A few seasons ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were poised to be on their way to greatness. Perhaps even on the cusp of a modern-day dynasty; basketball immorality was in their sights. A few seasons ago, the Thunder went all the way to the NBA Finals before eventually losing to the Miami Heat. At the time, the Thunder’s up-and-coming core featured superstar Kevin Durant (then 23), soon-to-be-anointed superstars Russell Westbrook (also 23 then), and James Harden (22 at the time), along with perennial defensive player of the year candidate Serge Ibaka (who was also 22). Having that much talent that’s that young on the same team just doesn’t happen.
During that 2011-12 season, it almost seemed hypocritical for a team with such a bright future be named after the product of stormy weather. Since then, however, Westbrook has had his share of injuries (although he’s playing the best ball of his career to date), Harden has long-since been traded away (now an MVP candidate for the Houston Rockets), Ibaka has suffered injury after injury, and perhaps most importantly, Durant’s future is in question.
Currently, the Thunder are playing for their playoff lives. Depending on the day, they’re either in eighth place in the West — the last playoff spot — or are on the outside looking in. They are jockeying for that eighth spot with the New Orleans Pelicans, and their own up-and-coming superstar Anthony Davis. But if a fictional magic genie came and granted the Thunder’s front office three wishes, it’s debatable whether making the playoffs this year would be one of those wishes.
One would assume at least one of those wishes would be spent on Durant’s health. Before the season, Oklahoma City’s marquee player broke a bone in his foot, forcing him to miss the beginning of the season. While concerning at the time, it wasn’t supposed to become what it ultimately has. Durant has only played 27 games this season, the foot forcing him to see only sporadic action. Since coming back, he’s played some games, then missed some, played a few, missed a few more. Friday, it was announced Durant was out indefinitely, putting not only this season in jeopardy, but the future of Durant, Oklahoma City, and the league as a whole.
Durant’s specific injury (a “Jones fracture” of the foot) has been a career deathblow for other NBA players, forcing Yao Ming and Bill Walton, among others, to at worst early retirements, or at the very least a premature career downfalls. The saving grace was that the history of the injury was worse with big men. Smaller players appeared to bounce back from the injury with a higher propensity to regain full strength. Durant though, is hardly a small player. Listed at 6’9”, he may actually be closer to 7-feet tall, putting him in the class of guys that had much more difficulty coming back from said foot injury. Durant doesn’t play like those mentioned big men though, he plays on the perimeter, so he sort of fits in either category.
The other area of concern for the Thunder is that their three best players have free agency looming. For Durant, next season is his final one that he’s under contract with OKC. The season after next is Westbrook and Ibaka’s last. Certainly, keeping their core intact is worthy of another wish.
During this season, Oklahoma City made a plethora of moves that brought a bounty of young talent to the team to surround their core. At this point, all of those moves have panned out as well as anyone could have expected, with the possible exception of the addition of Dion Waiters, whose playing time has progressively decreased since coming from Cleveland in early January. Keeping those role players healthy and improving might also require some wishes to come true for the team’s front office and its fans.
Westbrook’s break-neck pace might be enough to put the Thunder into the playoffs this season. But even then, their reward would almost certainly be a first-round match-up with the league’s best team thus far, the Golden St. Warriors, who many consider the favorites to win it all. Without Durant — or even with Durant, who would be yet again trying to come back from his foot injury — contending for a championship this season might be too far-fetched for even a Hollywood movie script.
In future seasons, the Thunder could have it all, or they could be left with nothing but the memories of that run to the Finals in 2011-12 in the rear-view mirror. The cloud hovering over Oklahoma City’s franchise now casts the most excruciating feeling for all professional sports teams: the feeling of uncertainty. Once a team on the verge of being an all-time great, OKC now looks like it could be a candidate for an entry into the What-Could-Have-Been Hall of Fame. It’s not too late though, Durant (still just 26) could bounce back and sign long term, Westbrook (26 years old) and Ibaka (25) might also choose to re-up and stick around, and the Thunder might catch lightning in a bottle and have all their wishes come true.