One thing we know for sure: Kevin Durant will never do to Oklahoma City what LeBron James did to Cleveland on Thursday night.
But I’m not talking about leaving for another team, just the despicable, awkward one-hour television special that ripped the heart out of Ohio sports fans. Leaving for another team could happen. The situations in Cleveland over the past decade and in Oklahoma City over the coming one have as many obvious similarities as obvious differences.
Oklahoma City’s main advantage? The team and its direction will be a more powerful force to help keep Durant than it was for Cleveland in keeping (or losing, as it turned out) James. It’s apparent now that James was always going to leave. The Cavaliers gave LeBron just about every conceivable perk and built an annual title contender, and it still wasn’t enough. The Thunder doesn’t have to do that to keep Durant happy. Sam Presti and Co. just have to give him a chance to compete for championships, and the Thunder appears poised to do just that. If Durant can play winning basketball in Oklahoma City all the way through his prime, he won’t leave, but that’s a bigger if than you may think.
There’s no fear mongering going on here. Durant has never even hinted that he would leave Oklahoma City under any circumstances in his control. (The only evidence I can find that he’d even consider it, other than the mandatory “you never know” thrown in upon occasion, were comments about the Miami Thrice saga said to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, seen near the bottom here.) But Durant wants to win.
People assume it’s hard to win a title, but in fact that’s only true of some teams. It apparently isn’t all that hard for the Celtics and Lakers, who have combined to average a title nearly once every other year. If you live in a tradition-rich big market, championship players will come without being drafted there. Take a look at the list of NBA champions. Only two small-market teams, the Portland Trailblazers and San Antonio Spurs — have won a title since the year before the only Blazers’ triumph in 1976-77. Since that Blazers win, six teams have combined to win 29 of the 33 subsequent titles. The exceptions were only big-market teams: one-off championships by the Seattle SuperSonics (!), Washington Bullets, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat. The only one of those that happened in the last TWENTY-SEVEN years came when Shaquille O’Neal got shipped to Miami.
No one like Shaq is going to angle for a trade to Oklahoma City unless and until Durant has established himself as one of the greatest players of his generation (or of all time) and title-less seasons in Oklahoma City are an unexpected letdown. The Thunder is not likely to get to that point in the next six years, although contention for titles could be here as soon as next spring.
(And let’s not get started on accusing me of hating Oklahoma City. I live here and love it here. I know few people who have come here and disliked it, and I know many people who have come here and been pleasantly surprised at how far OKC exceeds their expectations. But let’s be real. If LeBron had trouble luring free agents to Cleveland, KD will face similar trouble luring them here.)
So how did the Spurs and Trailblazers do it? They drafted their stars. Portland had Bill Walton early in his career, but couldn’t keep him or the rest of its core together. The Spurs drafted Tim Duncan (and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili), kept their core signed to reasonable contracts and used trades and smart signings to bring in quality role players. The result was more than one title, unlike the Blazers.
Presti cut his teeth in San Antonio, and the Spurs are undoubtedly the model the Thunder is trying to follow. Every move so far has focused on the future and on building a competitive core, and Presti capitalizes on other teams’ mistakes and excess to ensure a flexible roster going forward. He knows it’s the only way the Thunder can elevate into the league’s upper stratosphere.
In Durant, Oklahoma City obviously drafted a guy who appears capable of being the best player on a championship team. Russell Westbrook appears capable of being the second-best player on a title team, and certainly the third-best. If the Thunder has another player on the roster now who could ascend into that upper echelon, it’s Serge Ibaka, but it’s hard to tell if he’s already near his ceiling. Despite a likely dearth of high draft picks in coming (50-win) seasons, you have to like Presti’s chances of finding the right formula for long-term contention. He’s given fans no reason to suspect otherwise.
But Durant will be 27 by the end of the 2015-16 season, and 28 by the start of the next one. If somehow the Thunder can’t get over the hump — like the Cavs haven’t — or at least feel good about the way it competed in late-round playoffs losses — the Cavs didn’t — it might be tough to convince Durant to play the waning years of his prime in Oklahoma City. Of the (non-Thunder) teams that seem best positioned to compete for titles over the next six seasons (Miami, the Lakers, Boston, Orlando, Chicago), only Orlando hasn’t won a title in Durant’s lifetime. If he’s 27 and been in the league for nine years, don’t you think he’d notice that the same teams keep winning?
We know Durant will put in nonstop effort every game and every offseason in each of the next six years. We know he’ll give Oklahoma City everything he’s got, on and off the court. That’s why, if the Thunder can’t get to the top of the mountain, he could look in the mirror in 2016 and truthfully say to himself that he did everything he could do to win a title with the Thunder and that he doesn’t owe it to fans to slog though the remaining years of his prime and watch the same teams lift banners to the rafters in the same arenas, year after year, without him.
And as long as Durant treated us right, by tearfully thanking us and acknowledging how hard it was to leave, we’d have to let him go without setting fire to his jerseys in the streets. Nine years would be enough to prove definitively that it either can or can’t be done with this franchise in this city and this model of team-building.
The basketball gods delivered Tim Duncan to San Antonio, and the Spurs made it work. Oklahoma City has the same opportunity with another gift in Durant. In six more seasons, we’ll see if it worked out here.
If it doesn’t, at least we’ll know Durant’s heart is as broken as ours that it didn’t. Cleveland fans can’t say the same.