This season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are considered as one of the strongest favorites for the NBA Championship. They are certainly the strongest favorite in the Western Conference, although they finished the regular season at the second seed, right behind the San Antonio Spurs. Of course, OKC has been an elite team in the West for the last few years. Guess who they have to thank about the success. You guess it right, it’s the superstar duet of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The two of them have really changed the course of the franchise and they are projected to continue and keep the Thunder to the top level in the West. Or maybe not?
OKC fans, don’t get worried just yet. Neither Westbrook nor Durant stated officially – or unofficially – that they’ll be departing from Oklahoma City. And of course, they are both under contract for the next few seasons. In fact, Westbrook will have the chance to hit the market only after the end of the 2016 – 2017 season and Kevin Durant will become an unrestricted free – agent a year before. However, this doesn’t meant that the two megastars will for sure stay in Oklahoma City until then.
On the contrary, there exist several GMs around the league who believe that one of the two might have to leave OKC much sooner. That’s because Oklahoma City is a small market and it might become just too expensive for the team to retain both superstars within the next few years. In other words, the Thunder will have to spend too much money on KD and Westbrook and they will be unable to support them with enough quality, at least not enough to reach the Thunder’s ultimate goal, to win a championship.
Durant is in the books for almost $20 million next season and more than $21 million the one after. Westbrook will earn $15.7 million in 2014 – 2015 and $16.7 million the following season. It becomes obvious that a big chunk of the Thunder’s payroll will go to the two megastars, which is rational. Nonetheless, considering that the Thunder are not in a big market – city, it will be relatively difficult for them to exceed salary cap by a big percentage, because then, due to the new CBA, they will have to pay much more luxury tax. Unlike big markets like LA and New York, the Thunder will most probably not be able to go deep into the luxury tax or else the team might have losses instead of profits.
So, it might be inevitable for the Thunder to split their two megastars and hope to find other solutions to chase the Larry O’Brien trophy. OKC might have to trade away one of the two superstars, much like it did in the case of James Harden. Of course, no Thunder fan one enjoyed Harden leave and the team didn’t want to lose its sixth man and third best player. However, it was widely considered that OKC would not have been able to re-sign the man with the Beard after his contract expired. So, in an effort to at least get some value back out of him, the Thunder did the right thing and traded him for Kevin Martin, who, then of course, departed for Minnesota last summer.
This brings the same question several team owners pointed out when the new CBA was voted almost three years ago, how can the NBA in a way secure teams which are in small markets against the giants like the New York Knicks or the two LA teams? In a way, those small market teams are kind of doomed, as they won’t be able to sustain their superstars and their profitability together.
Of course, OKC’s course during the 2014 NBA Playoffs will be crucial, when it comes to the future of KD and Westbrook. In a way, the Thunder had their chances to win the title. They reached the NBA Finals back in 2012, when they just weren’t able to top the Miami Heat. In addition, this is the sixth consecutive season that KD and Westbrook are playing together and they did have some solid supporting casts over the course of the years. So if they were to make it to the to, wouldn’t they already be there? Maybe the wisest choice for the team, especially if it fails to win the championship this season, is to just trade away either Westbrook or Durant, get tons of value and talent back, yet in a more affordable price, and give it another shot? Under a new formation?
Certainly, this Durant and Westbrook rumor might be nothing more than just discussions within GMs. After all, which General Manger of any team in the NBA wouldn’t be eager to at least have a shot to land either of the two megastars? However, there might be a dose of reality and realism in this scenario. Again, much of the realism or not of this scenario will depend of the Thunder’s course during the playoffs. OKC is one of the top favorites for the title, not just in the West, but in the entire NBA. As long as the two megastars stay healthy, OKC should be able to make a strong push towards the championship.
Nevertheless, if it they fail to make it to the top or even worse if they suffer an early exit from the playoffs, those critic voices will start getting louder and louder in the heads of everyone around the team. And this could be the beginning of the era of KD and Westbrook, at least together. In any case, if one of the two superstars had to go, my stake would be that Westbrook would be the one to be shown the exit door. That’s because he is just not as good as KD and he has already experienced some health issues.