Oklahoma City Thunder swingman Kevin Durant. (Oklahoma Thunder Media Day/AP Photo)
A return to Washington, D.C. for Oklahoma City Thunder swingman Kevin Durant appeared to be almost a foregone conclusion just a few seasons ago.
At the time, the Thunder found themselves routinely coming up short in the postseason, and local Oklahoma City media outlets were beginning to question Durant’s ability to perform in the clutch. Frustration was mounting with a team that couldn’t capitalize on a 2012 Finals appearance, and it seemed as if Durant, his trusted all-star sidekick Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder organization were growing apart from each other.
After reaching the NBA Finals in the lockout-shortened 2012 season, the Thunder appeared headed for greatness with a pair of promising 23-year olds in Durant and Westbrook, flanked by rising 22-year-old guard James Harden. The Thunder seemed destined for consistent Finals appearances but injuries, roster departures and a strong Western Conference stunted the team’s growth. While the Washington Wizards endured their own rebuilding phase, each passing year that the Thunder failed to bring home a title seemed to push Durant further out the door.
Rumors of Durant possibly heading back to his hometown of D.C. in free agency to join the Washington Wizards were juicy. But what once appeared to be a pending breakup between Durant and the Thunder now seems like a marriage destined to last.
Fast forward to this season: good health, a few key roster additions and some much-needed maturity have turned the Thunder into a final four NBA team, as they prepare for their Western Conference Finals series with the Golden State Warriors.
Durant and Westbrook appear to have finally arrived as a cohesive tandem. They now have a competent supporting cast with rookie head coach in Billy Donovan, who brought the same innovative ideas with which he made his mark at the University of Florida. Despite the much-anticipated upcoming free agency of Durant, the Thunder have been able to focus on basketball, and the rededication has them back in familiar territory. In fact, the season has been so successful that, win or lose, Durant should find his free agency decision an easy one: return to Oklahoma.
Watching the Thunder dismantle the San Antonio Spurs in the semifinals, and looking at the team’s slew of mid twenty-somethings and how Durant and Westbrook fed beautifully off of each other, it’s clear that Durant would be making a huge mistake if he left town. Outside of the Warriors, there isn’t a roster better constructed than the Thunder’s. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been annihilating Eastern teams, but LeBron James’ age is a turnoff if Durant is looking for a strong and promising roster. Durant and Westbrook, now 27, should smile when considering that key rotation players like Steven Adams (22), Enes Kanter (23), Serge Ibaka (26), Dion Waiters (24) and Andre Roberson (24) have yet to even enter their primes. OKC has a unique balance of both youth and skill. Whether or not Durant wants to stay, Oklahoma has put together such a strong roster that any NBA free agent would love to have such capable teammates.
Outside of John Wall and Marcin Gortat, the Wizards were horribly inconsistent last season. Promising guard Bradley Beal regularly missed games with injuries. Although the Wizards introduced former Thunder coach Scott Brooks as the new head man in D.C., Washington’s roster nowhere resembles Durant’s early Thunder team, where every man off the bench was a young and promising blue-chip player. Plus, the Wizards didn’t even qualify for the postseason. It would almost be five steps back for Durant if he were to return to the District just for a family reunion. The Wizards don’t have the talent, the front office or the fellow MVP-caliber players. Durant is going to have options this summer, but Washington won’t be one of them.