The Thunder had a chance to set themselves apart at the Trade Deadline, and they didn’t take it. What might this mean for their future?
Video game analogies can be really effective, despite the fact that a lot of people (about half my readers) don’t really understand the video game context that frames the analogical anecdote. As much as video games have permeated the culture of our youths and young adults, it remains one of those dichotomous social activities (like drinking coffee). You either game or you don’t. Still, the concept of video games that has driven them through the first decade and a half of this century is the reality of the virtual reality. When playing, a complex system of programming allows us to do something without really doing it. This is what allows millions of pieces of digital information to become real for us. Because of this, people who don’t play video games can still, to some degree, understand highly effective video game analogies because they can conceptualize the idea of putting a liminal extension of themselves into a game.
So now that I have critically evaluated the concept of virtual reality via video games, I will actually proceed with the analogy.
There comes a time in many video games, including those of the role playing, survival, shooting, sim, and strategy genres, when a player must make a decision to, as my homies say, “Ride or die.” The player, after extensive preparation, must decide if they are ready to move from a relatively safe position into one of danger. They must take stock of their situation and resources and determine whether or not they will be able to succeed. The survivalist gears up, collecting health packs, weapons of choice, ammunition, and any other special supplies while he remains outside the realm of his enemies. The Runescape player assembles an assortment of weapons, armor, supplies, and possibly comrades before setting out to engage the monsters of the world. He judges whether or not he can take the chance of losing all but his most valuable items should he die. Before declaring war, the leader of a nation and its armies in a strategy game assesses the strength of his military and economy, as well as the overall power of his soon-to-be foe, judging the cost-benefit of setting out on the warpath. In any of these situations, the player probably saves their game (if that’s an option) before setting forth.
In any of these scenarios, the player must decide whether they are ready to enter the fray. Once they step forth from their current safety, there is no going back. They must decide how strong their chances of success are and whether or not they can accept the consequences of failure. Then they stand and face what the computer has in store for them. It’s a thrilling feeling, really, to prepare yourself and then step out into the perils that wait (btw, defeating the Jungle Demon at the end of the Monkey Madness quest is probably the most tense and exhilarating experience of this type that I have had).
The Oklahoma City Thunder have just left the zone of safety, working their way through the preliminary battles of the remaining regular season games before entering the fray of the NBA Playoffs.
And they didn’t gather enough health packs.
Today the trade deadline came and went, and the Thunder, who were defeated by the Miami Heat tonight in one of those “This doesn’t really matter but kind of really really matters” regular season games, made no moves and decided they are prepared to face the coming battles as they are. And, although they have become the consensus favorite during Russell Westbrook’s absence, this writer is concerned by the basketball hubris exhibited by OKC.
The Thunder have decided they have a team that can win the NBA Finals and, by maintaining their identity as an organization (not spending big money, holding on to picks), they have, at least on paper, kept a maintainable path to success over the long-term. I believe they have not only squandered the chance to make themselves heavy favorites to win it all this year, but have also set in motion a chain of events that may wreck their franchise. And, if that happens, today may be the day we look back at and say, “Why did they settle for siege towers when attacking Paris? Why didn’t they bring any bombards?”
They have decided that Kevin Durant is good enough to win his first championship with this team. They believe they will be even better than they are now when Westbrook is fully healthy. They are prepared to live with Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson as scoring options from the perimeter. They think Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, and Steven Adams are prepared to face off against any frontcourt. They believe this team is good enough to win.
And they might be. Truly, this team may be good enough to win a championship this year. But they could also lose to the Trailblazers. Or the Spurs. Or the Rockets. Or the Warriors. Or the Clippers. And that’s only before they meet either the Pacers or the Heat in the Finals. The time for the the Thunder to win is now, but not with this team. This team is only barely good enough to get through this gauntlet. I fully believe that they should have made moves today to improve themselves for this season and the future. I think, if you read on, you will agree.
First, as tough as the Western Conference is this year, it’s only going to get more difficult to make it to the Finals in the coming years. No other team is at their full potential yet:
- The Trailblazers are still getting used to this contending thing. As strong as they have been this year, they’re a piece or two away from being legitimate threats to win it all. However, their core (Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, Matthews) is young, so if they play it smart, they could be a contender for years to come. They will only get better.
- The Clippers still haven’t made the move. You know, that magical move that will fix their problems. The problems that we can’t quite identify or remedy. They’re going to get stronger, especially if that LeBron James fellow ends up there (which he won’t. But he might).
- The Spurs are probably at the end of this run. Despite having the Big 3, they are getting more and more beatable. Even if Ginobili and Duncan fade away after this season, the Spurs’ front office is smart enough to build quickly around Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
- The Rockets seem to be half-contending this year. They’re a long shot to win it all right now, but they’re poised to be really, really dangerous. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin are on the books for a ton of money, but it’s tough to see them both staying around too long. They could use that money to secure Parsons and build a stronger, more versatile cast around Harden and Howard.
- The Warriors, as dangerous as they are now, aren’t quite there. However, they also have a very young core, and if they can sort out what they want to do with David Lee, Andrew Bogut, and Harrison Barnes, they will also get better in the coming years.
And in the East:
- The Heat are as beatable now as they have been in three years. We don’t know what to expect from Dwyane Wade and much of the supporting cast is old or unproven. If you don’t get them this year, their front office will find ways to build around their Big 3 (assuming that they all stay in Miami) by the time next season gets here.
