Fans don’t want to be told to be patient, especially when their team is this close to a championship. I just tried to a few days ago, and nobody cared. Maybe it’s because the wounds were still too fresh, but with the Spurs finishing off the Heat in five games to lift a fifth championship trophy, I feel like there’s new perspective to be had.
Basically it’s this: The Spurs exposed the mighty Heat in a lot of ways, and with a tricky offseason ahead for them, the league could potentially open up to the Thunder, if they just stick with it. And by the Thunder, I really mean Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka.
Allow me to blockquote myself:
As we all know, though, the shadow of 2016 hangs above the team like a menacing wall cloud over the prairie. There’s no guarantee that Kevin Durant will buy into this patient approach or see the bigger picture. There’s an assumption that Durant might follow LeBron’s path and search out a better situation if the Thunder don’t present a championship in the next two seasons. There’s a distinct contrast between San Antonio’s’ sustained success and Miami’s title starter kit approach. When 2016 comes for Durant, that will effectively be his decision: Does he try to replicate the Spurs’ way, or the Heat’s way? And after watching the events of the past two weeks, isn’t the Duncan path more appealing?
You can be sure that Durant will pay attention to that. Who knows what happens over the next two seasons, but come 2016, there won’t be a team that can realistically offer Durant a core better than Westbrook and Ibaka (and they’ll all still be 27 or younger). The Nets and Knicks will have mostly empty rosters in the summer of 2016, but outside the bright lights of the big city, what can they give Durant? Less money, for starters, and the free agent class that summer doesn’t present any combination of players that will be anywhere near the class of Durant’s running mates in OKC.
And here’s an important thing: It’s not like the Thunder have to wait until Durant re-signs. They’re going to have great chances to win it all in 2014 and 2015. This team is on the cusp already, as proven this season. They were a sniff away from forcing a Game 7 against the Spurs, and that’s with one of their most impactful players missing the first two games.
There a bunch of variables that fans are going to pick at, I realize. Is Scott Brooks the right coach? Is the roster flawed? What about the bench? But look at the big picture of this: The last three Finals have included three teams: The Heat, the Spurs and the Thunder. It’s like Derek Fisher said:
“The last four years, three trips to the Western Conference finals, a trip to the NBA Finals, and a year where Russell Westbrook got hurt and didn’t even have a chance,” he said. “In comparison to the Miami Heat, who have gone to four straight Finals and won two championships, and in comparison to the San Antonio Spurs, who have been one of the most consistent and well-run basketball teams and organizations in the last 15 or 20 years, nobody else is in that class, or even close to it, but this team.”
I know people get sick of hearing about how young the Thunder are, including the Thunder themselves, but what it means is that while you might trap yourself in the vacuum of this season and the failures of it, the window remains so incredibly open. Tim Duncan won his first title at 22, and just put away another 16 years later at 38. Durant went to his first Finals at 23. Or there’s this: Duncan’s first championship as the focus of the Spurs came when he was 26, in 2003. Durant turns 26 this fall.
So for Durant, as he thinks about 2016 and if the Thunder can get him to the mountain top, is which path he wants to choose. LeBron went to Miami to stack a pile of championships in a flurry, and build an insta-legacy. Duncan has played the long game, methodically cranking contenders out year in and year out, and letting the natural course take its place with some seasons ending in triumph and others not. Some have felt that Durant is going to try the LeBron route in 2016, since it seemed so easy for him to get that title and cross that off his list. But LeBron’s in a volatile situation now, with a roster that could explode before his eyes, especially with the new collective bargaining agreement changing how teams are built.
But the point is this: patience is the best plan. Other teams are improving, but they’re all just trying to catch up to where the Thunder already are. And with the way the league is shaping, the Thunder just have to keep cranking out teams that are going to have their chance when training camp starts in September. Keep playing that long game, keep sticking with it. There’s a lot of rope left for Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka and while there’s bound to be more heartbreak, that breakthrough is coming.