A few days to sleep on how they lost the NBA Finals, and that’s it. Summer Olympics for some, with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all in the running for a spot on the final roster. Serge Ibaka will be there too, with Spain. Afterwards, it’s time for the beginning of another chase – That NBA title that got away from them somehow.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are already wrapped up and signed for a long time. James Harden is about to sign an extension on his rookie contract, and then the Thunder will be free to discuss with Serge Ibaka. To keep all four of them will probably take them over the luxury tax, which makes it questionable if the Thunder can keep all four players, all under 23, for the long term.
This team is like a family. Like, we’re really brothers. We hang out most of the time every single day. You won’t find any other team like this. I love it here. This is something special here. A dynasty is being built here. So we’re winning, we’re having fun and we’re brothers. The other stuff, you can’t buy it. (James Harden)
But more importantly than just keeping the personnel and rolling with it towards another season, there’s the lessons the Thunder need to implement in the 2012-2013 season. The conclusions from the NBA Finals, that will put them over the hill and come out on the other side with NBA rings on their fingers.
It’s not just about game-time adjustment and how well or badly they matchup with the Miami Heat. When it comes down to it, taking it the opening of the series and the last game which was a painful blowout, the Thunder lost on two plays here and there in Games 2-3-4. Despite the home court advantage, despite possibly having the better big three, despite possibly having the deeper bench, they got outplayed. You might argue about how they got burned by some of the officiating during the series, but that would a poor job of excusing themselves. Like Scott Brooks said – ‘They beat us fair and square.’
Derek Fisher will be a free agent, along with Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey. Assuming none of them comeback, that clears just over $7 million for salary purposes for the Thunder. Still, two maximum contracts (Westbrook and Durant) along with two players who’ll be getting impressive upgrades (Harden makes $4.6 million, Ibaka makes $1.3 million), there won’t be a lot of wiggling room. It’ll be either making small tweaks to the bench, trying to find a playmaker willing to play for less money or a trade. But who? Kendrick Perkins is the first name that jumps to your head.
With Perkins’ deficiencies shown in the series against the Heat (But he played very well against the Spurs), who knows. Maybe the Thunder would like to build around Serge Ibaka as their big guy, while trying to go for a cheaper ($7.1 million) option than Perkins. A lot depends on how the contract talks go with Ibaka, who’ll become a restricted free agent in 2013.
Some say that in order to find success, meaning titles, a team and players must go through failures. There was always the theory that teams have to lose in the NBA finals before turning into championship-ready units. The Chicago Bulls never made the finals before they began to dominate the NBA for nearly a decade. The San Antonio Spurs’ mini-dynasty won all the Finals they reached.
LeBron James is on the other end of that spectrum, losing twice in the NBA Finals before winning it on his third attempt. Losing means something. When doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get one step higher the next year. But the Thunder have been through it all these past three seasons. Losing to all the eventual champs along the way, before beating the last three Western champions on their way to a meeting with the Miami Heat.
Despite the young age of their core group (four players 23 or younger), no one can say this team isn’t battle tested, experienced or worthy of an opportunity to win the NBA title. They might make it next year and the one after that on talent alone. God knows they have plenty of it. But this series showed that it doesn’t work against every team. There’s always someone who can come up with the right combination to stop you.