Can the Oklahoma City Thunder keep Kevin Durant long term?


Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m Coming Home”. With that statement, LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers – a franchise he had bolted in search of success. In doing so, he has created a circus that will follow Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant wherever he goes for pretty much the next two years.

It’s no secret that Kevin Durant can and likely will become a free agent in 2016 – but where he lands is anyone’s guess, and clearly not on the radar of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. When asked about his free agency status, he is clear that what happens in 2016 is furthest from his mind right now. KD is currently focused on Team USA, playing basketball at the highest level and of course the upcoming NBA season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

This “coming home” fad is all very new. Players have often gone where the best chance at a title is, where the money is or wherever they feel they can contribute. James’ latest decision seems to have changed the perception of all that.

While Kevin Durant is from Washington D.C, he was never drafted by the Washington franchise and has never played for them. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics and then moved along with the franchise to Oklahoma City – which is where he calls home and has done for the best part of a decade.

That is the difference between LeBron’s decision and the one facing Durant in two years time.

James was drafted by his “hometown” team. He played his first seven seasons in front of his adoring home fans – and then he left. While he may be a media darling again for his return – let’s not forget, James ditched the Cavaliers in search of success with Miami. Success that he found and has yet to produce for his “hometown” franchise. While coming back has appeased some of the anger felt by the fans for his departure, surely only bringing a championship to Cleveland will ultimately provide him with exoneration.

On the other hand, Kevin Durant has made Oklahoma City his home. He has brought the franchise great success in his short time and is firmly entrenched in the community in OKC. After winning his first MVP trophy, KD delivered one of the most stirring speeches in sporting history. Thanking everyone, individually and collectively, Durant showcased an honesty and sincere gratitude for all in sundry. That’s going to be hard to look past.

Durant recently mentioned that he thought LeBron “returning home” was a great move and that he “applauded the decision”. Many have decided to view this as an early insight as to what Durant is thinking when it’s his time in 2016.

Plenty of water is set to flow under the bridge between now and then, but the situations are vastly different.

With the Thunder, Durant has found some success. He has made the NBA Finals (losing to James) and the team is consistently in championship contention. The franchise is making the necessary moves to ensure he is well supported and also planning for the future with shrewd business moves and drafting, developing and stashing talent. It is something that the Cleveland Cavaliers could never quite get right for LeBron. They brought in pieces to try and help, but they were generally well past their prime or never quite enough.

If anything, the Cavs seemed content that they had James and that he would “stay at home” regardless – clearly a thought process that came back to bite them…. hard.

OKC have drafted talented stars Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. They had to make the move to secure their future by trading away James Harden, but got plenty in return. The Thunder have grown and developed together – like a family does – and it shows on and off the court. Rather than having to leave to team up with a “superteam” – the Thunder have created their very own big 3 from scratch. While other franchises have tried to bring in talent and role players to surround their superstar, Sam Presti and the Thunder have built it in house.

That bond is going to be very tough to break.

And it is not just about the “Thunder Family”, teammates, franchise and loyalty. The Thunder look poised to be contenders for the next decade. They have a talented and young core who are about to reach their peak at similar times. They have a supporting cast of incredibly skilled young players who have been molded by the aging veterans AND they have flexibility heading into the off-season in 2016. See, the Thunder haven’t overpaid not because they don’t WANT to, but because they don’t want to REPEATEDLY. They have been focused on 2016 long before the fans and basketball public. Long before LeBron James returned home and long before Durant applauded the move.

The past seven years have been working towards a championship window of players in their prime. The early trip to the NBA Finals, the Western Conference Championship, the Northwest Division titles – have all just been icing on the cake.

Durant, Ibaka, Westbrook – all will be in their primes by 2016. Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Perry Jones, Mitch McGary, Andre Roberson and others will all be seasoned young stars who know what it takes to win. The cohesiveness, familiarity and chemistry will be at an all time high and the Thunder will be willing to dip into the tax if necessary to get over the line.

Where else can you find a situation like that?

Of course, the latest fairytale is that the Washington Wizards will land Durant as he follows in the footsteps of LeBron James and returns to his hometown. A young core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and others are meant to be enough to persuade Durant to leave the Thunder and head home. The Wizards have cleared cap space, they are starting to show signs of becoming a solid playoff team and they will have some financial flexibility also. Will it be enough though, and would it even matter?

That young core – while talented and residing in the weaker Eastern Conference – is it any closer to an NBA title that the Thunder will be by the same time? What if the Oklahoma City Thunder are able to win a title in the meantime and what if Durant wins yet another MVP or two with OKC? Is the “hometown” pull THAT strong? What is Durant decides that after a decade, OKC really is home now?

I guess we’ll see. Two years from now.