With their loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, the vultures have started circling around the Oklahoma City Thunder. After five playoff runs in the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook era, the Thunder seem as far away from an NBA championship as ever. Ever since the James Harden trade, people have wondered whether Durant will leave Oklahoma City in 2016, when his contract expires. Has their window to contend already closed?
Of course, 2016 is still two seasons away and an awful lot can happen in that time. Two seasons ago, the Harden trade hadn't happened, Westbrook had never gotten injured and the Thunder had seemingly passed the Spurs in the West. Oklahoma City has taken a step back in their first two years without Harden, but they made the trade with the long view in mind, something which has gone out of fashion in our ADD society. The plan was always to peak in 2016.
When Durant enters unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, what happens in 2016 will mean a lot more towards his decision than what happened in 2014. That's obvious if you think about it - if Durant was entering free agency this summer, would it really matter what happened in 2012? He's going to have some attractive options to consider, so the Thunder will need a compelling package to offer him in terms of competing for a title.
You have to woo a free agent based on what you will do for him in the future, not what you have done for him in the past. They have to look at the next few years and see a team ready to contend for a title, not one that contended for titles a few years ago. And that's where the Harden trade comes in - how good will Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb and the No. 21 pick in 2014 be in two seasons? If those guys are cycling up, Oklahoma City is going to have a serious team.
In two years, Durant and Westbrook will be 27, Ibaka will be 26, Lamb will be 23 and Adams will be 22. That's your starting five - four lottery picks and one guy (Ibaka) who should have been taken in the lottery. All five have elite length and athleticism for their positions, all five will be near the prime of their careers and all five can contribute on both sides of the floor. You just don't see a team with that type of balance across all five positions very often.
Adams was always a long-term pick. After playing 23 minutes a game as a freshman at Pittsburgh, it's unlikely the Thunder thought he could contribute right away. Nevertheless, he already looks like a better two-way player than Kendrick Perkins, with per-36 minute averages of 8 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks on 50% shooting. He may never be a consistent post scorer, but at 7'0 25o with a 7'5 wingspan, he's an athletic Goliath with a soft touch around the rim.
Lamb has received the brunt of the criticism for the Harden trade, but he's a 21-year-old who should be a senior in college whose proven he's an NBA-caliber player. He had very solid per-36 minutes averages this season - 16 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists on 43% shooting - he just couldn't get minutes behind Scott Brooks' beloved veterans. He was inconsistent, but he was consistently better than Caron Butler and Derek Fisher for the entire season.
Lamb is the same age as Victor Oladipo and he's proven just as much in the NBA as the No. 2 pick in 2013. That's what's so intriguing about the young players in Oklahoma City - they are blue-chip lottery picks who have already put up good numbers. They would be foundation pieces on a rebuilding team and the Thunder just need them to be role players. Lamb and Adams both have All-Star upside and they are going to be the fourth and fifth options in 2016.
And while their bench proved to be their undoing in 2014, they should be in a much better position in two seasons, when they will have only homegrown players in their rotation. Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Fisher and Butler - all those guys could be out the door by 2016. At that point, the Thunder will have a bench spearheaded by Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones III and 2 firsts in 2014, where there will be a lot of good players on the board.
The key will be whether they pay Jackson once his contract expires next season. The Thunder have never paid the luxury tax since coming to Oklahoma City, but that's a bullet they will have in their gun going forward, since they won't be in line to hit the repeater penalty. If they are going to convince Durant to stay in town, they are going to need to prove they are willing to pay for a championship contender and they will have the financial resources to do it.
Most importantly, in two seasons, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka will be the same age as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh when they united. All three of those guys became better decision-makers and defensive players as they moved later into their careers, a transition the Thunder stars are likely to make as well. And when the Big Three came together in 2010, the Heat didn't have 2-3 more lottery picks entering their prime in their supporting cast.
People are looking at Oklahoma City backwards - this is a young 59-win team with a ton of room for internal improvement. Barring injuries, which you can never really plan for, the 2014 version of the Thunder is going to be worse than the 2015 and 2016 versions. I look at the youth and upside on this team and see a group that could win 70+ games in two seasons. The window for Oklahoma City isn't beginning to close - it's only starting to crack open.