For the first time, the Oklahoma City Thunder have ended a season by taking a step back instead of a leap forward.
And that, for now, is OK.
It’s not OK that Russell Westbrook got hurt. It’s not OK that the Thunder were unable to come up with a competent plan (on the fly) without him. It wasn’t OK to watch Kevin Durant struggle to 5-of-21 shooting and miss free throws in a closeout game — that felt worse than watching an endless YouTube video of defenseless puppies being kicked with steel-toed boots. It’s not OK that Derek Fisher went from white-hot to ice-cold, that Kendrick Perkins was only able to summon his trademark defense for a few possessions per game, that Serge Ibaka stayed in a slump for far too long, that Nick Collison couldn’t buy a favorable call or that we have no idea if Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones are going to be useful.
What makes it OK is that the Thunder will still have all they need to be a legitimate contender next season, no matter what happens during the offseason: Durant, Westbrook and work ethic.
Lame platitudes? Overly optimistic? Not really. Even without one of those three components against Memphis, OKC had a chance to win every one of the four games it lost, only to be doomed by preventable mistakes and untimely missed buckets. The Thunder never gave up, fighting until KD’s potentially game-tying shot bounced off the rim in the waning moments, and that kind of mentality doesn’t evaporate in one summer. The preventable mistakes portion of the Grizzlies series will grate for five months — or maybe 11, until the Thunder have a chance to prove they can overcome them in a new round of postseason basketball. But though 2012-13 will go down in Thunder history as a lost season because of the Westbrook injury, absolutely nothing has happened to change the fact the Thunder will be a contender for another 10-15 years as long as Westbrook and Durant are playing in downtown Oklahoma City.
This offseason will be the most interesting in the Thunder’s short history … since the last one, anyway, with Ibaka and James Harden in their extension-eligible summers. But with Kevin Martin’s impending free agency, a critical summer for Lamb and Jones, the (probably faint, knowing the Thunder brain trust) possibility that Kendrick Perkins will be amnestied, two first-round draft picks (and thus some room for draft day maneuvering as well) and the first remote chance (probably about 2 percent) that the Thunder make an offseason coaching change, a lot can happen between now and October.
Martin said all the right things about possibly willing to take a discount to return to Oklahoma City, which would be the only way he actually does return. But, then again, so did Harden, and we know how that turned out. Lamb and Jones didn’t have the opportunity to show if they have a chance to be impact players on this level, but how hard they work this summer, and the results of that hard work, will be telling — just look at Reggie Jackson’s superb summer in 2012, and the definitive statement during the playoffs that he’s a player worth having around. I would be very surprised, but not shocked, if Perk and Brooks are anywhere but in OKC next season, but that would be a huge departure from the Thunder ethos so far.
But the answers to those questions, to me, seem less relevant than answers to questions facing other players and teams in the Western Conference. I fully expect the Thunder to be a top-two seed in the West almost no matter what happens in Oklahoma City, barring another devastating injury at the worst possible time. Does Dallas or Houston make good use of all that cap space? In a related question, what happens to Chris Paul this summer? Dwight Howard? Will Kobe Bryant be able to return the court in any form resembling the still-deadly player he was for much of this season? Will Memphis find a way to get even deeper? Can Golden State get even better — and will Steph Curry be able to keep his ankles injury-free? Can the Spurs be the Spurs yet again, for the umpteenth time?
The only thing I can be sure of is that some team is going to make a seismic move that will make them the chic pick to win the West — it’s just a question of whether that seismic move will be something like Memphis winning the title or at least giving the Heat a good run, or something like Dallas getting CP3 or Houston getting Dwight. But we know how well the recent offseason champion’s actual season went. Predictions can end up looking pretty stupid.
What I do know is that no matter what happens to those other teams, if Durant and Westbrook are healthy like the basketball gods surely want them to be, OKC will be waiting for them in May.
More than once now, I’ve written a Thunder season eulogy declaring that the future is as bright as it’s ever been, and I still believe that, despite the frustrating way this postseason ended, for the above-stated reasons.
By all accounts, the Thunder’s situation from here on out is more like a powerhouse college football team than an NBA squad: There’s no rebuilding, just reloading. All of Sam Presti’s salary cap gymnastics have been set up to give the Thunder a chance to resemble the Spurs’ last 15 years, not the Lakers’ or Heat’s or anyone else’s. There’s unlikely to be that period like the Lakers had when Kobe was gunning for personal statistics with a weak supporting cast and no real shot at making noise in the playoffs.
There’s no question, this playoff run hurt. But a painful ending has been inevitable, one way or another, ever since the news of Westbrook’s injury broke. There was no doubting it, it was only a question of how far the Thunder could go. In between then and now, we found out that Kevin Durant is capable of reaching heights perhaps even higher than we thought, even if he ran out of gas without his (more-than-a-sidekick) sidekick. We found out that Ibaka was only in a slump that he was able to snap out of, not a guy who crumbled with the extra load on his shoulders. We found out the Thunder’s role players can still step up, even if they weren’t able to do it consistently. And the people dumb enough to doubt Westbrook’s value certainly found out how wrong they were.
To me, this year’s playoff run didn’t hurt any more than those in 2011 or 2012, which also featured the Thunder falling in heartbreaking fashion (as if there’s any other way in the playoffs). It’s a disappointment that we didn’t really get to see how far this collection of players could really go, because OKC wasn’t playing with all its arrows in the quiver.
But if there was any doubt that the fight in this team, and in Oklahoma City, wasn’t going to be enough, it was erased in the valiant (but too late) comeback in the final minutes when the Thunder fought back when a lot of fans around the world had already switched the channel, and when the fans (who stuck around in larger numbers, and with louder voices, than was alleged on Twitter and elsewhere) serenaded their team with chants of “OKC!” as the players shuffled off the court for the last time this season.
The Thunder used to be going nowhere but up. That narrative dipped, just slightly, this season, in part because of bad luck. But if you expect anything less than another spirited and fun foray into the late rounds of the playoffs next season, then you haven’t been paying attention.