currently trail the Spurs
0-2 in the West finals. (Richard Rowe/NBAE/Getty Images)
SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest question of the day. Today, we examine …
Lee Jenkins: Yes. Since I picked them to win this season I should say yes but the clock is ticking. Let's assume the Spurs knock them out. No team will be under more pressure next season than the Thunder. If they don't win then, either, they head ring-less into Durant's free-agent year. They obviously won't want to move him, and he sounds committed, but if he did leave and they got nothing in return it would send the franchise back to the beginning. Those are the stakes for Oklahoma City. Durant's decision is still a long way off, but it will become an issue starting next summer, and he will want to see substantial progress by then. Oklahoma City's playoff results are hard to judge, since Russell Westbrook was out last post-season, and Serge Ibaka this one. As long as the Thunder are healthy, I'd put them as favorites next season, but the Clippers are improving and the Rockets are one move away. There are no sure things in the West.
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Chris Ballard: No. Of course, this is one of those questions that is dependent on variables out of the control of these two players. Will the Thunder add better pieces around them? Will Scott Brooks become a better coach? Will the Thunder hire a different coach? What will be the trajectory of the Spurs/Blazers/Rockets/Warriors/Clippers? Durant and Westbrook are not, in the best sense, complementary. Everyone knows that. But it's a credit to both of them - and especially Durant - that they've had this much success basically playing a game of "your turn, now my turn." And, in the right situation, they could ride that to a title. From a fan's standpoint though, it would be great to see Durant paired with a pure point guard, just like it would be great (or at least interesting) to see Westbrook at the helm of his own team. Last week, a friend of mine sent along a trade machine proposal that worked out: Steven Adams and Westbrook for Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Now that would be intriguing.
ROUNDTABLE: Which NBA star needs a change of scenery?
Ben Golliver: Yes. The future never seems bleaker than the morning after a humiliating 35-point shellacking by the Spurs, right? That a Serge Ibaka-less Thunder team is getting swallowed whole by one of the best and most complete teams the NBA has seen in recent years shouldn't be the key element in writing the franchise's history for the next 3-to-5 years. The Western Conference finals has been a crater-like bump in the road for Oklahoma City, but their fundamentals are still strong: this is a team that's won at least two-thirds of its regular season games in each of the past four years, and a team that has consistently advanced in the postseason too. They could lose Games 3 and 4 by sixty points combined and still be regarded as one of the league's top three teams entering the 2014-15 season.
The Thunder have two more years before Kevin Durant is a free agent, and there have been no major red flags that he wants out. On the contrary, some read his emotional MVP speech as a sign of his commitment to the franchise and the city. During those two years, the Durant/Russell Westbrook/Ibaka core should have two good shots at title contention, and they'll be in position to win it all if the injury breaks go with them -- instead of against them -- for once. Assuming Durant and Westbrook both re-sign, the pair should be entering their prime years as Tim Duncan retires and LeBron James figures out what's next, which should make for a nice championship window. It's still easier to envision this team, with a roster being carefully molded by GM Sam Presti, eventually winning a title that it is to foresee them breaking apart before they claim a Larry O'Brien trophy.
Rob Mahoney: No. Although they very much could win a title together, I'll take the cold probability on this one. The odds are so very much against any particular pairing of players winning the title that Durant and Westbrook have to be considered less than an even bet. They have a better chance than most given the staggering level of talent between them, but this year's run is running out of steam and Durant is only under contract through 2016. Built into the calculus of this question, then, is the distinct possibility that the Thunder have but two more playoff runs before Durant and Westbrook could hypothetically part ways. Given the sheer number of teams positioning themselves for Durant's free agency, that possibility seems fairly real.
So not only will Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder again need to stay healthy, field a competitive team, gut it out in a Western Conference that should only grow more competitive next season, plow through a playoff gauntlet that could run OKC through four straight contending opponents and get all the breaks necessary for any team to win the title, but they may have just two more opportunities to do so. As much as I respect both players and the Thunder on the whole, the outlook there inherently skews negative.
MAHONEY: What's plaguing the Thunder, Pacers in conference finals?
Chris Mannix: Yes. I hate this question. Hate it. Why? Because it paints a picture of Durant and Westbrook as uneasy allies, as toxic teammates, when that could not be further from the truth. Do Durant and Westbrook take a lot of shots? Yes. More than half (53.4 percent) in the playoffs, to be specific. But what are the alternatives? Dump the ball in for a Kendrick Perkins post-up? Give it up for a D-Fish iso? Like many, I think Durant and Westbrook should be moving the ball a little more in this San Antonio series. But let's not act like they are ignoring great options. Put a quality third option alongside Durant and Westbrook -- preferably a big who can score in the post -- and they are as equipped as any team to win a championship. Multiple championships.
Matt Dollinger: Yes. But with Scott Brooks? No. It's a lot easier to replace a head coach than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and if the Thunder fail to make a miraculous rally and reach the NBA Finals there's a good chance they'll have a new coach at the helm next season. Durant and Westbrook are obviously talented enough to lead a team to a championship, but are they humble enough? We've yet to see any sign that either star is willing to win without being the alpha male. Look at what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did in Miami -- are Durant and Westbrook willing to do the same? Are they willing to take slightly less money? To score slightly fewer points? To let the other seize the spotlight in the fourth quarter? We've seen teams in recent years fail on the playoff stage before succeeding (Heat, Mavericks) and there's plenty of reason to think the Thunder will be the next. They came close to winning the Finals in 2012, but they can't quite get over the hump. Another dose of humility this season -- and a new voice in the locker room -- could be just the kick in the butt they need to reach the mountaintop next season. After all, the Spurs can't win forever, right? (Right?!)
Chris Johnson: Yes. It wasn’t so long ago that the Thunder were perceived as the young, up-and-coming group set to contend for championships for the next decade. But after falling to Miami in the 2012 Finals and losing Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to injury the last two years, respectively, we’re at the point where the length of Oklahoma City’s window for title contention is being called into question. It is not premature to doubt whether Westbrook and Durant will ever win a title together. A host of factors could conspire to either a) split them apart or b) recurringly deny Oklahoma City’s championship bids during their partnership, however long it may last. But I still contend that a fully healthy Oklahoma City is as strong a candidate to win a championship as any other team in the league. It may even happen next year! And yes, I’m going under the assumption OKC, down 0-2, is cooked in this year’s Western Conference Finals matchup with San Antonio. The odds are against the Thunder suffering another debilitating injury next postseason. If this team is healthy, it can win a championship.
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