Are Oklahoma City Thunder Fighting for Future with Kevin Durant?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 25: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 25, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Kevin Durant was unequivocally impressed by LeBron James' decision to return home, and he was especially satisfied with his rationale.

"I thought it was well thought out, it was classy," Durant told reporters. "It's fun to see a guy think about more than just basketball for once, and himself … He thought about the city where he comes from, northeast Ohio and how he could affect so many kids bigger than basketball. I love that."

With the Oklahoma City Thunder's quest for a championship foiled by the San Antonio Spurs last season, it's only natural to begin wondering whether the organization's exploits are inextricably linked to Durant's future with the team.

Could another failed run cause KD to contemplate his own roots and perhaps even a 2016 defection to the Washington Wizards?

USA Today's Sam Amick writes, "The incumbent Thunder officials would no doubt be sleeping easier at night if they had a Larry O'Brien trophy to put inside the team's practice facility as a reminder to Durant that he shouldn't leave."

When asked if bringing a title to OKC would encourage him to re-sign as a free agent in 2016, Durant said, "That would be cool. It would definitely be tough to (leave then)."

But he added a curious caveat: "I don't want to think too far down the line. I'm trying to focus on today. I love my teammates, my coaches, the front office, the city, but we'll see."

We'll see.

Those are the words of a man who isn't making any commitments until it's absolutely necessary. Words that may indicate some degree of disaffection with the Thunder and their recent history of coming up short.

Oklahoma City ran into a well-oiled Spurs machine last season, losing in six games thanks in large part to an injury that kept interior presence Serge Ibaka out of Games 1 and 2.

It was the second time in four years that the franchise was eliminated in the Western Conference Finalsthe first instance being 2011's 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

The 2012-13 title push was cut short by a season-ending injury to point guard Russell Westbrook. The Thunder lost 4-1 to a Memphis Grizzlies team that was later swept by the Spurs in the conference finals.

A year before that, OKC was thwarted in the NBA Finals by the Miami Heat in the Thunder's best title shot to date.

Durant's Thunder have admirably remained in the title conversation, at times looking like the most dangerous team in the league. The pairing of Durant and Westbrook assures much-maligned head coach Scott Brooks arguably the best one-two punch in the league. Ibaka's rim protection is game-changing.

The tools are all there.

To a large extent, so are the results.

But have those results been good enough to keep Durant in place?

It's worth recalling something Durant told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins back in 2013 (h/t's Ben Golliver): "I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it."

Thanks to last season's MVP award, the individual accolades have started going Durant's way.

It's the championship that remains so elusive.

Finding grass that's greener than Oklahoma City's won't be easy. That's where the Wizards are beginning to emerge as a potential alternative. In addition to affording Durant the opportunity to return home, Washington boasts two rising stars in guards John Wall and Bradley Beal.

With Durant in the fold, the Wizards would almost certainly feature a lineup capable of contending right away.

Wall—who described Durant as "like an older brother to me"—is pretty high on the idea of another East Coast super team.

"To be with one of the top two best players in the league, in my opinion, who can score at will and do whatever he wants (would be great)... It'd be great to have him back home," he said.

The Wizards appear to be doing their part to grab Durant's attention. The organization hired David Adkins this summer to assist with player development.

The Washington Post's Michael Lee notes that, "While the Wizards’ hire might seem unusual, Adkins was a longtime high school boys’ basketball assistant coach at DeMatha and Montrose Christian, where he worked with future NBA players Kevin Durant, Greivis Vasquez and Victor Oladipo."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 13:  John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards celebrates in the 102-79 win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 13, 2014 in Indianapolis,
Andy Lyons/Getty Images's Jeff Goodman similarly highlighted the KD connection:

It could be a coincidence, but it's hard to believe Durant didn't factor into Washington's decision in this instance.

Still, there are reasons for caution when it comes to all the speculation, which Grantland's Andrew Sharp argues:

Kevin Durant is not Kevin Love. Winning cures almost anything in sports, and OKC is going to win a lot over the next two years. This is the biggest reason Wizards fans shouldn’t be that excited. If Oklahoma City wins a title or maybe even just makes the Finals in 2016, there’s simply no way Durant leaves. And given all the talent in Oklahoma City, it’s hard to imagine it comes up short for each of the next two years.

Hard to imagine, but not at all impossible.

As talented as the Thunder are, this is a team that depends heavily on the individual contributions of two or three guys. One of those key contributors has gone down in each of the last two postseasons. Even Durant wasn't enough to keep the ship afloat against the very best in the West.

Even if Oklahoma City can avoid injury—and the odds appear to be in its favor—the fact remains that this team has a relatively small margin for error.

What happens if Durant or Westbrook goes cold? Can this team get enough stops against the prolific offenses that typify the Western Conference's elite teams?

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MAY 29: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 29, 2014 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USE
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Thunder are extremely good, but so are the Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers. The much-improved Dallas Mavericks are now better positioned to contend. The young Portland Trail Blazers may find themselves in the hunt as well.

While the Houston Rockets have almost certainly taken a step back with the loss of forward Chandler Parsons, there's no denying they remain dangerous in any given series.

If Oklahoma City has come up short in each of the last four seasons, who's to say it'll come out on top in one of the next two?

Teams have to get a little lucky to make it all the way in this business. Everything has to go right.

From that perspective, there are no guarantees—for the Thunder or anyone else.

With that said, the salient factor that should dominate Durant's thinking is this: His chances are good in OKC. He's developed chemistry with the club, built relationships and established roots in the community. While he may praise Wall's game, his own teammates are far more known commodities.

Durant's potential deal with the Maryland-based Under Armour Inc., as reported by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, will surely fuel continued talk of a D.C. reunion. However, the 25-year-old superstar would be wise to make this a purely basketball-driven decision.

Win or lose, Oklahoma City will remain far better than most—and good enough that a little patience is probably in order.