Why Oklahoma City Thunder's Championship Clock Is Ticking Loudly

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 6, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant looks on behind point guard Russell Westbrook against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

With general manager Sam Presti's draft-day Midas touch, the Oklahoma City Thunder have afforded themselves the opportunity to lead a charmed NBA existence.

But life at the top can be fragile, especially when it's never actually reached the top.

Not that the Thunder have reason to complain, of course. Their hand is among the strongest at Adam Silver's table, with reigning MVP Kevin Durant and three-time All-Star Russell Westbrook co-piloting a perennial contender that features a lethal blend of talent, length, athleticism and youth.

In Durant and Westbrook, Oklahoma City essentially holds an annual playoff pass. Over the past four seasons, the Thunder have won more than 70 percent of their regular-season games and eight playoff series.

There is reason to believe the best is yet to come. Durant and Westbrook are only 25 years old. Blossoming big man Serge Ibaka turns 25 in September. In a league often defined by talented triads, Oklahoma City might have the most ferocious three-headed monster.

"This three-man unit has already proven its playoff mettle, driving Oklahoma City to the Finals three years ago," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "It's loaded with star power, elite athleticism, space-creating shooters and an MVP."

EDMOND, OK - SEPTEMBER 27: (LtoR) Serge Ibaka #9, Russell Westbrook #0, and Kevin Durant #35  poses for a portrait during 2013 NBA Media Day on September 27, 2013 at the Thunder Events Center in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

With that trio on board, Oklahoma City should never stray from the championship talk.

However, there is an increasing amount of pressure for this group to break through its banner-raising barrier. Quickly.

For all of the success the Thunder have enjoyed, they still have yet to hoist the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy. At some point, those fruitless playoff runs will stop being seen as signs of a bright future and start getting cast under an entirely different light: wasted opportunities.

There are no moral victories in the second season. The Thunder aren't celebrating the fact they're rubbing elbows with the NBA's elitesthey're wondering why they haven't officially joined the club:

"The biggest thing with our team is our mental," center Kendrick Perkins told reporters at his exit interview. "In my opinion, we had more than enough talent to win a championship this year. I thought we just fell short because of the mental things that we did wrong."

Turnovers, missed assignments, wavering trust in teammatesthe Thunder made enough small blunders for it to impact their big picture.

While some might dismiss those as the growing pains of a young team, this core is older than it seems. Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook have 18 years of NBA service between them. They're all accustomed to the bright lights of the postseason.

The only part of this game they haven't figured out is the one that produces a happy ending.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

It's easy to imagine that chance will come at some point. The Thunder flashed elite credentials last season—59 wins, top-seven rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per NBA.com—despite Westbrook undergoing three procedures on his right knee over an eight-month span.

Ibaka battled a calf injury that threatened to end his playoff run, but the Thunder still pushed the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs to six games in the conference finals. Like Westbrook's the year before, Ibaka's injury showed how minuscule the margin for error is come playoff time:

Injuries are impossible to predict, but they serve a larger part to this story.

Playoff basketball as a whole is unpredictable. History has shown that even top-shelf talent isn't always enough, as Grantland's Bill Simmons explained:

That window can be a cruel beast. For whatever reason, Dirk and Nash won three MVPs after breaking up, but they never made the Finals together. Yao and T-Mac never won a playoff series together. An inconceivable Wilt-Elgin-West trio lost two straight Game 7s in the Finals. LeBron spent seven seasons in Cleveland without ever winning a Finals game. Ewing and Barkley never won titles. Four unstoppable-at-the-time duos — Hakeem and Ralph, Penny and Shaq, GP and Kemp, and Malone and Stockton — somehow finished with a combined 8-20 Finals record.

The Thunder, talent-rich as they are, face the same uphill climb as any championship-hopeful squad, only they may feel a deeper sense of urgency than most.

That has some to do with exorcising the ghosts of playoffs past, but more to do with the uncertainty in this franchise's future.

Suitors are already prepping for Durant's 2016 foray into free-agent madness. He's already being peppered with questions about his plans.

Those talks will continue until the second he puts pen to paper on his next contract, as they should. He's a franchise-fortune-reversing talent. As early as this speculation has started, these are hardly wasted words.

Ultimately, his decision is outside of Oklahoma City's control.

"I'm going to do what's best for me," he told reporters at Team USA training camp in Las Vegas. "It's hard to talk about that right now when I've got two years left in Oklahoma City. I'm just going to focus on that."

Only Durant knows what will drive his decision, but the Thunder could help him make it by cashing in one of these playoff runs.

Keeping KD is obviously OKC's top priority, but Westbrook and Ibaka are slated to come off the books the following summer. If the Thunder don't give Durant a reason to stay, their cupboards could empty in a hurry.

This could be the perfect time to strike.

The Eastern Conference looks deeper than last season, but its top teams aren't quite as menacing. LeBron James has to readjust to life with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Chicago Bulls are crossing their fingers over Derrick Rose’s health for a third consecutive season.

The San Antonio Spurs are still the team to beat out West, but their core is another year older. The conference boasts other contenders—the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers—but none that have enjoyed as much playoff success as Oklahoma City.

The stars are aligning for the Thunder to make their move, but nothing will be handed to them.

Coach Scott Brooks must keep his offense from stagnating. Durant and Westbrook have to continue working toward finding a balance between them. Ibaka needs to continue his ascent, and the young guns on this roster—Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III and Mitch McGary—have to prove they are ready for significant roles on a full-fledged contender.

Oklahoma City knows as well as anyone how little it takes for these dreams to fall apart. It also understands how damaging another squandered chance could be.

This pressure is good. It means the Thunder have a shot at doing something special.

However, they have been in this position before and failed to realize their full potential. Back then, those mistakes and misfortunes shed light on a promising tomorrow.

But tomorrow is here now. It's championship-or-bust time for the Thunder, and the fate of the franchise could be at stake.



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