Examining Oklahoma City Thunder's 2014-15 Dilemma

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 11, 2014

May 29, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (left) and guard Russell Westbrook (right) before the game against the San Antonio Spurs in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Injuries to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and so, so many more have the Oklahoma City Thunder facing questions they couldn't have seen coming just a few weeks ago.

Can we get to 50 wins?

Are the playoffs already out of the question?

Is it still a rotation if there's only one healthy body on the bench?

And, of course, this surprising head-scratcher from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, per Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com: "The question I don't think anybody has asked is, why don't they pull a David Robinson and try to get Tim Duncan?"

Whoa. Tank? The Thunder? A team that'll get the reigning MVP and a second superstar back, probably before the All-Star break? Talk about drastic measures...

While Cuban's query may seem sensational, he claims to be approaching the rare instance of a compromised contender potentially tanking as a thought exercise.

"I'm not suggesting anything," Cuban said. "I'm just curious why the question hasn't been asked because I'm curious what the answer is."

And if you look past the possibility that Cuban may have a latent desire to see an in-conference competitor bow out early, and his penchant for pot-stirring, it's true that the Thunder's conundrum is one worth unpacking.

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Tanks But No Tanks

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

If you're like most reasonable humans (and all humans in Oklahoma City), the thought of giving away a season of Durant's prime—even if it's an abbreviated one—is bonkers. A healthy Thunder team is a legitimate title threat.

Tanking is supposed to be the last resort for the hopeless, not a one-year tryst for hard-luck elites.

The practice is designed to sacrifice the present for the future, but it's not one that makes a ton of sense when Durant and Westbrook are in the middle of their peak years right now. And it's not like OKC's stars are out with season-ending injuries.

The initial timetable for Durant's Jones fracture, as pegged by B/R's injury expert Will Carroll, could be eight weeks or longer. But even if KD gets back sometime in January, the Thunder will still have him for the vast majority of the season and, critically, the stretch run.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Westbrook's broken hand could keep him out between four and six weeks, creating a worst-case scenario of a mid-December return.

OKC's myriad other injuries make surviving that stretch harder but not totally impossible. And the Thunder are still a long way from being in the 1996-97 Spurs' situation, when a back injury and broken foot held Robinson out for all but a half-dozen games of the season.

Even if Oklahoma City is extremely conservative, Durant and Westbrook will play a whole lot more than six contests.

That's probably why head coach Scott Brooks is viewing his team's current situation as a growth opportunity—not a death sentence, per MacMahon:

It's fun going into games knowing we're going to play with great effort, that we're going to be throwing our bodies all over the floor, that we'll be diving on the floor for loose balls, and that's what our fans want to see. They understand we've had a lot of injuries. ... They know it, but they like what the guys are doing. They like that the guys are competing, that's what makes fans proud of our group.

It doesn't sound like OKC is interested in bottoming out.

The Durant Angle

Jim Cowsert/Associated Press

Though it's still almost two full seasons away, Durant's impending free agency has to be a factor in this discussion—as it must be in everything the Thunder do.

You have to wonder if Durant would be more likely to stick around if the Thunder could snag a high-ceiling, low-cost lottery pick to supplement the talent already on hand. We've seen OKC nail its lottery picks in the past (Durant, Westbrook, James Harden) and do well with its later first-rounders (Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams), so there's a good chance it would get a good return on its selection.

At the same time, if the Thunder see Durant leaving in free agency as a strong possibility, they'd be crazy to throw away one of his final two seasons with the franchise.

To justify such a bold move, OKC would have to be confident the player it selected with its tank-earned lotto pick could either entice Durant to stay...or replace him. And that's where the Robinson-Duncan parallel falls apart.

CHUCK BURTON/Associated Press

According to Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

Where is this next Tim Duncan coming from? He’s not in the 2015 NBA Draft. Many draftniks and college basketball analysts are calling Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor the surefire No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, but it’s crazy to assume that Okafor or anyone else who’ll declare for the NBA next year is anywhere in Duncan’s stratosphere as a prospect. Duncan was a four-year player at Wake Forest and as much of a surefire NBA All-Star that’s come along in the last 20 years.

You tank for sure things. Okafor and the 2015 draft class is not sure.

Duncan-less draft aside, the Thunder should also hesitate to tank because they can't expect to do it nearly as well as the Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers, among others. A prospective mail-in job by the Thunder would be a profound strategic change at the last minute.

Teams like the Sixers have been practicing the art of bottoming out for much longer. They know what they're doing.

The only thing worse than tanking is tanking by half-measure. You can't purposely hold out Durant and Westbrook, alienate fans and draw the ire of the league for an uncertain payoff.

And you really can't do those things if you're nearing the end of Durant's time with your team.

Unpalatable Alternatives

Oct 10, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) is knocked to the floor during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The flip side to that issue is this: The Thunder, even with Durant and Westbrook back, might not have enough to reach their potential this year. And the mere act of trying could be seriously counter-productive to the team's long-term goals.

To make up for the hole they're digging now (the Thunder have started just 2-5 and have the third-worst per-game differential in the West), they'll have to push the pedal to the floor from the second their big guns return to the end of the regular season.

And even then, there's no guarantee Oklahoma City will make up enough ground to get the 50 wins it may take to secure the No. 8 seed in a cutthroat conference.

Would it be worth pushing Durant and Westbrook to the edge of exhaustion for an uncertain reward, especially in light of KD's league-high minutes over the past four years and Westbrook's four recent surgeries?

Tanking unsuccessfully is bad. Running fragile superstars ragged for the ninth-best record in the conference and middling draft position might be even worse.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 21:  (L-R) Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stand on court against Miami Heat in Game Five of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 21, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This is a brutally tough decision, and while it might seem like the easy way out would be to simply ask Durant what he'd like the team to do, that won't help. Of course he's going to want to go for it when he comes back.

KD has been to the NBA Finals once, and he's seen his team fall short in subsequent seasons because of bad injury luck and tough matchups. He knows now how difficult it is to reach the mountaintop, and he's also aware how much luck can change a team's fortunes once it makes the playoffs.

If we step back a second, it feels a little ridiculous to talk about the postseason (let alone Durant's 2016 free agency) less than a month into the year. But this issue isn't going away.

The Thunder will continue to lose more often than they win as long as their two best players are on the sidelines, and Cuban's question about what they should do with a season that is slipping away will only become more pressing as time passes.

I guess that means it was a good one.