Kevin Durant Can Only Do So Much: How the Thunder Have Stacked the Deck Against Their Own Superstar

Kevin Durant just cannot win these days. Despite doing everything possible, he lost the MVP award almost unanimously to Lebron James and now he finds his team down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzles. Never has a player been so good but clearly just the second best player in the NBA. It appears this year he won’t get the chance to prove himself against Lebron, through no fault of his own. Westbrook went down due to a freak injury in his otherwise very healthy career. I still favored the Heat in a finals rematch, but the Thunder certainly had more than just a punchers chance with Westbrook.

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         Coming into the playoffs the Thunder seemed like a lock to make the finals and face Miami in a highly anticipated rematch. Now the Thunder are in serious jeopardy of being bounced out in the second round despite Durant averaging 32pts/12reb/6ast all while shooting 50% against a strong defensive team who can concentrate all their energy on him. The inability of Durant’s teammates to generate anything offensively has the Thunder in dire straights (that would be even more dire were it not for Durant’s heroics in game 1). Kevin Martin has shot just 38% in the series and left all the pressure for Kevin Durant. The Thunder have zero shot creators outside of Durant, the only player who comes close is Reggie Jackson, who has played well in stretches. Most Thunder fans must be thinking, “It sure would be nice to have James Harden right about now…”

            The Thunder organization has made many more good moves than bad moves since the Kevin Durant era began, but the Harden trade is inexcusable (as well as Kendrick Perkins contract). James Harden is on the verge of becoming the newest superstar in the NBA. His shooting percentages suffered in Houston but his production was what one would expect from a top shelf shooting guard. As Houston improves, so should Harden’s efficiency. Harden’s replacement, Kevin Martin, has been very underwhelming in these playoffs. Throughout the regular season, Martin gave about what was expected: 45% FG/ 42.6% 3PFG/ 89% FT. In these playoffs (just his second playoff appearance) his field goal percentage has dropped to 36% despite taking only 12 shots per game. Harden averaged 26ppg on 39% shooting as the focal point of his team, there really is no comparison, it was a terrible trade. Sure, Houston threw in Jeremy Lamb (who could be decent) and two first rounders, but neither pick is high enough to be very valuable in such a weak draft.  But the most important reason this was a poor trade is the Thunder should be trying to WIN NOW.

            Windows close quickly and unexpectedly in the NBA and the Thunder had arguably 3 of the top 10 players in the NBA (more than Miami can say, except Lebron is probably equivalent to 2 top ten players). Though the team was/is still young, when a team has that level of talent, it is time to go for it all. The Thunder with Harden were the only team ready to compete with Miami, and as an NBA fan I am offended they robbed me of some great finals matchups. The player OKC chose to keep, Serge Ibaka, is a nice player. He is great shot blocker who is still developing offensively, but realistically he is not going to get a whole lot better than he is now. Everyone knew Harden was a superstar waiting to happen, and he would have gave OKC the three superstars that characterize many of the NBA’s greatest dynasties. I am not saying Harden would average what he does in Houston, but he gave the Thunder a third scorer/distributor who won the bench battle every night, a la Manu Ginobili. Now we see where Harden may have been even more valuable, as an insurance policy.

            The Thunder with Harden this year likely would not win the finals with the Westbrook injury, but they likely do make the Conference finals and possibly the finals. Then, you know, they have three healthy stars going into next year. Now the Thunder are left with some serious questions, or maybe just regrets. Kevin Martin is a free agent and he is currently hurting his stock with this playoff performance. Unfortunately for the Thunder, there are not many upgrades in free agency and their cap space will only get tighter the following years. It could be worse; they still have two incredible players and should be the favorites to win the West for the foreseeable future, but it’s not about winning the West, it’s about beating Miami. OKC has given Durant less than Miami has given Lebron, and I fear Durant could be stuck in Lebron’s shadow the first half career, and there is nothing he can do about it (he just has to wait until Dwayne Wade’s injuries are too much to overcome).

– Jay Bowne

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