- Royce Young, NBA Writer
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After the Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated a few weeks ago, you could hear whispers of closing windows and ticking clocks. Another year gone by, another empty season. Is it possible the Thunder were starting to run out of chances? With this much talent, it's title-or-bust, right?
Fans are fickle, fans are frustrated and, above all, fans are impatient. But the Thunder need to be the opposite.
"What clock? There's no clock," Russell Westbrook said at the Thunder's exit interviews on June 1. "I don't believe in saying the time is closing. We have a lot of guys on this team capable of making things happen and our organization has done a great job of putting us in the position to be able win the championship every season. And once it gets to that point, it's on us to make it happen."
Look at the landscape. The Spurs just roared to an incredible championship, but don't forget: The Thunder have had that team's number for a while. They were never able to recover from Serge Ibaka missing the opening two games of the series, but the Thunder were effectively one Manu Ginobili miss away from a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals. The idea that a breakthrough will never come, or that the gap between the Spurs and Thunder is widening, is misguided.
Theoretically, San Antonio will at some point ride off into the sunset. It's not going to be this summer, as the Spurs' principals have all indicated they're ready to come back next season. Then there's Miami, which had every blemish exposed over the past couple of weeks. The Heat won 54 games in the regular season and struggled with consistency issues that we all excused as coasting (in hindsight, they were signal flares).
Even assuming their big three returns, the Heat's future looks iffy. They'll have LeBron James, which is the best possible start you can have to building a contender. But we can all see the hologram dragging around that looks like Dwyane Wade. And Chris Bosh, while absolutely elite, isn't enough on his own to compensate for an aging roster of spare parts.
The Heat could rebuild in a hurry, though, as each of its three stars has an opt-out clause he can exercise this summer. There's talk of Carmelo Anthony, but if the big three were willing to take those pay cuts, the better plan is to use that $14 million or so on two or three good players. That's a reloaded roster. Then again, the market is a bit watered down in terms of impact players to fill out eight or nine spots. The Heat don't have youth, and they don't have many affordable assets.
Tim Duncan and the Spurs have always played the long game, putting a top-tier contender on the floor year in and year out. Build the fortune methodically with a good base and smart investments. Some seasons they finished on top. Others they didn't. But over thepast 15 seasons, that window has constantly remained wide open. The Heat's, though, is in danger of slamming shut.
If you're the Thunder, which blueprint would you rather follow? Sustained excellence, or a flourish of potentially abbreviated prominence?
"There was not one season since I'm in the NBA that I really didn't truly believe that we could have won it," Ginobili said after the Spurs' Finals win in Game 5. "Every year we were up there. You know, sometimes we were No. 1 and we lost in the first round. Some other times we were seventh and we had a shot at winning it. But playing with the teammates I've always played, coached by the guy that is coaching us, I always felt that we had a shot, and I truly never believed it was the last shot. Even last year, after that tough blow and that tough series, Game 6 especially, I always believed that we had a shot coming back at this stage."
The Thunder have already enjoyed an incredible run of success. Over the past five seasons, they've won almost 70 percent of their games, grabbed four consecutive division titles, been in three of the past four Western Conference finals and made one NBA Finals trip. Four of their past five postseason exits were at the hands of the eventual champs, with the outlier being Westbrook's injury in 2013. The Thunder are playing the odds. Stay the course, stick to the plan and, eventually, you'll collect on those investments.
"The last four years, three trips to the Western Conference finals, a trip to the NBA Finals, and a year where Russell Westbrook got hurt and didn't even have a chance," Derek Fisher said of the Thunder during exit interviews. "In comparison to the Miami Heat, who have gone to four straight Finals and won two championships, and in comparison to the San Antonio Spurs, who have been one of the most consistent and well-run basketball teams and organizations in the last 15 or 20 years, nobody else is in that class, or even close to it, but this team."
This isn't some missive about running to stand still. While internal development is always the priority, two first-round draft picks plus some money to spend presents the Thunder an opportunity to improve. Patience is prudence, but that's meant for the future. Because, come October, the Thunder will be among a handful of teams that has a realistic chance to win the 2015 title.
As we all know, though, the shadow of 2016 hangs above the team like a menacing wall cloud over the prairie. There's no guarantee that Kevin Durant will buy into this patient approach or see the bigger picture. There's an assumption that Durant might follow LeBron's path and search out a better situation if the Thunder don't present a championship in the next two seasons. There's a distinct contrast between San Antonio's' sustained success and Miami's title starter kit approach. When 2016 comes for Durant, that will effectively be his decision: Does he try to replicate the Spurs' way, or the Heat's way? And after watching the events of the past two weeks, isn't the Duncan path more appealing?
You can be sure that Durant will pay attention to that. Who knows what happens over the next two seasons, but come 2016, there won't be a team that can realistically offer Durant a core better than Westbrook and Ibaka (and they'll all still be 27 or younger). The Nets and Knicks will have mostly empty rosters in the summer of 2016, but outside the bright lights of the big city, what can they give Durant? Less money, for starters, and the free agent class that summer doesn't present any combination of players that will be anywhere near the class of Durant's running mates in OKC.
Though the Thunder have modeled themselves in the image of the Spurs, they've been forced into a few detours. Falling in the 2012 Finals was the first, then dealing James Harden was the second. Westbrook's injury came next, then Ibaka's. The Spurs' archetype has worked, because it has worked. Worked five times, in fact. The Thunder's blueprint has built a perennial contender, just one that hasn't paid anything off.
"This is the team that is scratching on the surface of the best in all of basketball in recent years and in the history of the game," said Fisher, now the New York Knicks coach. "It's not as far off as it seems in terms of how bad it hurts, but to get across that finish line, it's still a long stride there at the end."
That's the Thunder's plan, summarized. Presti wants a roster that can enter training camp every single season with a belief that it can win it all. You need breaks, you need some luck (like not having one of your best players getting hurt). But the only way you're going to hit the target is to keep having bullets to fire.
Duncan won his first championship at age 22. But his first title as the true alpha was in 2003, as David Robinson was playing the role Duncan is now. His age: 26 years old. Durant will turn 26 before next season.
There are other teams coming, no doubt. The Clippers should be better. So should the Warriors. The Rockets are aiming to add pieces. Someone is probably going to land Kevin Love. The Trail Blazers are building. And the Spurs still have an assigned seat at the table until they decide otherwise.
But the Thunder are where they need to be. In some ways, it's just about outlasting the phase, and letting the natural course of eras play out. The NBA has always been about taking turns, and while it's presumptuous to assume something as big as a championship is an inevitable prize for sticking around, the Thunder can spend the next decade-plus chasing a title year after year after year if everyone just continues to buy in. The Thunder have wanted to be the Spurs, and still can be -- so long as a few someones are willing to play the role of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
After the Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated a few weeks ago, you could hear whispers of closing windows and ticking clocks. Another year gone by, another empty season.