And just like that, it was gone. After absolutely pummeling the Golden State Warriors in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed destined to end the defending champions’ historic season just short of the NBA Finals. And deservedly, too—after a season in which few teams even succeeded in slowing Golden State down, the Thunder stifled a historically great offense and alternately blitzed and bullied the Warriors on the other end. After years of lousy luck and postseason shortcomings, the path to a championship for the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook duo finally appeared to be coming into focus. It seemed that way right up until it didn’t, with the Warriors coming back from a 3-1 deficit to breeze into the Finals.
After that disappointment, the story in OKC reverted to the one that had dominated their season—the uncertain future of Kevin Durant. There was the idea he could return to his Washington D.C. roots; there was the story that appeared on Yahoo’s The Vertical suggesting Golden State could make a play for the seven-time All-Star. Stephen A. Smith said some things about Durant going to the Lakers, but Durant dismissed that decisively enough to make Stephen A. very upset. When Oklahoma City discarded their arch-nemesis, San Antonio, in convincing fashion and jumped out to a commanding 3-1 series lead during the Western Conference Finals, though, the present seemed a lot more interesting than speculating about the future.
After a wasted fourth quarter lead in Game 6 and the eventual road defeat in Game 7, the team and its fans are facing the future again. With the salary cap increasing over the next few years, more teams will have the financial means to woo the most coveted free agent on the market. If Durant does decide to bolt, we have some idea what it might look like. It happened before, when Durant was still just a kid.
A few months ago, ESPN presented the 30 for 30 film, This Magic Moment, which chronicled the quick rise and abrupt fall of the Orlando Magic during the 1990s. After three years of the sort of macro-scale losing associated with expansion teams—the team’s winning percentage was around 28 percent over its first three seasons—the trajectory of the franchise shifted dramatically when the NBA Lottery blessed them with two transcendent talents in consecutive years. The addition of Shaquille O’Neal instantly made the Magic a .500 team. The arrival of Anfernee Hardaway the next season made them a title contender. In three years after Hardaway was drafted, Orlando averaged 55 wins per season.
Obviously there are differences between the two franchises—Oklahoma City wasn’t an expansion franchise when it added Durant and Westbrook, for one thing, though they’d stripped themselves down nearly to that point. But there are parallels, too, down to the contrasting personalities of each team’s dual stars. Now, 15 years later, another parallel looms concerning how they came apart.
Oklahoma City’s relocation from Seattle, along with the change in team name, logo, and color scheme, gave them an expansion team’s feel; their sparse roster helped with that. They were an upstart team in a small market, just as Orlando was in 1989. They weren’t much better on the court, either: in the three years prior to Westbrook’s second season (Durant’s third), the Sonics/Thunder had won about 30 percent of their games. It was that season (2009-10) in which things came together quickly; since then, Oklahoma City has averaged 53 wins. It’s worth noting, the prorated win total of the 2011-12 shortened season would’ve been 58 wins, which would have bumped the Thunder average over this time to, yes, 55 wins.
Very rarely do we witness a quick ascension into the NBA’s elite, and that wasn’t the case with Orlando and later on with Oklahoma City. Like O’Neal and Hardaway before them, the tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook practically doubled their team’s win total in no time and found themselves in the playoffs, albeit in the bottom half of the table. Although the Magic and Thunder were quickly discarded in their postseason debuts at the hands of veteran teams, the league was on notice. Over the next two seasons, Orlando advanced to the NBA Finals in ’94-95 and then the Eastern Conference Finals the next season. The Thunder finished just as far but in reverse order.
The demise of the Magic’s run began after Orlando was swept out of the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals by the Chicago Bulls. O’Neal would jump to the Lakers in free agency, and although the Magic would go on to win 45 games the following season, they were bounced from the playoffs in the first round. The championship window for Hardaway and company was essentially slammed shut, and the franchise would never be the same.
Many factors played a part in O’Neal’s decision to leave Disney World for Hollywood. There was the initial low-ball offer from the Magic, and an infamous Orlando Sentinel poll in which 91.3 percent of Magic fans claimed Shaq wasn’t worth the $115M contract he was offered. It didn’t help matters that Shaq was looking to further advance his entertainment career, and given that the Lakers had the cap space to sign the superstar center, the resulting $120M deal was (sorry) a slam dunk.
Money shouldn’t be an issue with Durant, not in the way it was with Orlando and Shaq; Oklahoma City will most certainly offer him the maximum. It’s possible Durant could be attracted to the bright lights that a Los Angeles or a New York could offer, does an athlete really need to play in a big city in the 21st century in order to be marketable? Aren’t LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, and Westbrook enough proof that this isn’t the case?
There’s also a lot more love between Durant and Oklahoma City than there was Shaq and Orlando; for all the awkward/heated moments between Durant and the local media during his tenure with the team, there haven’t been any polls where Thunder fans have vehemently voiced their displeasure over their franchise star. If anything OKC fans have decided Durant is the better player in a landslide!
The grass of the Eastern Conference may look greener, but Durant shouldn’t discount what he has in Oklahoma City. He and Westbrook are both only 27 and with good health moving forward should have four or five years in their prime. Additionally, much of the supporting cast that pushed the Warriors to the brink (notably Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Andre Roberson) is under the age of 25. The draft night deal that coincidentally sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando of all places, has upgraded the starting backcourt with Victor Oladipo and added size up front with promising rookie prospect Domantas Sabonis and veteran Ersan Ilyasova.
Following this blockbuster there’s no reason why the Thunder couldn’t dethrone Golden State next season, especially after seeing how vulnerable they were in both the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals. Compared to the squad that Shaq and Penny had backing them up—Nick Anderson (28), Dennis Scott (28), and Horace Grant (31) were the core of it—Oklahoma City’s looks pretty solid.
Just as it was two decades ago, a small market team’s future depends on a superstar’s free agent decision. Just as it was two decades ago, that decision will have to do with variables that have little to do with basketball, and which are hard to predict. At the moment, it looks like Durant has more reasons to stay than O’Neal did, but he’s always kept his cards close, and it’s foolish to predict what he wants, or where he’ll go. We might just need to wait for the 30 for 30 to know for sure, and to see just how close this parallel really is.
Jonathan Griggs is a longtime sufferer of the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Minnesota Vikings, and Maryland Terrapins. If his luck with sports wasn't bad enough, he is married to a woman from Cleveland. He's written for sites such as SB Nation's NetsDaily, YES Network's The Brooklyn Game, The Cauldron, and BestofNJ.com. For more of his thoughts about sports and life, you can follow him @WeMustBeNets and check out his personal blog at www.wemustbenets.com