from basketball and could win back to back MVP awards. Russ showed his maturation in the playoffs and will relish a full pre-season and training camp. Ibaka has improved in each of his years in the league. Jackson, Lamb, Jones, Adams are all getting better each outing and the Thunder have solved their three point shooting issue. Scary.

It is easy to write the Thunder off and say that “if they can’t win it all, everyone will leave and they’ll be back in the lottery”. It’s not even a far-fetched notion. However, a LOT would have to go very wrong for the Thunder to fall out of finals contention and I just don’t see all those “bad luck stars” aligning. The franchise players would have to leave for zero compensation, the draft picks would have to turn out to be busts and the Thunder would have to be unable to lure any free agent talent.

Be prepared for the Thunder to be right back in the thick of it, deep into the playoffs and perhaps back to the NBA finals. Not just this year, but plenty more as well.

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