Thunder’s title window might be closing

A team with two MVP-caliber players in their prime should never hear rumors about their title window closing. Yet this is the dilemma the Oklahoma City Thunder faces as each of its star players prepares to enter unrestricted free agency for the next two seasons. Kevin Durant, the star attraction of the 2016 free agency class, will be heavily wooed next year by a litany of teams looking to augment their rosters with the four-time scoring champion. The following offseason will also see Russell Westbrook get his pick of the lot, as almost every team will have salary cap space available. Now, the question arises: Why would Westbrook and Durant want to leave the Thunder?

After all, the opportunity to play for a perennial contender on one of the younger teams seems tempting. The prospect of winning multiple championships and becoming a dynasty should attract two established superstars who hope to cement their legacies. Also, none of the players is at risk of losing money despite their owner’s stingy track record.

On the surface, the Thunder provide each superstar with an ideal situation that will benefit them both on and off the basketball court. However, the team’s previous inability to win a championship, coupled with the appeal other teams have to offer, should have the Thunder generally concerned about how long they can retain their core title contender.

The collision of two egos

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are phenomenal basketball players that any team would envy having. However, their ability (or inability) to match each other on the basketball court could, conversely, result in the Thunder losing one of them, if not both. This is not to say that none of these players have personal conflicts with each other. Rather, it is a testament to the greatness displayed by each respective player.

Kevin Durant is just one season away from an MVP campaign in which he became the first player in 25 years to average at least 32 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. On the other hand, Westbrook just gave his best Oscar Robertson impression with averages of 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists. The struggle to determine which of these players is the alpha male of the team could ultimately lead to their demise.

Westbrook will have to manage to share his touches, as his absurd 38.4% usage percentage will be unacceptable with Kevin Durant on the court. Westbrook must realize that regardless of his otherworldly athleticism, he must prioritize his strengths – bouncing and facilitating. Then you can maximize Kevin Durant’s scoring prowess. Averaging more field goal attempts than Durant will not remedy his situation.

There have been inopportune moments throughout their career as teammates where Durant has taken a back seat to Westbrook, instead of using his scoring arsenal to the best of his ability. For both players to continue to coexist, they must tap into each other’s strengths rather than take turns being the leader. Otherwise, the hopes of the Thunder Dynasty could be disintegrated sooner than expected.

Too many empty postseason trips

With the exception of the injury-ridden chaos that was last season, the Thunder have been a playoff game and a 50-win guaranteed team since 2009-10. Arguably the only team with a better résumé than them in the last five years is the Spurs. Yet despite their consistent success in the regular season as one of the top two or three teams in the league, the Thunder have always thrown empty results when it comes to winning a championship.

At first, your inability to obtain a degree could be attributed to sheer inexperience. After all, Durant and Westbrook were only 23 years old when they faced title-hungry Lebron James in the 2012 Finals. In the postseason that followed, the injury virus bit them at their worst. Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus on a low shot from Patrick Beverley during the Thunder’s first-round series against Houston in 2013. In 2014, Serge Ibaka was unable to participate in the first two games of the Thunder’s conference final matchup against the Spurs, and subsequently lost both those games and the series.

So far, the Thunder’s deficiencies in the postseason appear to be the victims of bad luck. Consequently, that implies that if the Thunder fail to achieve their championship aspirations once again, speculation of breaking through their core may begin to emanate. However, if the Thunder win a title, it all ensures the retention of their two superstars for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the extension or termination of your title window depends on your success in the upcoming season.

The charm of coming home

As unrestricted free agency approaches for both players, they will receive endless offers from a wide range of teams. Most of these teams do not have the ability to remove them from their Oklahoma City situation. However, for the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers, the temptation to play for their hometown team could make them a resident superstar. It may seem absurd that a team’s affiliation with a player’s hometown is reason enough to leave the comfort of Durant and Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Then again, would Lebron really leave Dwayne Wade if Ohio wasn’t his home state? Therefore, the Wizards and Lakers influence these players in a way that the Thunder cannot compete with.

For the Wizards, his appeal goes beyond having a connection to Durant’s personal life. His young tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal would work perfectly playing alongside Kevin Durant. According to Basketball Reference, Wall has averaged 8.7 assists in his career. He’s the best passer in the game this side of Chris Paul, giving Kevin Durant the first pass setter he needs to maximize his scoring skills. Wall’s ability to drive and throw a plate coupled with Beal’s exceptional three-point shot would lead to easier and more efficient scoring opportunities for Kevin Durant. Playing in the easier Eastern Conference should also be attractive. As a result, the Wizards are in a firm position to acquire Durant if the Thunder disappoint this season.

Consequently, Durant’s decision could determine Westbrook’s verdict in the subsequent offseason. If Durant goes ahead, the Thunder lose their luster as a title contender, prompting Russell Westbrook to take his talents elsewhere. A conjunction with the Lakers would definitely be considered. He was born and raised in California, attending college at UCLA. By then Kobe will most likely have retired, giving Westbrook a chance to take on the desired role of unquestioned leader. Plus, the Lakers have a promising young core that will be closer to their ceiling when Westbrook arrives. Therefore, the Lakers and Wizards are legitimate threats to snatch Durant and Westbrook.

In all likelihood, the Thunders’ success in the 2015-16 season will determine their future as a team. If the Thunder do well enough to impress their dynamic duo, they have a core that will compete for years to come. In hindsight, an early postseason exit could spell the end for the Thunder. With a slew of teams aiming to get these players in the upcoming off-seasons, the Thunder’s title window will soon reach its climax.

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