Tuesday, May 31, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Thunder close to breakthrough if Durant stays

Leader sportswriter

Despite Monday night’s game-seven loss to Golden State, what the Oklahoma City Thunder did this postseason was nothing short of impressive. But it’s hard to say whether or not their performance in these playoffs should be at all surprising.

It’s not a surprise to the Thunder players that they ousted the Spurs and were up 3-1 in the conference finals against the 73-win, defending champion Warriors. It may not have been a surprise to the bulk of their die-hard fans, either. But also, it may not have been a surprise that they once again came up short of getting back to the Finals.

When OKC advanced to the NBA Finals in 2012, even though it didn’t win, it looked certain that the Thunder would be back. But to some people’s surprise, it didn’t happen right away. The departure of James Harden had a lot to do with that, and when he skipped states for a max deal, that team took a serious hit, and its championship window instantly got smaller.

One player doesn’t make a team, but in a sport like basketball, where a team can only play five on the floor at once, and the roster size is already small, one player can make all the difference. Look at how the Cavs and Heat have done with and without LeBron James.

Any time a player like Harden leaves, it’s going to hurt the team. The recovery process isn’t as rough when the departing player was the third-best on the team and puts as much effort into his defense as Bobby Petrino.

When Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have both been on the floor and healthy, the Thunder have had a chance, and with the talented cast of players surrounding them, it’s hard to call their series win over the Spurs an upset, and it’s hard to be too surprised they had Golden State on the ropes at Chesapeake Arena in game six.

With Durant’s upcoming free agency looming and with the realization of the championship window getting smaller by the year, this Thunder team entered the 2016 playoffs hungrier than ever, and played like a team starving for a championship.

The players deserve their fair share of the credit for the way they performed and elevated their game this postseason, but Billy Donovan deserves his share as well.

It would be false to say that Donovan hasn’t been a difference maker. Yes, previous head coach Scott Brooks did get them to the Finals, but he also had Harden. Brooks may have had a good record and resume with the team, but what coach wouldn’t?

Donovan is not only a much better Xs and Os coach than Brooks, but Donovan got the most out of his players this postseason, and guided them to playing their best ball at the end of the year – one of the primary factors that go into winning a championship.

Even though the Thunder didn’t get to the Finals, it was a good first-year run for the first-year NBA coach, and he’s earned the praise he’s been receiving for his part in the team’s postseason run. Donovan may not have gotten the Thunder further than Brooks did (yet), but firing Brooks to get Donovan was the right call, even if Durant didn’t like or approve of it.

As far as Durant’s upcoming free agency is concerned, if one thing this postseason run has shown, it’s that OKC is the best place for him. Since the team once again fell short of getting back to the Finals, Durant may give some serious thought to giving it a go elsewhere, but it’s unlikely that he’ll depart that team and that city.

If he does choose to stay, though, it won’t be because he’s this tremendously great, loyal guy that has an undying love and devotion for Oklahoma City and the people in it. He probably has developed a certain fondness for the place, but that won’t be what keeps him if he does choose to stay. If he chooses to stay, it’ll be because he feels it’s the best option/fit for him, which is perfectly reasonable (it is a business after all).

He has a still young, talented team already in place, including the most explosive player the league has seen in a long time, maybe ever. When James left Cleveland, he did it because the best teammate he had was Mo Williams. Or was it Boobie Gibson? Antawn Jamison? Larry Hughes? Or was it the well past his prime Shaq?

Point being, Durant’s already got a pretty good gig in place, and he’ll probably re-sign with the Thunder because he has Westbrook and a pretty good/constantly improving cast surrounding them. But as long as OKC has Durant and Westbrook as its nucleus and they can stay healthy, the Thunder will continue to be among the top teams in the league for the next few years or more.

Whether or not that equates to them one day hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy remains to be seen. But if they plan on accomplishing that, it’s going to take more of what they’ve shown this postseason, and probably more next year, because it’s only going to get more difficult with each passing season, especially in that conference.