The world is their oyster. The possibilities for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder seem limitless, without a single key player older than 28 years old on their current NBA Finals roster. It is not uncommon to see stories about the Thunder that begin with phrases like, "in the first of what will undoubtedly be many NBA Finals games in his career, Kevin Durant…"
In the interest of wanting to see vast potential fulfilled, we hope this is only the first of many finals trips for Durant. We would hate to see this be the high point of his career, and given the canny maneuvering of head executive Sam Presti and the team's existing young core, Oklahoma City should be set up for numerous championship runs.
Yet this is not the guaranteed birth of a dynasty as many assume it is. There are several factors that could work against a long Thunder reign, or at least make it problematic.
Salary cap space could become an issue within the next year, with superb sixth man James Harden and shot-blocking force Serge Ibaka's contracts up for renewal. Both are bargains at the moment, with Harden making about $4.6 million and Ibaka making just under $1.3 million, according to ShamSports. The only way Oklahoma City can keep both players while paying Durant and Westbrook (who are under team control until 2016 and 2017, respectively) their considerable salaries is to get one to agree to a massive discount or to fill the rest of the roster with mediocre draft picks from the late first round and past-their-prime veterans. That latter approach could be termed, "The Miami Heat method."
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement is tough enough to navigate for the financially solvent, and the Thunder's situation may be more complicated now that team co-owner Aubrey McClendon is in face-saving mode. Chesapeake Energy, the natural gas company McClendon chairs and the namesake of the Thunder's arena, is trying to make up a $22 million shortfall created by McClendon's bad bets as chief executive officer on natural gas prices last year, Bloomberg reports. McClendon will lose his CEO title but retain his powers as chairman, Reuters reports.
McClendon's troubles could cloud the Thunder's financial outlook, although he is only one of a number of members of chairman Clay Bennett's Professional Basketball Club LLC. If the Thunder were prepared to exceed the salary cap and head into luxury tax territory to retain its core players, McClendon's affairs are a reminder that in business, the money that appears to be there one minute might not be there the next minute. That is why even the richest NBA owners are often unwilling to be locked into the prohibitive luxury tax for multiple years.
Finally, even if all the financial mumbo-jumbo is worked out — Bennett's group, after all, is the bunch that somehow convinced the world that they had enough money to buy the Seattle SuperSonics for $350 million but not enough to contribute any money to build a new arena in that city — team chemistry could always change.
Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury were supposed to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves as the 21st century's Karl Malone and John Stockton, but Marbury allegedly grew jealous of Garnett's fame and was gone within three years. Durant and Westbrook coexist peacefully now, mostly through Durant's egoless interactions with the point guard, but a title or two could lead Westbrook to wonder what it would be like to run his own show somewhere else. Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant dabbled with the thought of leaving their championship squads and finding teams of their own to lead. Perhaps Westbrook will follow through.
Counting on anything to happen is a dangerous game in the NBA. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett were not supposed to play more than three years together, and they just finished their fifth campaign as a contender. Michael Jordan warned Bill Russell he was gunning for the Celtics' record of eight straight championships, and the Bulls were primed to do it before Jordan abruptly retired in 1993. The list of "should haves" and "would haves" goes on and on.
The pertinent matter for the time being, though, is that while observers seem to believe the Thunder will be in the Finals many times, the players themselves do not seem to be taking that for granted. Durant did not look like a player counting on future opportunities while he was scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Nothing is promised, and from the looks of it, the Thunder are approaching this as their one and only opportunity.
Photo via Twitter/@Dr_Katxejos