The Oklahoma City Thunder have terrible luck. They have some really good players, so they also have had some good luck. However, with good luck comes high expectations, and with those high expectations, they've received a lot of bad luck.
The Thunder are a true blue contender, one of the few teams that people would actually place money on to win it all. But every season for the past few seasons, they just seem to run into something that kills their championship odds. After reaching the NBA Finals in 2012, they haven't matched the feat since – but not entirely by their own fault.
In 2012, the Thunder were a young team on the rise. Their five-game loss to the Miami Heat in the Finals came as a disappointment to those that wanted to see them succeed, but it was also an encouraging sign of what looked to be a bright future. It was progress as much as it was a blown opportunity. Over the next two years, the Thunder would lose Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to injury in the playoffs, ending their runs prematurely.
There's a point where the injuries become scapegoats, convenient excuses for uncomfortable truths. While going without Ibaka for two games in the 2014 Western Conference Finals (both losses) definitely made an impact, the buzzsaw that were the San Antonio Spurs adjusted to his return and finished off the Thunder. In 2013, the cost of the loss of James Harden was felt when Westbrook went down and the Thunder had to take on the tenacious Grizzlies defense with Durant flying practically solo. If 2012's conclusion brought optimism then, it's been dampened today because in retrospect it's been the Thunder's best chance at a title to date.
Today, the Thunder aren't a rising team anymore. They're there, the most elite tier in the NBA. Their window for a championship is the present, and that window's closing date could be a lot closer than it seems. Kevin Durant is due for free agency in 2016, and his decision will befollowed by Westbrook and Ibaka in 2017.
It might seem insane to imagine a Thunder team without Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, but all it takes is one domino to trigger a chain reaction. If Durant leaves, Westbrook and Ibaka might become disillusioned with the franchise's direction and also consider leaving. The only given here is that they'll be hot commodities on the market.
It's going to start with Durant. The idea of Durant leaving seems borderline heretical to discuss these days. It's a doomsday scenario that's still two years away, so obviously no one wants to talk about it. Besides, the best way to influence Durant's decision before his contract expires would be to focus on the present and win a ring.
But the pressure is really on now, and regardless of whatever may happen between now and Durant's free agency. Excuses are no longer acceptable. Excuses won't convince Durant to stay if he's truly tempted by an offer from the Washington Wizards or some other team come 2016 and remains ringless as a member of the Thunder.
The team's owner, Clay Bennett, has gained some infamy for being shy to shell out money in free agency and go over the tax. The draft selection and subsequent D-League stashing of Josh Huestis didn't look good within that context, as the Thunder seemed to forego drafting a NBA-ready player that could help the team win now for a project that could help the team stay under the tax instead.
An argument could be made for being wary of the dangers of the repeater tax, which hits teams that remain over the luxury tax threshold for consecutive years with increasingly hard penalties. It's something that any small market team has to be wary of. The luxury tax threshold will skyrocket over the next few years, but current projections are difficult as talks of smoothing out cap increases are discussed. At any rate, player values will rise up parallel to the cap. It would be short-sighted to spend now purely on account of the cap rising later, especially since it could restrict the team's ability to hand out max deals to Durant and Co. later on.
The two seasons between now and Durant's free agency could be life-or-death for the current era of the franchise. If there ever was a time for Bennett to make a bet and expose himself to the repeater tax, it would be now. And the Thunder even pulled a pretty significant profit last season. They were expected to have made roughly $29 million last season, per Grantland's Zach Lowe – fifth-highest in the league. Bennett's making bank, and if we make the reasonable assumption that future profits would take a hit without the team's superstars and success, wouldn't it only make sense to invest some extra money now in an attempt to win a ring and give those guys more reason to stay?
It's scary to talk about this stuff now. The idea of Durant leaving for another team is as well as taboo right now, and talking about Westbrook and Ibaka following suit is another step towards the edge from that point. We're looking waaaaay into the future, overlooking all sorts of potential change between now and then. I'm already ready for the mess in the comments! But here's the bottom line: this is no time for excuses.
Things may happen that are out of the Thunder's control. Durant is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a foot injury, and while that should be forgotten by the playoffs, it represents an unfriendly start to the season. Time is of the essence, and if the Thunder dropping from the first seed to the third seed because of Durant's injury slims their chances at a championship even a bit (although I would debate otherwise), then that's a little less wiggle room for a team that could hardly afford to make missteps as is. It's not that they're in a bad position today – they might as well be the title favorite – but they just have too much on the line to mess up.
If they encounter an injury to a core player in the playoffs again this year, the Thunder need to at least give themselves every chance to deal with it. If Westbrook or Ibaka go down again, players like Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams better be able to contribute. If, God forbid, Durant goes down this time, then the Thunder better have somebody ready to step in. There's no controlling luck, but there's something to be said for being prepared.
The team's prerogative now isn't exactly to acquire good players and get into the tax. It's to go 100% as an organization, from top to bottom. This team needs Scott Brooks to clean up his oft-criticized offensive schemes, the many prospects on this team to step up and redeem themselves as NBA-worthy, and if a favorable opportunity presents itself, then yes, the team should be willing to make a move on a player through trade or free agency even if it means going into the tax.
Nothing against their efforts up until now – they've been successful, and part of the reason they haven't won it all truly is attributable to luck – but this is the time to make a full commitment to winning. Every little bit now matters.