OKC Thunder Running out of Time to Keep Core Together

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2014

MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 26: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder hugs his teammate Reggie Jackson #15 against the Memphis Grizzlies Thunder in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2014 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Thunder's rapid ascension to the heights of the Western Conference was the first step.

Now comes the hard part.

Even as the organization attempts to negotiate a contract extension with guard Reggie Jackson prior to an Oct. 31 deadline, one can't help but look ahead to Kevin Durant's looming free agency in 2016. Oklahoma City's ability to contend for the foreseeable future depends upon keeping both players in the fold.

And while their respective circumstances really aren't analogous, they share something important in common.

Neither courtship will come down to money alone.

In Jackson's case, finances are certainly part of the equation. With a similarly situated guard like Eric Bledsoe commanding a five-year, $70 million contract in September, Jackson may well expect a colossal raise over the $2,325,680 he's scheduled to make this season. 

The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry argued in July, "As of today, Jackson is not a max player. But a stellar 2014-15 season could change the perception and put him closer to that coveted eight-figure salary." 

That's one reason Jackson's camp may put off an extension and explore free agency next summer. He'd have another season to prove himself, and there would be a legitimate market for his services replete with suitors who could drive up his price in a bidding war.

That doesn't mean the Thunder will let Jackson walk.

As Mayberry put it: "The good news for the Thunder is it has prepared for this day for years. It's why Oklahoma City hasn't chased free agents or exceeded the tax level. Whether Jackson's number comes in big or small, the Thunder is in position to handle it, especially with Kendrick Perkins' contract coming off the books next summer."

The franchise's bigger concern is whether it can accommodate Jackson's aspirations to be a central part of the team's plans.

It's not just that he wants to be a starter—he also wants to be a leader.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 25:  Reggie Jackson #15 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after a play in the second half against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Jackson told Mayberry in September:

I feel like I can lead a team. That's just how I've been raised and that's just how I've always felt. I want to be the guy in charge. I want to be the guy leading the team. The head of the snake. I guess that's just how I'm encrypted DNA-wise. I played quarterback in high school. I had a year I was a receiver. But I was more comfortable playing quarterback. I've just always been good leading my team. That's how I’ve always been, being vocal. And when the ball's in my hand, I feel like I can make the right plays and just impact the team.

With Durant, three-time All-Star Russell Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka on the floor, it's hard to envision much opportunity for Jackson to really take the reins. 

Hopefully he'll be satisfied with a starting job, assuming head coach Scott Brooks agrees to that particular request.

Jackson told reporters at media day:

I want to be a starter. I've always wanted to be a starter. I've always wanted to be great. All the greats I've seen started, so that's kind of the mold.

[...]

I think me and everybody else has a reason and a chance to go out there and be great in whatever aspect they want in life, and I've always tried to do my best. That's kind of how I approach life. My family taught me, and especially my brothers growing up, that I always wanted a chance to be great. That's my destiny.

Bold, yes.

But Jackson is coming off a breakout season in which he started 36 regular-season games in place of an injured Westbrook, posting career highs across the board with 13.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 28.5 minutes per contest.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 27: Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs greets Reggie Jackson #15 of the Oklahoma City Thunder before Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 27, 2014 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Okl
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The 24-year-old started another four games alongside Westbrook in the playoffs when Brooks opted to adopt a different look midway through OKC's conference finals matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. With a history of particularly strong performances against those Spurs, Jackson responded with three strong performances—including a 21-point Game 6.

In his eyes, this is a sign that he and Westbrook are the backcourt of the future. It's a strong assumption, too, especially in a post-James Harden era in which the team could use another wing option on the offensive end.

Jackson may more naturally be a point guard, but—like Westbrook—he's comfortable looking for his own shot and has served as a valuable sixth-man spark plug accordingly.

You could make an argument for starting Jeremy Lamb at the shooting guard spot on account of his superior length, but the 22-year-old is a far less-proven product at this point—averaging just 19.7 minutes in his second season after seeing negligible action as a rookie.

So Jackson may well get his wish.

Durant seemed to sympathize with Jackson's plight, but he also notes the importance of anchoring a second unit and finishing games.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 15: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder greets teammate Reggie Jackson #15 following their team's series loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs on May
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

"Yeah, I mean, as kids we're taught that being a starter means that you're it," he told USA Today's Sam Amick in September. "But I've seen starters average 10 minutes a game, and not finish games. But Reggie finishes games for us, and I think that's more important."

Brooks' ultimate decision on the matter could play an important role in determining Jackson's future with the club. The organization may not control whether an agreement is hammered out before that Oct. 31 deadline, but—even if the two sides kick the can to next summer—the Thunder can make an impression on Jackson in the meantime.

Keeping this core together (and happy) is increasingly critical.

With just two seasons to sell Durant on this team's championship pedigree, the Jackson subplot could go a long way toward determining OKC's viability as a near-term contender.

KD has consistently said all the right things, but he's also steered clear of making any promises.

"I'm taking it day by day with the Oklahoma City Thunder," Durant told Amick. "That's my main concern. And whatever the future holds, I don't know, because I can't tell you the future. I'm going to take it a day at a time."

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - SEPTEMBER 29:  Oklahoma City Thunder Kevin Durant #35 poses for a portrait during 2014 NBA Media Day on September 29, 2014 at the Thunder Events Center in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

"I enjoy being here," he added. "I enjoy my teammates. I like the direction we're going in, and that's not just a cliché (expletive) answer. That's real."

And no one doubts it.

Durant's MVP acceptance speech quickly became a thing of legend. There's no question he cares for this franchise and those who wear its uniform. His humble, team-first disposition remains the perfect fit for an organization that's made every attempt to stay classy under general manager Sam Presti.

But storybook endings are no guarantee in this business. Should the Thunder take a step back between now and 2016, Durant will have opportunities—and perhaps reasons—to go elsewhere.

So there's an urgency to retaining and placating Jackson. An urgency for Brooks to take this team to another level, perhaps making adjustments to his suspect approach to half-court offense. Now's the time to take advantage of the league's most talented young core as it enters its collective prime.

That core's future in Oklahoma City may depend on it.

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