The Decision 2.0: Kevin Durant Edition
It must've been a miserable last few weeks for Kevin Durant, who went from validation to scrutiny in a matter of days. There was game 5, then 6, and finally 7. Almost inexplicably, Oklahoma City managed to blow a 3-1 series lead, and yet, it really wasn't all that surprising. Somehow, we all kind of knew it would happen, with the Thunder reverting back to their chaotic, uninspired defense, and hero-ball style of play, all the while running more isolation plays than Joe Johnson did in Atlanta.
Maybe it wasn't all Durant's fault. It's easy to point to the league's embarrassing decision to suspend Dahntay Jones but not Draymond Green, for essentially the same crime. It's also worthwhile to mention that Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry managed to drain 17 (!!!) three-pointers in game 6, a game the Thunder seemed to be in control of and could blow open a lead at any given moment. Russell Westbrook had some miserable shooting nights and their bench didn't have an Andre Iguodala. But for such a meltdown? To lose three straight playoff games, all the while shooting a horrendous 22/62 (35%) in games 5 and 6?
Ever since the '10-11 season, we've been throwing around the word "potential" at every iteration of the Thunder, only because they boast both Durant and Westbrook. Seemingly, if they could play like Jordan/Pippen or LeBron/Wade, they should be an unstoppable duo. To think a 6'9 forward with three-point range, seamless handling abilities, and a high basketball IQ, coupled with perhaps the most athletic point guard in NBA history, who averages a near triple double every game, has only made the finals once? That's insane! Since then, the ancient Spurs won a championship, and really should've been two, LeBron has plowed through a historically weak Eastern Conference five years in a row, and the Warriors have become the new darlings of the West. It can't help but make Durant wonder whether the right choice is to stay with the Thunder.
Losing to a historic 73-9 team is nothing to be ashamed of and taking them to a 7-game series should be almost laudable. But this is the future we pegged the Thunder with! It's what everyone predicted them to be: a supreme team with perhaps the top two players in the league. The Thunder have overwhelmingly underperformed for the past few seasons, partly due to injuries, but even this year seemed hopeless against the Spurs and Warriors, until they pulled out a insane two weeks of beautiful basketball in the playoffs, but eventually settling back into their old tendencies. Why do the Thunder have such problems finding consistency?
I'm not sure if anyone can ever figure out the Thunder and their issues. Maybe Greg Poppovich or Phil Jackson. If Durant decides to leave, it should well be in his mind that the East would be so much kinder to his championship aspirations. Cleveland looks like its on the brink of collapse and no other team is even close to being contenders, at least in comparison to the teams in the West. The Warriors aren't going anywhere, the Spurs will be back, the Clippers are still very much locked-in with their current good-but-not-great roster, the Blazers are a piece or two from contending, and the Timberwolves might have a 09-10' Thunder esque-type season very soon.
Washington seems to make the most sense out of all the Eastern teams. They have an all-star point guard, a shooting guard who should be an all-star, and they have some young players. Still, I'm not sure if this is a better roster than what the Thunder currently have. John Wall isn't an upgrade over Westbrook and doesn't shoot any better. Bradley Beal has played an average of 62 games a season since being drafted, and Marcin Gortat is not better than Serge Ibaka. What of Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre? Is it worth hindering their development with Durant taking 20+ shots a game, while averaging 38-40 minutes a game?
The asset-rich Celtics look feasible but they lack a superstar. The Raptors can't afford Durant. Miami has a very uncertain future, with question marks surrounding both Bosh and Whiteside. Milwaukee is intriguing but also don't look better than the other teams mentioned. New York looks interesting: a front court of Prozingis, Carmelo, and Durant would be very hard to defend. Who's left? Maybe the Hornets, Pacers or Pistons, of which the Hornets might be the best fit, but then again, any team could fit with Durant as its centerpiece.
At the same time, this is exactly the reason why Durant would go to the East. The teams are weak and uncertain at best. There isn't an ounce of confidence that any of the teams can produce a basketball team competitive enough to match the Warriors and Spurs of the NBA, and I'm not sure if that'll ever change, unless there's a mass exodus of stars from the West (think DeMarcus Cousins and Durant to the Celtics). I think most people are convinced that having Durant, much like having LeBron, means a guaranteed playoff berth, and they're probably right. But without a second star and quality role-players, it'd be a lot like the old Cavaliers team where Larry Hughes was their second best player. I mean have you seen the 06-07 Cavaliers? That roster somehow made the NBA Finals. This is what a superstar can do, but it'll never be enough.
As for Westbrook, it's easy to point out his flaws, like his poor three-point shooting, and compare it to a player like Curry. Most of all, people question if he's too hot-headed, a little too alpha-male and ball dominant to play with Durant, who could be realistically averaging 35 points per game every season, given enough shots. The Thunder's lack of outside scoring was a glaring problem in games 6 (3 for 23) and game 7 (7 for 27). Had Westbrook made just two threes in game 6 - he made zero - the game would have been every different. Even then, there's really no one you trust with a three point shot on this Thunder squad, except Durant, and even he struggled.
Here's a crazy trade scenario I've always been an advocate of: trade Westbrook for Damian Lillard. It won't happen, I think everyone can agree on that, but it's a very interesting proposal. I think Westbrook might do everything better than Lillard except for jump shooting, and yet, that might be what the Thunder needs as a team. Lillard isn't too far behind as a scorer, is unselfish, and is the closest point guard you can find to Curry. The dangers of his shooting gives the opposing team an extra layer of worry, with his ability to penetrate, pass, and shoot. While he might not be as athletic as Westbrook, and arguably not as great of a finisher/passer, shooting is so valuable in the modern NBA. This could open up the game so much more for Durant, who can relieve some defensive pressure on the perimeter, due to a heightened focus on Lillard.
Durant could also very well decide that this Thunder squad has so much, taboo word incoming, potential that it'll be hard to pass up another crack at the championship next year. Can any other team offer what the Thunder have proven they can do in almost taking down the Warriors? In the end, Durant's best option would be sign a 2 year deal with a player opt-out after next season, just in time for either A) a big pay day with the Thunder or B) an opportunity to be courted in maybe the craziest free agent class ever in 2017.
It's doubtful the Warriors can repeat the success they've had this season and the Thunder underachieved this season. Certainly it's not too crazy to think that the Thunder might have one of those seasons themselves next year and what does Durant have to lose for that? His other best option might be Washington in a weak Eastern Conference or to stick with an established and winning roster with Oklahoma City. The possibility exists for a signing with the Warriors or Spurs but it'll be a difficult scenario to paint, and winning a ring with either of those teams could bring out more critics than it does silence them.
If you're Kevin Durant, however, at least you'll know all 30 teams in the NBA want you.