With the added pressure of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, 2013 will put a lot of pressure on the young studs that Sam Presti has brilliantly drafted as general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They have made tremendous strides since their days as the Seattle SuperSonics, but deep playoff runs only mean so much if you don’t have a ring to show for it—just ask LeBron James.
Russell Westbrook (23 years old), James Harden (22) and Kevin Durant (23) have a lot of years before they even reach their primes, which is a very scary thought.
They'll be sure to demand the money they are worth, and then the question becomes: can Oklahoma City hold onto all of their Big Three? And should they if there is no championship banner?
Some of the cellar teams can afford to spend a year or two fine-tuning a roster or sticking with a player that has potential they haven’t quite lived up to. But Oklahoma City was three wins away from a title in 2012.
They have excellent team chemistry behind bright, young coach Scott Brooks, but they don’t have offensive support in the post. The Miami Heat can look to Chris Bosh and the Los Angeles Lakers now have Dwight Howard; and of course, the San Antonio Spurs still have Tim Duncan.
If they can’t pull it together next year, something has to change.
There is no way the front office will be satisfied with these playoff appearances—and they shouldn't be. When you have Kevin Durant to build around, you should be a perennial championship contender.
And there is no way that Durant is going anywhere.
So that means each and every other player in the starting lineup will be open to trade talks. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are elite defensive presences which could provide viable trade bait for the Thunder.
Russell Westbrook is a top 10 player in the NBA, which warrants the consideration of a big man from possible suitors if the Thunder can figure out the right deal. James Harden may be the odd man out after his abysmal performance in the 2012 NBA Finals that included back-to-back games shooting 20 percent from the field.
Which starter(s) the Thunder deal depends on four factors: 1) Perry Jones III 2) potential trades available 3) 2013 performance 4) money demanded by the player.
If Perry Jones III pans out to be a respectable forward/center at 6’11”, then Oklahoma City may be more inclined to get rid of the $9 million that Perkins is due in 2014. Jones' performance could also warrant an addition to a trade if OKC decides to deal Westbrook or Harden.
If 2013 ends up in a championship, then Presti will do everything in his power to retain the young core that the Thunder have.
But if Ibaka and Harden demand too much in free agency and the Thunder haven’t won a title, they will be on the trading block with Westbrook in the midst of a five-year, $80 million contract.
There are endless permutations of possibilities for the Thunder to work with, and one thing is certain: if 2013 doesn’t pan out the way 2012 did for Miami, things will change and players will be moved.