- The Pacers, despite doing what the Thunder have not in making some moves (signing Bynum, trading for Turner), may get even better as Paul George and Roy Hibbert continue to improve. Depending on what happens with Turner and Stephenson in the off-season, they’ll be at least as good as they are this year (which is pretty darn good).
So, as you can see, the year to go for it is 2014! Waiting around for the rest of the contenders to get better is bad business.
The decision to make moves seems even clearer considering how easy these moves might have been made. I’m not an insider, but according to common sense and ESPN’s Trade Machine, the Thunder had a lot of potential deals just waiting to be made. They could have made offers for any of the Sixers’ trio of tank. Maybe their offers for Hawes and Turner
would not have been as good, but Thaddeus Young did not get moved, and he would have been a great addition. It seems like they could have made a trade for Arron Afflalo, who is playing way above his contract right now. Why not just swap shooting guards? Send Jeremy Lamb, Thabo Sefolosha, and Andre Roberson to Orlando for Afflalo and Doron Lamb. The Thunder love to build through the draft, but they have the picks to sweeten any pot. And with Kendrick Perkins making over 8 million dollars this season, they can’t make excuses about not being able to clear enough cap room. OKC moved Harden because of money “issues” which I don’t buy.
Why wouldn’t the Thunder add an excellent frontcourt option like Thaddeus Young? How about a versatile wing like Evan Turner? For a song you could get Arron Afflalo to play the kind of defense that Sefolosha plays AND make the same wide open jumpshots that Jeremy Lamb shoots.
And those are just the obvious trades. They could have gone crazy and done something like send Perkins, Sefolosha, and Lamb to the New Orleans Pelicans and get ERIC GORDON and Jeff Withey. Can you imagine the capabilities on offense and defense of a starting lineup of Westbrook, Gordon, Durant, Ibaka, and Steven Adams?
There were enough teams with affordable, capable players who were looking to get a little worse who could have helped the Thunder get a little better. OKC would not have had to do much to convince Philadelphia or Orlando to work on some trades.
Making moves today was also a matter of protecting the franchise and its star players. By being faithful to his methods, Thunder GM Sam Presti has inadvertently left Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a tough situation. By doing that, he has put the future of this dynastender at risk (dynasty-contender, a Bill Simmonsism).
It starts with Westbrook. His value to the Thunder has been often debated, as some think he’s a top five player in the league and others say he negatively affects the way Durant plays which ends up working against the team. He was exonerated in last year’s Playoffs when his team lost without him, but now they have been as good as anyone in the Association during his most recent injury. If the Thunder lose before reaching the Finals, the blame is going to go straight to Russell Westbrook, especially since Kevin Durant has had such a good season and probably won’t be at fault if they lose. By making a trade and shaking things up, Sam Presti will shield Westbrook from blame. Either the trade goes well and the Thunder win, or the Thunder lose and we can blame Presti for messing with a winning formula. We can blame Scott Brooks for not effectively integrating his new players. Fair or unfair, sometimes coaches and GM’s need to take the hit to protect their star players. Now if Westbrook ends up at fault, bolting for LA to play with fellow Bruin Kevin Love will look even better for the young point guard.
OKC also owes a move to Kevin Durant, The Servant who just might run out of selfless service for his franchise. They have a once-in-a-generation player with Durant, and after trading away Harden, they have to make it up to their superstar. They’re asking him to put a team on his back and carry them to the Finals. We know how frustrated he is already. Imagine how frustrated he will be if he falls short again, this time with a team that isn’t even as good as the one that met Miami in the 2012 Finals. The Thunder need to capitalize on their time with Durant. Forget finding the future in cap space and draft picks: OKC’s future wears a number 35 jersey. If they fail to give him a championship team, Durant will owe the Thunder nothing when his contract expires. He’s made them one of the best franchises in sports. If they can’t help him help them, then they should not feel betrayed if he leaves town when he’s off the books.
I don’t know if Oklahoma City realizes that they hit the jackpot with Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. Building a champion in the NBA is really difficult, and by smart drafting they have acquired the type of talent needed to win. This Thunder team is good, maybe even really good. However, is it so difficult to see them eliminated before they even reach the Finals? I hate to copy ideas from Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose, but they are totally right when saying that the Rockets and Warriors are the type of teams that could surprise teams because of their explosive abilities. Steph Curry makes eight threes one game, Klay Thompson makes 15 jumpshots the next, Harrison Barnes has a huge game off the bench, and suddenly you’re facing the Warriors in a Game 7 in which David Lee and Andrew Bogut dominate the paint on basketball adrenaline. There’s a similar scenario involving James Harden, Chandler Parsons, and Dwight Howard. This Thunder team could be beaten in a series like that, especially if Durant has some off games and Westbrook is in irrational attack mode.
As I finish writing this, I’m listening to the epic soundtrack from Hero. And I’m seeing Kevin Durant walking through the smoke towards the playoffs. The Slim Reaper is coming for them all. But so is King James. And so is Paul “I don’t have a nickname yet” George. I’m seeing a complete team in Indiana, a proven one in Miami, a veteran one in San Antonio and hungry ones all over the West. And as great as Kevin Durant has become, I think the Thunder have asked too much from him. OKC has weighed their options, assessed their strength, geared up, made plans, and are about to take those crucial steps we gamers are so aware of. Maybe it will work.
But if it doesn’t, this is a game with no checkpoints and no chances to save.
What do you think? Are the Thunder prepared as they are? Are you glad I’m actually writing about sports again? Like, comment, subscribe/follow, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading!
Soli Deo Gloria