First things first, the amount of attention Kevin Durant's 2016 free agency has already received is ridiculous.
Around this time two years ago, James Harden was still a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Los Angeles Lakers, after adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, were slated to be a 60-win juggernaut. The Brooklyn Nets had one of the brightest futures of any franchise in the league.
I mean, Deron Williams was still considered a superstar, for goodness sake!
The league will look entirely different in 2016, to the point that speculating where Durant will end up is almost pointless right now. There are too many moving pieces. Who would have thought at this time last year that the Cleveland Cavaliers would be one of the favorites to win the 2015 title? Anyone?
Despite all that, one of the NBA's biggest storylines over the next two years will unfortunately be how the Thunder convince Durant to stick around, which is a bit silly, because their sales pitch to him has already been made.
The one way OKC can convince Durant to stay is to do exactly what they've done for the past few years—provide him with a terrific long-term basketball situation. They can't offer the Washington Wizards' (the team considered most likely to get him should he leave OKC) hometown appeal and personal connections. And they can't offer the glamour that a New York or Los Angeles franchise would provide.
Their one weapon is their roster. And as crazy as the NBA landscape can be, it's hard to imagine any team with a real shot at Durant putting together a more competitive squad than what the Thunder already have.
OKC's recent postseason failings should in no way obscure the fact that the Thunder are really, really freaking good.
They're at or near the top of the league standings every year. They've been to the NBA Finals and three out of the last four Western Conference Finals. And they almost certainly would have been in four straight conference finals if Russell Westbrook hadn't gone down in the 2013 playoffs.
Durant's situation is not even close to the one LeBron James faced in Cleveland or that Kevin Love is facing in Minnesota. Heck, it's not even comparable to the dilemma James faced this summer—OKC's basketball future is significantly more stable than the Miami Heat's was prior to James' decision.
Unlike the teams listed above, the Thunder aren't lacking in young, top-shelf talent. Westbrook is one of the 10 or so best players in the world, and the still-evolving Serge Ibaka is perhaps the only big in the league who provides elite rim protection along with outside shooting.
Ibaka has yet to take a high volume of threes, but that's clearly the direction the Thunder are steering him toward. And if he can hit those threes at a decent clip, he'll be one of the NBA's most valuable big men and the perfect complement to Durant and Westbrook.
That kind of star power is what really separates OKC from the rest of the pack.
Of all the franchises said to be wooing Durant, Washington comes closest to possessing that kind of talent, but even they're not quite in the Thunder's wheelhouse. John Wall isn't all that far away from Westbrook in terms of impact, but it would take a ton of growth from Beal—who rates as a net negative by some advanced metrics—to reach Ibaka's level.
That's not to say it can't happen, but the smart money is on OKC fielding the better roster heading into 2016, especially considering the franchise's track record when it comes to developing young players.
OKC's supporting cast, spearheaded by those young players, admittedly took a step back after James Harden (2012) and Kevin Martin's (2013) departures, but there's still a lot to like there.
Reggie Jackson has grown into a terrific combo guard, and he could be a potential starter for OKC should it end up locking him into a long-term deal. The Thunder destroyed opponents when Jackson shared the floor with Westbrook, and he's lengthy and athletic enough to play the 2 for long stretches.
Steven Adams, though still raw, has the makings of a pick-and-roll/rim-protecting force. Andre Roberson was terrific defensively in limited minutes (though his jump shot is...not so good). Free-agent signee Anthony Morrow is one of the best pure shooters in the league. Perry Jones provides an intriguing blend of size and shooting. Jeremy Lamb and rookie Mitch McGary have a lot of potential.
The Thunder have holes, of course. They could benefit from another shooter, and ideally Kendrick Perkins wouldn't play nearly as many minutes as he does.
But again, it's hard to imagine many better long-term situations opening up in the near future.
That means that if Durant does leave OKC, it won't be for basketball reasons. And there's nothing the Thunder can do about that.
Even the two most common arguments for Durant bolting OKC—namely, that the organization is cheap and that Scott Brooks is a poor coach—are shaky.
Trading Harden was the wrong decision, and the move looks even worse now that the salary cap is projected to rise substantially. But beyond that (and perhaps a few efforts to dodge the luxury tax), there's little evidence that points toward the Thunder organization pinching pennies unnecessarily.
The fact that Perkins is still suiting up may bother some, but there's never been a great time to amnesty him. In 2012-13, the OKC starters were among the best in the league, making a shake-up unnecessary. The Thunder could have amnestied him this summer, but it hardly would have helped them in free agency, and his expiring contract has value in a trade.
The Brooks gripe is more valid. His offensive scheme can be frustratingly unimaginative, and some of his lineup choices are puzzling. If OKC flops next season, then searching for a new coach might be worthwhile.
Still, there's something to be said about continuity, and for what it's worth, the Thunder looked pretty terrific in 2012-13, when Durant and Westbrook had some shooters spacing the floor.
If the OKC offense once again gets choked off in the postseason, then it's likely time to move on with a different coach. But a knee-jerk reaction to last year's playoffs would be a mistake, and the OKC front office clearly recognizes that.
Ultimately, there's no magic move the Thunder can make that will guarantee Durant sticks around. They have to hope their entire body of work speaks for itself.
OKC has proved over the years that it has a smart front office, a diehard fanbase and a roster that's set to contend for quite some time. There are nits to be picked, but not all that many. If Durant leaves in 2016, it won't be for basketball reasons. The Thunder have that covered.
All stats accurate as of 8/7/2014 and courtesy of NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.
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