It’s Almost Midnight for Kevin Durant and the Thunder

Regardless of the hypoxic impressions of the media, most top-5 players don’t leave their team in the prime of their careers. Most stay put. Consequentially, it was always a long shot for Kevin Durant to put his name on the list with LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal as the only top-5 players in the past 20 years to leave the team that drafted them. In O’Neal’s case, he was driven by the money, the lights of Hollywood and the desire to flee small town Orlando. The Lakers history of big men champions was attractive to O’Neal in his quest to prove critics wrong who said he’d never win a title.

It was a different calculus for LeBron James. He was fed up with Cleveland not winning when it mattered, particularly in the playoffs, and he was weary of his solo act, that it was all on him to push the Cavaliers towards greatness. He knew he was not enough and that no one player was. He needed more talent to help him in his quest. So he stormed through the gates even at a personal cost to his reputation and likability. At the end of the day, champions are remembered for being champions. How they get there is buried in the small type.

Like James, Kevin Durant is in a similar place of no return. The clock is ticking. It’s not midnight, but it’s close.

Given the culture of sports and the lens it’s refracted through, it’s easy to overreact to the Thunder’s last losses, but if you take the emotion out of it and look at it clinically, there are a lot of broken pieces on the ground that prove a very important point about this year’s Thunder team and their flaws.

The decision to get rid of Scott Brooks has backfired. It was made, in part, because the team was in the same place year in and year out, they weren’t aggressively getting better, not having reached the Finals since 2012. Brooks defense was stellar, though, and when he left and took his principles with him, he was exposing the Thunder to losing too many games when they have a fourth quarter lead. Any record in which you are tied with the 76ers means you must re-evaluate.

Billy Donovan has not been a disaster, but he’s not better than Scott Brooks. It was a gamble, just as James Harden was a gamble. Neither have paid dividends.

Losing to the Warriors twice in the past week, not having beaten them once this year, is a pretty chilling statement of the Thunder’s ability to beat the best team in the league, the defending champions, the media darlings. The Thunder are out of answers. They have the offense, and it has been noted, they have the talent. The games are always close. But the Thunder can’t match the Warriors execution at the end. The ball sticks. The Warriors, who have a top-10 defense, stick to shooters and make shots difficult for Durant and his comrades. Under stress, the Thunder revert back to their habits of iso 2-man game. That’s a losing recipe.

The Thunder are constructed to be capitalists. Capitalism is a system of proportionality. A few people become very, very rich. Many linger in the middle class, and some are poor. The Warriors, though, are socialists. Everyone shares in everything. Everyone gets a turn. All reap and all sow and all are generous with one another.

I read last month a Kevin Durant comment on the Spurs which I found very intriguing and self-aware on his part but at the same time it was one of those small pieces of insight that explains why the Thunder are on the precipice of losing Durant because of their inability to pull games out against the Warriors and Clippers. Durant acknowledged the type of team he has.

“We’re not the San Antonio Spurs. We’re not going to make 30 passes in a possession. We’re not that. Of course people want us to be that. That’s great basketball, don’t get me wrong. But we’re not that. We’ve got guys that score. We’ve got guys on this team that can get a bucket. There’s going to be times we gotta iso, there’s going to be times we gotta be aggressive to look for our shot to make a play.”

No analyst summed up the good and bad of the Thunder’s identity better than Kevin Durant did. But the cautionary tale is this. If you live by the sword, then you die by the sword, Kevin Durant was plotting his own demise, even as he celebrated it. Because the Spurs, and you can definitely add the Warriors to the mix, pass the ball to make it easier for them. The ball moves faster than the human body can possibly catch up. The only correction I’d make to Durant is that yes the Thunder have guys that can score, two guys. The Spurs, as noted, have multiple guys who can score as do the Warriors. That is a Sam Presti issue,  loading up on big guy defenders (who can’t match the athleticism of DeAndre Jordan) in the paint but leaving the wing vulnerable. If this floor spacing era is defined by one thing, it is by versatility, which the Thunder lack.

And so here is one Kevin Durant having lost to the Warriors twice in a week, and having choked a game away against the Clippers who somehow managed to slaughter the Thunder in the 4th quarter while their star Blake Griffin watched in a suit. Where is the path for the Thunder? They have been a terrible post-All Star break team, having the worst record of the top 4 contenders in both conferences. The only teams who haven’t won more than 2 games since the All-Star game are the Lakers, 76ers, Jazz, Timberwolves, Knicks, Nuggets and Suns. The Thunder have won 2 games.

Like LeBron James six years ago, Durant is stuck with a team that plays hard but tenses up in the 4th quarter. They falter. And there is nothing KD can do to change it but continue to play hard and remain optimistic.  It’s unlikely Donovan is going to change the offense this late in the season.

The Thunder are who they are. The threat of Durant leaving hangs over them like a noxious fugue, even as Thunder fans don’t want to accept it. The truth is, NBA players in their prime have an insatiable need to win, it is their signature, and it is also how the collapsed world of NBA basketball defines them: winners or losers. Elite, great or good. Can’t beat the Warriors. Can’t.

Kevin Durant is the 3rd best player in the NBA. The players ahead of him, Steph Curry and LeBron James, have won titles. He has not. The urgency to win is now. He can’t wait on Sam Presti to figure it out.

When Sam Presti gave a defensively awful, slow, average player but good rebounder Enes Kanter the max, and the rest of the NBA shook their head once they closed their opened mouths, the Thunder were sealing their fate for the future. Yes, the salary cap rises but the Thunder can’t do much to alter their roster. Dion Waiters has a qualifying offer that won’t be matched. Randy Foye is a free agent. Anthony Morrow has a team option. That’s it. The Thunder still have a $60 million dollar payroll without Durant on the books. With Durant, there’s not much flexibility.

Sam Presti has failed. He has failed to build a contending team around Durant in his last year. Worse, he inexplicably extracted from Durant for no reason that makes any sense, Durant’s touchstone and friend and mentor, Scott Brooks. There is no worse feeling than being out on an island all alone.

Of course, Durant is thinking of leaving. Why wouldn’t he? But thinking of doing something and then doing it are two different things.

“Ultimately that’s what you want, to make a decision on your own and to make a decision that makes you happy. That makes everything just wide open at this point.  I put myself in this position where I worked as hard as I can and people respect my game and really that’s what matters to me.” (Kevin Durant, USA Today)

So it’s not quite midnight and it is. Wide open means the Thunder are now competing for Durant and what do they have to offer besides Russell Westbrook who will be in his own free agency bubble next year? Billy Donovan’s presence is hardly going to seal the deal. That said, the apocalypse hasn’t arrived either.

Kevin Durant is a smart, tough, competitively driven veteran who isn’t going to sign up for 4-5 years of losing to the Warriors because he’s stuck with Enes Kanter who is not versatile, not a passer, not athletic enough, while the Warriors go small with do-everything forward Draymond Green.

Durant is one year older than Steph Curry. Already he is one title behind, perhaps two come June. Asking Durant to stay in Oklahoma until he is 32 and watch Curry compete year after year for a title is too much for anyone’s heart.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s the OKC Thunder. Anyone who says this is a rough patch is telling a lie. It’s not a a rough patch. It’s not a blip, a storm that will pass. It is not an interlude that everyone will exhale and forget about. It is who the Thunder are as a team. They are not good enough to beat the defending champions. They may not be good enough to keep Kevin Durant.


photo via llananba